classic Literature

Bright Young Things Satirized

My copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (I read the one in the picture) had an intro by Waugh that stated that, at one point in the writing of the book, he’d gone from gleeful to bitter–although he doesn’t say so, I assume it’s because of his divorce from his wife (it’s his own fault. When A dude named Evelyn marries a girl named Evelyn, it can’t end well).

That comment began to worry me about halfway through the book. You see, the first part of Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. The description of aristocratic college life in the 1920s has always seemed to me to represent a perfect idyll (and if you want more of it, but from the academic side, I strongly recommend The Inklings of Oxford), while the second half, the “serious” half, dropped off sharply. I was enjoying the pell-mell anarchy of Vile Bodies, and I didn’t want that to happen in this one.

Luckily, it wasn’t possible–at least not for me–to easily separate Waugh’s biting satire of the “gleeful” part from the bitterness he says happened in the second section. Not on a first reading, anyway.

The book continues as it started, with the nuttiness of young people discovering their independence in a time just coming off the repressive age. While it can’t rival Gatsby as the ultimate expression of the Roaring Twenties, it does give you just enough reality beneath the exaggeration to give one a sense of what the London scene looked like.

As with Gatsby, it was a great time to be alive (as long as you were in the right set, of course).

The temptation here is to compare this one with Scoop, as they are both similar in conception: take an institution (journalism in Scoop, the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies) and go to town on the satire. It’s a valid comparison, but Scoop is both funnier (unless you’re easily offended, in which case we pity you) and more chaotic, while Vile Bodies, though good, does fall a little flat at the end. It’s probably very symbolic, but I’m reading this one as a regular reader, for the fun of it, and have little interest in social commentary about stuff that happened almost a hundred years ago.

As such, it’s a good book, and I have yet to find a Waugh that I didn’t like, but it isn’t quite up to the wonderfulness (I was sure the autocorrector would clobber wonderfulness, but apparently it’s a real word. Who knew?) of the first half of Brideshead and the entirety of Scoop. Still better than most everything else, of course.

Read Waugh. Don’t let his books go out of print. If not for you, do it for future generations.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in the linked story Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Fun Stuff in the Sixties Spy Tradition

Sixties secret agent books were escapist fun: a lone wolf secret agent, women who were available, dangerous or both, and clear-cut bad guys. No one cared if the masculinity was toxic, the women unrealistic or that communists are actually supposed to be the good guys. Back then, if you happened to think any of those things, there were other books for you, and everyone accepted that different people had different tastes. It’s a novel concept, this thing of keeping your adolescent political enthusiasms out of other people’s entertainment… but it appears to work really well.

Donald Hamilton’s character Matt Helm might not be as universally revered as James Bond, but he was very popular in his day, and four films were made of his adventures (starring Dean Martin, no less). If The Ravagers is a typical example, it’s quite easy to see why.

This book isn’t just fun in the traditional way, but it’s also linear, following the hero every step of the way without leaving his side for a moment. From a purely literary point of view, this shows the influence of classic noir on the secret agent genre (which, considering its beginnings, was sorely needed).

So what you have here is a noir adventure that moves out nighttime in the city and onto the much wider stage of international intrigue. It actually transfers reasonably well and, though the third-person narrative which follows several characters at once (see any Tom Clancy book) is probably better for that kind of thing, the noir treatment was a step in the right direction.

From a literary standpoint, that’s the extent of the deep insights you can get from this one, but one cultural thing that caught my eye was the fact that one of the plot points is that a fifteen-year-old girl would be relatively innocent. Whether that was ever true during our current phase of morality (remember that for most of human history, girls – and boys, too – that age were considered to be of marital age) I have no clue… but I suspect that not even in the fifties, where the roots of this book are, would a fifteen-year-old have been a real innocent.

Other than that, it works as entertainment, and I enjoyed it. Not memorable literature, perhaps, but an acceptable piece of escapist fiction.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller has much more modern sensibilities, and a lot more onscreen sex than this one. But the international intrigue and the fast pace will feel very familiar to readers of classic work. You can check out Timeless, here.

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.

For Your Eyes Only – A James Bond Short Story Collection

I love reading James Bond books for several reasons. The first is that they are so different from the movies that share the names with the books. For example, For Your Eyes only is the name of a short story which gives its title to a collection of James Bond shorts (two of the other tales are entitled “From a View to a Kill” and “Quantum of Solace”). And it’s this book that is the subject of today’s post.

This book doesn’t contain another of Ian Fleming’s delights, namely the penchant for wonderful, outrageous character names but it does keep alive his well-known tendency to write for heterosexual male audiences from the late fifties and early sixties. While some might find this kind of writing offensive, I find it delightfully unaffected and fresh. A great palate cleanser after an issue of The New Yorker which suffered from the modern day disease of overcompensating via political correctness.

Be warned, though… Fleming isn’t for everyone, just for people who can allow for context and understands that the world is a constantly-changing place without blowing a fuse if something isn’t up to today’s standards.

Obligatory caveats expressed, let’s move on to the stories themselves.

Four of the five are just what you’d expect from a Bond book (if you’re familiar with Bond books, that is. If you’re expecting them to be like the movies, this isn’t that). Spy adventure with a slightly more brooding and human–and less funny and superhuman–main character. Great entertainment, and harmless fun.

But the final tale, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t a traditional Bond story, but a tale in which our favorite secret agent gets to hear about someone else’s life, a life without any international intrigue, but nothing more than a sordid story of a marriage gone wrong. It’s well-written, of course, but also has a bit of a surprise value, and is wonderful to find here.

For those familiar with Bond novels, this one is a fun change of pace. Good stuff.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own international thriller is entitled Timeless. Hs heroine is most definitely not a male chauvinist superspy, but she has just as much sex as Bond does–and on her terms, too–you can check out Marianne Caruso’s adventures in Timeless, here.

Down and Out in 1950s America

For some reason, I find books about extreme poverty in the past compelling. Not because I enjoy them, exactly, but because they give insight into a world that is very different from that of everyday life for most people. I wouldn’t read a book about modern-day poverty because it would depress me, but if a few decades have passed, I like them a lot.

Now, Sara Harris isn’t Orwell, not by a long stretch of the imagination, so her book can’t be the literary masterpiece that is Down and Out in Paris and London, but she does have a journalist’s eye (ear?) for the human angle that will bring a point across to the reader, and she uses that gift very effectively in Skid Row USA.

This one is a paperback that I picked up somewhere (probably at a flea market in the church around the corner) with another few old paperbacks, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Garish, and aimed at thrill readers, it is both an interesting look at a past era and a psychological analysis of the dynamics of extreme poverty that sound like they’d still be relevant today.

I read this more as a history book, akin to this one, than as what it was meant to be, which is a sociologically-driven admonishment to the society of the fifties that extreme poverty is not a crime but a psychological and, when combined with alcoholism, medical problem.

It’s much more interesting as an insight into a different world. Hell, we’ve all seen the fifties. Huge tailfins, drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates, early rock and roll, the birth of the suburban ideal and the culmination of the American Dream. This book takes us out of the suburbs and small towns and into the lives and circumstances of the urban poor to whom suburbia is a legendary place outside their scope.

Of course, as a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Not all my stories take place in space, and not all of my characters are dashingly handsome aristocrats. Having this book both in my head and on my shelves means that a character from Skid Row will be a lot more believable.

But even non-writers should find this one an interesting, quick read. There’s even some hope at the end (although I have no clue if the programs described in this 1950’s book ever came to fruition).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most socially-conscious work is probably the science fiction novel Outside, which addresses the current problems of technology addiction and the incapacity of humans on one side of an issue to behave in a civilized manner to those on the other. You can buy a copy 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.

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.

The Very Best of one of the Greatest Magazines

Most people of my generation who grew up reading science fiction know there are exactly three great SF magazines out there (this isn’t necessarily correct, because there are many more new and old, but this is what we know in our bones). Those magazines are, in chronological order of launch: Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s.

Two of these are deeply tied to specific immortal colossi of the genre – Analog is Campbell’s magazine, Asimov’s is… well, it’s pretty obvious if you think about it).

F&SF is not so intimately linked to any specific figure which, ironically, allows it to be linked with almost everyone who was ever anyone in the field. So when I saw a book entitled The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume Two, I had to snap it up and immediately began searching for volume 1 (I still don’t have that one, BTW).

As I started reading this one, it quickly became apparent that F&SF is one of the greats for a very good reason. Of the first twelve stories, I’d read ten or so before in one or another “greatest” or “best of the year” compendiums. SO this isn’t just a magazine tooting its own horn–independent editors have been selecting these stories for “greatest” volumes for a long time. And remember, this is volume TWO. These are the stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the first volume. The fact that they’re among SF’s acknowledged greats is mind-blowing.

But the thing that stunned me the most is that the immortal Ellison tale “Jeffty is Five” got held over to volume 2. This is one of THE greatest stories ever according to pretty much everyone. That gives you some idea of the quality of fiction that F&SF has published over the years.

As we got into the more modern stories, from the eighties on, I found work that I wasn’t familiar with. Another thing that is lovely about this book is how the style changes as the years go on. All the stories that made it here are obviously well-written with excellently drawn characters, but in the early stories, the idea is front and center while in the later ones, you get a more character-centric vision. Some people (like me) will marvel at the Golden Age stuff, while others will admire the newer work, but everyone will be treated to the most pleasant way to see the evolution of the genre: by reading wonderful stories.

Of the newer ones, I’d have to say that George Alec Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” was the one I enjoyed most. It’s funny without being slapstick and memorable besides.

Of the old ones, I have to admit that, despite my love for idea fiction and Golden Age SF, I love Zenna Henderson’s “The Anything Box”. It’s just so well executed that the slightly weak concept is saved. Beautiful story.

For the record, I hate the ending of “Jeffty is FIve”, but it’s certainly a must-read.

And now, off to search, again, for Volume One. There are probably copies on Goodreads.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Off the Beaten path does exactly what the cover says. It collects work outside the obvious settings of the US and Europe to uncover the fantastic (and science fictional) in the rest of the world. You can check it out here.

Yet Another Reminder that You Shouldn’t Judge a Book by How it Looks

Those of you with incredible memories and equal measures of patience will recall that, in 2019, I was in Dublin for WorldCon. Since I spent most of my time in the dealer’s room signing books (or talking up other writers’ books at my publisher’s table), it’s not surprising that I also bought a lot of books from other tables.

One of them was at the end of Sunday when people were discounting everything and closing up shop. I saw a copy of The Astounding Illustrated History of Fantasy & Horror by, apparently, Roger Luckhurst, Mike Ashley, Michael Kerrigan, Matt Cardin, Dave Golder, Russ Thorne and Rosie Fletcher. I wasn’t too impressed by how it looked, as I was used to the Collector’s Press treatment of the same subjects. But they told me it was 5 Euros for this solid hardcover book, so I bought it.

It’s the kind of thing I really enjoy, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt despite the fact that the interior design didn’t inspire me (there’s nothing wrong with that cover, though!). Looking at it now, I’m not entirely certain why I didn’t like it visually when I picked it up. Perhaps it was the clinical white that dominated the text or the circular inset images. Or maybe it was that a lot of modern imagery (especially from films) was used in place of pictures of original book versions.

Whatever it was, I was wrong to doubt and very right to buy this one. The text erases any graphic design failings (whether real or only existent in my imagination) and tells the story of horror and fantasy simply but effectively, with a certain preference for the darker end of the spectrum. And while I admit to being a bit of a geek, I couldn’t put this one down because it’s more a narrative that shows the development of the genres than a dry reference book. Another plus is that this one is written from the British point of view, making it a good complement to the books from Collector’s Press.

Only a tiny thing jarred, but I suppose that’s down more to having to write to the era than any fault of the authors: at times, the role of women in the genre was a bit forced. This is unfortunate because it was unnecessary: Fantasy and Horror are two genres in which you don’t need to force this issue. There are colossal women in these fields, giants of literature who stand without the need to make a separate section for them… they don’t need a special category for themselves. It’s actually counterproductive, as if the contributions of women are somehow lesser. In these genres, no one would ever believe that.

But that’s a minor nit in a thoroughly enjoyable, well-researched work which will entrance fans and educate newbies. While it doesn’t try to be an encyclopedia, it’s much more enjoyable to read than a true reference book would have been.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres including fantasy and horror. For a good look at his work in these last two, you can check out his dark fantasy collection Pale Reflection. Here’s the link.

The Sheer Brilliance of Anthony Burgess, a Droog

When we discuss the great novels of the 20th Century, we usually look at mainstream or literary fiction. We talk about The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, The Sun Also Rises, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses and anything by Hemingway. To that list, I’d add The Remains of the Day, a near-perfect book if ever there was one.

But science fiction usually doesn’t make it into the conversation. Even the pieces of genre that the literati accept aren’t quite in the select group. 1984 and Brave New World fall just short, and the only other major crossover SF book, The Handmaid’s Tale, is crap (the subject is wonderfully chosen, but I would have liked to see it in the hands of someone who understood the dynamic of SF–Ursula K. Le Guin would have been wonderful).

There is one exception, one book, that, though it’s definitely science fiction, gate-crashes the conversation.

I was afraid A Clockwork Orange would be a difficult, dense read. One of the first things you learn about this book, after all, is that Burgess invented a new slang for a lot of it, and that is never fun.

But there’s something you need to remember about Burgess. He’s a virtuoso, a brilliant writer who isn’t afraid to write brilliantly. So despite the book being in unusual language, it works perfectly well. It’s a quick, almost light read.

Of course, it isn’t quite a light read, because the subject matter is a savage attack against… well, as a reader it wasn’t quite clear to me what Burgess was attacking other than the excesses of government in involving itself in people’s lives. I found it to be more of a commentary about the breakneck pace of modern lives and how it affects the subcultures involved. Answer: they get extremely violent…

Now that answer may not seem particularly groundbreaking, and in the hands of a lesser author, it wouldn’t have been. But Burgess makes it work. This book is a must-read, and I was fortunate to buy the Folio edition pictured before they ran out.

But whichever edition you can get hold of, there’s absolutely no excuse to give this one a pass unless you either hate the best books in the 20th century hate anything that looks speculatively at the future.

As an aside, this is considered Burgess’ greatest book, but it’s not my favorite. The Kingdom Of the Wicked is a romp through the ancient world which is unmatched even by Gore Vidal’s Creation. And that is saying quite a bit.

But returning to Orange, all I can say is that the very few hours you’ll spend on this one will be worth it. Sometimes it’s nice just to let a master lead you by the nose.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own vision about how society will fall apart around us can be found in the novel Outside. You can check it out here.