classic literature

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

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

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

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

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

 

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

Tommy and Tuppence Again

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

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Long Shadow of Coincidence

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

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

Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Origin of the Wonder

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

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Comfortable Book (and that famous dangling O)

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

O Henry Awards 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Death by Gustavo Bondoni_3d

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

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

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

 

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

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!

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

A Book Worthy of the Accolades in an Edition Worthy of the Book

I only bought this one because it was a leather-bound Harvard Classics edition of a book I’d read about more than once, and because it was priced to move at a used book store.

When it cycled to the top of my to-read pile, I was a little afraid that it might be a slog.  After all, a sailor’s memoir from 1840 would likely be in slightly archaic English and contain a lot of technical terms.

But I still read it, and Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast can only be described with one word: Wonderful.

Dana - Two Years Before the Mast

We live in an era that attempts to disparage the literary work that has come before.  We might be too cool to read that stuff, or we might have strange political beliefs that lead us to deny the enormous value of the great books just because they’re written by white guys (as if that affected the quality somehow).  Maybe (as was my case) we’re so caught up with fast-paced modern literature that a dip into the past would slow our roll.

But this one immediately does one of the things that literature is supposed to do: it immediately transports you to another time and place.  In this case, the merchant navy of the first half of the 19th Century and a completely alien, deserted, California coast.

It’s one of those tomes which underlines the difference between books that are merely good, perhaps even those that create great emotional responses, and those that are truly great, the books that not only play to the emotions–which this one does–but also engage the intellect.  A third quality, unintentional, is that it documents something an age disappeared much faster than anyone around ever thought would happen.

With regards to this last bit, I recommend trying to find an edition which has a section entitled “Twenty-Four Years After”, which, as the name says, was written much later and gives a fascinating rundown on the what happened next for the places, people and ships referenced in the main text.  That bit makes it even more wonderful.

As many of you know my preference for beautiful books, it will probably come as no surprise that my recommendation is that you try to get hold of a copy of the Harvard Classics edition (these appear to be going for $10 with free shipping on Ebay as I type, so it might even be cheaper than buying from Amazon.

And the leather, in this case, might even make the experience more genuine.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is the somewhat nautical Ice Station Death.  Well, there’s a ship in it which goes near where Dana was nearly two centuries ago.  You can check it out here.

 

Sometimes, a Wonderful Story Catches you by Surprise

So I’ve been reading through my pile of 1970s paperbacks.  The last one in the lot seemed different.  While the book itself was a 1970s paperback (actually 1967, but who’s counting?) with all the production values therein, the text itself appeared to be a war book from Eastern Europe, or a novel in the Dostoyevsky tradition.  The book was entitled The Bridge on the Drina–which made me think of a battle for that bridge.  The author?  Ivo Andrić.

The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić

I’d never heard of either, so I read the back cover.  Turns out Andrić was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.  That did little to reassure me.  Nobel laureates have written some truly stultifying and ponderous works, and they were often selected more for ideological reasons than for actual literary merit (ask Borges’ ghost why he was never selected, and you’ll understand what I mean)… and Andrić was an official in communist Yugoslavia.

Uh-oh.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set out to read this one.

No need.  I am here to tell you that, on this particular occasion, the committee got it right (although Andrić was selected over JRR Tolkien that year, which I think, in hindsight, was a mistake seeing how pervasive Tolkien has become as a cultural reference point).

The title gives away the story–the book is about the bridge that crosses the river Drina at the town of Višegrad, in Bosnia.  The thread that links the story together is actually the bridge itself.  Characters revolve around it, and it anchors nearly four hundred years of Bosnian, Serb, Turkish and Austrian history.  If you’ve ever read a James A. Michener novel, you’ll know how that works.

Characters come and go, their lives, their hopes, their loves and their dreams flickering on and off like a firefly as the constant stone of the bridge remains the rock that even the violent floods from off the mountain can never erode.

It is also the backdrop to tell of the turbulent political and colonial history of the Balkan region.

As a man who chronicled such things, the greatest of all Yugoslav writers was controversial everywhere after the breakup of the country into the smaller nations we know today.  Banned both in Bosnia and Croatia, his work has only recently come out from under the cloud.

But the bridge is bigger than the pettiness of politics.  It’s a character that you end up caring for possibly even more than you care for the humans who walk across its length.   When it is mined and partially blown up at the end of the book, you will lose a tear or two to that damaged stone.

The Bridge on the Drina

But, like the book itself, and the author’s legacy, the bridge is still there.  Rebuilt exactly as it was in 1914, when its center section was blown up.

Earlier this year, I sat down to write a few hundred words at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child.  As literary pilgrimages go, it’s one of the greatest possible.

But now, I find myself wondering how difficult it might be to get to a little town in Bosnia to sit at the sofa on the kapia of a bridge that crosses a mountain river near the Serb border and write a few words, perhaps a short story.  Perhaps the history of the stones could seep into my writing as well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize (people who write monster books seldom do), but if he does, the book that will set him on his way is the literary collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.