Month: April 2019

Naughtiness through the Centuries

The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian.  It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background.  Casanova.  Valentino.  Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).

But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).

But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism.  But the pull was always there, and the books got written.

There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

You’ll probably recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lady Chatterley‘s erotic content, so when I picked up Fanny Hill, a book published nearly 200 years before the Lawrence.

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear.  You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.

Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.

As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley.  To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain.  The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).

Is Fanny Hill a great book?  Simply put, no.  It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does.  I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century.  But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).

Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.

Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it.  Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books.  Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out here.

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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).

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.