Month: May 2021

A Quantum Leap in the Second Issue

While it might seem that Road & Track is the only car magazine I read (and the only one I could possibly have time for reading) that isn’t the case. In fact, I read a reasonable stable of car mags of which Classic & Sportscar is another major component of my library which I need to complete back issues of.

Last time I wrote about these guys, it was to talk of the very first issue, and now I’ve read the second (which was beautiful to me because the MGA is probably one of my favorite cars of all time).

My first impression on this one is that it’s markedly better than the first issue. This is kind of weird because the editors had already accumulated twenty years experience in editing Old Motor, so the growing pains should have been less evident in the first issue.

For whatever reason, this one is smoother, better-looking and easier to read than the April 1982 edition. And since the first one was pretty good, this one goes a certain way towards attaining the sheer joy that C&SC has always been for me. Simply stated, you can tell that this was going to become a wonderful magazine in the May edition. Even a comparison of the covers shows progress in cleaning and improving the look.

As for the content, the MGA is an inspired lead, and then we have an article about Abarth and a longish piece on the 1906 GP Renault, which is very welcome. Even the Countach on the cover wasn’t a bad article (of course, I like reading about cars, so I may be tremendously biased!).

Anyhow, my quest to complete my collection continues apace, and this was an enjoyable stop along the way.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His well-received science fiction novel Outside is going to get a sequel late in 2021… so don’t you think you should read the original? You can check it out here.

Familiarity Breeds Happiness

By the summer of 1978, Road & Track was featuring the cars I remember as the ones I loved as a young car nut in the eighties (apart from the ones my family actually owned). These were the ones I could see on the street and the ones that caused me to love cars to this very day.

For example, as kids, we would say to each other: “I saw an MG on the road,” and everyone would immediately know we were referring to a rubber-bumpered MGB. My six-year-old self would never have been able to recognize any other vehicle wearing the octagon badge. The same way, a triumph was a TR7, while a Ferrari was a swoopy wedge (I couldn’t really tell the difference between a 308 (as on the July 1978 cover) and a 512 at the time, and didn’t care – they were both wonderful) or a formula one car.

And Mustangs, a little later in my youth, when I moved from Europe to the US, looked like the car on the August cover. To me, these will always be 1980s cars as opposed to cars of the 70s, even if I know, intellectually, that they aren’t.

In addition, this is the magazine era that got mined for Top Trump cards and their South American knockoffs (which I would purchase whenever I was down in Argentina visiting family).

So, while I didn’t really enjoy the early seventies R&Ts, except for the sport part (the fuel crisis, smog rules and the safety legislation made every mag depressing as we watched awesome cars simply disappear – the social engineers scoring a knockout victory against anyone who simply loved life), these are comforting and hopeful, and I get lost in them without effort. There’s nothing specifically magical about these two in particular (although the Salon of the Renault AX is lovely), but I’m enjoying the transition to the eighties enormously.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is entitled Test Site horror. It’s a romp in the Ural mountains, chased by genetically modified dinosaurs. You can check it out here.

Did Anyone Ever Ride into the Distance as Well as Shane?

Shane (1953) is one of those films that, if someone told you the plot, you’d give it a miss. That would be a mistake, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess without actually watching the film. Even more, I’ll tell you that it’s a film that moves at the “western” pace, making sure everyone has the time to enjoy the scenery.

And yet, even modern audiences would enjoy this one–it’s that well-made and well-acted.

Every single Western cliché is present in this one. From the fair-haired, light-hatted good gunslinger to the black-haired, black-hatted bad guy (and Jack Palance, of course, is a cliché all by himself, no matter what role he plays) via the sturdy, proud farmer, his beautiful apple-pie cooking wife and the gang of dirty cowboys led by an old rancher.

But this is one of those films that reminds us why clichés are clichés. They are that way because, in skilled hands, they work spectacularly well. George Stevens was a skilled director, and this film is perfect.

Most of the time, when a family is in danger both from enemies and friends (the wife is very obviously smitten with the good gunslinger, and vice versa) a film is tense and unenjoyable in the viewing. Not this one. This one is easy to watch, flowing along despite the viewer’s knowledge that awful things could happen at any moment. It’s like the opposite of Strangers on a Train.

And it’s hard to describe why it works so well. Perhaps the title character’s laconic delivery through the entire film is what makes it, perhaps its something else that I can’t quite put a finger on, but the thing is just wonderful. It’s another of those Westerns that my wife actually enjoyed (she didn’t like one of my all-time favorites, though).

(An interesting aside, and something that not many people will talk about in the current day and age is that clichés work because they use stereotyping to function. While it isn’t politically correct to mention this – so don’t say it was me – science has studied stereotyping and found it to be one of the most accurate ways of predicting individual behavior known to man. If you don’t believe me, you can google it – ignore the political pundits, and sociologists who like to say “I know the numbers say one thing, but…” and look only at the statistically significant science – as I don’t want to completely derail this review).

A final interesting thing about this one is that the recurring character “Shame” in the 1960’s Batman series was, very obviously, lifted from here.

So go out there and watch it. It’s good, but perhaps the best lesson anyone can take from this is that sometimes, a string of clichés can be stronger than all the avant-garde, groundbreaking brilliance one can possibly dream up.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Test Site Horror, is a monster-filled romp through the Russian countryside where rogue geneticists fight the Russian army while a group of journalists is stuck in the middle. You can check it out here.

A Plodding Walk Through Legendary Wessex

I’m not averse to reading classics. In fact, a lot of the 19th century literary work I’ve read has been extremely entertaining, so when I encounter a classic of the era which is almost unreadable, I rue the missed opportunity.

Now, I’m not a stranger to Thomas Hardy. I’d read Far From the Madding Crowd before I started reviewing for CE, and found it uninspiring, if not awful. But I see that Hardy wasn’t content with uninspiring. The book that is arguably his masterpiece went for the truly unreadable.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the worst books I’ve read in ages. The writing, of course, is perfectly fine, but the plot is tear-out-your-hair awful. The first 400 pages of this 500 page book are completely predictable and when it becomes unpredictable, it’s a Hays-Code crime plot… which means that it gives us an unsatisfying ending.

This is one of the few cases, however, where I’d consider giving a book a pass because of the time that has passed since it was written. You see, in 1890, the subject of this book–a woman who is seduced and bears a child and then marries another man without telling him–would have been sensational stuff, and perhaps audiences in the day would not have been able to predict what was going to happen, simply because they weren’t expecting the author to tread forbidden paths.

This is certainly an argument in its favor, although it falls down if one loses that taboo. If you trust that the author won’t flinch, the book becomes utterly dull.

Some readers will find things to like, of course. The scenes of rural life are the best part of the book and show Hardy’s love for the subject. I get that, and it truly is well done.

Other readers will be moved by the plight of the wronged woman… but it was so boring, and so much of it would have been avoided by a person with a measurable IQ that I was unimpressed. She seems to me like those characters in a horror movie that, confronted with the chance of leaving the house or running up the stairs to be trapped and dismembered, choose the latter.

My advice is to read it and judge for yourself. This book has a huge following, which means that many people are going to have a very different opinion than mine.For myself? Well, I wish Hardy would just have described rural life. When he added plots to his novels, he ruined them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work in the literary genre (as opposed to more fantastic work) can be found in his book Love and Death, which weaves together the lives, triumphs and tribulations of a series of people just like you and me. You can check it out here.

A Haunting Japanese Tale: Ugetsu

I always learn new things when I watch films on the 1001 movies list. For example, did you know that the 1950s are considered the golden age of Japanese film? I didn’t, but it makes complete sense, considering how many Japanese films that have been appearing on this one lately. Good examples of enjoyable ones are here and here.

I also knew absolutely nothing about Ugetsu before watching it. The (only) cool thing about not speaking Japanese and not having been immersed in the culture is that each of these movies comes as a surprise to me. Had I known that the word ugestu translates (according to google) as “pale and mysterious moon after a rain”, I might have had an inkling of what I was getting into.

But I didn’t, so the movie began looking like a typical war film–peasant farmers profiting from the war or trying to join the armies.

And that’s the way things go until about halfway through the film, when it pulls a From Dusk Til Dawn switcheroo. It goes from a realist film to a dreamy ghost story without really showing a break in the narrative. Like Roshomon, the film shows an acceptance of the existence of the spirit world which may be reflective of Japanese spirituality as a whole–meaning audiences would accept it–or, at least that of the director (someday I hope to learn enough about Japan to know which).

And the dreamlike central sequence is the one that viewers will remember forever. It’s as good as anything in the western canon and, at some points, it reminded me of the best French weirdness of the era.

This one is good, but it might not be for everybody. The pace is measured and might lose some modern viewers, accustomed to faster-paced action, in the process. So use your discretion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. His latest story collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Like Ugetsu, it takes place just on the far side of reality in places that aren’t the typical North American and Western European settings.

Salvador Sanz – Brilliant Argentine Artist

I don’t often get to combine the things I love. Art goes on one track literature on the other. But there’s one guy I know who combines these two art forms all the time: Salvador Sanz. He is not only an incredible illustrator but, since he has his own comics, he is also a writer.

Better still, I recently got the chance to read the book he gave me that includes a selection of his art, so I was vicariously able to combine art and literature as well.

I met Salvador by chance. Guardbridge Books was preparing my collection Off the Beaten Path for publication, and the publisher wanted an Argentine cover artist for this book by an Argentine author. I asked around and one name came strongly recommended: Salvador Sanz. A look at his online presences told me why: his work was dark and technically brilliant. So we got in touch and he produced the cover art for the book.

When I got back from the book launch in Dublin, I got together with Salvador to give him his copy of the book and to chat a while. While we were there, he was kind enough to gift me a copy of Ultra Mal, a compendium of his art.

Though I’d researched his work, I was still shocked by both how versatile Salvador is, and how gifted. His sketches show a talent that isn’t common, while his finished work, particularly the pieces that are destined for things other than comics. The attention to detail and perfect proportioning of things like scales and leaves are just breathtaking.

I’d recommend getting hold of a copy if you can, but if you’re in a place where the book isn’t available, then you should at least look for Salvador’s art online. You’re in for a treat, and you’ll see why everyone I asked recommended him for the cover work.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. Off the Beaten Path is a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories that take place outside the usual, well-trod settings of North America and Western Europe. You can check it out here.

Books You Love to Read vs. Books You Love to Have Read

As I type this, I have two different books underway. The first is one that I will review here in a week or so, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Durbervilles. The other is a reread of a Glen Cook noir fantasy omnibus called Garrett Takes the Case.

Let’s start with the latter. This one is part of the PI Garrett series, which I reread every few years. It always starts the same way… tired of whatever I’m reading in parallel, I pop open the first of the omnibuses in my library… and I don’t stop reading them for weeks (I don’t abandon the reading of stuff I’ve never read before, just pop into the Garrett books when the mood strikes – which can be pretty often because I simply love to lose myself in the world of these novels. Utterly awesome.

This is a typical example of books I love to read, no matter how many times I’ve already done so. I have a lot of writers who write books like this: Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Asimov (particularly his essays), Eco, Pratchett, Bill Bryson. Wonderful books I grab off the shelves time and again, which I wear out and which are replaced, whenever possible, by better editions.

Other books were wonderful when I read them for the first time, but not necessarily something I’d reread every few years. Still, those fall into the category of books I love to read. You can probably pick them out from my reviews. Many of the classics, such as Austen or Thackaray fall here. Wonderful stuff, but a little dense for simple pleasure-reading.

But not all reading is purely enjoyable. Sometimes it is necessary to improve one’s knowledge of the literary giants upon whose shoulders I, and all modern writers, stand. I won’t pretend that Ulysses, for example, was light, wondrous reading. Bits of it are good, but mostly, it’s a work that demands concentration and much furrowing of the brow. But once the first go-through is done, the pleasure begins. You can reread passages for specific meanings, you can think about what the whole work might signify, you can be delighted by details. There’s pleasure in removing that chink in your wall of knowledge, of knowing where that particular book fits into the sum of human literature. And yes, you have permission to bask in the fact that you, unlike so many others, have actually read the thing. This is a book I love to HAVE read, even though I struggled through it.

A lot of books work that way. Off the top of my head, here are some books that nearly killed me which I now consider jewels, and which I look back upon with pleasure. Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Divine Comedy (the edition I have of that one has the Doré illustrations) were both long, involved reads. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible are also in this list.

Everyone, writer or not, literati or Netflix binger, is poorer for having missed any of the ones listed above, just as I am poorer because I have yet to read Tolstoy or Finnegan’s Wake. Some books are fundamental in the cultural education of any human on the planet. No excuses.

The good part is that many, many of the fundamental books are either partly or wholly wonderful. We’ve mentioned Austen and Thackaray, but there’s so much more. The first few books and last few books of the KJV are great fun (as are a few of the minor prophets). Shakespeare’s Histories are better than everything else he wrote, and so are MacBeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Then there are the unexpected ones; who would have thought that Crime and Punishment was such an entertaining read? Or that The Great Gatsby would be such a perfect book?

When you’re in the middle of a particularly difficult book, my advice is to always push though. I get so much pleasure from having these books bouncing around in my mind, occupying a definite place in my head, that the effort is always worth it in the end.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t let my mind wander and temper the great with the merely good–but beloved–work that I know I love.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores the consequences of being a little too online all of the time. You can check it out here.

Viaggio in Italia – Or How an Italian Trip can be the Opposite of Romantic

I normally ignore what critics have said about the films in the 1001 movies list unless I’ve already formed my own opinion and would like to give my readers a little more context. In the case of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (A Voyage to Italy), this wasn’t possible because… well, because I had little opinion, one way or another. I found it to be pretty much a blah film, without much to say either way, good or bad.

Apparently, I was perfectly right to feel that way… and also utterly wrong.

On the blah side, critics and moviegoers of the era didn’t like this one. The film was a box office flop and a critical non-darling. It’s not hard to see why: it isn’t fun, it isn’t tragic, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t romantic. It’s neorealism without the weight of high human drama thrown in… as the stakes here are, apparently, the end of a marriage that isn’t that inspiring to begin with. And all despite Ingrid Bergman.

But then you read what the film historians say and come to understand that the film is supremely influential in the genesis of the modern drama and is now considered a great film.

While I can’t disagree with the historians about its influence, I would stop short of calling it great. In my opinion, a film should stand on its own, with any influences being a secondary consideration. If it can’t then it shouldn’t be on this list.

This one can’t. Worse, it influenced decades of other boring films, so it should be struck forthwith. One to watch only if you’re a film historian, in my opinion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own forays into real life include the collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death. Unlike Rossellini, Bondoni concentrates mainly on the important parts. You can check it out here.

Immortal Classics don’t have to Break the Bank

The May 1978 issue of Road & Track pictured a cheap car from a Japanese company struggling to consolidate itself in the US Market in the late seventies. This company was a champion of the Wankel engine, but the fuel crisis and questions about whether the Wankel could ever be made fuel-efficient enough had hit their sales hard. So what did this company do?

It launched a sports car in a time when they were viewed as antisocial and frivolous. Worse, this sports car was powered by that self-same inefficient Wankel.

The company was Mazda. The car was the RX-7.

And the rest is road and racing car history. The RX-7 sold, and sold, and sold, and the naysayers and social engineers that whined about it were ignored in droves. See? Sometimes life IS both fair and good.

Interestingly, Mazda learned from the experience and, when sales of the RX-7 eventually weakened more than a decade later, in 1989 they repeated the cheap, fun car formula. What did they launch? A little something called the Miata… which is still on sale 31 years later.

And R&T, which sometimes missed on their cover cars, got this one exactly right. Kudos to the editorial team.

The rest of the magazine repeated what had been going on in other late 70s issues, so no need to go into that in any depth, but one cool thing that I’ve noticed in the past few issues is that the masthead is beginning to resemble the one I loved when I joined the party in 1989. Apart from Innes Ireland and Rob Walker, we’ve got Thos L. Bryant, Joe Rusz, John Lamm and Dennis Simanaitis, who wrote a long piece on automotive materials in this issue.

Starting to feel familiar, now. Starting to feel like home.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a romp through the Russian wilderness, pursued by genetically modified dinosaurs and assorted other monsters. You can check it out here.

Ever Wonder Where Mr. Bean Came From? Here’s a Clue

We’re not strangers to weird French films here at CE. After all, there are french films on the 1001 Movies list, and French films are weird, so it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. But perhaps that over-simplification doesn’t take into account the reason we love the list so much. The selected French films might be weird, but each is weird in its own special way.

So they are delightful and unexpected, which makes ever the art films eminently watchable.

A case in point is today’s subject. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (released in English as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) caught me completely off guard.

The version I watched was in Italian and, while I can read Italian with few problems, catching dialogue is a different matter altogether.

Turns out it didn’t matter. The dialogue in this one is very limited, easily understandable and works as background music for spots where silence would be obtrusive.

You see, this is a silent film in all but actual silence. It has sound, but the sound is pure background. What this film does is serve as a bridge between the silent bumbling-but-well-meaning characters of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and the bumbling but well meaning Mr. Bean.

Hulot is precisely that kind of character, walking cluelessly through life without realizing what is about to befall him or understanding how his actions affect others while, at the same time transmitting that he is a nice guy.

Unlike the older films, there is no plot to this one. Hulot just goes about his holiday business in his inimitably clumsy way while others are annoyed or delighted by his presence. In tiny vignettes, the film criticizes the emerging french middle class… but little of the social satire reaches the modern audience except in the general sense of having stereotypes being mocked, which is always fun. In an era where Hollywood has gotten excessively political (and is deservedly losing its viewership), it’s nice to be able to watch a comedy without having to worry about the social message it attempts to transmit. Seventy years, apparently, is long enough for the boredom of political thought to fade and the enjoyment of comedy to remain.

This one is good. In fact, it’s easier to watch that the old silent films, even though the humor is much less over the top. The timing is moderns, the length of the elements is just long enough to be funny, but not excruciating or embarrassingly overdone (Mr Bean has a lot of that, unfortunately). Getting the balance of the humor just right in this kind of film is extremely difficult, and the perfect balance shifts with each viewer.

For my taste, this one got it exactly right, and has become my favorite Bumbling Character silent film. Even though it has sound in it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a series of linked stories about real people in real situations… but only in those situations which truly mark a life. By avoiding the boring bits, he shows the characters as they truly are when the chips are down. You can check it out here.