classic books

The Sheer Brilliance of Anthony Burgess, a Droog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Fine Books

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love Fine Books & Collections. I used to be a subscriber but, unfortunately, the postal service they use to mail magazines overseas just isn’t arriving in Argentina for some reason. And no one seems to have any clue as to where they are going missing.

So I buy them when I travel to the US, if I happen to spot it at a B&N newsstand. Which I did on my recent mid-pandemic trip to Washington and Philadelphia.

It appears their distribution issues are not just limited to Argentina, because the only copy I was able to snag was the Spring 2020 issue… in October. Still, I grabbed it without hesitation and, unlike the rest of the reading material I bought on the trip, I read this one immediately.

Totally worth it, even if a good chunk of the magazine dealt with the New York Rare Book Week (I assume that got cancelled due to Covid).

Even so, this one represents immersion therapy in a world of classic editions of beloved books, old maps, beautiful craftsmanship and art. Along with my visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which had some unexpected highlights in its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern art, this was my cultural break during my trip since the Smithsonian museums I am interested in–Air & Space, Art and American History–were closed on the dates I was in town.

My head spends a long time in the future because I’m in the middle of a science fiction novel, my kids ensure that I spend a good chunk of the day very much in the present (with both the joys and the annoyances that come with it), so just stopping everything and enjoying beauty and wonder created decades or centuries ago and seeing into minds who appreciate that sensation just like you do is a way to relax and just let go for a bit. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that these magazines are probably among the things I most enjoy reading.

In this one, there are the usual great articles and columns, but two, about the photography of Danny Lyon and the book listing high-tech inventions of the renaissance really stood out. I always leaf through these mags when I have a desire to be transported… and I still haven’t found one that disappoints on rereading.

Recommended (and maybe if enough people buy it, they’ll be able to fix their distribution problems!).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. You can check out his literary fiction in Love and Death a narrative that comes together out of several short pieces to tell the story of a group of individuals who never quite realize how closely they are linked. You can check it out here.

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at 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 Reasonable Ending After a Terribly Weak Start

It’s no secret that, unlike Virginia Woolf, I’m not a fan of George Eliot.  Hell, I often think she hid behind a pseudonym not because of the rampant sexism of the time (although that undoubtedly existed), but because she wanted to avoid destroying the cause of female writing forever.  Also, if she proved that women are capable of writing the worst drivel, she would have had to spend the rest of her life avoiding the vengeful ghost of Jane Austen.

Silas Marner - George Eliot

Having said that, I’m happy to report that Silas Marner isn’t as bad as Middlemarch.  Much of that has to do with the fact that it’s a much shorter book, of course–I’ve found that Eliot improves with brevity–but it’s also slightly better.

Basically, this one follows the lives of a few country characters in stultifying detail, and reminds one that detail, when not wielded by an expert (such as Austen or Dickens) can easily go from delightful to boring, and yeah, the first two-thirds of this one were a bit slow.  Also, the “tension” that Eliot creates is not of the delightful kind but of the kind you just want to stop.  Like Dickens at his worst, it’s just piling suffering upon suffering on someone who was already miserable to begin with.  I’m pretty sure no one reads the Book of Job for pleasure, so why read Eliot?

Aside from the style problems, this one shares another issue with Barnaby Rudge, my least favorite Dickens so far, and that is the first part of the book is essentially table-setting and all the action happens at the end… years later.  Essentially, they both bore you explaining who is who and then say: “a few years later we find…”

In both cases, the second pat is where all the interesting stuff happens (except for two incidents in Silas Marner which I won’t spoil for you).

Anyway, focusing on the good side, the end of this book is satisfying.  It isn’t the riotous insanity that actually saves Barnaby Rudge from the scrap heap, but it’s fine.  Had this one not had a decent ending, I would probably have had some sort of apoplectic fit.  As it was, I was merely disappointed to confirm that my impression of Middlemarch was correct.

Not one I’d recommend to people who prefer books to be interesting or entertaining.  If you read the book of Job for fun, though, you might like this one…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is available here.  He believes it will entertain you more than Silas Marner, but then, he wrote it so it’s not a surprise that he’s saying that.

 

 

Dickens Drudgery

I normally view Charles Dickens as a treat, something that will be a long read and certainly more involved than the more usual light fare, but absolutely worth it.  Anyone who’s ever read David Copperfield will know what I mean, and I was coming off an absolute blast in the form of The Pickwick Papers.

CharlesDickens - Barnaby Rudge

The next one that popped up in my to-be-read pile was Barnaby Rudge, and the edition I had in hand was an old Collins hardcover in a format that is smaller than the mass-market paperbacks of today.  It seemed innocent enough until, on closer inspection, I realized that it was 600 pages long, the thin paper making it look much shorter.

Well, most Dickens books are long, so I wasn’t particularly worried…

Unfortunately, this one is at least 300 pages too long (when reading, I would have said 400 pages too long, but I’m feeling more generous now).

The problem is that old Charles indulges a little too passionately in his love for drawing characters and gives un a first section of the book in which nothing too interesting happens, and what does occur does so at a snail’s pace.  That makes it… difficult to get through.

Which is a pity, because the final 200 pages are among the best in Dickens.  The mess of character threads that had been lying loosely all over the place suddenly tauten and turn into a story… and a thrilling one at that.

But most modern readers aren’t going to get that far.  They’ll drop off in the middle for something more immediately rewarding (pickwick, perhaps), so maybe that this book isn’t among the author’s better-known works is not so bad.  After all, we wouldn’t want people to be turned off Dickens because of one bad beginning, would we?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books do not begin slowly.  They tend to start in the middle of the action and go on from there (except for one which leads off with a sex scene).  His literary fiction can be sampled in Love and Death–buy it 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.

A Wonderful Escape into a Lost Era

On Thursday, I spoke at length about a fantasy book, or at least a book set in a world that never existed, which is as good a definition of fantasy as one might give.  The interesting thing about Gormenghast, though is that the book never felt as much like I was escaping the real world as it did that I was navigating a maze that never truly let me forget the outside universe.

When you think about it, it’s strange that a fantasy book of that stature finds it hard to create the escapist objective of literature while the very next book I read, a non-fiction work, immediately plunged me into fantasyland and made all my troubles disappear–for a time.

The Whispering Land - Gerald Durrell

Of course, a world where one is free to roam about and collect animals for one’s private zoo is actually much more of an escape than one that talks about mad rulers.  And, besides, Gerald Durrell was a better writer than Mervyn Peake (and most of today’s socially conscious genre writers are worse than both).

When you take both these factors into consideration, The Whispering Land is one of those books that transports you to the wonders of a simpler time.  Yes, it’s based on the assumption that the British Empire is a civilizing force, and yes, if you tried to create something as barbaric as a zoo today, you’d get lynched by the ecologists, but both of those realities, far from offending, make the book even better, as they are so gently couched as to be wonderful as opposed to antisocial.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as the incredible The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in my Luggage, mainly because the book was set in Argentina in the 1960s, which, to my mind is a much less interesting and exotic locale than Africa in the 1950s could ever be.  Though a bit far away to be familiar to most, Argentina is essentially similar to southern Europe, if the poor were a bit more poor.  It’s not a truly exotic locale.

But Durrell’s wonderful writing and uncanny knack for finding kernels of wisdom and wonder even in the mundane, combined with the fact that he was actually spending time well on the fringes of the country, in the cold, desolate, penguin-infested coasts of Patagonia and the northern jungles make this one nearly as good as his African classics.  Even the foibles of third-world corruption are cheerfully presented as facts, and become quirks to be smiled at as opposed to anchors dragging down nations.

Seen from the perspective of the twenty-first century, Durrell’s work becomes the preemptive counter-strike and perfect library partner to Notes from a Small Island, in the sense that Bryson looks and Britain from an outsider’s perspective while Durrell looks at the rest of us from a distinctly British point of view.  And yes, he is well aware that that point of view is eccentric as hell, made more so by his insistence on running a private zoo.

At the risk of gushing I’ll just close with my recommendation: buy anything by Durrell you can get your hands on and read it.  If something therein offends you the problem is yours (have a doctor check you for an over-inflated sense of outrage and underpowered capacity for whimsy), and if you can’t lose yourself in his mid-century world, then you need to try to remember what wonder feels like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose latest book is a collection of 22 short stories set in places far from the First World.  It’s called Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.

Possibly the Most Unusual Book You’ll Read

As a writer, I read in many genres, but SFF is closer to my heart than, say, the Romance genre.  I’ve read more widely in SFF than in many others so when there’s a fantasy classic that I haven’t read sitting on a used-bookstore shelf, I will usually grab it without hesitation.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, Introduced by Anthony Burgess

Titus Groan was one such book.  Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy is considered a classic, and the edition I bought was introduced by none other than Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame.

I was expecting the book to be ponderous and impenetrable, but I was surprised.  It’s not impenetrable in the least.  Unlike Lovecraft, who often laced his work with archaic or unusual language in an attempt to heighten the effect, Peake wrote in language perfectly modern for his day and age (1946), which makes the book much more of a pleasure for modern readers.

Of course, it’s still ponderous.  It’s ponderous in a way that few other novels would ever dare to be.  Peake was apparently convinced that you should never describe a person in one paragraph where four chapters would do the job just as well.

It’s hard to get used to but, to be fair, it’s this dogged insistence on creating mountains of words that gives the book its texture and which has established it as one of the genre’s classic works even without its having been widely read.  You get used to the pacing after a while, and what action there is is decisive enough that the story is also a satisfying read if you can stick with the pace.

Once you close that back cover on the completed book, you’ll find that the world around Gormenghast mountain is alive in your head and you miss it.  You might not immediately want to seek out the two sequels, but you certainly have a sense that, eventually, you will.

But that’s not what struck me most about the books, however.  What struck me most is that they’re not strictly fantasy.  If not for the fact that Gormenghast has never existed anywhere, Peake might easily have been writing about a lost kingdom in central Europe in the 19th Century, The Prisoner of Zenda isolated from the rest of civilization.  There is no science fictional explanation for the castle’s presence, and the only magic is a premonitory dream which might, or might not have been an actual premonition.

The literary world has classified it as fantasy, though I’m not sure whether Peake himself would agree with that assessment (I still need to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so they might clarify the situation).  He just needed a place where his characters could play out… and where it made sense to write seventeen pages describing the moss on a stone wall.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories from places that aren’t usually represented in genre fiction–from African gorges to South American ghosts–entitled Off the Beaten Path.  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.