Month: June 2018

Writing Humor – A Classically Educated List

Few things are, I was rudely reminded, more difficult than writing humor.  I used to write a lot of humor until I discovered that writing things that aren’t humor is often both more lucrative and more rewarding.

The Malakiad Cover Image

But that changed last month.  I sat down with one of my contributor’s copies of The Malakiad and found myself laughing out loud at my own jokes (I know this is bad form, but for a bit of perspective, please bear in mind that Eddie Murphy would laugh at his own jokes on a certain Saturday night TV show before telling them.  That means that I can do whatever I like).

I realized that, huge effort or not, I had to write the sequel to this one, even if the publisher refuses to buy a sequel (to avoid this sad outcome, please go out and buy several copies of the first book at your earliest possible convenience, and gently persuade your friends to do the same.  At gunpoint if necessary).

Of course, I immediately found it tough going.  Humor is not for the faint of heart.  Want to know why?  Cool, because we’ve created a list.

1.  Humor uses up ideas at a breakneck pace.  If you’ve ever been to a standup comedy show, you’ll have realized that (unless it was really, really bad) the rhythm of the jokes is pretty rapid, with setup following punchline and vice-versa.  The idea is to keep the audience engaged.  Of course, it’s impossible to keep this kind of pace up in a 300 page novel (and if you know of exceptions, I want to read them, so drop me a line in the comments), but the temptation to make the book funny all the time is there.  Even so, all those funny ideas about Greek heroes and anachronistic secondary characters you thought would fill up a whole series, disappear quite quickly.

2.  Different kinds of people have a different kind of sense of humor.  This is probably the deepest pitfall of all.  My own sense of humor ranges from dry British wit to no-holds-barred, absolutely-nothing-is-off-limits humor of the type form the 1980s.  I don’t get offended at any kind of joke, no matter who it lambasts, as long as it’s funny.  I accept that humor is often cruel, and still revel in it.  But even though I’m extremely liberal in what I’ll accept, there is stuff that some people find hilarious that I think is juvenile and, not to put too fina a point on it, just plain dumb.  Nose-pick jokes.  Fart jokes.  The kind of stuff that makes four year-olds giggle has it’s place, just not in my library.

3.  There are different narrative structures to humor, and you have to choose between them.  Beyond the different types of sense of humor, the way its presented also makes a huge difference.  You can structure humor as a series of punchlines peppered within a different context, or you can tell, completely deadpan, a story whose premise is funny per se.  Or, you can go after the absurd.  In a novel, you will have the space to attempt all three, which makes attempting to balance them out a bit of a daunting task.

Example of Offensive Humor

4.  Humor is cruel.  This is the biggie.  We live in sensitive times in which most people who actually read are likely to be offended by perceived lack of sensitivity in a humorous work.  The problem is that humor often laughs at the subject as opposed to laughing with him.  Much of what humans find funny is based on taking a stereotype or common situation and then either turning it on its head or presenting it in such a way as to become ridiculous.  The problem is that those stereotypes are often offensive to someone, and the common situations are common because a lot of people do certain things, and they don’t necessarily want to be made fun of.  My solution to this one is to ignore the possible backlash and to write whatever the hell seems like a good idea at the time.  So The Malakiad pokes fun at everything from Greek Heroes to Jehova’s Cooking to Political Correctness.  I try to be an equal opportunity offender because everyone and everything has inherent humor in them… if only they also had the capability to laugh at it.  I strongly believe that the humorless, whether it be Puritans, Prohibitionists or any other holier-than-thou group are the ones who most need to be laughed at.

5.  The readers of your serious work might hate your humorous novels.  This is a risk, of course.  My SF novels tend to be aimed at people who enjoy thinking things through, a reasonable adventure or mystery, with a love story and usually an underlying philosophical question in there somewhere (I don’t do message fiction–I prefer readers who think to readers who want to be immersed in an echo chamber).  It’s quite likely that a lot of the readers attracted to that kind of book will find a novel about a Greek called Kopulus somewhat… well, I’d better leave it there.  Let the critics think up their own insults.

6.  If the book is actually funny, not funny is a painful Muriel’s Wedding sense, but actually funny, the critics will hate it.  Critics have no sense of humor.  Live with it and move on.

Hope that is enough to keep anyone from attempting a humorous novel.  The marketplace is crowded enough without you, so go write that deep, heartfelt experimental piece instead.  We won’t miss you in the least!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author with several novels and over 200 short stories published.  You can buy The Malakiad here.

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The Hardest Day

1923 Chenard et Walcker Sport

1923 Le Mans Winning Chenard et Walcker Sport (prints available here)

 

We did say eclectic, right?

Let’s move away from our more mainstream cultural, literary and cinematic concerns to talk about the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Yes.  An auto race.

I’m allowed to do this because Tom Wolfe, he of the white suits and Bonfire of the Vanities, did it before me, with little negative effect on his career… and he was writing about NASCAR for chrissakes.

The 24 Hours is not NASCAR.  It’s a global event of massive proportions (congrats to Toyota for finally breaking their curse in 2018–despite the relatively weak field, I was very happy to see a loyal and determined competitor finally achieve the prize), steeped in a tradition that few other sporting events can match.

It survived the deadliest motorsport accident in history (84 people dead in 1955) without missing a beat and continues to be the best race in the world to this day.

But it would have been hard to imagine that on its first running nearly 100 years ago.  In 1923 a field of relatively stock touring cars set off on awful roads to drive for a day.  Automobiles were still mostly for the rich, especially in Europe, although some manufacturers of cyclecars were emerging (of course, the Ford Model T had already put America on wheels, but this wasn’t America).  The cars at Le Mans, however, weren’t transportation for the masses; they were serious machines for the gentleman enthusiast.

Come to think of it, that hasn’t really changed at all–the GT category in this year’s race was composed of cars similar to those that the well-heeled can buy off the showroom floor.

Le Mans 1923-1929 by Quentin Spurring

If you’ve already got a couple of general Le Mans books, the absolute best way to get a feel for how this race really was in its early days is to read the incredible book Le Mans 1923-29.  This one, part of a wonderful series by Quentin Spurring, goes really deep and talks about every race and every car and team in every race.  It’s the absolute best description of this era available.

Even if you aren’t really into auto racing, it’s a good read.  Why?  Because it gives you a feel for the 1920s in France from a viewpoint that you won’t get anywhere else.  I’ve already got the next volume (1930-39) sitting in my to-be-read pile, and am looking forward to it anxiously.

I may, at some point in the near future, write a novel where early racing figures prominently, so I can call these books research.  Yeah, I think I’ll do that…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose novel Outside is available on Amazon through this link.

The Italians, by an Italian

castello-banfi-montalcino-tuscany-italy

We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated.  Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.

We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence).  But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg.  Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.

So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?

The Italians - Luigi Barzini

To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.  Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.

Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted.  On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud.  On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals.  The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.

Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles.  Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other.  In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.

The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully.  The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way.  The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.

Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…

Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks.  He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.

Urban Art – Beyond Vandalism

If you’re like most people outside of certain very open-minded circles, you see graffiti as a form of vandalism.  Innocent homeowners get their walls tagged and have to repaint or clean at their own expense.  Or perhaps empty spaces on city streets getting painted and repainted over and over by successive criminals armed with cans of spray paint.

Of course, there’s another side to this.  Graffiti is seen by many as a legitimate art form, and one of the few that is truly immune to the influence of the big money that defines the term “fine art” on the gallery and collector circuit.  Behind what, at first glance, appears to be wanton destruction of property–albeit often very prettily expressed wanton destruction of property–is a code of conduct and a set of rules that is every bit as intricate as medieval court ritual.

Urban Art Legends by KET

Why do I know this?  Well, because on a trip to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I randomly picked up a book entitled Urban Art Legends by KET.  Now, when a book is written by an author who uses an single name, and is immersed in the culture of the subject at hand, you know you’re going to get a sympathetic take on the topic as opposed to a balanced one.  Perhaps in this case, it’s the ideal tone… after all you just need to turn to any of the neighbors to get a negative take on this particular art form.

In reading it, you’ll move far from the world of great New York art museums and  get lost in a universe where painting a complete train is the work that separates the journeymen from the masters, and where spending a night in jail is the mark of an artist who has broken their cherry.

It is powerfully militant, but whether it will convince everyone who reads it of the fact that graffiti writers are artists will be up to that person’s views of a number of things, including fine art and private property.

Saving Banksy

A good complement to this book is the documentary film Saving Banksy (2017)–you can get it on netflix–which tells how the most recognizable of the street artists are, against their will, entering the fine arts circuit.  It’s not a great documentary from a production or writing point of view, perhaps, but it is informative and give a third possible view of what street art means to the people involved.  Also, it’s interesting to see how protest, in the correct hands, becomes dollars.

Me?  I’m still open minded. I generally enjoy looking at art on the streets… but I live on a twelfth floor and don’t need to worry about cleaning up after it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The title story of his collection Virtuoso is about an artist, but that’s pretty much his entire list of qualifications for having written the above blog post.  

A Writer’s First Sale

Typewriter Blues

I think most writers will identify, at least a little bit, with the article below, which I wrote ages ago to try to convey the wonderful feeling and circumstances of my own first sale… I give it here as a public service to those who may not have felt the joy of publication yet.  Hopefully, it will inspire you to push onwards… If I could do it, so can you!

Like most writers, I have a regular job that pays the bills.  And my first sale, in 2005 actually came on a day when I was regretting a recent job switch.

The problem was my new boss, who seemed bent on removing all self-esteem and will to live from his subordinates. With the rest of them away on business, I had been left to bear the brunt alone.  It had been the worst week of my professional life.

Jupiter SF - Issue VII - Pasiphae

Arriving from work depressed and exhausted after nine o’clock, I was handed a manila envelope, with handwritten address.  Inside was a copy of Jupiter SF, a genre magazine printed in black and white.

At first, I was unsure what to make of this.  I had sent them a story, maybe this was a strategy to get me to subscribe.  But then it occurred to me that they might have decided to print my story, and had been unable to inform me due to my change of email.  I leafed through it quickly, and there it was!  “Tenth Orbit” by Gustavo Bondoni.  The magazine in my hand was a contributor’s copy.  The first payment of any kind for my writing.

I must honestly admit that, since changing jobs, I had let my writing slide.  I hadn’t written anything at all in months, and hadn’t even bothered to send rejected stories out to new markets.  Not enough energy.

Nevertheless, at the moment I realized that I was now a published author; my other worries were forgotten.  The satisfaction I felt was not monetary (although, having submitted by email and received a magazine worth four dollars, I had, unusually, come out ahead), but because someone had thought that my story was good enough that people should hand over their hard-earned cash in order to read it.  And that, somewhere, people were doing precisely that.

My drive to write and publish was instantly rekindled.  And I felt I had achieved something truly significant.

Which was something I had really needed.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is still writing, and has since sold over 200 stories and a number of novels.  His book Outside deals with the consequences of posthumanity and transhumanism.

Like George R. R. Martin but with Rabbits

Yet another fantasy series gets discussed today, and yet another series that I’ve been bringing along since early adolescence.

As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy in English living in Buenos Aires as a teen, there wasn’t always as much variety as you might expect from a typical bookstore in the US.  There were usually a few books in English, and, if one was lucky, one or two would be genre books.

That situation was exacerbated when on summer holiday in Uruguay. Punta del Este in the early nineties was the place to be in you liked electronic music or enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the highest element of the upper crust, but it wasn’t exactly a bibliophile’s paradise.  I guess no place on Earth is perfect.

But there was a bookstore, and over the years I bought a number of books there that I might not have purchased if there had been a better selection.  Sometimes they were real turkeys (Spinrad’s Russian Spring comes to mind), and sometimes they were the beginning of a lifelong read (it was here that I first encountered the Deverry series).

Marlfox by Brian Jacques

The last genre book sitting on the shelf that summer was a strange item which had a mouse with a sword on its cover: Brian Jacques Mossflower.  I had serious misgivings about this thing… it wasn’t really the kind of book I would normally have approached.  Despite being about 400 pages long, it seemed more like something for kids than for a teen who didn’t know enough about the world to understand that he wasn’t cool and worldly.

So I read it and… It wasn’t half bad.  In fact, I found it spectacularly refreshing.  You see, Jacques, liberated by the fact that his characters were assorted rodents and other small mammals, massacred more of his dramatis personae than anyone I had been exposed to at the time.  Only recently did George R. R. Martin dare to do it at the same scale with human characters.

Well, maybe not at the same scale.  Martin is in a league of his own regarding character killing (although he seems to have calmed down remarkably in recent books) but Jacques is by no means sugar coated.  While you could pretty much bet that the young mouse who found an ancient sword somewhere was going to survive and thrive, some of the other good guys were usually toast.  And Jacques also took time to build up the motivations and personalities of the bad guys so that, when they inevitably perished in the epic bloodbath that ends each book, one would feel for them.

Since then, this series has been on the changeup / back burner list.  I buy the next installment every once in a while and end up reading one of these every couple of years or so.  I’ve gotten as far as Marlfox, which is pretty much par for the course: a fun read which doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, but which entertains with action and suspense.  Perfect for when you’ve been reading the classics and need a break.

Also, nice wholesome old-school violence for those who think their pre-teens and young teens are getting a little obsessed with vampire sex.  Young readers need balance, after all.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest novel is a fantasy romp set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

Action Packed Medieval Fantasy

There are a lot of fantasy series out there, and I seem to be reading each and every single one of them.  Each has something that makes them attractive – my writeups tend to focus on what that is, and I’ve enjoyed each in its own way.

Perhaps the nicest thing about a series is that sense of being reunited with old friends when you crack a new book open.  It’s a comfortable feeling, perfect for readers who don’t always want to be challenged, and who enjoy stories that take a loooong while to tell.

At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist

Of course, some of these series demand more from the reader, while some give more pure entertainment and joy.  Topping the list for the second quality is Raymond E. Feist’s long-running Riftwar series.

I started reading these books when I was about fourteen years old… and have loved them ever since.  They are among the few thick books that require almost no effort from the reader.  They grab you by the arm and take you for a ride.   Time flies by almost imperceptibly, and so do the books themselves.

Critics, of course, will say that the reason for this is twofold.  First, that I am an uncritical reader and, secondly, that Feist is not a good writer.

They are wrong, as critics usually are, especially postmodern critics, on both counts.  I am a very discerning reader who reads widely across a number of genres (just flip through the posts on this site for random examples).  The problem is that I define a good book as one that does what it sets out to do and does it well.  Critics define it as a book that meets their particular literary / political / sociological pet peeve.  This is why critics are made fun of.

The other place they are wrong is in calling Feist a bad writer for his smooth, fast-paced, uncluttered, prose.  Every time I read a critic bashing a writer for transparency, I always suspect that this is a critic who tried to write clearly and failed.  This wouldn’t surprise me in the least.  As a writer, I have nothing but respect for my peers who can drag you along almost against your will.  The men and women who cause you to finish a book before you realize it are masters of the craft–even if their chosen milieu is more popular fiction than high literary expression.

So, if you’d like a good ride, you can do much worse than to pick up a Feist volume (my advice–start with Magician.  The one pictured above just happens to be the most recent one I’ve read).  And then turn off your inner critic and enjoy the journey.

 

Gustavo Bondoni also writes fantasy.  His book The Malakiad was published in 2018.  It’s both funny and poignant.  OK.  It’s not poignant, but it is funny as hell, as befits a book whose main character is called Kopulus.

 

 

Bibliophile Heaven with History

As a book lover, there are few things I enjoy more than perusing a good library.  Whether it be by looking at the spines of the books at a friend’s house or visiting the New York Public Library when I’m in the city (Protip: the original stuffed animals that inspired Winnie the Pooh are on permanent display in the Children’s section on the ground floor of the NYPL), this king of sightseeing is something I never fail to enjoy.

Abbey-of-Saint-Gall

However, it’s not always possible to hop on a plane and fly to St. Gall each time I want to view an even more impressive depository, so, as usual, my solution is to get a book.  Actually multiple books.  The first book I bought about libraries is called The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and as its name suggests, the preoccupation here is to allow the beauty to shine forth by using spectacular photography.  Fortunately, it also gives the–sometimes tortuous–history of each of them as well.

Over time, I discovered that despite its coffee-table size, this book is one of the most frequently perused volumes in my own book cases.

The Library - A World History

So I succumbed to the pressure of Amazon recommendations and bought a companion volume: The Library: A World History.  Written by James W. P. Campbell, this one, though also a large-format and lushly illustrated book goes back to the very beginnings of literary history and gives a blow-by-blow account of how the way people have stored books has evolved.  It’s bang up to date to its publication in 2013.

I found it fascinating to learn which advances permitted–and sometimes forced–the way library formats have evolved over the centuries.  Knowing why a room full of books looks the way it does is almost as enjoyable as looking at it.

Almost.

Though the focus here is definitely on the scholarship, the pictures of libraries, reading rooms, and the furniture within are worth the price of admission even if they were all that was included.  This book gets pulled out and stared at even more than the other one, mainly because, though there aren’t as many pictures of each library, there are many more libraries featured, including some in Korea, Japan and China. Those latter places are not only fascinating for themselves, but also illuminating in context; they illustrate beautifully how differences in book format created different kinds of storage rooms.

Recommended.  I think that bibliophiles will love these.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who is currently writing the sequel to his comic fantasy novel The Malakiad.

And One That Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The other book I ordered from Folio along with Notes from a Small Island was yet another classic on the cusp from a contemporary writer.  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is another beautifully produced edition, but it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to its promise.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy - Folio Society edition

The problem here is the content of the book.  No matter how perfect the binding or evocative the illustrations, it’s hard to turn an exercise in experimental fiction into a good read.  Even worse, this book is saddled by the yoke of postmodernism…

So, of course, the critics loved it, lauded the way it plays with the tropes of detective fiction, and basked in its empty nihilism and lack of definition.  After all, we were in the throes of destroying all that had come before and exposing the falseness of underlying assumptions.

And I guess in that, they were correct.  As a piece of postmodern art, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.  By using the structure of a detective novel, at least it doesn’t descend into complete navel gazing, as there are actually things going on, even if they aren’t quite as entertaining as the things that go on in real detective novels, and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as they are in, say, a good noir book.

Perhaps that’s what hit me the hardest on this one.  I’m going through a phase where I’m enjoying noir enormously, and I feel that an author of Auster’s caliber (even here, it’s obvious that the man can write, if he had so chosen) could have done something truly special with the form.

But no… postmodern sensibilities won out.

I often wonder if anything postmodern will be part of the canon in a few years time, or if it will all be consigned to the rubbish bin of history like the dead end it is.  Perhaps a few pieces of postmodernism will survive, in the same way that a few bits of modernism have reached us as illustrations of their particular form.  Perhaps Folio is right and Auster’s trilogy is one of those pieces that will represent the movement going forward.

But I doubt that much else will last.  Cynicism and irony are great if savage and loaded, not when they replace a shrug and a sigh.  The postmodernists are not as jaded as they want to make us believe… and it shows int heir weak output.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores posthumanism without attempting to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about it.  But realism can be quite shocking, too.

 

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.