classic books

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.

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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.

A Bit of a Relief

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

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

London, Frozen in Time

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

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

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

 

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

Philip K. Dick Debut

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

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

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

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

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

So what did I think?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.