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Book review

What I Read, Wrote, & Published: February 2022

Voltaire, Hitler. Gladwell, Shakespeare, bipolar disorder, & speculative short fiction.

A good month overall. Spent the month’s last few days being first exhausted, then very ill. Got viral fever with cold and cough; am on the mend now. Covid? Don’t know; didn’t test. I didn’t take paracetamol, wanting to let my body fight the infection, and I somewhat enjoyed the feeling of wooziness/stonedness. But then I spent most of this Saturday sleeping, and Sunday afternoon watching television since my brain was too foggy to read, never mind write. Actual television – haven’t done that in years. Watched two Sean Connery James Bond films, Dr. No which is pretty good, then Diamonds Are Forever which looks like a shitty production in every way. Also watched parts of two movies that combine animation with live action: Tom & Jerry, and Monster Hunt. Didn’t know male pregnancy was a thing outside slash fanfiction. The cherry on the cake was Meet the Spartans. A parody of a film that was itself I believe based on a graphic novel. No comment. Disney’s Jungle Book was also on, which is good. But overall an afternoon before the idiot box persuaded me to take paracetamol so I could shed my fever and resume normal life.

What I Read:

Hitler’s Niece (2000). Ron Hansen. Have thought for a while I ought to read this; I was worried my WIP Mirror might overlap with this book. It doesn’t. Hitler’s Niece depicts Hitler’s relationship with Angelika Raubal, daughter of his half-sister Angela. The book purports to illustrate Hitler’s public and private life, and draws (often verbatim) on a number of memoirs by Hitler acquaintances, including Kubizek’s and Hanfstaengl’s. If you’re looking for a brisk read and a peep into Hitler’s private life, this novel may interest you. But don’t expect any insight into the Hitler that we should all be trying to understand – an ordinary man who raised the nation he loved to the acme of glory then left her shattered and shamed.

This is a by-the-numbers portrait of a spoiled child becoming a supremely arrogant, twisted, and unpleasant young man — and then somehow magically capturing a nation’s attention – nothing we’ve not seen before in films like the Rise of Evil miniseries. This book is crudely written – suspecting poor translation I looked up whether it was originally written in English, and it was. Here’s a sample of the writing:

“They [sat down], as did [Rudolf Hess], effeminately crossing his legs at his thighs but holding himself firmly upright with an air of stiff-backed confidence, his square-jawed head tilted high. His hairline was receding, but his black hair flowed back from his forehead in waves that women got by marcelling theirs with hot irons. Angela had never seen eyebrows that were so much like heavy objects, that so darkly shaded his deep eyesockets that his irises were as obscured as brown pebbles dropped in snow. His mouth was a wide, thin line and tightly shut in order to hide the buckteeth and overbite that stole from him the look of high intellect he wanted. Ill at ease with their silence, he offered, “Would you like some food?””

Are we reading a depiction of the public and personal life of one of history’s most important figures, or purple prose from an erotic novel? Interestingly, given the novel’s overall salacious bent, Hansen overlooks some of the juiciest bits of gossip about the relationship between Hitler and his niece. The case it makes at the end that Hitler may in fact have killed Geli is quite compelling – if the sources he quotes are reliable. I’ve not looked up whether they are, because it doesn’t much matter whether Hitler killed his niece, for he did far worse things.

Julius Caesar (1601). Shakespeare. I’ll reread Shakespeare this year, and also read his English history plays, which I’ve not read before. Julius Caesar is my favourite Shakespeare play, partly because I love ancient Rome and Greece, and partly because it has my favourite speech – Mark Antony’s Act III tour-de-force.

On reread, what struck me was:

(a) The unities: perfectly preserved, perhaps at cost to psychological credibility. When we first see Brutus he’s undecided whether to assassinate Caesar, and tells Cassius not to probe him any more for now; within twenty-four hours he’s not only on board, but the centre of the conspiracy, and recruiting more members. The concluding battle similarly has many scenes spread over a few hours or days – but this creates gravity and character development: we become attached to Brutus and Cassius, e.g. via learning of Portia’s death, and of the quarrels between the brothers-in-law.

(b) How much of the play’s power comes from someone articulating noble sentiments in what seems to be the playwright’s voice. The tribunes, Cassius, Brutus, Mark Antony, and Portia all speak in the same voice. Their motives and reactions are different: the tribunes are disgusted by the people’s fickleness; Cassius pretends to fight for freedom but is motivated by dread of losing his power under a dictatorship; Brutus fights for the good of Rome; Mark Antony is grieved by Caesar’s death, but resolved to exploit this opportunity to show the world he’s more than Caesar’s lapdog; and Portia urges that a wife deserves to share her husband’s worries. But when they articulate noble sentiments – and much of the play’s psychological action unfolds via such articulations – they all speak with the same eloquent, impassioned, metaphor-loving voice.

An Unquiet Mind (1995). Kay Redfield Jamison. I decided to read a few memoirs of bipolar disorder, since I’ve suspected for years I have BPD type II (with hypomania rather than true mania). I’d heard of this book years ago – written by a BPD type I woman who’s also a psychiatrist. It’s a brisk read, and Jamison’s lived an eventful life. Her descriptions of her states of mind during mania and depression are vivid, and the things that happened to her during these periods, or the things that she did, are interesting to read about. This is a frank, vivid, and entertaining memoir.

Reading this, I wondered if I had BPD at all – Jamison’s manias are orders of magnitude more intense than mine. I could identify with several of her manic symptoms – rapid speech, rapid thought, flying ideas, increased remote association, ambitious about undertaking new projects, less need for sleep. It was reassuring to read about these, albeit in far more intense form. It’s always reassuring to know you’re not the only one who has a certain set of nonnormal experiences.

But I was disappointed by the lack of analysis and introspection. Given that Jamison’s a psychiatrist, I expected an excavation of the habits of mind that undergird her disorder. After all, she firmly advocates in the book for a combination therapy using both medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy. She tells us at length about the severe side effects she suffered of lithium, and about how she nonetheless adjusted her life to keep taking this drug that she calls her lifesaver. Well and good. But she doesn’t tell us anything about the habits of mind she had to change, or that might have caused her BPD in the first place.

This month I read some iconic short stories: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Speech Sounds,” “Cat Pictures, Please,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) is a brisk read, written mostly in tiny paragraphs of one or two sentences. Is this story about how confinement can drive women mad? Maybe, but notably at the story’s start it’s the woman who believes something’s wrong with her, whereas her husband the doctor insists that nothing’s wrong with her. TYW is as much a case for medical incompetence as the devastation caused by excluding women from the public sphere. Either way, an interesting installment in the “madwoman in the attic” genre.

Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds” (1983) is a speculative story asking the question: What if we lost language, but some of us lost it more completely than others? This story, heavy on backstory but beautifully light on exposition, suggests a few answers: We’d develop a power hierarchy on this basis, and the more-impaired would envy and hunt down the less-impaired. With communication, civilisation would break down. And hope and empathy would still be the gifts that keep us from descending into universal savagery.

Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures, Please” (2015) is a story about an AI that has achieved consciousness and decided to help people. But this AI is a Google Ads algorithm, so its scope of action is limited. This resourceful (and cat picture-loving) AI finds ways to diagnose people’s problems via their digital footprint, and to help them by steering them towards the right ads (for psychotherapy, for more suitable jobs, for coming-out-of-the-closet services, etc.). The people are surprisingly slow to pick up on what would help them, even when it’s glaringly obvious to outsiders. This gently funny story reminds us that the most notable object in our large blind spots is ourselves.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “…Omelas” (1973) is a startling story. The idyllic opening, with its description of the wonderful city of Omelas, lulls the reader half-asleep. Omelas is paradise: no war, no waste. Le Guin invites us to collaborate in the creation of this mythic city. We suspect, don’t we? – she asks – that no place so perfect could really exist. Slyly she invites us then to add some imperfections, enough to make Omelas plausible. Then without warning we’re introduced to the keystone that holds Omelas together: a shameful secret in which all participate. This short story implicates us, via our ideas about good and evil (good is boring, paradise is impossible, evil is in human nature) in a setup that creates the good for the many on the basis of suffering for a few. A clever, entertaining, and profound meditation on morality, and on the hidden sources of our goodness.

I enjoy reading pop biology, but since I’m a psychologist I don’t enjoy reading pop psych – it’s too pop for me, simplifies things too much. A Tinder match recommended Malcolm Gladwell, and I’ve heard a lot about Gladwell over the years, so I began with Outliers (2008). This book makes one very simple claim: success depends very much on when and where we’re born, what opportunities we’re given, and our cultural heritage – which may encourage assertiveness or passivity, industry or the idea that ability is innate and unchangeable. Outliers’ aim is to bust the myth that, with hard work, anyone from anywhere can do anything.

Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller, and he marshals facts like a general planning a Continent-wide manouevre. He interleaves multiple stories per chapter to explain one phenomenon via another, using analogies and scientific terms. He excels at explaining complex concepts simply, the hallmark of a great mind. And he makes a compelling case.

But he does tend to hammer on one point a lot. I suppose, given how we’ve been brainwashed to believe that success is entirely up to our own efforts – this point needs hammering. (I’m now reading Gladwell’s Blink, which takes the same approach to arguing for the power of unconscious thought.)

A persuasive book full of well-told stories from a range of domains.

Candide (1759). Voltaire. I’ve never read Voltaire, and another one of my reading goals for this year onwards is to sample works by great writers and thinkers across the ages. Candide is a satirical novella/short novel following the adventures of Candide, a Westphalian, and his friends: love interest Cunegund, South American servant Cacambo, an unnamed old woman acquired along the way, a philosophical gentleman called Martin, and Candide’s tutor Pangloss. Pangloss is an Optimist – he subscribes to Leibniz’s doctrine that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds, and that everything that happens here is for the best. And it is the doctrine of Optimism on which Voltaire sets his sights in Candide.

Candide is a picaresque novel, carrying its cast from one impossible misadventure to another, shuttlecocked from one corner of Europe to another, and then to Africa and South America, comparing notes along the way who has been most ill-used.

Optimism is far from Candide’s only target. Voltaire takes aim at racism, colonialism, organised religion, and especially war. He describes the horrors of war repeatedly and graphically, disembowelling any notion of glory in the motives or execution of warfare. His Europe is one continual battlefield, with armies committing wholesale rapine (and also rape) and murder and arson. The Inquisition ongoing in Spain and Portugal creates its own grotesque comedy. Voltaire spares no nation, with the exception of El Dorado – which proves to be a real place, where the soil is gold and precious gemstones are as plentiful as grass-seeds – and where the people are generous and cultured.

Voltaire is pessimistic about current human reality, but his solution seems to be fabulous wealth: if people fight because resources are scarce, then the solution must be to increase resources. This is a curiously capitalist solution to what Voltaire seems to perceive as a problem with human nature itself. His other, more realistic solution arises at the end of the novel: let every man cultivate his garden quietly, working enough to occupy his time and to make a living, and concern himself not at all with the affairs of the world.

The adventures get tiresome and repetitious, but withal Candide is a brisk, fun read. The joke’s on Pangloss, who despite his own misfortunes and his friends’, persists on considering this the best of all possible worlds – simply because, he confesses, it would ill befit a philosopher to change his mind :-/

What I Wrote:

Began working on chapter outlines for my literary speculative novel Mirror. I’ve been working on mirror for over a year, and the novel has become complex and sprawling. I’ve finished drafting the first third, and my critique partners have indicated areas of improvement. I debated whether to forge ahead and finish drafting the whole thing, or to go back over the first part and hammer things out. My gut pushed me towards the latter. My chapter outlines are very detailed, almost as long as the chapters will be, but with no regard for language. I find it easier to be less precious about these outlines than about fully-formed-looking chapters. I’m about a third of the way through outlining the first third of the novel (which I’ve already drafted a couple of times). I think I might continue doing this – so far, outlining this way has proved to be an engaging but low-commitment way to visualise the story and receive critiques.

Did not write any new short fiction. Was supposed to edit a pile of pieces. Editing is not as fun as writing fresh pieces – that’s partly why, having banned myself from writing fresh short stories this month, I found myself writing fresh outlines for Mirror chapters.

Edited “Waiting” from last month; rewrote this as a 100-word story and as a more fully-fleshed-out flash. May need further editing. Will submit to mags in March.

Edited “Night.” Fleshed out the characters and edited for continuity and clarity. I’m still waiting for critiques on this version – but my critique partners already enjoyed the first version, so I think this story too will be ready to submit in March.

Edited “Evening.” Critique partners demanded more backstory and individuation of this story’s protagonist. I decided to do a thorough job of it. I re-outlined the whole story, and have almost finished filling in the outline. But now the story’s a 10k. I’ll need to revisit it after a few days and cut whatever I can and see if the story justifies the remaining length, then send the story out to critique partners again. Story-by-assembly-line, or story-by-workshop. Does the process ever become faster? I hope so.

Looked over “While I Was Shitting” and “Forgive.” I like both these stories more or less as is. Will make a few small edits as suggested by critique partners and submit these in March too.

What I Published:

Bandit Fiction published my flash story “Fish,” previously published on Kelp.

I reviewed proofs for my speculative short story “The Why & the How,” due out with Bewildering Stories soon. Bewildering Stories has previously published my speculative novelette “Theory.”

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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