The Allure of Beautiful Libraries

Those of you following along at home are probably aware by now that I have a thing for libraries, particularly beautiful ones. My home bookshelves are an eclectic mix of fine editions and ancient destroyed paperbacks, with most of the better books being “keepers” of which I bought a decent copy to replace a paperback that was falling to pieces.

Besides my own book buying tendencies, I also love reading about libraries, especially when it’s a lavishly illustrated book about them.

So it should come as no surprise that one of my dreams in life is to own a truly spectacular walk-in library with hundreds of meters of shelving. Those familiar with the Abbey Library at Saint Gall will understand the concept, but I never did like the aesthetics of these cold–albeit imposing–abbey libraries.

For myself, I much prefer the coziness of an English country house style library and study. It just seems a better kind of surrounding for a modern polymath. All right, it might be a bit of an antiquated concept, and the gentleman scholar a bit of a cliché, but I find that it fits my self-image better than most everything else. I’ve been accused of being a little elitist, but I maintain that I’m a gentle example of the breed.

CMC 39

So if I ever get one of these, you’re all invited to discuss literature, art and pretty much anything else that comes to mind in the feast of reason.

You’ll certainly find me happy.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death is a look at what could happen if prehistoric creatures resurfaced in Antarctica and encountered an expedition. It’s a fast-paced romp where enemies take many forms: monsters, weather and, perhaps worst of all, other people. You can check it out here.

Angel Face Would Have Been Treated Much Differently Today

Angel Face, for those who haven’t seen it (a group that included me until last week) is a clear descendent of the noir films of the classic era. Jean Simmons plays a classic femme fatale in the most literal sense of the word, and Robert Mitchum’s character is ripe for falling into her web.

It’s another of those unflinching noirs from the fifties–entertaining but without the possibility of redemption that tipified the true greats in the genre.

But the fact that noir had completely lost its way in the fifties is, in this particular case, not the point. What jumped out at me from this movie is that it would never be made with the same focus today.

The plot is driven by an obsession–the femme fatale, in this case, is compulsively in love with the guy, and this drive eventually, as in all fifties noir, ends badly.

So far, so good, but I got to thinking: would this film ever be made today?

And the answer appears to be “no way”. In fact, if this one was filmed in 2020, it would either be a horror film in which we focus closely on the disturbed, deranged character of Simmons’ character, moving through the evolution of her obsession while she wreaks tragic havoc on those around her. A psychological thriller could work, too, but a harsh one.

The other possible take would be to look at the woman as a victim. Undiagnosed mental illness leading to awful, tear-jerking events and, eventually, to her doom. All very touching and sad.

In a nutshell, this is why we’re still watching movies from the 1950s. It’s much more fun to watch the femme fatale doing her thing for no reason except that that is what femmes fatale do. And the plot built around that is much better than what would transpire viewed through a “modern” lens.

In fact, this overly indulgent attitude towards people who create serious problems is probably the reason Hollywood has moved to the science fiction blockbuster: having caricatured bad guys is much more entertaining than a politically correct view of mad criminals. People want to be entertained, so anything that doesn’t preach at them is appreciated.

And that makes Angel Face, a film made in 1952, refreshing.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Outside gives a nice mad bad guy to go with a well-thought-out science fiction setting. If you enjoy Loki in the MCU, you should love Graham. You can check the book out here.

Inspector Morse and Oxford, the Perfect Combination

Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that few other genres offer the immediate escapism that a good murder mystery does. I’d never really thought about why, but I’ve come to think that it’s because the setting plays such a huge part in a crime novel.

Whether it’s one of Agatha Christie’s books set in the English countryside, or a slice of noir decadence, the shady lanes and mean streets are another character in the book.

But the master isn’t one of the ones I’d read before. It’s one that came to me through the screen.

Like many people, I discovered Inspector Morse through the 90’s TV series. A wonderful creation, it is essentially the only non-sports or non-sitcom TV content I have any patience for. I watched the entire original series recently, and it’s an amazing piece of work, transporting the viewer to the pace and sights of Oxford.

But I’d never read any of Colin dexter’s Original books. This, it turns out, is a stupid omission.

I’ll assume The Daughters of Cain is a typical Morse book and say that… it’s absolutely wonderful. If the rest of the series is as good as this one, I’d say that Dexter was another of the worthy successors to Agatha Christie. In fact, I’ll say that, though the psychological complexity of the characters might not be at the level of others, these books are better.

Why? Because of what I said at the beginning. The setting becomes a character, and no setting is better suited to the role than the city of Oxford. It’s history, architecture and the interaction of town and gown is perfect to lose oneself in…

But it takes a special kind of writer to do it justice and Dexter fits the bill wonderfully. Erudite and knowledgeable, he brings the city and Morse’s fraught relationship with the university to vibrant life and you, as a reader, find yourself transported.

When the book finished, I wanted more, but not more of the characters, necessarily. I wanted more of the world they moved around in. And I think that’s the magic of these books.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His fast-paced thriller Timeless follows a journalist on the track of a big story only to find herself involved with international smugglers and East-European drug dealers. If she wants to survive, she’ll have to ally herself with a man who knows the ropes… and that means a criminal. You can check it out here.

Kandinsky? Design? Yeah, I Guess so.

Yesterday (I’m writing this on September 1st, you’ll likely se it later), I responded to a tweet about Picasso’s African influences in which I said that people who ignore the African roots of some of what the great Spaniard did was due mainly to ignorance as opposed to a willful attempt to erase it.

Demiselled d'Avignon.jpg

That kind of stuck in my head.  For most of my life, I enjoyed art as a reasonably educated layman might.  I was aware of the more popular painters, enjoyed art museums, and even knew the difference between a Flemish Grand Master and an Impressionist (albeit I confused these with the Post-Impressionists).  I even had a weird preference for Den Bosch and Bruegel.

I wasn’t exactly ignorant… but I would have been one of those who didn’t know about the African roots of Picasso’s work.

And yet, as the readers of this blog know, I often discuss art here.  And I make no excuses.  How come?

A funny thing happened.  I married a graphic designer.

Suddenly, I was getting dragged into the parts of museums I only glanced at in a cursory way before.  The abstract painters.  Calder.  Kandinsky.

I’ll admit that I still find figurative art much more attractive than abstract art… and (horror of horrors) I’ll spend a long time in museums staring at technically wonderful but artistically superseded pastoral landscapes (is there anything more peaceful than a good idyll?).  The difference is that I can now identify a Calder mobile from a hundred feet away, and I know what Dürer did.

And I can identify Picasso’s roots, and argue that Cézanne was the father of cubism.  A true art fan would tear me a new one, of course (I’d get my revenge in the subsequent discussion of literature), but at least he would take the time to do so, and not consider me beneath notice.

Hell, I can even identify Bauhaus design…

Who’da thunk it?

I suppose that the whole point of this is to say that the art world can be quite intimidating to outsiders, but if I can get a deeper understanding, so can anyone.

In the meantime, I’ll let the experts speak of the deeper meaning of things.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans not only several lengths but numerous genres, too.  His latest novel is a survival horror adventure book entitled Jungle Lab Terror which deals with advances in genetic engineering which, though seemingly fantastic, are happening today.  You can check it out here.

Get Down on Your Knees and Pray for Shackleton

The complete phrase is as follows:

For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

The quote, which isn’t in the book we’re reviewing today is from Raymond Priestley, an Antarctic explorer who wasn’t on the expedition told about in the book.  And yet, it sums it up perfectly.

South - The Endurance Expedition.jpg

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading South  – The Endurance Expedition.  Books written by the explorers themselves (except when the explorer is also a poet) can be dry and self-serving.  I didn’t expect serial Antarctic failure Sir Ernest Shackleton to be any different.  In fact, considering that he never managed to achieve any of the exploration goals he set for his expeditions, I expected the book to be a defense of his person.

This, dear friends, is why we read the books.

Ernest Shackleton might not have been successful in achieving his lofty goals, but he was still a hero, both as a scientist (he added reams and reams of knowledge to science) and, particularly, as a leader.  Reading the book in which he chronicles his most spectacular failure is a revelation… and ends up making you admire the man.

There is no apology here, no attempt at anything but to tell the facts of the case as they happened.  He would let history judge.

History has been favorable because the facts are.  The drama begins when the expedition’s ship, the Endeavor, gets trapped in pack ice and crushed… hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

Twenty-eight men were adrift on Antarctic sea ice in winter with nothing but a couple of lifeboats and the supplies they had taken with them.

Hopeless, right?

Countless expeditions, in this kind of situation died.  In the best case, a man or two would straggle in months or years later and tell of the sad fate of his compatriots.

Those expeditions didn’t have Shackleton.  Two years later, after a war-torn world had given them up for dead, all twenty-eight men emerged from the ice to tell the tale.

It wasn’t a question of just walking and persevering.  It was a brilliant survival strategy, a sea-crossing often compared to that of Captain Bligh.  He split his group into two parties, each with, on the face of it, a tiny chance of success… and saved every single man.

All of this is related in Shackleton’s words, as drily and matter-of-factly as we expect from any man who’s had the word “Sir” appended to his name.  It’s compelling reading and one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Hell, I might pick up even more exploration books if they’re going to be like this one.

But I doubt it.  Not many people are Shackleton, and I went from a skeptic to a fan in the course of less than 200 pages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  He believes in exploring hopeless situations and finding the heroism and spirit within.  The best example of that in one of his books in Incursion, in which a suicide mission gets… worse.  You can check it out here.

 

Forbidden Games – A Poignant War Classic

If you’re trying to make a film about World War II, you need to be a truly gutsy director to cast two children in the leading roles.  But that’s exactly what René Clement did in 1952’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games).

Forbidden Games - Jeux Interdits

By showing the war through the eyes of simple country folks who are more concerned with one-upping their neighbors than with the geopolitics of the conflict around them, and also through the innocence of childhood, this film manages to create more emotional impact than any number of soldiers being killed on camera and calling out for their mothers.

In fact, after the opening sequence, there is one death in the film… and that one is caused by a horse kicking a man who dies later.

The magic comes from two sources: the somewhat bizarre plot on one hand and the acting of Brigitte Fossey on the other.  Her performance as the little girl is mesmerizing, hypnotizing and memorable.  It’s peaceful, paused and innocent, while surrounded by poverty, death and, ultimately, betrayal.  This is one that I think will stick with me for a while.

The nice thing about young actors in old films is that many of them are still with us.  Apart from Fossey, there’s another surviving member of this films cast still around, Laurence Badie, who played the daughter of the simple country folk who picked up the little girl after her parents were killed by the Germans.

The one sour note was the very first scene which is completely different in tone from the rest of the film.  Of course the film showing German planes was documentary stock, so inferior in quality, but what really jarred was that a refugee column got attacked by Stukas, then bombed by heavy bombers before getting strafed by Focke Wulfs in the course of five minutes.  While this might have happened at some point in the war, it certainly wasn’t standard operating procedure.  Yes, I know: it’s symbolic of the brutality experienced by civilians… but come on.

Funny note on this one is that the child actor who played the male role alongside Fossey is one of the men who was later involved in the famous Priory of Sion hoax, which eventually inspired The Da Vinci Code.

If you watch this one, you will not forget it.  The director’s deft touch increases the impact.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres. If you are fascinated with war, the psychology behind it and the effects on those involved, you will likely enjoy his novel Incursion… in which a suicide mission suddenly gets even more complicated.  You can check it out here.

The Automotive State of Play – 1974

While I learned the hard way that the racing offseason does nothing to make old Road & Tracks more entertaining (after all, the road cars are a bit depressing), it does give us a chance to stop and smell the roses and see what cars were like in 1974 by seeing what developments were exciting to the journalists of the day.

Road & Track - May 1974

And make no mistake about it.  Automotive journalists are wonderful human beings (they wouldn’t be automotive journalists if they weren’t – it takes a particularly passionate and luminous soul to love performance automobiles), which means that they can find the light in even the darkest times of regulatory overreach.

In the mid 1970s, they had a lot of fun, despite the gloom.  Why? Because engineers were working overtime trying to minimize the damage caused by clueless legislators.  What started off as huge bumpers slowly became design elements integrated with the harmony of the cars themselves.

Carburettors and injection were being measured for their relative merits.  We now know that injection won that battle, but in 1974, the catalytic converter was still being developed, and only mentioned as pie-in-the-sky technology by those in the know.

Road & Track - June 1974.jpg

In the meantime, the energy crisis was being resolved, but for some reason, the idiotic speed limits applied with the excuse of the crisis were not being repealed in the US and other places.  The only place where they were rolled back was in Germany, where individual rights are actually respected and not sacrificed to the gods of timid people who like to rule everyone else’s life.  There is an excellent analysis in the May issue pictured above which puts numbers to the safety benefits of highway speed limits.  The conclusion is absolute: the safety gain is so tiny that it can never justify the economic losses and psychological frustration.  Strange that it still took the US so many years to repeal the hated 55.

In Europe, of course, 60% of people didn’t own a car, so they voted to keep the limits in place.  Probably, as usual, to “keep those rich bastards in their place.”  Now that Europe is prosperous, all but the Germans are paying for being resentful pricks.

But in 1974, 2020 was still a long way away.  Aluminum was being explored as an automotive material.  Separate shoulder and lap belts were giving way, slowly, to the inertial belts we wear today.  American cars were being downsized with more or less success.  The Wankel, as we saw earlier, was being developed.  Radial tires were in the process of removing crossplies from the scene forever.

So yeah, a lot of interesting things were happening, mostly driven by the market, some driven by morons in Washington and “concerned citizens” who probably never drove over 40 mph and yet felt themselves qualified to opine regarding automobiles.

But if you got past the anger at the concerted attack on the main source of personal freedom in the West, it was a truly interesting time.  And with hindsight, we know the engineers, as they always do, beat the legislators at their own game.  But it took a while.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Jungle Lab Terror is a romp through the jungles of Panama and Colombia, ideal as a summer read or simply for hose days when you want non-stop action combined with well-realized characters.  If that sounds like you, you can check it out here.

 

Gaskell’s Brontë, a Controversial Piece of Hero Worship

Choosing a favorite among the three universally accepted colossi of the 19th-century female writers is supposed to be an exclusive proposition.  You can only like one–Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë or Jane Austen–while being severely critical of the rest.

Of course, that only applies to superfans, the kind of personality who will force perfectly normal people to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, or between Twilight and Harry Potter.

If forced to dance to this music, I’ll go with Austen, followed by Emily.  Charlotte would be close… but third.

Even among the Brontë’s themselves, I have gone on record as preferring Anne to her more famous sisters.

Elizabeth Gaskell, were she alive, would disagree.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell.jpg

A famous novelist herself (North and South), Gaskell was friends with Brontë while Charlotte was still alive.  She was therefore perfectly placed to write the authorized biography of the author of Jane Eyre.  In fact, she was so perfect that Brontë’s father was the one who asked her to write it.

Being that close to the subject brought very many advantages–the knowledge of the people and places really brings the resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, to life.  Unfortunately, it also means that Gaskell withholds important information and pulls her punches somewhat.

The basics are well covered.  Gaskell’s style paints an incredible picture of the six motherless children growing up in an isolated village, and you cry with them as they lose the two eldest sisters, leaving probably the greatest concentration of literary genius every gathered under a single family’s roof in the persons of the three surviving girls (the one boy, Branwell, was never able to get it together and was basically an anchor and a source of anxiety, nothing more).

If you wrote a fictional account this poignant, no one would believe it, and you’d be laughed at.

But it’s real.  One by one we watch the women of the generation drop in the clutches of tuberculosis, fortunately after producing immortal masterworks.  Emily is the one felt strongest in this particular book.  The personality we guess at from Wuthering Heights appears fully present here, walking the moors.

In fact, this book reinforced my thinking that, if I had a time machine, I would probably go back and give Emily a TB vaccination as an infant.  I would really want to see what she, the genius of a family full of them, would have done with a little practice under her belt.  She’s the one I’d save if I could only save one.

On the debit side of the ledger, the Life completely conceals the episode of Charlotte falling in love with the (married) owner of the school she studied and worked at in Belgium.  That is because Gaskell had a hero worshipper’s view of Brontë.  She considered Charlotte a model of Christian mores and suffering, and this view was inconsistent with any possibility of that kind of inappropriate behavior.

In fact, had it been any other life, I’d say the suffering angle was way overblown by a natural dramatist… but when your mother and siblings drop like flies out in the moorlands, I’m inclined to give Gaskell the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, some people didn’t, and despite the care to omit names, the publishers were threatened with lawsuits, most notably by the owners of the school that killed the eldest siblings through unsanitary conditions and the woman who was Branwell’s (the brother) lover, and also the wife (later widow) of one of his employers.  Fortunately, the first edition went out unexpurged, and we can record her name here for posterity: Lady Lydia Robinson Scott.  We do this not because we think she did anything wrong in taking a lover, but because she lawyered up when caught.  Yawn.

There have been more factually accurate biographies of the Brontë’s, but I doubt there will ever be any more powerful.  Gaskell could write, and the material in her hands was dramatic indeed.  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is fascinated by how the human mind responds in emotionally charged situations.  One of his books explores this in great depth, and is, unsurprisingly entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

High vs. Pop Culture – An Ongoing Discussion

I’m going to be frank: I find the phrase “pop culture” to be a contradiction in terms.  This should surprise no one… my blog is called Classically Educated, after all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I find no value in popular expressions.  They can, for short periods of time, be entertaining, even brilliant.  Who hasn’t enjoyed a Hollywood blockbuster or delighted in a trashy 70s paperback?

In my own particular case, I often write popular entertainment.  While you can certainly make a case for Outside as being something much more than a fun science fiction novel (it is a fun science fiction novel, but it’s also a very pointed look at current social trends), I’m pretty sure Ice Station Death and Jungle Lab Terror will be afforded no such leniency, no matter how well-written they are.

So am I a hypocrite for what I’m about to say?  I hope not.

Starry Night - Vincent Van Gogh.jpg

I believe there is a huge gulf not only between high and pop culture, but also between those who enjoy high culture and those who find it boring, elitist and stuffy.  In fact, that’s one of the few distinctions between people I even care about.

Note that I didn’t say that enjoying pop entertainment is a negative trait.  Go ahead, listen to reggaeton, read a comic book or watch the latest transformers film.  It’s all good.  The problem is when you’re listening to Beethoven’s Eroica and unable to sit still for the duration because it is sadly lacking in explosions and no one is twerking nearby or on-screen.  That’s where I feel there is something wrong.

There is a difference between art that is fast-paced, superficial and ephemeral and that which requires a little more introspection and calm to appreciate it.  That doesn’t mean you have to like every expression of high culture, of course.  I have a really hard time with Opera, for example, and some abstract art is, in my opinion, pretty sterile, from the manifesto all the way through every execution.

However, being able to appreciate art that requires an effort is, to me, the sign of an intellectually curious human (even if you then decide–for yourself–that that particular piece of art is not particularly valuable).

Warhol Vegetable Soup Campbell's Can

Of course, this discussion drew worldwide attention when the pop artists were at work, attempting to blur the lines between the two forms.  Unfortunately (for their idea, at least), the solid philosophical grounding and thought-provoking execution landed them in the most ironic of spaces: the pop artists ended up as an unmovable part of high culture.

Regardless of the failings of Warhol and his ilk in blurring the lines, they DO blur, but only time can do so.  Hokusai’s prints were very much pop art (especially the erotic ones, I would say), but have crossed the gulf to enter the realm of high art.  Likewise Dickens’ novels and, sadly, Opera, which should have been strangled at birth, but somehow became socially acceptable (this is the art form that I really have to make an effort towards).

Historically, the theater may be the medium that has struggled with this dichotomy most often as, on one hand, it needed to keep those seats filled while, at the same time, keeping the nobility and better class of citizens happy as well, because not doing so brought consequences.  Shakespeare was famous for combining erudite classical references and the Greek tragic tradition with juvenile dick jokes which are only funny if you’re really, really lowbrow and laugh only because it’s a dick joke.

What will be considered high art in the future?  I don’t know.  It might be a superman comic or the Muppet Babies or AC/DC or Twilight (it will NOT be reggaeton).  We don’t know.  What we do know is that most of what we call “culture” today will fall by the wayside and be forgotten in much the same way as most of the major, popular “culture” of the past is utterly gone today.  That ephemeral nature is the main external difference between the two.

But in my mind the big difference is in the kind of people each type of culture attracts.  I’ve found that regardless of what popular entertainment (whether it be Lady Gaga or Star Trek or TikTok Videos) they prefer, the people I get along with also have an appreciation for high culture.  Whether that makes them more valuable or not as friends is a very personal question.  Your own mileage might vary.

But in my own particular case, I already know the answer.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose work straddles the line.  His linked collection of short fiction, Love and Death is definitely highbrow.  His fast-selling monster novel Ice Station Death… isn’t.

Musing on the Current State of Grand Prix Racing

Every once in a while, we complain about the current state of Formula 1.  But we need to be really unhappy to do so.  The last time, Bernie was still in charge.
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So, after watching the Belgian GP, I think the F1 rules need to be completely thrown away.
 
Not the technical ones… those are fine. It’s all the stupid around it that needs to go, the testing and development bans, the need to use the same engine for five races. That’s what has made GP racing garbage for years, and makes the races utter crap.
 
Just allow the teams to show up for the race weekend with cars (at least two per team, but it would be fun to allow any number) that meet the technical rules and… that’s it.
 
Qualifying engines with 2000 bhp that last a lap? Sure, as long as they meet the rules.
 
Hand-grenade type motors that might–or might not–last five laps? Sure. Let teams take technical risks with high potential rewards. Let a backmarker take a chance with an engine that has a ten percent chance of finishing… but which will run up front until it blows.
 
And a new development every race? Of course. Sure, it will mean expense, but this is the pinnacle of motorsport.
 
The current setup is about as boring as can be. There will always be one team ahead of the rest… and the rules ensure that that team will stay there until the next major technical overhaul. It was Red Bull during the blown diffuser era, now with the hybrid powerplant era it’s Mercedes… That’s just stupid.
 
When I saw the clear skies in Belgium (rain would have helped), I nearly gave the race a miss… and it would have been the first F1 race I intentionally missed since 1983. I stayed the course, but it wasn’t really worth it.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose latest novel, Jungle Lab Terror is a romp combining geopolitics, special forces, terrorists and, of course, monsters.  If that sounds fun, you can check it out here.