classic Literature

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

A Book Worthy of the Accolades in an Edition Worthy of the Book

I only bought this one because it was a leather-bound Harvard Classics edition of a book I’d read about more than once, and because it was priced to move at a used book store.

When it cycled to the top of my to-read pile, I was a little afraid that it might be a slog.  After all, a sailor’s memoir from 1840 would likely be in slightly archaic English and contain a lot of technical terms.

But I still read it, and Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast can only be described with one word: Wonderful.

Dana - Two Years Before the Mast

We live in an era that attempts to disparage the literary work that has come before.  We might be too cool to read that stuff, or we might have strange political beliefs that lead us to deny the enormous value of the great books just because they’re written by white guys (as if that affected the quality somehow).  Maybe (as was my case) we’re so caught up with fast-paced modern literature that a dip into the past would slow our roll.

But this one immediately does one of the things that literature is supposed to do: it immediately transports you to another time and place.  In this case, the merchant navy of the first half of the 19th Century and a completely alien, deserted, California coast.

It’s one of those tomes which underlines the difference between books that are merely good, perhaps even those that create great emotional responses, and those that are truly great, the books that not only play to the emotions–which this one does–but also engage the intellect.  A third quality, unintentional, is that it documents something an age disappeared much faster than anyone around ever thought would happen.

With regards to this last bit, I recommend trying to find an edition which has a section entitled “Twenty-Four Years After”, which, as the name says, was written much later and gives a fascinating rundown on the what happened next for the places, people and ships referenced in the main text.  That bit makes it even more wonderful.

As many of you know my preference for beautiful books, it will probably come as no surprise that my recommendation is that you try to get hold of a copy of the Harvard Classics edition (these appear to be going for $10 with free shipping on Ebay as I type, so it might even be cheaper than buying from Amazon.

And the leather, in this case, might even make the experience more genuine.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is the somewhat nautical Ice Station Death.  Well, there’s a ship in it which goes near where Dana was nearly two centuries ago.  You can check it out here.

 

The King of Planets, Anthologized

Something I always look for when perusing used bookstores are science fiction anthologies.  Partially, this is because, as a short story writer, it’s useful to see what’s come before, but mainly because I really enjoy reading short fiction, especially the stuff published until about 1990 or so, when the genre was focused more on entertainment than anything else.

It’s not unusual to encounter incredible stories forgotten in the pages of some battered mass market paperback, and that discovery is always wonderful.  So my bookshelves are kind of packed with random anthologies chosen for no other reason than that I found them on a shelf at some point.

The latest in this quixotic quest was the 1973 antho Jupiter, edited by Frederick and Carol Pohl, which included colossi like Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Simak, Weinbaum, Anderson, and del Rey.  Only two stories were by authors whose name I failed to recognize immediately.

Jupiter - Carol and Frederick Pohl

But the names, amazingly, are secondary.  The most interesting part of this one is the date.  1973.  Jupiter was just being explored, then.  The major NASA probes were on their way, but enough had been discovered to remove any possibility of the pre-war sword & planet tales being possible.  By 1973, everyone knew that the gas giants had atmospheres at least a few hundred kilometers thick and that any surface activity would need to take place under horrendous pressures and in chemically difficult conditions.

And yet even the more modern stories in the antho assume that there is a surface that can be used under the atmosphere–thinking that today’s discoveries have ruled out.  Which means that, even though there’s a certain amount to modern feel to the tales, the fact that many of them take place on the surface of Jupiter gives them a bit of a sword & planet feel anyway.  We know this isn’t how it is, and the story is superseded by reality.

That doesn’t stop one from enjoying them anyway and, as is often the case, the very best of them in my opinion was Lester del Rey’s “Habit”.  I’ve always thought del Rey to be enormously underrated–whenever he has a story in a volume with the real heavyweights, it usually holds its own or better.

Second place goes to Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa”.  This one, while not as entertaining as the del Rey, is imbued with the spectacular sense of wonder that the best SF stories always have.  Clarke was a true master of the form.

Overall, however, this one, though entertaining, is for completists and people who don’t mind reading stories that science has since left behind (interestingly, the Clarke and the del Rey, my two favorites, were also the ones that could be published today with little modification, as none of the story depends on old science).  Good, but not great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection of short fiction (none of them based on old science yet) is entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out (and hopefully buy it) here.

A Classic Format: Ace Doubles Revisited

From the 1950s to the 1970s Ace Doubles were a staple of science fiction publishing, and it was a good thing.  There were hundreds (possibly thousands?) of these books published.

For those unfamiliar with the series, these books have a tête-bêche format with spectacular pulp-style covers.  They contain two novels, and two “front” covers, so flipping the book over gives the impression of going from one book to the next.

I often wonder why the science fiction that is currently winning awards (the Hugos, at least) is utterly obscure and unpopular while everyone flocked to the stuff in the ’50s.  One reason, of course, is the inane, spectacularly boring political content that seems to attract prizes.  But another must be the pretentiousness, the utter horror of using a cover that the reading public might find attractive or exciting.

(I’m not trying to say no one is buying SF.  But I just don’t see the stuff the genre intelligentsia are trying to foist on us at Barnes & Noble… and B&N, having skin in the game, knows what sells and what doesn’t.  Apparently, it’s James S. A. Corey).

And when you read an Ace Double, you’re reminded of the good times.

Of course, with so many to choose from, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be good.  But I still pulled one at random from a local used book store and waded in, ready for whatever wonders (or horrors) of plot and prose awaited within.

I ended up with Ace Double D-351, and read The Sun Smasher first, as the title seemed to promise less than the other, Starhaven.

Ace Double 351 - The Sun Smasher by Edmond Hamilton

If my objective was to save the best for last, I probably should have read them in the other order.  Edmond Hamilton was a great writer (something I should have remembered because I’ve read a lot of his stuff), and he weaves a tight action story.  Predictable and dated?  Perhaps.  But we’ve had sixty years to catch up with the events of his novel, and both the main character and the way the plot was resolved still seemed fresh after all these years.  The Sun Smasher is an excellent short novel.

Ace Double D-351 - Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson

Apparently, this one’s author, Ivar Jorgenson is a pseudonym for Paul W. Fairman, but why he should have chosen to publish this one without attribution is a mystery.  Starhaven is a solid tale in the 1950’s mold where a clean-cut hero saves the day and gets the girl.  Wonderful stuff, and interesting in the way it plays with what morality looks like.

Binding these two short novels together is (and I don’t want to give any spoilers) a sense of hidden identity of the characters.  Neither of the heroes knows who he really is at the outset of the narrative, and that discovery–and subversion of the identity–is the key to both plots.

Very fun to read.  Also, I was delighted to get hold of this one because I’ve always felt that, if you’ve never read an Ace Double, your genre street cred is lower than it could be otherwise.

Anyway, they’re dirt cheap.  Find one and read it if you want to remember why people like SF.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Argentina.  His most popular book is a deep-space novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

 

 

The Father of the Road Novel Genre

On the Road.  It’s a classic of global literature written by a man who decided to create a genre just because he was a bit rough and broken around the edges.  He is Jack Kerouac, and his genre is, of course, Beat.

On the Road Jack Kerouac

What’s interesting about the word “beat” is that, despite my belief that it had something to do with musical rhythm, perhaps as expressed in Ginsburg’s poetry, the true origin of the word is a completely different usage, more akin to the phrase “I’m beat.”

So, to get the real experience of this novel where men and women travel across the country several times with nothing but a bit of food money in their pocket when they set out, I should probably have read the book in a demolished paperback found at a charity store.

I didn’t.  I read it in a beautiful Folio Society edition (pictured above), and am happy to say that I don’t regret it in the least.  Reading about hardship in a luxury edition is somehow decadent in a way that the Beats–judging by how they acted when they had money–would have appreciated.

Anyhow, onto the book itself.

This one shares a problem with many seminal works: it’s been done over and over again, and the people who came after built on the good parts of Kerouac to refine the genre.  Nevertheless, it’s still an un-put-down-able piece of literature, and I was genuinely saddened when it ended.

Simply stated, it bridged the generational gap between postwar youth and what I remember from being the same age: the same sense of adventure, the same preoccupations (with girls and sex, mostly), and the same questions regarding what life was actually about.  That’s the reason the book is a timeless classic, and will remain so as long as late teens and twenty-something are allowed to be wild and free.

It’s also a wonderful celebration of youthful freedom, one that, seen from the point of view of a world in which the freedoms that adults enjoy are ever more regulated by a well-meaning society hell bent on protecting people from themselves, is hugely refreshing.  Through Sal Paradise and his accomplices, we vicariously enjoy that wonderful age where everything seemed possible, even if it wasn’t strictly legal or morally correct.

If you haven’t read this one, you are missing an essential part of the American experience.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He works in several genres, and his most recent work of mainstream literature is a book called Love and Death, which you can buy here.

Boring on a Large Scale, Well Done on the Small Stage

I always thought that a well-written story could pretty much overcome any apathy towards the subject matter itself.  Hell, if you think of the stakes of the last book you read, odds are that they only matter to the characters themselves.

And yet, when reading Arthur Hailey’s novel In High Places, the major stakes were essentially the possibility of Canada combining a good chunk of its sovereignty with the US.  It was written from the Canadian point of view, and it’s pretty safe to say everyone was gravely concerned with the possibility that things might go one way or the other.

Authur Hailey - In High Places

Um… Yawn.

Canada’s fate failed to inspire even the slightest interest.  I couldn’t care less, so the main political cut and thrust of the book lost a lot of its strength.

Fortunately, there was a subplot which affected the larger events in which a young lawyer attempted to win a court case against all odds.  That held my interest sufficiently that I was able to finish the book in a reasonable amount of time.

Hailey sold a ton of books (including the later-filmed Airport), so I suppose a lot of people cared about his subjects and I’m in the minority here, but this one didn’t do much for me at all…

Apparently, political intrigue of great moment to Canadians is my threshold for stuff that actually IS too uninteresting to read about, even in the hands of a master page-turner of a novelist.

This one allowed me to discover more about myself than about the book.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest book is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  It’s entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can buy it here.

Sometimes, a Wonderful Story Catches you by Surprise

So I’ve been reading through my pile of 1970s paperbacks.  The last one in the lot seemed different.  While the book itself was a 1970s paperback (actually 1967, but who’s counting?) with all the production values therein, the text itself appeared to be a war book from Eastern Europe, or a novel in the Dostoyevsky tradition.  The book was entitled The Bridge on the Drina–which made me think of a battle for that bridge.  The author?  Ivo Andrić.

The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić

I’d never heard of either, so I read the back cover.  Turns out Andrić was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.  That did little to reassure me.  Nobel laureates have written some truly stultifying and ponderous works, and they were often selected more for ideological reasons than for actual literary merit (ask Borges’ ghost why he was never selected, and you’ll understand what I mean)… and Andrić was an official in communist Yugoslavia.

Uh-oh.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set out to read this one.

No need.  I am here to tell you that, on this particular occasion, the committee got it right (although Andrić was selected over JRR Tolkien that year, which I think, in hindsight, was a mistake seeing how pervasive Tolkien has become as a cultural reference point).

The title gives away the story–the book is about the bridge that crosses the river Drina at the town of Višegrad, in Bosnia.  The thread that links the story together is actually the bridge itself.  Characters revolve around it, and it anchors nearly four hundred years of Bosnian, Serb, Turkish and Austrian history.  If you’ve ever read a James A. Michener novel, you’ll know how that works.

Characters come and go, their lives, their hopes, their loves and their dreams flickering on and off like a firefly as the constant stone of the bridge remains the rock that even the violent floods from off the mountain can never erode.

It is also the backdrop to tell of the turbulent political and colonial history of the Balkan region.

As a man who chronicled such things, the greatest of all Yugoslav writers was controversial everywhere after the breakup of the country into the smaller nations we know today.  Banned both in Bosnia and Croatia, his work has only recently come out from under the cloud.

But the bridge is bigger than the pettiness of politics.  It’s a character that you end up caring for possibly even more than you care for the humans who walk across its length.   When it is mined and partially blown up at the end of the book, you will lose a tear or two to that damaged stone.

The Bridge on the Drina

But, like the book itself, and the author’s legacy, the bridge is still there.  Rebuilt exactly as it was in 1914, when its center section was blown up.

Earlier this year, I sat down to write a few hundred words at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child.  As literary pilgrimages go, it’s one of the greatest possible.

But now, I find myself wondering how difficult it might be to get to a little town in Bosnia to sit at the sofa on the kapia of a bridge that crosses a mountain river near the Serb border and write a few words, perhaps a short story.  Perhaps the history of the stones could seep into my writing as well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize (people who write monster books seldom do), but if he does, the book that will set him on his way is the literary collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

A Perfect Example of a Seventies Paperback

The next book in my reading of that pile of paperbacks from the (mostly) seventies is Morris West’s The Concubine.  And I can’t think of a better example of the breed.

Morris West - The Concubine

To start with, the naked woman on the cover just shouts 70s to me (even though, to be fair, this edition was released in 1969, although my own copy was of the 1973 printing).  Naked lady, huge yellow flower.  Yep, the seventies.

And then you get to the book.  I went into it thinking I was heading into another super-sexy adventure like the Rosemary Rogers book, but I was wrong.  This one was a thriller about an Irish oilman who falls for another man’s woman while on a criminal job in the islands of southern Asia.  And it takes up the torch for fun reading again–reminding us of the days when books were fun and very much not politically correct.

This one has the added interest of having been written in 1958, at a time when the far east still had a frontier-like quality to it, replacing the Wild West at a time when the actual Wild West was being lotted out into suburbs.

The ending to this particular book was so outrageous that you’ll have to read it to believe it.  Not what I was expecting, even though the writer foreshadowed it correctly… More fitting to a lost world fantasy tale from the thirties.

Interesting side note is that the novel was originally published as McReary Moves In, under the pseudonym Micheal East, only to be republished under the author’s real name when he became a bestseller…  You can’t make stuff like that up.

Anyway, a great way to spend a few hours.  Nostalgic and entertaining… as most of this pile of junk books was.

Of course, the last one in the pile won its author a Nobel prize, but that is the subject f a different post.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author who will likely never win a Nobel Prize.  When people ask him why he thinks he won’t win, he points at his most recent novel, Ice Station: Death and says: “That book will disqualify me for life.”  If you’d like to see why, you can check it out here.

 

Revisiting McCarthyism – Seventy Years on

The Red Scares of the immediate postwar era are notorious as twentieth-century witch hunts, and rightfully so.  There were many reasons they ended up reviled, but mainly it was because they mimicked the methods of the very people they were out to get.  When democracy looks like communism and attempts to pit neighbor against neighbor and rumor against rumor in the time-honored socialist way, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

Worse for McCarthy and his band, we now have hindsight to aid us.  We know that, even dominating half the world as they did until 1990, communism just isn’t sustainable and eventually collapses under the weight of its own grey hopelessness.  McCarthy didn’t have that advantage, or he would just have stayed home with a smug look on his face.  Or maybe that kind of personality would have annoyed a different group.

For a modern audience, it’s hard to understand what the general public would have felt at the time, or to be objective.  The weight of history (and of often left-leaning historians) has given its verdict and McCarthy has joined the ranks of the vilified.

But he had real support, from intelligent, thinking people.  And if you read into the times, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion: that McCarthy was doing a necessary job, and his true crime was ignoring due process.

A good way to analyze this kind of thing is to read the popular fiction of the day (don’t waste your time with modern revisionist stuff as they have the same preconceptions you do).

neither-five-nor-three-helen-macinnes.jpg

My demolished paperback copy of Neither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes was in the same batch of 1970s’ paperbacks I’ve been reading through lately.  Nevertheless, it was written in 1951 (also, the paperback is from 1985).  This means that we can have a taste of the 1950s with the unmistakable  experience of the crumbling acidic paper of the eighties.

But it’s the 1950s insight that matters, and MacInnes is supremely qualified to give a more accurate picture than the one that has reached us.  She was both an academic and an intelligence officer, and therefore very much attuned to the question of communism in both academic and other circles.

So even if her book offends our modern preconceptions, the smart money is on her being right and our preconceptions being wrong.  That’s especially true if you feel very strongly about the subject one way or the other.

Basically MacInnes’ book postulates that the communist party in America was going to try to gain ascendancy by taking over editorial positions in American written media and, from those jobs, select the writers and viewpoints that would be printed therein.  Our heroes, as befits a novel of the era, are out to stop them.

This is the part where the cries of McCarthyism come in, but again, I assume MacInnes was right and we are wrong.  It certainly does seem plausible.

But more than plausible, it’s prescient.  In our current world, political parties on both sides of the spectrum do exactly this.  Impartial news is nearly impossible to find, and news outlets are no longer serious because… well, because exactly the scenario MacInnes was warning us about seventy years ago has come to pass.  Try selling a story about the successful application of free market thinking to The New York Times.  Or a heartwarming story about a commune giving out free milk to Fox News.

Of course, the left is much more likely to do this kind of thing (one of the tenets of communism was that everything was done for the state and for socialism, while democracy tends to focus on self-realization first), but everyone has learned the lessons.

I recommend this book as a must-read to anyone who wants to understand the current world.  MacInnes’ heroes might have won in the book, but when you see that some people mistake The Huffington Post (or Fox News or… insert your own pet peeve here) for actual information, you realize that, in real life, the good guys lost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own take on how the world can go to hell in a digital hand basket… and of what happens after that, is called Outside.  You can check it out here.

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.