classic books

Macondo… But Not Quite the Same

La hojarasca (only the first word of Spanish-language titles is capitalized) is a novella-length book by Gabriel García Márquez. It was titled Leaf Storm in English, and it’s celebrated as the first appearance of the fictional town Macondo, made famous in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Unfortunately, this is a Macondo devoid both of magic and compelling characters. The plot revolves around the burial of a man who’d gained the enmity of the town by his actions since moving there, and there is a very real possibility that they won’t let the man be buried… despite the determination of one other character to inter him at all costs.

Therein lies the central conflict of a story that is very well written, but is not the master in full possession of his powers. This book is from before García Márquez was considered a literary giant, and it took quite a while to find a publisher (seven years, according to Wikipedia).

But it’s still a good example of excellent writing. The book is almost a guide to how to reveal the backstory of what is going on by taking three viewpoint characters and following along different paths that, little by little, shed light on why things stand the way they do.

One expects more from García Márquez… Although, to be honest, I’m beginning to think the man was a one-hit wonder – none of the other books of his I’ve read are anywhere near as good as One Hundred Years of Solitude. What a hit it was, though. I guess that’s the contrast with his main Latin American competitor: Vargas Llosa was apparently incapable of writing anything but brilliant books while García Márquez apparently spent his entire reservoir of higher inspiration in one dazzling dose.

So this one is perfectly competent, with wonderful use of every literary technique in the book… with pedestrian results. Give it a miss, and if you haven’t yet read his masterpiece, do so now. If you have and are in the mood for excellent Latin American writing, you can never go wrong with Vargas Llosa.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose own foray into literary fiction (he writes a ton of commercial fiction) consists of a book entitled Love and Death in which the intertwined destinies of several individuals and families reveal the true wonder and horror of the everyday world. 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 Different Look at Early Feminism: The Bostonians

Back when I did my review of A Room of One’s Own, I commented that political discussion seemed to be much more intelligent back then and, in consequence, less annoying than our present day state in which people on the other side of the argument need to be unfriended, because politics.

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

Henry James is probably best known for A Portrait of a Lady, but in The Bostonians, he ridicules the political obsessives of his own day, which in this case was the late 1870s. That he choses the female emancipation movement is probably not representative of James’ own political leanings, but more that he needed a political movement that made itself utterly obnoxious for an extended period of time. Feminism appears to have been that movement on that day.

Despite Virginia Woolf’s well thought out and beautifully delivered speech that formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own, we were naive in stating that this was an era of intelligent political discussion. Woolf did not represent her movement’s rank-and-file, or even the day-to-day organizers. She was a superstar in a different field brought to impart wisdom… and she succeeded.

But that daily membership was just as subject to ridicule as your friend who wears the MAGA hat and drinks bleach to kill microbes or your communist buddy who insists that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism” and that all historical evidence of the failure of socialism is caused by either aliens or corporate conspiracies.

Here, the victim of Henry James’ satire is a young fanatic feminist who may (or may not) be a lesbian. She lives and breathes for the movement to such an extent that she ends up hating all men… which is no less adolescent in 1870 than it is today.

Making things even more delightfully ironic, her antagonist is a southerner, a man who recently fought on the losing side of the Civil War… and whose views are decidedly conservative–and who James also satirized and turns into a caricature.

The stakes are the heart of a woman who is the most original and persuasive feminist speaker the movement has yet discovered and, unlike others, is young and beautiful to boot. The Southerner wishes to win her hand, while the feminist wants to keep her in the movement (which she will abandon if she becomes the Southerner’s wife).

I won’t spoil this one by telling you who wins, except that no one comes out smelling like a rose… and that it paints a portrait of the politics of the time which allows us to see that even the suffragist movement, which managed enormous good was, at its core, populated by the same sad fanatics we see today.

Interesting stuff, and a good way to immerse oneself in the day and age.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the range from literary fiction to historical fantasy. His most mainstream novel is a thriller entitled Timeless which combines a fast-paced international-crime-driven plot with the inherent sexuality of a young globe-trotting journalist to create something unique and absorbing. You can check it out here.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

More Fine Books

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love Fine Books & Collections. I used to be a subscriber but, unfortunately, the postal service they use to mail magazines overseas just isn’t arriving in Argentina for some reason. And no one seems to have any clue as to where they are going missing.

So I buy them when I travel to the US, if I happen to spot it at a B&N newsstand. Which I did on my recent mid-pandemic trip to Washington and Philadelphia.

It appears their distribution issues are not just limited to Argentina, because the only copy I was able to snag was the Spring 2020 issue… in October. Still, I grabbed it without hesitation and, unlike the rest of the reading material I bought on the trip, I read this one immediately.

Totally worth it, even if a good chunk of the magazine dealt with the New York Rare Book Week (I assume that got cancelled due to Covid).

Even so, this one represents immersion therapy in a world of classic editions of beloved books, old maps, beautiful craftsmanship and art. Along with my visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which had some unexpected highlights in its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern art, this was my cultural break during my trip since the Smithsonian museums I am interested in–Air & Space, Art and American History–were closed on the dates I was in town.

My head spends a long time in the future because I’m in the middle of a science fiction novel, my kids ensure that I spend a good chunk of the day very much in the present (with both the joys and the annoyances that come with it), so just stopping everything and enjoying beauty and wonder created decades or centuries ago and seeing into minds who appreciate that sensation just like you do is a way to relax and just let go for a bit. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that these magazines are probably among the things I most enjoy reading.

In this one, there are the usual great articles and columns, but two, about the photography of Danny Lyon and the book listing high-tech inventions of the renaissance really stood out. I always leaf through these mags when I have a desire to be transported… and I still haven’t found one that disappoints on rereading.

Recommended (and maybe if enough people buy it, they’ll be able to fix their distribution problems!).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. You can check out his literary fiction in Love and Death a narrative that comes together out of several short pieces to tell the story of a group of individuals who never quite realize how closely they are linked. You can check it out here.