classic literature

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.

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An Enjoyable Product of its Time

One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.

Racist.  Sexist.  Colonialist.  They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon.  So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.

What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans.  If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about.  It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.

I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.

It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world.  Pretty standard stuff so far.

But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal.  He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary.  It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day.  Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.

The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.

I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them.  It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload.  And a great story to boot.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future.  You can have a look here.

 

Naughtiness through the Centuries

The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian.  It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background.  Casanova.  Valentino.  Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).

But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).

But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism.  But the pull was always there, and the books got written.

There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

You’ll probably recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lady Chatterley‘s erotic content, so when I picked up Fanny Hill, a book published nearly 200 years before the Lawrence.

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear.  You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.

Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.

As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley.  To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain.  The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).

Is Fanny Hill a great book?  Simply put, no.  It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does.  I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century.  But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).

Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.

Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it.  Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books.  Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out 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.

A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  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.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

There are few experiences quite as disheartening as discovering that a genre you love had some growing pains.  Unfortunately, most things worth having suffered at some point, and science fiction, quite obviously, was not the exception.

The genres dark ages happened in the sixties and seventies.  Riding a wave of enthusiasm derived from the Pulp Era and the Golden Age, science fiction hit the days of hippies, pop culture and Vietnam with a resounding thud, and something called the New Wave.

Now, as someone who entered the genre in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn about this.  To me, science fiction was Clarke, Heinlein and especially Asimov, three men who dominated the field in 1987 or so, just as they did in the fifties.  To anyone joining then, it was as if the New Wave never happened.  It’s still kind of that way today, except that all of us recognize that New Wave sensibilities did give us one colossus of the genre, Dune, and another literary great, LeGuin.  Other than that, it has mostly been forgotten.

But the anthologies are still out there, places where one can see the atrocities perpetrated against the genre in all their unfortunate luridity.  Perhaps the greatest of the criminals against genre during the New Wave era was Judith Merril.  At the time a respected anthologist, her collections tend to be strings of empty stories that mainly paid homage to the times and have little lasting value.

Unfortunately, she was also quite prolific, and she compiled a lot of the era’s “Year’s Best” collections, so she’s the first anthologist you’re likely to encounter, and the one that will form your view.

The Best of Sci-Fi- 17 x Infinity - Edited by Groff Conklin

All of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying that when I picked up The Best of Sci-Fi 17 x Infinity, published in 1963, I was expecting more of the same.  Pop-minded crap where density of composition attempted to hide a lack of originality and ideas… boy was I mistaken.

This one actually covers much more ground than other anthos of the era, and includes stories by such colossi as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster.  And before you ask, these aren’t stories “considered” to be science fiction – these are straight SF yarns with no excuses given; cover the writer’s name, and you’d guess Golden Age Astounding.

When you add in more modern authors such as Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury Pohl and Sturgeon it becomes… well, quite simply, this was one of the best SF anthos I’ve ever read.  Perhaps not cutting edge by modern standards, it was a breeze to read… which is the way to know you’re enjoying something.

Favorite tale was probably Herbert’s, which was funny as hell and would probably cause a few interesting meltdowns if someone published it today… which is always a plus.

Track this one down and get a copy.  It’s probably only worth a couple of dollars at your friendly neighborhood used book store.  You’ll enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book – Timeless – was recently released.  You can check it out 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.