classic Literature

Naughtiness through the Centuries

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

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

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

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

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

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

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

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Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block – My First Time

The Girl With the Long Green Hear by Lawrence Block

It’s no real secret that I like noir, whether it be in film form or book form.  It’s just so evocative of another era and a kind of person, the hard-nosed, gritty guy who lives in the real world whether he likes it or not, who no longer exists.  As an escape from reality it’s just as fantastic as anything Tolkien ever put to paper.  Can you imagine a Millennial Sam Spade in today’s era of political correctness?  I’ll wait while you stop laughing.

So when I spotted a brand new copy of Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart in the bargain bin of a bookstore at the beach town where I usually go on vacation the same bargain bin that, a year or two earlier had disgorged a King James Bible, I snapped it up.  A bonus, at least for me was that it was a Hard Case Crime edition of the book.

As a writer, Hard Case Crime is on my radar as the first publisher to send any noir novels I might happen to write (I don’t write a ton of crime fiction, but if I do…), but as a reader, I just love their selection.  More importantly, though I love their covers.  They hearken back to the golden era of lurid art featuring scantily clad women and/or dead bodies, all tied together by excellent design work with the right sensibilities.

Block, on the other hand, was new to me.  I’d read the classics Hammett, Spillane, McDonald etc., but not the bread-and-butter crime writers of the era, especially not from the sixties.

I think I’ve been missing out… a quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the man is worth reading, although this is probably not his best book.  Nevertheless, it is a great example of its kind.  A couple of con men get into a deal with no real idea of where they really stand…  it’s grim and doesn’t pull any punches, but also hopeful in a twisted sort of way.

I think what I like most about crime fiction is that it doesn’t try to judge or moralize.  It tells the story (often in the first person), as the protagonists would have told it, not as a well-educated writer might see it.

And that is what allows the escape to be fully realized.  And this one works perfectly in that sense.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Ice Station: Death, is a creature feature thriller set in Antarctica.  You can buy it here.

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Philip K. Dick Debut

OK, we’ve all seen Blade Runner.  Most of us have also watched the sequel… I remember liking it when I watched it.  The thing is that the movie, in my mind, is more of a collection of sensations, generating the same kind of feeling that noir film of the thirties did, than something I analyze as a piece of science fiction.

Now, I’ve read every major SF writer out there, in depth and in detail… except for Philip K. Dick.  Why?  I’m not sure.  I’ve had the Library of America PKD collection in my shopping cart for about a decade, but it always seems to get bumped out by something newer and shinier.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

But on my birthday a year ago, a friend gifted me A Maze of Death, one of his novels.

Let’s be clear, this book is not the conventional door into Dick.  That would probably be the novella that engendered Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Additionally, this is a dark book, whose central theme–as foreshadowed by the title–is the human propensity to cause other people’s deaths.

So what did I think?

This boy has potential.  If even one of his minor works is so intriguing, I can’t help but think that his classics must be amazing indeed.

So let’s have a look at this one.  Without being overly spoilery, this one has three separate layers of reality all transpiring concurrently, of which one, in what, from what I’ve read online, is a typical display of Dick’s sense of humor, is only evident in the chapter list.

The book is interesting more on an intellectual level than as a typical literary enterprise.  The characters are, to put it mildly, unlikable, and they die in mostly uninspiring ways.  Nevertheless, the reader is always kept engaged by the underlying mystery.

The style–perhaps intentionally, I won’t be able to judge fully until I read more of the man’s work–reminds me more of the work of the fifties than the seventies.  It’s reminiscent of A Case of Conscience, or even Mission of Gravity.

So, as a corporate boss might say, this is a good start.  I still need to get my act together and read the meat of his output in order to give my loyal readers a better picture.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own exploration of the human psyche is strongest in his novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

The Great American SpecFic Novel

A few years ago, another writer compared me to Neil Gaiman.

That is the kind of thing that makes writers nervous.  Gaiman, of course, is almost universally revered as one of the masters of the craft.  One might not like his stories per se, but no one doubts his ability or his magnificent talent.  So comparisons with Gaiman tend to take the following form: “Unlike Neil Gaiman’s wonderful work, this writer’s tale…”

Fortunately, this particular writer only commented about the similarity of my hair in a photograph to the good Mr. Gaiman’s.  Even so, it was assumed that I was following in his footsteps…  If I recall correctly, the exact phrase was “did you steal Neil Gaiman’s hair?”  That is the power of Gaiman.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve reviewed Gaiman’s work here before, but, as I mentioned then, still had to sink my teeth into his meatier offerings.  The Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods is about as meaty as they come.

So, does the man live up to the hype?  In a word, yes.

The talent is there.  The craft is there.  The concept of down-at-the-heels gods isn’t particularly new, of course (if you’ve read Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, you’ll know exactly what I mean… and if you haven’t, do so immediately) but Gaiman creates a novel of ideas out of this particular well-plowed field.

It’s a big book in more than just heft.  The title of this post is not whimsical.  If we ever do get the Great American Novel, it will likely be structured in a similar way to this one.  It’s a road movie of a book, a sprawling exploration of what America means.  If it’s seen through the eyes of a foreigner, then all the better.  Lolita didn’t suffer for that, and American Gods doesn’t, either.

It’s a book that’s hard to put down, with a compelling plot driving it relentlessly forward, but that’s not what makes it great.  The greatness is in the little things, wonderfully turned phrases and scenes that, though slightly off from reality, are perfectly realized.  Some of those scenes promise to stick in the memory for a long, long time.

In conclusion?  You may or may not like this book, but you will agree with Gaiman apologists that the man deserves the accolades.  The craft and the talent herein are impeccable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose gods also sometimes walk the earth, particularly in his novel of ancient Greece, The Malakiad.  You can check it out here.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

The Science Fiction of JRR Tolkien

Yes, I was surprised too.  Tolkien isn’t supposed to be a science fiction writer.  The received wisdom is that he left such trifles to the other Inklings, notably C.S. Lewis, who was a moderately successful exponent of the genre.

However, Papa Tolkien was more interested in SF than most modern students of his work know, and his fascination for the forms of the genre come through in a little-known work entitled The Notion Club Papers.

Interestingly, I came upon this piece not through a search for Tolkien’s SF but because several versions of The Notion Club Papers are included in Sauron Defeated, the ninth installment of The History of Middle Earth, which is also Volume 4 of the History of the Lord of the Rings.  To add to the fun, The Notion Club Papers is part of The History of Middle Earth, but Unrelated to The Lord of the Rings, despite being concurrently with it.  Confused yet?

sauron defeated_christopher tolkien

And while the text is related to the goings-on in Middle-Earth, and therefore possibly fantasy, the framework in which it’s couched is definitely SF.  The story is that the papers are “discovered” in the 21st century after having been composed–documenting the goings-on of a club similar to the Inklings–in the 1980s.  Both of these dates were in Tolkien’s future, of course.

The most interesting part of the papers (aside from the way they segue into the Silmarillion story) is a discussion about the fact that science fiction fails as a genre because the need for a space-ship defies the suspension of disbelief.  Science Fiction (called scientifiction throughout) has merit as a way to explore societies real ills through the lens of a different world, but the act of getting to that other world is what destroys the illusion.

The conclusion they reach is that the only realistic way to reach far-off lands is to travel in the mind, in dreams or somesuch.

That’s a head-scratcher for sure, but there you go.

All in all, this is a brilliant piece of insight into Tolkien’s thinking, and, as a bonus, it also includes the concluding textual history of The Return of the King (see here for more), as well as some other texts linked to the Silmarillion story.

But, after reading his SF, it’s just as well that old Papa Tolkien concentrated on fantasy…  his talents weren’t in the scientifiction realm.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a thriller entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.