Author: GB

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.

Immortal Silliness, R&T Style

Every year, Road & Track does (or did, I don’t know because haven’t read a recent Road & Track in ages. I have a couple from last year in my enormous TBR Pile, so I’ll let you know how it looks) something called an April Fool’s test.

These tests mostly take the form of putting an utterly bonkers vehicle through the regular road test procedure. Since all the equipment, data tables, etc. are aimed at cars, the whole thing is farcial and the attempts to make things fit intentionally comedic. Subjects over the years have included parade floats, a dog sled team, the Queen Mary, and the Concorde.

The April 1978 issue was no exception, but this one was one of those I’d never seen but already knew about.

In order to understand that last sentence, you first need to realize that I’m not a lunatic (you regular readers int he back row need to stop sniggering, please). I don’t go around the internet investigating stuff that I might have missed from forty-year-old magazines (not even forty year old Playboy magazines). That’s not why I know about this one. The thing is that the editors of Road & Track would often write about the history of their own publication, particularly in the myriad anniversary issues.

Unsurprisingly, the April Fools tests were some of the most fondly remembered, and they talked about the great ones from the seventies as a matter of course.

And this one was particularly oft-cited, probably because it involved several staffers riding motorized skateboards. Henry N. Manney III was the star of the show–as was his wont with this kind of thing in the 1970s, and the picture of the man himself riding the thing wearing armor was an image we grew accustomed to seeing every few years. So finally reading the article was fun.

Other than that, this one bucked the trend for a few too many family cars in the issue and was a fast, fun red with a lot of competition stuff, a decent Salon and the Porsche 928 which was a great car (though it never replaced the 911 as planned) on the cover. The late seventies, apparently, were a good time to be alive.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His latest novel is a fast-paced romp through the Ural mountains, chased by dinosaurs. You can check it out here.

A Last Gasp of Noir Air: The Big Heat

I think of the original film noir era reaching its pinnacle in the forties, getting less and less subtle and losing a little bit of quality as everyone jumped on the bandwagon late in the decade and in the fifties. They are still more interesting to me than, say, Westerns, but they aren’t up to the standards of the great early efforts. I didn’t even like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce that much.

Every so often, however, a later film struck gold. Whether through genius or coincidence, they managed to bring back some of the freshness (albeit none of that classic Bogart-noir feeling) of the early noir era. The Big Heat is one of those films.

Now, today, we’re inundated with revenge films in which a man (or Uma Thurman) goes out on a binge killing the people who’ve wronged her. Interestingly, that made the pivotal scene, the one that changes this one from a police film to a revenge film, seem inevitable… but audiences in the 1950s would not have seen it coming, and the shock value lifts this one out of the crowd.

It’s a Hays-era film, of course, which mans that the good guy doesn’t just gun down the bad guys, but other than that, it establishes the template for the “cop gives up his badge and takes down the mean people” film for decades to come.

Fast-paced, well-written and well-directed (by Fritz Lang, no less) The Big Heat holds up well even today. It’s a definite keeper, and should be watched whenever the opportunity arises.

Having said that, the feel of it is just so different from classic noir. I suppose my problem is that, to me, classic noir is the Maltese Falcon, and the aesthetic should always be that of the final scene of Casablanca, so I’m hard to please. This film might be just a few years removed from those classics, but it feels decades away. The vibe of the older films was somewhere in the prewar decades, while The Big Heat is firmly grounded in the 1950s.

It also has one foot in the 1970s. Why? Lee Marvin, that’s why. He’s one of the major antagonists in the flick, but he will always be part of The Dirty Dozen in my mind. So yeah, I could never quite put this one in that “classic noir” basket which holds space in my head that can never cross over with the seventies. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but watch it anyway.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, Timeless, takes the genre into the modern age. Fast-paced, sexy and set in the world of international smuggling as seen from southern Europe, it will keep you turning pages. You can check it out here.

Progressive Fiction? It’s not Quite as Awful as it Sounds… At Least Not in This Issue

If you told me to read progressive science fiction without giving me any context, I’d run, not walk, away from you. You already know that I believe that messages often ruin things, and that including a message in any type of fiction is a fine line to walk. The risk of doing it badly is severe enough that I actually steer clear of most of the modern science fiction published, and I haven’t read a Hugo winner in a decade.

But I made an exception for the Jubilee Issue of The Future Fire. Why? Because it was gifted to me by the editor himself at WorldCon in Dublin, but much more importantly because said editor, Djibril al-Ayad seemed very cool and extremely smart apart from being very pleasant. I suspected that if anyone could navigate the current political quagmire of the genre, it might be him.

And I’m delighted to have read it.

First, let’s get to the obvious stuff. Yes, there are a few things in here that will offend the easily offended–homosexual relationships, zoophilia in the fairy realm, non-traditional gender roles and the like. Since this doesn’t bother me in the least, it made zero difference to my enjoyment. Most of the book is not centered on pushing any particular viewpoint, but in telling stories about people who happen to be gay, or deadly female soldiers, or whatever, without stopping to question or pontificate. Included that way, these characters are not annoyingly didactic but interesting and dynamic… very easy to enjoy.

As for things I did stumble over, the only one present in this one is an invented pronoun. I understand the arguments for this, but it threw me out of the story every single time, which is unfortunate because the story in which it appeared was otherwise excellent. Unless the author is specifically trying to be openly activist here, I’d recommend dumping the inexistent pronoun (but keeping other progressive elements exactly as they are) because the rest of that story was excellent (Names withheld to protect the guilty) and there was no real need to slash the people who’d enjoy the story that way. If a reader like me gets thrown out every time, you’re really limiting your readership to a small, extremely woke crowd by doing this.

Okay, we’ve dealt with the obvious. What about the stories?

For most of the stories in here, I’ll limit myself to the observation these are excellent tales written by supremely talented people, and I’m delighted to have read them. They run a gamut of different styles and voices, so any given reader will enjoy some more than others, but they are uniformly of high quality and, save that pronoun in an otherwise good story, most readers looking for a good story will enjoy them. There is little attempt here to convert the unwashed.

But there’s one story that stood out not just in this book but as one of the best stories I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s called “Goodbye Snow Child” and the author is Jo Thomas. Wow. Just wow. The plot is very simple–a woman wakes, wearing a hood that keeps her from seeing anything, and knows nothing about what’s happening to her except what she hears from certain voices–but the execution is nothing short of genius. The last time I had this feeling of genius in a short tale was “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, which I read back in 2008 or so. Yes, it was THAT good. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what Thomas did, but it’s wonderful. Track this one down and read it.

So I’d give this issue of The Future Fire high marks. Does the excellence extend to the others? I don’t know, but judging from this small sample size and what I saw of the editor, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most recent full-length collection of short fiction is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As the title implies, this one stays away from traditional genre settings in North America and Europe to focus on other interesting places while reminding readers that humans, at their core are more alike than different. You can have a look here.

Innes Ireland, A Man From When Racers Were Tough

One of the things that always typified Road & Track was that its pages have always been full of characters. My favorite of R&T‘s writers is the incredibly talented Peter Egan, but there are others who’ve made the pages of the magazine colorful (for example Henry N Manney III) and dignified (mainly Rob Walker).

A third great began to appear in late 1977 and early 1978: Innes Ireland.

In the February 1978 issue of the magazine, the Japanese Grand Prix report capping the 1977 season was penned by Ireland as opposed to Walker. Why? Well, it seemed that two factors were in play. The first was that, with the increasing number of races in the Formula One calendar, Walker’s own packed schedule made it increasingly difficult for him to attend them all.

But there’s another reason, and that was the reason Innes was originally contacted: with the decision of the organizers not to hold the German Grand Prix on the glorious, difficult and, yes, dangerous Nürburgring circuit, Walker, who was a true sportsman, refused to cover the emasculated race at Hockenheim. Enter Ireland.

(Just an aside to say that I absolutely agree with Walker on this one. If a racing circuit is dangerous, you either accept the danger–slow drivers lose their ride very quickly–or find another pastime. Crochet is pleasant, I hear)

And I’d assume that Ireland also tended to agree, but the gig writing for R&T kept him from being a fanatic about it (Walker could afford not to write for magazines – he was heir to the Johnnie Walker empire). Why would he agree? Simple, even in his era (1950s and 60s), which was a dangerous, rough-and-tumble time to be a race car driver, Ireland was a breed apart. He drove for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team in the days when wheels were falling off and drivers were dying in Lotuses (Loti?) in considerable numbers. He will always be remembered for being the man who won the factory team’s first F1 race.

Of course, having been a paratrooper during the war, he probably thought that the danger in a mere race car was laughable. (“This is boring mates, we should spice it up. How about having the organizers lob mortar shells at the leaders entering turn three?”)

And he was an opinionated writer, too, letting you know when someone was utterly slow or when a car didn’t belong on the track with the rest of them. He’d been there. He’d done it. And he could tell the men from the boys and the real thing from the pretenders. I often wonder what he’d think of today’s bunch of whiners.

He’d like Kimi, that’s for sure.

The rest of the issue was standard fare for the day. Getting better than what the early seventies showed, but it’s tough to get overly excited about a mag that features four mid-price coupes on the cover (the 1970s weren’t a good era for mid-priced coupes. The same test in 2000 would have featured stuff that could outrun race cars). They also had a long term test wrap-up of the Renault 5 (called Le Car in the US, for that authentic 70s vibe). I like the 5, but it’s anything but exciting (well, except for the rabid rally cars, but this wasn’t one of those).

Still, incrementally, the magazine was getting more and more modern-feeling.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a monster-filled romp through the Russian countryside… with special forces soldiers of which Innes Ireland would probably have approved, too. You can check it out right here.

Manny Man is a Must

Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

When I went to WorldCon in Dublin in 2019, I was expecting to meet people I’d only interacted with online, make new friends, learn a lot about both the art and the business of writing. I was also expecting to find interesting people from across all walks of life.

Although I was expecting very different people to be part of the experience, I believed that everyone I had longer conversations with would be part of the SFF genres in some way, shape or form.

I was wrong on many counts, but perhaps the most memorable was John Ruddy’s wonderful stand where he was selling his Manny Man-themed books and merchandise in general, but with a special focus on Irish-themed things. Is spoke to him the first day I was there (his stand was diagonally across the aisle from the Guardbridge Books stand).

I spoke to John and immediately realized he was, apart from looking the part, a student and promoter of Irish history and culture in the deepest sense of the word. I loved his cartoon people, and the book Manny Man Does Revolutionary Ireland 1916 – 1923, caught my eye… but I didn’t buy it right away because I was afraid that, loaded down with all the SF books I was going to buy (plus my contributor’s copies of Off the Beaten Path, my luggage would be overloaded.

So I went about my WorldCon business, but this little hardcover with the wonderful cartoons pulled at me and, on the Sunday, I approached John again and asked if he still had a copy. There was one, reserved for someone who hadn’t shown up… so I bought it.

And man, am I glad I did.

Irish history, especially the Revolution, is a fraught subject. Emotions still run high nearly a century after most of these events took place. At the same time, Irish history with its unmatched glorious peaks and tragic valleys is one of those things I’m a sucker for (in my mind, only Polish history comes close, hitting many of the same beats).

The book takes this tremendously complex and difficult period and not only gives the uninitiated reader a surprisingly detailed course in the events of the period but does so in an impartial and informative way, looking at the different viewpoints. Don’t be fooled by the cartoons on the cover: this is a serious book, and the conversational tone and cartoon humor do not detract from the learning in the least.

What those things do achieve, on the other hand, is to make reading the book a pleasure. I really couldn’t put it down, with even the most political of the questions becoming interesting in Ruddy’s capable hands. And the cartoons made me laugh out loud a couple of times… albeit it’s easier if you have a well-developed sense of dark humor.

So I’d recommend this one to history buffs who want to learn more about the Irish Revolution… but don’t want to get bogged down in a dry academic text… or simply want the serious issues involved to be tempered with humor. Actually, I’d recommend it to anyone, but those interested in history will absolutely love it.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose work is published in English all over the world. The book he launched at WorldCon in Dublin is a collection of short stories that mainly take place outside the usual science fiction and fantasy settings. So no Western Europe or Continental USA in these. Check it out here.

Another Trip Down Memory Lane

Reading these old Road & Tracks is about more than just the automotive history you absorb and the old races you relive. It’s also about remembering things that happened when you were young.

I’ve loved cars since I was old enough to remember. Some of my oldest toys in my parents’ house are old Matchbox cars (well, that and Star Wars figures… and people wonder why I came out how I did).

Even though I was alive (and able to walk) I can’t say I remember the races described in the magazines from the late seventies. The oldest races I remember watching date from around 1983. But I do remember the cars.

In fact, the earliest cars I remember our family having date from this era, a light blue Chevy Nova (brand new in 1979) and a used and yellow Gremlin X. The Gremlin, in particular, gets mentioned a lot by R&T since they were always in favor of small, efficient cars, and the Gremlin is much smaller than pretty much anything else Detroit was selling when it was launched.

But this month’s cover car hit much closer to home.

December 1977’s cover car, apart from the round US-Spec headlights, is one of the cars my family bought when we moved to Switzerland after three Gremlin-running years in the States. Of course it wasn’t called the 5000 there, but the Audi 100. And ours was a medium-dark grey metallic tone. But this is the car I recall from when I was six years old. And it’s on the cover of Road & Track. The other car my family bought after the move was a red Fiat Panda. A Fiat Panda will never, unless something truly unusual happens, appear on the cover of an enthusiasts magazine.

It’s a cool feeling, like having the table next to a celebrity in a restaurant. Vicarious notoriety. And they said nice things about it in the article.

But unless you’re a former Audi 100 / 5000 child, this issue will have little to recommend it. There are a couple of Grand Prix reports by Rob Walker and Innes Ireland (we’ll need to talk about Innes at some point) and quite a bit of other competition-related goodies, but the road-car side is mainly sedans, running the gamut from economy-minded imports to luxury Jaguars, but nothing too hugely exciting.

Still, I’m enjoying the chance to wallow in the seventies (not many of the 1970s ones left before the decade turns) and when the cover car is one I’ve ridden in so often, it’s even better.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a fast-paced romp through a monster-infested stretch of Russian countryside. Test Site Horror is available to purchase here.

The View from the North

Post-apocalyptic fiction comes in many guises, most of them dark. You’ve got experimental books in which one of the points made appears to be that the breaking of the world will change everything–even the way we think and interact with reality. You’ve also got the standard fare where everyone is a zombie or a vampire and the heroes have to blow them to pieces in order to survive. There are other recipes, too, but each has been trodden a million times before, and that goes for both the hyper-literary, the socially justice rage story and the straight action-adventure tropes.

So when you come upon a truly different take, you sit up and take notice… or at least I do. And when a post-apocalyptic collection ends on a hopeful note… well, that’s icing.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir is a wonderful book which, to me is pretty much the definition of a slow-burn collection with unexpected depths. When I started reading it, I thought it was a straight story collection, one that brought together tales related in no other way than the fact that they’re all genre stories.

Eventually, however, I came to realize the tales are linked together, intertwining the post-apocalyptic fates of four young people in a world that is at once harsh and indifferent (and cold–the setting is basically a Viking area, Greenland and Svalbard) but also contains moments of kindness it one knows where to look. And though action and death are present, they aren’t the central tenet of the work. Rather, the way the world creates and modifies the characters themselves is paramount.

Although I only saw her for a few days in 2019, I consider the author, Margrét, a friend (and before that, she bought one of my stories for an award-winning anthology series). With this book, I found something that, despite being friends with several other authors, had never happened to me before: I felt like this book could ONLY have been written by Margrét. Only she could have given a story set after the fall of civilization as we know it the specific viewpoint that is expressed in this book: the hopeful thread that runs through even the darkest chapters, the deep-seated kindness in certain people and the calm, measured pacing, all reflect the Margrét I know.

It’s highly recommended, and those of you who’ve never met the author will certainly feel like you know her after reading it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own collection of linked stories is not a genre work but falls firmly in the literary camp, focusing on moments of complete transformation in the daily lives of people just like you and me. It’s called Love and Death, and you can check it out here.