We Must Stand or See the Promise of Two Centuries Tremble

Tentatively titled A Citizen of London, Stacy Danielle Stephen’s work-in-progress excerpted here began twelve years ago as a fictional account of the last person killed in England by a V2 rocket but has since become a twentieth century history in the form of a war correspondent’s memoir.  Ms Stephens captures the sweep of history with intimate glimpses into personal moments ranging from the teenage Nikita Khrushchev arriving in the filthy bustle of Yuzovka to the day Eva Braun met Adolf Hitler.   Today, we feel the human cost of LBJ’s commitment to the defense of Viet Nam.

 

In his play, We Bombed in New Haven, Joseph Heller talks about a list, insisting that every name on that list is your son. He’s right about that.

* * *

battle-of-ia-drang

After Jan Masaryk’s death, in 1948, I had a nightmare, and when George Orwell died, in 1950, it became a recurring nightmare. Most of the details will vary, with a few remaining much the same.

I’ve ascended several flights of stairs, arriving at a garret apartment, probably Jan’s, although I’d never actually seen it, and it won’t always be the same apartment, although it seems never to be a different apartment, either. Consistently, the furnishings will be nondescript, yet vividly striking, particularly since they’re lighted by the firestorm raging outside the window. The brilliance of that horrifying illumination makes each thing inside, each and every object, a distinct shadow with a bright face turned toward the terrifying light, and I go toward that light, and stand at the casement window framing it, grasping the handle of the latch, turning it, and pulling, and always surprised that the suction of the firestorm holds it shut. It seems I can only watch, and yet I pull at the window frame with all my strength, and this added strain shatters the glass, which the suction pulls outward, more often than not pulling me out as well, although if it doesn’t, I will lean out until I fall into the acrid scorching winds. Either way, I swirl between the downward pull of gravity and the irresistible updraft, and drops of my own blood swirl, too, pelting me like a driving rain. And either way, I always get to the bottom of it, the white-hot, sky blue flame at the heart of the endless sacrifice, and always I know the burnt offering is an infant no longer living, wrapped in bandages, the outer layers of them scorched. I wake as I begin peeling them away.

In Pleiku, those first two weeks of November, I was waking to this almost constantly, seldom sleeping more than an hour at a time. I had covered the Blitz twenty-five years earlier, covered the war in Italy, covered the dirty war when French generals were determined to engage and destroy their communist enemy at any cost. I knew better than anyone what we’d be seeing in the days ahead, and how much of it we’d see, and how long we’d go on seeing it even after we turned away from it.

* * *

Battle of La Drang

Unprecedented numbers of casualties began arriving early in the evening of November 14th. Three US Air Cavalry Battalions and their supporting artillery had encountered and engaged two regiments of The People’s Army of Viet Nam, informally known as the NVA, at an arbitrary rectangle drawn on a map of the Ia Drang valley and labelled LZ X-Ray.

Although they were outnumbered nearly three-to-one, the Americans had two significant advantages; the more obvious being virtually unlimited air support. More importantly, those two regiments had no interest in defending their position, or in holding the mountain where they had dug in. They, too, had been sent to seek out, engage, and destroy the enemy. And they had travelled two months on foot, and on short rations, specifically for that purpose. Although their determination fell short of a death wish, each individual going into combat against these Americans was profoundly committed to the unification of Viet Nam and hell bent on accomplishing it through the immediate and eternal defeat of their enemy at whatever personal cost was necessary.

* * *

In the majority of divorce cases, custody hearings are not, as they purport to be, about the children; rather, they are a forum in which parents attempt to hurt each other, to engage and destroy their enemy, and the war in Viet Nam, whether it was the French war or the American war, wasn’t about the mountains and valleys of Southeast Asia, or about finding and establishing the best way to govern the people living there. It was never about preserving democracy from the threat of communism, as both France and the United States had discarded Vietnamese democracy when it proved detrimental to their war against Ho Chi Minh’s goal of a unified and independent Viet Nam. That Ho was in fact a communist provided his opponents, whether military or political, a convenient pretext for their opposition to him, since it could hardly be justified for any other reason. That a majority of Vietnamese living south of the sixteenth parallel preferred not to be ruled from Hanoi, nor to be part of a communist state, was also a happy coincidence for anyone who wished to oppose Ho, although the inconvenient truth that few South Vietnamese had ever wished to be ruled by Bảo Đại, or Ngô Đình Diệm, or Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had to be ignored.

In this context, the battle of Ia Drang valley is emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. Any sane person who saw the casualties of that battle would be hard pressed to declare it a victory for anyone. Wounded and dead alike had been shot, burned, and dismembered, although the Chinook helicopter loaded to its limit with rotting fragmented body parts gathered from trees–all those were dead. And like Goya before me, I can say that I saw it. This happened. Infinitely worse than that, what happened was no accident, no mistake, but the very object sought by both sides. They had engaged and destroyed their enemy, left their enemy burned and bullet-riddled. In fragments. Hanging from trees. So both sides could rightly and honestly claim a victory, for which there can be no substitute in war.

* * *

By November 16th, Peter Jennings was interviewing Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore for a segment to be broadcast on the ABC Evening News. Jennings was among the Chinook-load of reporters flown into LZ X-Ray that day; Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade, commanding 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, could hardly be blamed for thinking the battle was over. His unit had arrived at LZ X-Ray just ahead of the reporters, and in the morning (17th), he was ordered to move his battalion to LZ Albany, not quite three miles away, where they were to be airlifted out and returned to their base camp.

However, what the Americans expected to be an authoritative dénouement, a simple exit, stage left, would prove to be something else entirely, and the day, like the battle it wrapped up, would also prove to be consummately emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. As with the Tet Offensive twenty-six months later, when the Americans believed the war was nearly over, and woke to learn that it was not, and likely never could be, on November 17th, 1965, the Americans learned, or should have learned, that a resilient and determined enemy can be depended upon to bring Murphy’s Law home to you at the worst moment, to shock and surprise you, to spring out and hit you when you least expect it.

There were two NVA battalions waiting at LZ Albany.

* * *

Although there are now numerous articles detailing McDade’s “tragic blunder” the fact is, he never faced a court martial for taking his unit into an ambush that day. Statements of men present at the battle suggest he was in shock, but neither his courage nor his competence were ever brought into doubt, and he was among the more experienced American officers serving in Viet Nam at the time, having commanded a platoon in the Pacific during the second world war, and a company in Korea during the police action there.

While the communists in Viet Nam, whether north or south, had good intelligence, they also had sense enough to put two and two together. They knew a landing zone when they saw one, and they knew what it was for. Simply waiting quietly would surely prove to be worth the time spent.

Arriving at the LZ after several hours of walking with full packs through elephant grass, the Americans dropped their gear and sprawled out to rest before setting up a perimeter which, under the presumed circumstances, was only a formality. Two Vietnamese sleeping in the vicinity were taken prisoner while a third ran away. The prisoners claimed to be deserters, and the Americans saw no reason to believe otherwise. While that third man may have alerted his comrades to the presence of the Americans, their reconnaissance helicopter circling overhead would have done so just as well. Either way, early in the afternoon, the NVA attacked the scattered and unprepared Americans. The surgical hospital in Pleiku began receiving the wounded around ten-thirty that night. The helicopter unit bringing them in–not Medevac–had taken battle damage during the evacuation, but no losses.

* * *

Triage is a French word, which means sorting. It comes from an earlier French word for plowing, where a triangular blade broke the soil. Coincidentally, perhaps, in triage, the wounded are sorted into three groups. The first are those who must be helped first. The second are those who can wait to be helped. The third are those who are beyond help. A War Correspondent is most immediately concerned with the third and second groups. In twenty-five years of reporting war, I’d been in any number of medical facilities, ranging from hospital buildings to aid stations, where I’d seen any number of wounded men, more then a few of whom died as I watched.

* * *

A hundred years earlier, when the telegraph brought news of President Lincoln’s death, Americans vividly remembered for the rest of their lives sharply detailed images of what they were doing the moment they heard. Likewise when just two years earlier Walter Cronkite let us know that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. In this same way, I suppose, I remember the concrete floor of the corrugated steel Quonset, and the radio tuned to 820 AM, Armed Forces Saigon. And the recovering wounded, waiting to be sent to An Khe, or Qui Nhon, or Tokyo, or sometimes back to their unit in just a few days. And some carried out in body bags.

* * *

I thought of him as the thirteenth man, although I don’t know what order, if any, really, they arrived in. There were thirteen of them, the last collection of wounded from LZ Albany, gathered from among the many dead outside the initial perimeter, where they had waited, whether physically unable to move or prudent enough to stay put until the LZ was secure and they could be safely brought back. During the night, many of the wounded Americans bled to death, and many who hadn’t were quietly killed by NVA who had come to retrieve their own wounded. Among the few who survived the night, a few more were killed by the artillery or napalm which forced the NVA withdrawal, allowing the men inside the perimeter to move forward and retrieve anyone still alive beyond it.

This thirteenth man had been shot several times and perforated by shrapnel. His arms had been removed by an exploding artillery shell, technically friendly fire, and the man he’d been arm in arm with on the ground had become fragments scattered among the trees around them by that same explosion. Then he’d been severely burned by napalm.
He’d been given more than the usual dosage of morphine, and I knew what that meant. I waited with him, already knowing what he was piecing together in his personal haze amid the fog of war. He told me about a bayonet stopping a knife, and clinging together in the bitter cold of near death with Brooke Brookfield. “Aint that a goofy name?” he asked me rhetorically. I didn’t tell him I recognized that name, or that I had known Brooke’s mother. It was Brooke who had been blown to fragments scattered in the trees around them moments before the napalm.

My thirteenth man was quiet for several minutes. Gathering strength for the end, for his closing statement. I’d seen this before, and waited.

“My mom was a reporter,” he said. “Dad told me she drowned covering the flood.”

“When you were six years old?” I asked.

“Yeah. How did you–”

He had no more breath, and no more strength to breathe.

* * *

What had possessed me to ask that? And why had he responded as he did? Could he be? I hadn’t asked his name. When had I quit asking names? I was tired, and there had been so many, arriving so suddenly, and I had stopped asking who they were.

Almost all the boys who had come into this Quonset were nineteen; the same age as Ollie, my son, whom I hadn’t seen since he was six years old. I remembered the intelligent look in his eyes as he moved around the living room, listening to the radio, engaged in the action and actually seeing something without staring at anything. Could this corpse, burned and mutilated, be that same little boy?

“No,” I said. A nurse heard me, and asked if he had passed.

“His name,” I said, pointing at him. “Where was he from?”

“PFC Oliver Eggleston,” she said. “Omaha, Nebraska. Did you know him?”

I didn’t answer, but she didn’t wait for an answer.

* * *

I must have watched as they placed him in a bag and carried him out; I don’t remember.

I was still sitting there hours later, I suppose, when I heard a Chinook approaching, heavily loaded from the sound of it. I assumed reporters were returning, and felt that I needed to be among a crowd of my peers, so I went outside. As it descended, I noticed a hardened rivulet of blood beneath the lower edge of the rear gate, where it had dried en route while pouring out through the hinges. In a few minutes, without a word or even a thought, I began helping some sorry sons of bitches unload the largest pile of rotted body fragments any of us had ever seen. This was the conclusion of Ia Drang, and for me, the end of Viet Nam.

 

Stacy Danielle Stephens is editor of the anthology She Blended Me With Science and author of the police procedural novella The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Publisher Website | Amazon).

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Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block – My First Time

The Girl With the Long Green Hear by Lawrence Block

It’s no real secret that I like noir, whether it be in film form or book form.  It’s just so evocative of another era and a kind of person, the hard-nosed, gritty guy who lives in the real world whether he likes it or not, who no longer exists.  As an escape from reality it’s just as fantastic as anything Tolkien ever put to paper.  Can you imagine a Millennial Sam Spade in today’s era of political correctness?  I’ll wait while you stop laughing.

So when I spotted a brand new copy of Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart in the bargain bin of a bookstore at the beach town where I usually go on vacation the same bargain bin that, a year or two earlier had disgorged a King James Bible, I snapped it up.  A bonus, at least for me was that it was a Hard Case Crime edition of the book.

As a writer, Hard Case Crime is on my radar as the first publisher to send any noir novels I might happen to write (I don’t write a ton of crime fiction, but if I do…), but as a reader, I just love their selection.  More importantly, though I love their covers.  They hearken back to the golden era of lurid art featuring scantily clad women and/or dead bodies, all tied together by excellent design work with the right sensibilities.

Block, on the other hand, was new to me.  I’d read the classics Hammett, Spillane, McDonald etc., but not the bread-and-butter crime writers of the era, especially not from the sixties.

I think I’ve been missing out… a quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the man is worth reading, although this is probably not his best book.  Nevertheless, it is a great example of its kind.  A couple of con men get into a deal with no real idea of where they really stand…  it’s grim and doesn’t pull any punches, but also hopeful in a twisted sort of way.

I think what I like most about crime fiction is that it doesn’t try to judge or moralize.  It tells the story (often in the first person), as the protagonists would have told it, not as a well-educated writer might see it.

And that is what allows the escape to be fully realized.  And this one works perfectly in that sense.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Ice Station: Death, is a creature feature thriller set in Antarctica.  You can buy it here.

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

How do they do it?

Let me tell you a secret about spy and secret agent-thrillers… but don’t tell anyone.  They’re pretty much all the same, only separated by era.

So in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they were all about lone wolves foiling the Russians deep behind enemy lines.  In the eighties and nineties, about how technology could be exploited in the best way against pretty much the same people, plus china.  Nowadays, it’s all about teamwork and special forces guys (or ex-special forces guys) coming together to demolish drug dealers or terrorists.

What do you mean, everyone knows this already?

Drat.

All right… I’ll try to tell you something you didn’t know, then.  Even though they might all be built to a similar formula, books in that genre are massively entertaining, and keep people not only turning pages, but buying more books.

Case in point, Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, actually written by Grant Blackwood (I assume that this is the case, even though Clancy was still alive when this one was published).

Tom Clancy Dead or Alive - Grant Blackwood

It follows the standard formula to the letter–a formula, I might add that Clancy had an important role in creating.  Ex-special forces guys and a clandestine government agency find out where the head honcho of a terrorist organization (a Bin Laden type) is, and move to take him down, racing against the clock because the man has set several terrorist attacks agains the US in motion.

You kinda know how it’s going to end, but you still don’t stop reading.

As a science fiction writer, this embarrasses me.  Why?  Because, even though science fiction has all of space and time to play with, too much of the modern stuff is boring, navel-gazing, literary tripe.  Characters take center stage to the point where they become whiny and neurotic (also, if a character doesn’t have at least five reasons for people to be prejudiced against them, it seems that they can’t play a starring role), pushing aside the setting and situation, which is what makes SF compelling in the first place.

It’s gotten to the point where I steer clear of a lot of new science fiction until I see reviews from people I trust that tell me what I need to know.  If the book is described as “uplifting”, “human”, or “beautiful”, all sorts of alarms start flashing.

Fortunately, even the most disposable and interchangeable of spy thrillers guarantees a fun read, so there’s always something on the shelf to take your mind off the anguish that is modern literature in other genres.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station: Death, and he guarantees that you won’t be bored by it.

Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.

Ice Station: Death – Launched. Thoughts on My First Horror Book.

I’m mostly known as a science fiction writer, and with good reason.  Of the seven books I’ve published, no less than five are SF (the remainder are a comic fantasy and a thriller), so creature horror is not necessarily something readers would associate me with.

Until now.

Ice-Station-Death-ebook-cover

Yes, it’s a creature book in the classic mold but updated to today’s world, a far cry from something like Outside or Siege.  It’s called Ice Station: Death, and you can buy the ebook here (will let everyone know when the paperback comes out).

So what was this experience like?  To put it simply, I had a blast.  Writing monsters isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside.  You need to research (your creatures need to be biologically viable and behave in believable ways), create a credible backstory for where they came from and how come no one noticed them before and also create characters that your readers will care about.  If your protagonists are wooden cutouts, it won’t make a difference to anyone if they’re in mortal peril.

In that sense, it’s a lot like writing SF, and very different from writing a mainstream book.  When you’re writing about things that aren’t real, or aren’t real yet, you actually have to be more careful of being exact than when you’re writing about real life–at least that’s been my experience.

It’s also nice to write a book where the tension has to come to a boil relatively early in the process and then not let off.  So the action is utterly relentless, and you never know who’s going to be left standing at the end of it…

Readers and reviewers will decide whether I succeeded in creating a good book or not but, as an author, I love this one, and hope everyone here will, too.

If you do read it, drop us a line here and let us know what you thought!

 

Interview with Christopher Schmitz, Author of Wolf of the Tesseract

We’ve got something a little different today, and hopefully the start of a new series here on Classically Educated: an author interview.  Joining us is Christopher Schmitz, author of Wolf of the Tesseract.

Christopher D Schmitz

CE: Tell us a bit about yourself outside of the writing world. Who is Christopher, what inspires him, what makes him tick.

CS: I’ve always been a storyteller (actually a reader, first) and love tabletop gaming. Besides reading comics, I also was a GM and did lots of RPG gaming for superhero games in high school and run gaming clubs for kids, locally, now as part of my youth work job (youth work is where my college degrees are.) I also enjoy music and have been known bring my bagpipes abroad (though I’m probably a better guitarist than I am piper).

 

CE: What drove you to begin writing?

CS: As a kid I always loved stories, and we got two TV stations if there was good weather, so I had to make up my own. In elementary school I wrote stories and even had a comic book I drew for classmates. I still have them. They were awful, but it was formative. I’ve always had an inner drive to create and self-identified as a story-teller. I grew up in the 1980s and had exposure to new and great stories of the era in comics, cartoons (He-Man and Thundercats!) and fiction was really coming into its own with new waves of fantasy and sci-fi.

 

CE: Which writers do you admire most? Are there any books you’d like to recommend to our readers (and for Classically Educated to review)?

CS: I’ve always been a Tolkien fiend, though I recognize that he’d probably never be published today with the changes to how we publish and consume stories nowadays. Recently I’ve gotten into Robert Jordan and Jim Butcher. I’m also a fan of Timothy Zahn and really like what James SA Corey is doing. Classically, I love Heinlen, Orwell, and have a soft spot for John Wyndham. I really think I need to put Herbert’s Dune on my list. Maybe I’ll eventually get around to it but I’ve only watched it as a movie and it’s probably a failing in me as a person.

 

CE: Tell us about your first publication – a lot of aspiring writers never make it that far, so inspiration is always welcome.

CS: I wanted to write in a shared universe—I was a Star Wars fiend for many years and had read every novel up through the Thrawn Duology. I even wrote most of a book (some of those elements were refurbished for my Dekker’s Dozen space opera series,) and it led me on a quest to discover how to get into the publishing world. In the early days of the internet companies still listed information on how to get in touch with them and I even got a hold of someone at Lucas’s companies who explained that writing in their shared universe was by invitation. I was nineteen at the time and she told me, “Successfully publish something original and get noticed—then people will come to you.” I started writing my original-concept fantasy series, The Kakos Realm. Of course, I did everything wrong to begin with and sketched out a 7 book story arc, writing mythopoeic notes like diet-tolkien. It was picked up by a small publisher that eventually sold to someone else who bought it to shutter the place. I got my rights back, wrote more, and released it as an indie title later. I learned a lot along the way and launched my blog several years ago with the express intent of sharing wisdom I gleaned from making wrong choices or getting good advice from fellow authors. Being an author is a long-term plan. It’s not something you can do to get rich, but every year I’ve done better than the last—and chiefly because I’m finding better and better resources to equip myself with.

Wolf of the Tesseract by Christopher Schmitz

CE: What inspired you to write Wolf of the Tesseract? Was it something you experienced? Something you read? A love of wolves?

CS: Wolf of the Tesseract is something I wrote specifically for the YA and up crowd. I wrote it as something of an homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. Of course, I threw in healthy doses of tropes found in the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats era cartoons (both of which got short-lived post-2000 reboots that were amazing and were dropped in idiotic moves reminiscent of the Firefly cancellation.) Anyway, I also added lycan/werewolves to the mix; as a teen I played a lot of World of Darkness stuff and have always loved the themes. After the first book was picked up by a traditional publisher and then went indie when my contract expired and I also released a sequel and a prequel comic book which I bring to the many comic cons that I attend as a guest or vendor. People can get that comic book for free as a digital download (plus other books) by joining my mailing list.

 

Thanks Christopher! Hope some of our readers will check out your books and sign up for the mailing list.  It does sound like something the eclectic crowd here would enjoy!

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.