classic literature

Bibliophile Heaven with History

As a book lover, there are few things I enjoy more than perusing a good library.  Whether it be by looking at the spines of the books at a friend’s house or visiting the New York Public Library when I’m in the city (Protip: the original stuffed animals that inspired Winnie the Pooh are on permanent display in the Children’s section on the ground floor of the NYPL), this king of sightseeing is something I never fail to enjoy.

Abbey-of-Saint-Gall

However, it’s not always possible to hop on a plane and fly to St. Gall each time I want to view an even more impressive depository, so, as usual, my solution is to get a book.  Actually multiple books.  The first book I bought about libraries is called The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and as its name suggests, the preoccupation here is to allow the beauty to shine forth by using spectacular photography.  Fortunately, it also gives the–sometimes tortuous–history of each of them as well.

Over time, I discovered that despite its coffee-table size, this book is one of the most frequently perused volumes in my own book cases.

The Library - A World History

So I succumbed to the pressure of Amazon recommendations and bought a companion volume: The Library: A World History.  Written by James W. P. Campbell, this one, though also a large-format and lushly illustrated book goes back to the very beginnings of literary history and gives a blow-by-blow account of how the way people have stored books has evolved.  It’s bang up to date to its publication in 2013.

I found it fascinating to learn which advances permitted–and sometimes forced–the way library formats have evolved over the centuries.  Knowing why a room full of books looks the way it does is almost as enjoyable as looking at it.

Almost.

Though the focus here is definitely on the scholarship, the pictures of libraries, reading rooms, and the furniture within are worth the price of admission even if they were all that was included.  This book gets pulled out and stared at even more than the other one, mainly because, though there aren’t as many pictures of each library, there are many more libraries featured, including some in Korea, Japan and China. Those latter places are not only fascinating for themselves, but also illuminating in context; they illustrate beautifully how differences in book format created different kinds of storage rooms.

Recommended.  I think that bibliophiles will love these.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who is currently writing the sequel to his comic fantasy novel The Malakiad.

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A Brontë Reader at a Great Price

Charlotte and Emily Brontë - The Complete Novels

I’m a sucker for pretty editions of books I love.  We’ve talked abut that before.  But perhaps what hasn’t been that clear is that the editions don’t necessarily have to break the bank.

For example, Barnes & Noble has a whole raft of beautiful editions of classics available for excellent prices and which are often displayed at the very front of the store.  So there’s no real reason other than the sentimental to hang onto your battered paperback copies of the Foundation trilogy, for example.

The book pictured above, the complete novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, is another good bet.  Not only is it very pretty but it also saves valuable shelf space compared to having the individual tomes.  It holds the usual suspects: Jayne Eyre, Wuthering Heights and the less-known Charlotte works, Shirley, Villette and The Professor.

As I am already quite familiar with the first two, my focus was on the less famous novels.  I’ve seen many people cite one or another of the three as the best of Charlotte’s output but…

Shirley is all right, I suppose.  An interesting novel in the Middlemarch vein (and here’s what I said about Middlemarch) but with none of the interesting gothic elements that make Jayne Eyre such an enduring work.  It almost makes me think that those who prefer Shirley are like those hipsters who listen to obscure music just to prove that they are different and, in consequence, somehow better than you.

The Villette / The Professor twins are minor work in comparison.  I’m glad to have read them, but they will never join the conversation.

Having revisited the Charlotte and Emily work, I will fall prey to my own argument above about obscurity.  I truly believe that Anne should be celebrated at the same level.

But I suppose that particular battle is long lost.  And perhaps its fair.  While Anne’s writing may be better, the crazy lady locked in the tower and Heathcliff are both more memorable than anything Anne ever did… and perhaps that’s what swings the balance.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  

Papa Hemingway and Caporetto

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway - With additional endings

Today, we combine a couple of our favorite topics: great literature and war history.  Of course, the very best way to do that is by reading Hemingway.

Now, old Ernest has has a tough time of it lately.  In this kinder, gentler, postmodern world, he is often cited by sad, misguided individuals as everything from a macho dinosaur to the poster boy for toxic masculinity (a silly concept which seems to be in vogue today).

While I’ll be the first to admit that Hemingway was a product of his times, I can only conclude that the arguments against his writing (as opposed to his love of bullfighting, for example) come from people who have never read his work. Sentence by sentence and as the work builds up to a greater plot, even his most virulent critics would have to shut up and admit that the guy could just plain write.  Powerful.  Deep.  Meaningful–and no unnecessary frills.  The fact that it isn’t in the least bit a feminine writing style, and that his themes seem a bit masculine, does not mean it’s bad.  Honest reviewers will accept this and move on.

Having said that, I enjoy his writing on a structural level, but I’m not a particular fan of all his work.  I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit pointless, even if it was, like everything he did, powerful in its way.  On the other hand, his short stories, especially “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are entertaining and often brilliant.  And yes, though they ignore both modernist and postmodernist concerns to look at things that are much more relevant to actual humans, they pack a huge depth that isn’t apparent on first glance at the sparse prose.

Hemingway with a gun

A Farewell to Arms is arguably his greatest book.  Combining the First World War, a love story and some autobiographical bits, it is an excellent cross-section of what Hemingway is all about.  Even 90 years after it was first published, the book is still easy to read, still resonates with meaning and pathos.  While some of his contemporaries (Joyce, Woolfe) were experimenting with form and finding new ways to publicize their deepest neuroses, Hemingway was telling stories as old as mankind, and telling them well.

I think that’s probably the reason he is still read by casual readers while others, perhaps more celebrated by the literati, are only discussed in college literature seminars.

Was it the greatest book I ever read?  No.  I hated the ending (my question to his contemporaries is: after reading this one and The Old Man and the Sea, why wasn’t he put on permanent suicide watch?).  But it was a good one, and powerful, and the edition I had (pictured above) included a bunch of alternative endings – extremely interesting stuff for any writer: you can do much worse than to learn how Hemingway did it.

So, yes, this guy will still be read when the people today’s critics are gushing over are long forgotten.  He has a history of beating back the literary darlings.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose book Siege made him very popular for about fourteen seconds.

Eco on Literature – An Acquired Taste

I love Umberto Eco’s fiction.  I believe The Name of the Rose is utterly brilliant (to the point where I actually bought a pretty edition of the thing.  And we’ve discussed Foucault’s Pendulum here before.

Eco’s essays, for me, were a different story.  At first reading, I found them a bit dry and boring.  Perhaps a little too philosophical for their own good.  They are certainly well thought out, but you need to be very awake to fully process them.  He was not a big believer in delivering easy to understand wisdom.

Umberto Eco on Literature Cover

So the first time I read Umberto Eco on Literature, I had to read it when I was fully awake and alert, despite finding the subject matter, for the most part, absolutely fascinating.

But then, I discovered the secret to unlock the full enjoyment of this volume.  The trick lies in undersanding that these essays were actually speeches that Eco gave in different elite literary places: universities, institutes and such.

They are meant to be heard, not read.

Therein, however, lies another problem: most of these aren’t on YouTube.

No matter, I disovered.  All you need to do is to watch any English-language interview with the great man – I recommend this one – to see what he sounds like, just before starting one of the essays and, magically, as you read, you will read them in his own accent. That makes them utterly perfect.

Umberto Eco shouldn’t be anything less than brilliant.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, will likely make a lot of Greeks angry, while making other Greeks laugh.  People from other nationalities will invariably enjoy it.

 

 

Remembering Why We Love Poetry in the First Place

Dead Poets Society - Oh, Captain My Captain

Poetry.

To some, the word conjures images of inspiring speeches made by Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society.  To other – dare I say a much larger number?  Yes, I dare – it calls to mind incomprehensible readings by pretentious twits (or should that word have an “a” in it?) in smoky bars in front of six (never more) equally pretentious twits.

As a writer, I fall somewhere in between.  While I’m well aware that postmodern poetry often descends into the deepest realms of obtuse navel-gazing and its practitioners include many people who might stop speaking to you if you inadvertently did something as accessible as rhyme the ends of two lines (or use recognizable meter, god forbid), I also have a soft spot for Poe’s poetry among others.

I’ve even invited guest posters here to discuss speculative poetry, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t fallen prey to the postmodenists yet.

Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to conect with the greatest hits of the past.  Back in 1996, my wife was given a volume entitled The Best Loved Poems of the American People as a prize in school (she went to a bilingual school).  When I discovered that she owned this item, I tossed it into my TBR pile and eventually, it cycled to the top.

The Best Loved Poems of the American People

This is exactly the kind of volume that, if it were published today would a) sell millions of copies and b) come under severe critical fire for all sorts of reasons.

There’s many reasons for this one getting lambasted.  From a purely academic point of view, the poems are in forms and meters that have fallen out of favor.  Blank verse and incomprehensibility rule the roost.

The second reason they would get themselves attacked is that in many if not all cases, these works reflect their times.  They don’t address or even care about diversity or race or even, really, politics of any kind.  When attacking the big issues of life, they leave these considerations aside.  Poetry has become a political vehicle in many cases, and critics would not allow someone to backslide on this “progress”.

The final criticism, and perhaps the only valid one is that the poems themselves have become clichéd, victims of their own success.

That’s true.  And there’s a good reason for it: they’ve been quoted, referred to and have brought happiness, comfort and solace to countless generations.  The word “Loved” in the book’s title is spectacularly apt.

I thought the book would be a slog, but it wasn’t.  It was a trip down memory lane and a reminder that accessible, non-angry oetry isn’t a crime, and that the great human emotions are prety much the same today as they were 150 years ago, no matter how many shrill voices try to tell us that anything from that age must necessarily be racist (or whatever) and therefore no longer valuable.

It is a book to dip into as opposed to reading straight through, of course, but even reading as a single exercise, I enjoyed it enormously.  I truly wonder whether any of today’s poetry will be read a century hence.  I seriously doubt it.

There’s a reason these values (and these words) have a lasting effect and anyone reading these verses will remember why. In such a cynical age, perhaps it’s a good idea to reflect on more simple things every so often.  I know I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who has published exactly one poem in his life.  Perhaps that doesn’t make him the greatest expert on poetry, but his novels are pretty good.  Outside, for example, is about what happens when humans escape the harshness of reality to live in simulated worlds.

Free Gifts = Happiness

We’ve written about the Folio Society‘s beautiful books here before (I should probably ask them to sponsor me for plugging them so often…), but I’ll say that one of the nicest things about them are the free gifts that arrive with most purchases.

The first couple of times I bought from them I received totes, which were cool and are paticularly useful in Argentina where stores are prohibited by law from giving people bags (which is probably the dumbest new law I’ve seen in a long time, and illustrates once again how good intentions pave roads to hot places).  I’ve also timed a couple of purchases to ensure that I receive the Folio Diary (in fact, last year, I actually bought a book I wasn’t necessarily planning to purchase just to receive this one).  The diary is usually illustrated with plates from books, and organized as a weekly agenda, with the week’s activities on the odd side and the illustration on the even. It is a beautiful thing and my wife loves them.

Folio Society magazine march 2014

My own favorite gift is the Folio Society magazine, Folio.  This onesometimes arrives with the books and, since it isn’t advertised, you never know if you’re going to receive one or not.

They’re a treat because, in much the same way as how you don’t know you’ll get one, you also won’t be able to guess what’s inside until you read them.  Of course their main function is to get one interested in other Folio titles but they also include a lot of content unavailable elsewhere.  I own the March 2014 and September 2016 issues (as I said, prety random) and can report that  they are the product of extremely thoughtful collation.  I think there’s something in each for any book lover – I myself enjoy them a lot.

Folio Society magazine September 2016

They’re not big – you can probably consume each in a lunch hour – but, as little bite-sized breaks from routine that remind of why we enjoy books so much, they are wonderful.  The March 2014 issue is especially nice because it discusses book arts and speaks to the artists.  Fun stuff.

Anyway, thought I’d share.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer and an all-around lover of books.  He is the author of the well-received Siege.

Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.

The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

The Door into Lovecraft

If you are anything at all like me, you’re surrounded by people who revere H.P. Lovecraft as a master of the weird fiction genre.  But also, if you’re like me, you grew up reading modern writers – or at least writers that were still alive in the eighties, such as Asimov, Heinlein or Robert Asprin, to name a few genre figures I recall from my early days of reading science fiction and fantasy.

Astounding Lovecraft cover

Every once in a while, an essay (generally found in one of Asimov’s collections) mentioned this legendary “Golden Era” from whence all that is good in the genre originated, but the publications mentioned therein where antediluvian.  There were a bunch of new books being published every year by great authors (Thieves World!).  Why waste time on the older stuff.

Well, there are various good reasons to do so.  For starters, Asimov was right when he gushed about the era.  If you enjoy can-do attitudes and heroes willing to overcome whatever an unfriendly universe can throw their way, then the Golden Age is a good place to start.  If you want to see everything from the limits of space travel to the boundaries of mental capacity explored through a scientific lens and with innocent joy, this is the era to go.  Admittedly, if literary experimentation or diversity are the main things you look for in your fiction, then this is probably not the right era for you. These are straightforward stories written to entertain, and they do that job well.

So it was with those expectations that I picked up my first Lovecraft, a Del Rey paperback of The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories.

I found it interesting, but not the mind-blowing experience that the Lovecraft fans had led me to expect.

Why?  Well, in these tales, Lovecraft does what so many editors who rejected him criticized him for: writes in a forced archaic tone which helps create atmosphere and add to the dread, but also slows down the reader – which, come to think of it, was likely also intentional.

I left off of Lovecraft to read more pressing matters after that, but, thanks to Easton Press and their now-discontinued Horror Classics series, I ran into the man again.

Easton Press - HP Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness

And this time I got the message.

The book Easton Press selected was At the Mountains of Madness.  It has become the book that I send people who ask me: “What’s all the fuss about Lovecraft, anyway?”

The reason for this is that this one is told by a modern-day (remember it was written in 1931) explorer in his own colloquial voice, but it still combines many of the elements found in his other tales, including Shoggoths, the hint of the old ones, Miskatonic University and namless fear leading to madness.  It’s all there, but it’s also readable.  Those who wish to explore further can do so in his other work.

Plus, if you want to know where writers and filmmakers who placed their horror stories in the wasteland of Antartica got their inspiration, you need look no further.

As an added bonus, this one is short enough to read quickly – and he street cred that having read Lovecraft brings among SFF fans is priceless!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known novel is probably Siege, and that’s likely why it’s the one being adapted into a graphic novel.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.