American literature

A Different Look at Early Feminism: The Bostonians

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

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Writing Adventure – Made Spectacularly Evident

There’s a rule to writing any kind of exciting fiction that says, and I paraphrase: “Put your here in a dangerous situation.  Then pile another complication on.  Then another.  Once we’re sure he will never get out, send in the zombies.”

I always thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, but in reading the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Storm Front, I found that adage to fall well short of what Butcher does to his hero.

Jim Butcher - Dresden Files - Storm Front.jpg

Normally, I’d run, not walk away from a book that goes as far over the top as this one does with regards to ratcheting up the disaster but…

But Jim Butcher has rare talent.  His prose, and consequently, Harry Dresden’s voice in your head, is amazing.  The mix of desperation about what’s going to happen to him when the other shoe finishes dropping mixed with a kind of world-weary resignation makes the book impossible to put down.  Not only do you want to see how he gets out of it (there are a LOT of books in a series called the “Dresden Files”, so you kinda know he isn’t going to become monster food in the first book), but you are also infected with a morbid curiosity as to what else Butcher is going to do to him before the end.  (Pro-tip: Butcher is imaginative and sadistic.  Never make an enemy of that guy).

A second thing that made me love as opposed to loathe this one is that the noir sensibility erases any number of sins in my mind.  Give me a first-person private eye, even a magical one, and I’m pretty much going to enjoy it no matter what else you do.

So, simply put, despite seeing what Butcher was doing (obvious as it is, even a lot of non-writers are going to spot the technique), I loved every second and exaggerated crisis of this one, right until the fiery, demonic ending worthy of the troubles he’d gone through.

Job has nothing on this guy but, if I recall correctly, the book featuring Job sold pretty well. Dresden sells amazingly well, too.

My main regret is that I’m just getting to this now.  Hell, I’ve been a fan of Glen Cook’s Garrett series since before puberty, and this one should have been a no-brainer.  Yes, Cook is funnier than Butcher, but that’s no excuse for not having checked the Dresden Files out much sooner.

I have to thank a good friend and amazing beta-reader for gifting me this one (I always read my birthday gift books, because I like to see what people who know me think I’d enjoy).  Highly recommended, but, judging by the sales numbers, I guess everyone already knew that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was well-received despite not having any magical detectives in it.  You can buy it 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.

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.

Genius Always Makes Things Better

If I spoke about a book written in the 19th century whose thinly-veiled message is that young women need to be respectful of their parents, appreciate the joys of a happy traditional home life and then added to that that the book also speaks of the love of God as the most important force in life, what would your reaction be?

Yawn?

Yeah, me too.  Except this book has become a classic.  It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and it’s wonderful.

little-women-louisa-may-alcott

It’s a children’s book, of course, or at least it was a children’s book when it was written… if published today, it would be firmly Young Adult or Even aimed at adults because children no longer read at a significant level.

The positive thing about that is that Little Women can be enjoyed by adults today without the feeling that one is reading something below one’s intellectual level.  Better still, the emotional punch this book packs hits across age groups.

Because Alcott’s genius is all about the characters.  Other than a couple of illnesses and a marriage or two, nothing that would make the plot of most other books even happens here.  It’s all about domestic life and tiny little squabbles, petty jealousies and completely plain-Jane friendships.  The acts of rebellion would have Holden Caufield, to take a name at random, scratching his head and wondering if anyone actually believes that a family could be so square (Holden’s word, not mine).

There is very little in the way of interesting events, yet you still find yourself reading, you want to know that it all comes out well for the characters, and suffer with them when it doesn’t.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

It’s not easy to make commonplace events, of interest mainly to gossiping grandmother types, gripping.  Even hampered by 150 years under the bridge, Alcott pulls it off.  She was a literary giant, and I can’t even imagine what she would be capable of if she lived today, unencumbered by the worldview of her times and circumstances.  She was supposedly a feminist in her time… you could never tell unless they told you.

Modern feminists won’t enjoy this one but, if you are the kind of person who can look past a little bit of preaching of currently unpopular values and enjoy a beautiful book, you should pick up a copy.  Because looking past the obvious can show you a work which has aged remarkably well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book The Malakiad takes place in a particularly unusual version of ancient Greece.  You can check it out here.

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.

For Those Who Like Extreme Science in their Science Fiction

Hal Clement - Penguin - Mission of Gravity

I’m on a bit of a science fiction classics binge, which is always an enjoyable place to be…  After not one but two issues of the old Astounding Stories, I moved on to Mission of Gravity, a novel which, fittingly enough, was published in Astounding in 1953.  Since then, it has appeared often in book form, and was even published by Penguin, which I have always found, albeit with a few exceptions, to be a harbinger of at least some literary merit.

This novel delivers a fascinating, if not particularly tense, tale of space exploration at the limits of known science, and takes place on a hugely massive planet spinning at a crazy rate, which does some very interesting things to the gravity.

The main characters are the inhabitants of that world, and it’s interesting to watch how they’ve adapted to the conditions prevalent on their planet and how they respond to the presence of human explorers who have a problem that they can’t solve themselves.  Making a scenario this alien believable is probably Clement’s strongest point in this book.

I’m also interested in the fact that the author doesn’t stop to explain the physics.  If you don’t know how to recognize the symptoms of high spin or the effects of high gravity, then you’ll miss a whole lot of this.  Perhaps the book was most interesting as an indictment of today’s more lenient and easier education systems.  Sixty years ago, authors assumed science knowledge that would cause a lot of genre readers to stumble and grumble today.  Ouch.

Anyhow, it does dive into science, so might not be everyone’s cup of tea in this slipstream and “soft science is just as respectable as hard science” day and age, but it’s certainly a shining example of the breed.  And unlike the character studies currently in vogue, I’ll actually remember this one in a few years’ time – that’s because SF is the literature of ideas, and the ideas in this one are actually kinda interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel, Timeless is a thriller about a journalist.  You can have a look at it here.

Ongoing – and still going well

A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E. Feist

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I’d recently read At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist.  Well, as befits a series that I enjoy quite a bit, I followed that up by reading the next installment of the long running Riftwar saga:  A Kingdom Besieged.

After a series has been going on for so long, the enemies tend to get more and more dire, and this one is no exception.  Our mortal heroes find themselves having to face enemies on an ever more cosmic and incomprehensible scale.

And yet, this series doesn’t suffer from this excess.  I think that’s mainly because Feist has a deft hand when it comes to making the enormous extremely personal and keeping the characters’ style of conflict resolution constant, irreverent and always entertaining.  That, more than any big concepts is what has made this series a steady mega-selling winner for all of its history.

This is like the perfect antidote to things like A Fire Upon the Deep, which we looked at last week.  Yes, the Vinge has a huge edge when it comes to originality. In fact, Feist re-uses concepts from every great fantasist ever, from Tolkien to Lovecraft, but even though his work is not in the least original, it is still much, much better.  Yes, I know A Fire Upon the Deep is reaching classic status, but I would argue that Feist’s long-running series deserves it just as much, if not more, than the Vinge.

Anyway, if you haven’t already done so, pick up a copy of Magician, the first book in this series.  You’ll be taken on one hell of a ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.  You can check out the Kindle version here and the paperback here.

 

An Interesting Juvenile

We spoke about interesting finds in Buenos Aires used book stores yesterday, and here’s another one.  Secrets of Stardeep is one I’d probably never have purchased if it hadn’t been in one of the used book shops.  But it was, so I picked it up.

Secrets of Stardeep - John Jakes

Now, I’d never heard of John Jakes which, apparently is wrong, as the guy is a #1 New York Times bestseller.  In my defense I plead the “his bestsellers happened in genres I don’t read that much” gambit (and will ignore his Planet of the Apes novelization)

But I only learned that later and I went into this one blind.  From the cover, I never would have guessed that it was a juvenile, and it clearly wasn’t marketed to the juvenile market–and the YA market had not yet been invented.  I thought it was a typical sixties / seventies space opera.  But it turns out that the protagonist is of about high-school age, and is preparing his examinations when he learns decides that a detour might help him clear his father’s name…

Of course, this leads to adventures galore on a faraway world which puts not only his continued academic career but his very life at risk.

That’s standard fare, and the characters, though more sophisticated are reminiscent of an Asimov juvenile novel.  What isn’t expected is the double twist at the end… which would have worked beautifully in an adult book, too.

I won’t say I loved this one, but I do respect what the author managed within the limitations of trying to appeal to younger readers.  It’s a solid effort which aspiring SF novelists might want to track down to see how it’s done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He also has a space opera novel you can read.  It’s called Siege, and you can check it out here.

Generic Secret Agents (TM)

There was a time when literary secret agents weren’t just generic characters from central casting.  Back in the sixties and seventies, they had personality and quirks.  James Bond’s womanizing was accompanied by a lot of internal monologue that today would cause shaken heads, furrowed brows and comments like “well, he was a product of his times.”  Jason Bourne was a killing machine before it became popular.  Smiley’s people were well-developed , flawed characters in well-written tales (not sure why, but there you have it).  The thing is, all these guys were different.

Now, everyone seems to be a spinoff  Jason Bourne.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Bourne is always an entertaining read, but it’s a truth that if you’re a secret agent in today’s world, you are either ex-special forces or trained up to be the equal of any ex-special forces guy you’ll encounter.  Even Forsyth falls into this pattern, probably because he has to stay relevant.

Why this reflection?

Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn

Because I recently ran across a book entitled Pursuit of Honor written by Vince Flynn.  I never buy books in airports, which apparently is the literary equivalent of living under a rock, so I hadn’t heard of him, but apparently, this is the tenth book in his Mitch Rapp Series, and Flynn himself is a best selling author.

I read the book and enjoyed it at the time.  It appears to be the perfect airport book (even though I didn’t buy it in an airport).

The problem is that, if you ask me about it in a year’s time, I’d have to read the back cover and then wonder whether I actually read it or not (generic tough American agents taking on generic tough Islamic terrorists isn’t exactly something that stands out from the crowd).

And that’s a pity because this book (I suppose the entire series) deserves to stand out.  In a world where everyone trends towards the bland and politically correct, Flynn goes the other way.  In this book, the smarmy whistle-blowing moralistic do-gooder gets caught in the very first scene and locked in a basement awaiting death…  by the good guys.  You have no idea how I cheered.

Sadly, apart from being violently antisocial onstage (as opposed to offstage), the good guys are otherwise from central casting, and that’s the reason I won’t necessarily recall the book.

But I’ll probably pick up another. I like it when the heroes defy social norms in ways that would cause raised eyebrows.

So yeah, beach reading or plane reading, but I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His latest science fiction novel, Outside, is anything but cookie cutter; you’ll remember this one.  Check it out here.