classic Literature

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

Those following along will remember that the last two Agatha Christie novels we reviewed here were Tommy and Tuppence vehicles.  You can see my take here and here.

These are not the books that made Christie famous.  Not by a long shot.

But, like finding a glass of water in the desert, one appreciates her great work more by exposure to the arid wasteland.  And when Poirot returns, rejoicing ensues.

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it was the rebound effect, but I found Evil Under the Sun to be a near-perfect murder mystery.  It has everything you want from Agatha Christie: a secluded location, a group of people with motives for killing the victim, wonderful red herrings and a resolution that depends on the psychology of the victim.

It’s a simply beautiful piece of mystery fiction and blows away the boring image of the Tommy and Tuppence books.  I suppose the reason it works so well is that the setting is comfortable and familiar, and that the possibility of the reader guessing the murderer exists (though that is never necessarily Christie’s strongest suit in my experience).  The clues in this one exist… but you don’t necessarily manage to put them together until Poirot explains them.

So THIS is classic Queen of Crime, and if you’ve already read The Murder of Roger Akroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, this is a good choice for continued reading.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write whodunnits, but his book timeless is a sexy, fast-paced thriller.  You can check it out here.

Tommy and Tuppence Again

I recently reviewed an Agatha Christie book entitled Postern of Fate.  Its main characters are a married couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are serial Christie protagonists.  Unfortunately, they are not the most interesting of her creations.  Poirot, to take her most important protagonists as an example, they most certainly are not.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

The main problem is that she breaks her own formula (after decades, I imagine she was ready for a change).  Instead of giving us the characters and then murdering one of them and then sifting–with the reader watching over her shoulder–the nuggets of information from the red herrings, these stories involve long-buried mysteries and the criminal ends up being someone we don’t particularly care about.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs is better than Postern of Fate in that, unlike the latter, at least all the actors are involved in the book.  There aren’t any last-minute additions that make no sense.

But we don’t actually care about the resolution.  A murder mystery should involve the reader and this one doesn’t.  The only characters we care about are Tommy and Tuppence, while everyone else is just there to play a part, often a strangely twisted part that throws you off.  The resolution, though surprising, is not enough to raise this one to the Queen of Crime’s usual standards.

The contrast with Christie’s usual technique of doing nuanced psychological studies of the people surrounding the detective(s) is what makes this particular volume, though pleasant reading, one for Christie completists only.

There’s a reason Poirot and Marple are better known.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own thriller–most certainly NOT a cozy mystery–is called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

The Long Shadow of Coincidence

It’s unusual for me not to enjoy an Agatha Christie book.  Most of them are really good, and I’ve only found one that I really didn’t like.

Now, I can add one that wasn’t bad, just mediocre, to the list.

Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie

If this book is typical (it may not be) Tommy and Tuppence are certainly not among Christie’s greatest creation.  They certainly didn’t inspire me anywhere near as much as a Marple adventure would, and we can’t even begin to compare them to the great Poirot.

The one good thing you can say about this book is that Christie’s overarching mastery of both the craft of writing and literature itself comes to the fore and makes the act of reading pleasurable, kind of like digging for diamonds.  Had work, but ultimately profitable.

Unfortunately, the mystery itself is well-titled.  Fate intervenes when a house purchase leads the duo to an ancient mystery with ramifications that come to the present day (1974 in this particular case).

With the victim dead ages ago, the plot loses some of its immediacy, and the ending was ultimately unsatisfying.  There is no way for the reader to try to guess who the guilty parties are… because the shadowy people behind everything don’t appear and are never named.

Definitely one of her weaker books, albeit one that is extremely erudite.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own foray into crime fiction, Timeless is a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

A Magazine About Creating Beauty

One of the nice things abut buying books from Folio Society is that they send you little gifts with the books.  My personal favorite is the annual Folio Diary, but another wonderful little gift is Folio, the company’s magazine.

Folio Magazine - August 2018

This magazine is about what you’d expect from the house organ of a company dedicated to creating beautiful publications (and one which I’ve featured before).  It’s a bit of an advertising piece disguised as a self-indulgent series of interviews of creators, behind-the-scenes look at how the final products are made and paeans to the finished product.

It is an utterly wonderful read.

The images of Folio artwork in this edition (Autumn 2018), are wonderful.  The central topic is the Folio edition of Atlas Shrugged, which, love it or loathe it, is undoubtedly a hugely important book that seems even more relevant to political discourse today than when it was first published.  Politics aside, Folio’s artwork is a wink and a nod to the era in which it was published, and takes us back to the glories of the Art Deco age.  It’s like standing in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

But that’s not the only article.  Food, mythological beasts and murder mysteries are all illustrated in the pages of this publication, because they are also illustrated in the books the magazine is trying to sell.  You get a look at the creative process behind the art, a guided tour given by editors and just a general sense of the loving way the books are put together.

Probably the most effective piece of advertising I’ve ever been exposed to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary collection of linked short stories is entitled Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

A Reasonable Voice from the Past

As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague.  My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.

I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see.  The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all.  Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes.  Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.

All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.

And it’s always been that way.  It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.

No one would say these were measured strikes.  But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.

Down and Out in Paris And London - George Orwell

Which neatly brings us to this.  Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda.  But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.

He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs.  The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident.  Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).

In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also  remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments.  Remember those days?  Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).

Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released.  There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates.  Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.

The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong).  I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper.  Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.

Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers.  You can buy it here.

A Wonderful Cultural History Lesson

Several years ago–long before this blog was born–I stumbled upon a series of books that i absolutely love and that I dip into every once in a while, although I know them basically by heart.

These books were published in the early 2000s by Collector’s Press (which I can’t seem to find today, so perhaps they no longer exist): Fantasy of the Twentieth Century and Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  The fantasy volume in particular is spectacularly well-thought out, but both are good.

But I needed to complete the genre set.

Horror of the 20th Century.jpg

Horror of the Twentieth Century, written by Robert Weinberg, didn’t let me down.  Although it wasn’t quite up to the Fantasy volume (I am in awe of that one, it’s a wonderful history), it does an excellent job of tracking the literary and cinematic fortunes of the horror genre through the 1900s (and with a bit of history to set the stage).

Of the three genres, Horror is probably the one that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century survived because of the movies, and that is reflected particularly well in this book.  Also, the horror boom and crash are looked at long and hard, which is key to understanding the genre today.

Since I’m not a collector, the text is as important as the images here, but as a writer, it’s always fun to fantasize about what would have happened if I’d been active in any of the eras described within.  Would this or that Weird Tales cover have had my name on it, or, better still would I have rated a Hannes Bok cover painting?  Reading these books creates a tangible feeling of connection with the men and women writing in bygone eras, sometimes even more than reading the stories did.

For readers who aren’t writers, these books are just as good (probably even better, as there’s no pressure to compare yourself to the heroes of the past…) and it’s the kind of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelves whenever you have a few minutes of free time and the novel you’re reading just isn’t as engrossing as you wanted.

In short, this is a great primer for those just getting in to any of these genres, but it’s also the stuff experts’ dreams are made of.

Hugely recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a collection of dark fiction which would fit beautifully within the volume we’re discussing.  It’s called Pale Reflection and you can buy it here.

The Origin of the Wonder

Readers of this blog know that I have a serious soft spot for the writing of Gerard Durrell, a man I’ve always considered the ultimate eccentric, as well as the ultimate civilized human.  Reading one of his books is to leave angry political discourse on Twitter–what I consider to be the ultimate lack of civilization–far behind.

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell.jpg

My family and Other Animals, part of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy is a particularly lovely read because it tells the story of a period of years which he spent on Corfu as a boy of ten to about fourteen years old.  It shows how his already-present love of animals and the natural world flourished in this formative age.

Better still, the tale is told by Durrell who has one of the greatest eyes for the odd and not-quite-sane that I’ve ever encountered.  despite his obvious affection for his family and friends on the island, he leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that they are all at least slightly nuts.

As I was reading (locked in coronavirus quarantine), I looked at the children around us, obsessed with their devices and wondered, not for the first time, if modern idiocy is the fault of kids who who lost their way before becoming adults or helicopter parents who didn’t let them collect scorpions when they were eleven.  Or row out to sea in a homemade boat as a pre-teen.

I blame the parents but, that aside, it’s wonderful to see how independent children used to be before he world went stupid, and this book illustrates it gloriously.  From one anecdote to the next, a sense of the slightly unreal, despite the fact that every single one of these events happened, probably exactly as described, permeates the book.

If, like me, you’re stuck inside during these strange days, I recommend giving this one–or any Durrell–a go.  He has the rare ability to completely remove your surroundings and take you outdoors.

And this one takes you to a Greek island for the cost of a paperback and without coronavirus risk.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose book set in Greece is very different from the one described above.  It’s a fast-paced sexy thriller called timeless, and you can buy it here.

A Comfortable Book (and that famous dangling O)

As a fiction writer, and one well-published in literary short fiction, I’ve been aware of O Henry forever, but this is the first time I picked up one of the collected volumes of short fiction awarded the annual O Henry Awards.

O Henry Awards 1988

The one I picked up was the 1988 volume, and I was lucky in that it contained stories by Raymond Carver (the grand prize winner), Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.  It’s tempting to say that these stories were the highlight of the book, just to prove that I know good fiction when I read it, but that wouldn’t be the case.  Other than the Carver, which did stand out because it was very much different, the others were about par for the book–even the Updike’s narrative style became familiar with the passing of the pages.

The thing that surprised me about these stories is how familiar they felt. Except for a few notable exceptions (the Carver again) these stories deal with life on a very small scale, looking at petty infidelities, tempests in the teacup of a small community and sordid little prejudices.

Yes, they can deal with the less-attractive side of the human condition, but they are also comfortable.  The people are not just like the ones you see on the street and at the laundromat, but they might actually be those same people.  It wouldn’t be the first time a writer put a real-life person on a page without telling anyone.  Dipping into this book for a story at a time was like visiting an old friend or wearing a well-stretched pair of shoes.

As a reader, I enjoyed it, much as you might enjoy an afternoon on a rocking chain on th eporch, but as a writer, I found the whole thing a bit puzzling.  The stories were well (often masterfully) written, but there seemed to be little point to them, and the endings were far from satisfying in most cases.

I tend to remember Hemingway, who never wrote about trifles.  He went deep into important things even in his short fiction.  The work sticks with you.

And that is also what I try to do when I write any sort of ficion. I see no reason for literary fiction to be an exception.  I read or heard somewhere that the only two things worth writing about are love and death, so that’s usually where I focus.  Readers and critics will define whether my attempts are successful or not, but at least I try.  Hell, I even titled my first literary collection Love and Death.

Love and Death by Gustavo Bondoni_3d

But these stories deal with neither.  They deal with anecdote and unremarkable people (there is only one story about a murderer in the whole thing, and he is only an accidental killer) doing mainly unremarkable things and giving us the tail, tame end of the journey Joyce and Woolf started in stream-of-consciousness narrative.

It certainly works from a reader’s perspective, taking me to a comfortable world of others’ creation.  I wonder if this is what the writers intended.  I also wonder how I’d have felt if I read these same tales in 1988.  Might the confort factor be brought on by rose-tinted remembraces of the Howard Jones decade?  Perhaps.  Most modern litfic fills me with either annoyance or ennui, but perhaps if I reread in 2050, I might feel nostalgic about how everyone was going on and on about pronouns and health care woes.  Who knows?

Anyway, I recommend this one as a pleasant read without the sharp edges that Hemingway’s work still has even after more than just thirty years.  You will enjoy the stories calmly, and often marvel at the writing… which is always a good thing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Quite a bit of his literary short work is collected in Love and Death.  It isn’t comfortable and is full of sharp edges.  You can buy it here.

So it Wasn’t Aliens After All

Thor Heyerdahl isn’t exactly a household nametoday, but readers of National Geographic in the second half of will remember his particular brand of science.  Essentially, he was the precursor of the Mythbusters, except he didn’t use a safety net.  His crazy experiments were extreme examples of science at work.

And they were fascinating.  From the perusal of an National Geographic in grade school–already old when I saw it–I was aware of the Ra expeditions in which he tried to sail across the Atlantic in a boat of ancient Egyptian design.

Apparently, he also sailed from the American coast to Polynesia on a raft of even more ancient design.  That takes a certain amount of balls.

Aku-Aku - Thor Heyerdahl.jpg

What brings us here today, however, is his 1950s expedition to Easter Island (and other places as well, but Easter Island, as you can see from the cover, is the main course).  The book is entitled Aku-Aku, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into what happens when an archaeological expedition is led by someone who thinks outside the box.

Now, before we talk about the aliens, I want to say that I don’t think I could ever be an archaeologist.  Though I’m not claustrophobic, I would not willingly jam myself into a cave where I can only advance by shrugging my shoulders.  Not for a few ancient artifacts, anyway.

Heyerdahl does this quite often.

But he also teaches us about how an archaeological expedition to cultural sites with a nearly westernized local population was run in the 1950s.  It’s interesting to see the combination of sensitivity to local people while at the same time recognizing and acknowledging that superstitions and certain behaviors belong to the past for a reason.  I wonder if a modern expedition would be that honest.

If you enjoy archaeology, or learning about ancient civilizations, this book is a good read.  Not necessarily a textual joy (although I can’t comment on the merits of the original Norwegian version), but a wonderful look at a team obsessed with looking into the past.

Now, some of Heyerdahl’s conclusions about the origin of the Easter Island natives has been challenged by a genetic study (limited in scope, so there may be hope yet), but one thing is no longer in doubt: aliens had nothing to do with the construction or transport of the island’s famed stone faces.

Essentially, he just told one of the townsfolk on the island descended from the statue-building part of the population that he’d give him a hundred dollars if he stood one of the stones in its pedestal.

So the man did. I won’t tell you how because that is the ultimate spoiler for this book, but the method he used was something that any ancient civilization with access to rocks and a dozen workers could have managed.

When asked to show how the huge stone blocks could have been transported, they used an equally simple and ingenious method.

While this doesn’t prove that the method illustrated is necessarily the one that was employed, it makes it clear that anyone insisting that aliens had something to do with this is worse than a kook… he is an ignorant kook!

So if any of that seems like it might interest you.  Go forth and get yourself a copy.  You’ll enjoy it.

At the very least you can show the photos to your local alien apologist and watch him go into deep denial.  That should be worth the price of admission.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel Timeless serves as an outlet for his love of ancient culture.  Set in a monastery complex in Greece, it’s a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can check it out here.

A Book about England by the Man Who Scooped the King Tut Tomb Opening

I bought a bunch of used books at my local Anglican church about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working my way through the ones I decided to keep.  The nice part about doing this kind of thing is that I invariably end up with loads of books I would never have bought anywhere else.  Lesser work by authors I’m already familiar with (such as Barnaby Rudge or Silas Marner) and books by writers I’d never heard of before lead the list.

Today’s entry is of the second kind.  When I picked up In Search of England, by H.V. (Henry Volland) Morton, I had never heard of book or author.  But I can’t resist a book which promised a tour of the English countryside, so I saved it as a keeper.

In Search of England - HV Morton.jpg

It was a good choice.  The first thing I noticed is that, unlike Laurens van der Post, who was a workmanlike writer with an emotional bent that makes his work special, Morton is a virtuoso of the pen whose broad historical background made me (as a writer), shake my head in admiration.

But even if he’d been a lesser mortal, the subject is so charming that it would have warranted a place on my shelves.

The story is an account of an automobile journey that Morton undertook around 1926 (the book itself was published in 1927) which started in London and followed, roughly, the contour of England (it ventured into Scotland only following an interesting historical anomaly and only for a few miles).

In search of England Interior.jpg

Avoiding many of today’s tourist traps, the narrative focuses on the villages and unique quirks that make England so special.  The Furry Dance in Helston (there are no people dressed as animals, strangely), and the Chester Rows are prime examples, as are churches large and small and the Bristol Camera Obscura, which I need to write a detective story about.

Of course, he also covers the larger stuff such as Bath or Hadrian’s wall, but he does so with a historian’s eye to minutiae that others would simply pass by.  In each place, he endeavors to tell us something that the average tourist would never learn… and it’s wonderful.

The most poignant part of it all is when he stands on Hadrian’s wall and looks out over Scotland.  You can almost feel the weight of the Roman Empire pushing on your back, and the darkness of the unknown ahead.  Immensely good writing.

As a travel journal, it still holds up today.  By concentrating on things with roots deep in history, Morton manages to avoid the problems of old guide books.  He almost doesn’t mention hotels, gas stations or other stuff that have been superseded by modern life.

It was only after I finished reading and went onto the internet to investigate his life did I learn that both Morton and his “In search of…” series were (or are, depending on your interests) very famous.

Morton, it turns out, was the journalist on the scene when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, and managed to scoop the Times.  In 1923 scooping The Times was a big deal… and Morton became an instant celebrity.  That’s the kind of serendipitous discovery you never make when buying on Amazon or B&N… and it means I’ll continue to peruse the shelves of unlikely places for overlooked gems.

And the series? It was a bestseller in its day and is still in print today.

Well-deserved.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with hundreds of published stories to his name, as well as several books.  His latest book is perfect for anyone who loves to discover relatively unknown quirks of distant cultures. It’s called Pale Reflection, and Morton would have loved it.  We think you will, too, so check it out here.