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Book review What I read

Monthly Review: May 2022

Bukowski & Shakespeare. Some writing; some publications. Another depressive episode, followed by introspection & course correction (ongoing).

What I Read:

Charles Bukowski’s Pulp and Post Office. My first encounter with Bukowski: happened to pick up Pulp in the library, though I’d given up reading hard-copy books (b/c of dust allergies. But in the library the books are meticulously dusted). Enjoyed both books. Love the central conceit in both books of juxtaposing a semi-loser character (alcoholic, unenviable job, loner) with high adventure (many mates including attractive ones, encounters with glamorous or insane individuals). Part of the appeal of Pulp, especially, is the promise that you can be ordinary and still have extraordinary good luck.

Reread Macbeth; read Much Ado About Nothing. I know it’s Shakespeare, but I had problems with the structure of both plays, similar to those I described with Antony & Cleopatra: some important events happen too quickly or too close together; & there’s too much foreshadowing & not enough suspense.

E.g. after Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecy, he never has one moment of scepticism; Lady Macbeth similarly is determined on Duncan’s murder the moment she hears about the prophecy. Macbeth appears to be an unmitigatedly bad king, and never enjoys his throne for a moment. Wouldn’t the tragedy be more tragic if Macbeth had some good in him (besides his battlefield valour), and enjoyed his ill-gotten gains at least a bit? I’m not sure why Lady Macbeth just dies offstage before Act V. Did Shakespeare think she was upstaging his title character?

I’ve not read Much Ado About Nothing before, though I watched the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson film back in secondary school. Again, here, we spend a couple of acts wondering how Beatrice & Benedick will get together, but when this event does happen, it feels anticlimactic. Both of them credit the tall tales they hear readily, and immediately decide that they’re already in love / that they will requite the other’s love to rectify their friends’ perceptions of their character. And there are staging errors, too: why do we hear about the play’s central scheme but never witness it? We don’t know exactly what words passed between Borachio and Margaret. But the most glaring problem to a modern reader is the obsession with a woman’s chastity. Hero was accused of conversing from her bedroom window with a man in her garden. For this, her wedding was broken off, and everyone including her father reviled her; neither Claudio nor Don Pedro showed the slightest remorse till she was proven ‘innocent.’ And the moment she was, everyone was swamped with regret. I try not to judge another culture through my own norms, but this really is too much. Wonderful banter between B&B, though, w/ Hero’s & Margaret’s wits scarcely lagging behind.

Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. Another library find. This book is aimed at teenagers, but is also suitable for adults. I began to understand some concepts from physics I’d never paid much attention to. Dawkins’s thesis is that myth and popular belief often appeal to supernatural, magical explanations for big phenomena, but reality when we understand it scientifically is magical in a different & superior sense. The phenomena Dawkins examines include: what matter is made of (mostly empty space at the subatomic level, so why do solids feel solid?); what makes a rainbow (I discovered that it takes numerous drops to make one vertical cross-section of a rainbow. I also learned about spectroscopy, which I’d encountered as a toddler in The Shooting Star, my once-favourite Tintin album); how do we tell how distant a star is (parallax and red/blue shift); how we date fossils (the radioactive elements are found, not in the fossil-containing rock layers, but in the layers adjacent to these); and, above all, getting meta, how myths start and take effect (every reteller makes the myth a little better, a little more fantastical; then the passage of time makes the myth credible).

Contemporary/modern short stories. All stories are from Electric Lit; since this is new writing, I’ll keep my summaries spoiler-free:

  1. Azareen van der Vliet’s “It Is What It Is.” Two Iranian immigrants to the US, who’re roommates and literature students, adopt an Iranian cat who’s lost her family. A loosely-structured meditation on loss and recovery. The cat is the catalyst for the narrator to deal with her past, esp. her disappeared poet-activist father.
  2. Maggie Shipstead’s “You Have A Friend in 10A.” A young Hollywood actress is fleeing the noxious control of a Scientology-type cult. Child molestation, ambition, drug abuse, and dysfunctional relations with both parents dot her past; her present voyage is on a flight she shares with a dead man. A rollicking adventure w/ sharp, critical portraits of sexual abusers and cult followers.
  3. Tove Dittevsen’s “Cat.” A short, poignant story about a couple who’ve been struggling to conceive, and are drifting apart. The husband’s and the wife’s respective relations with the same stray cat are the medium through the plot progresses. Lapidary.
  4. Reread Helen Phillips’s “The Knowers.” I’d read this story around two years ago, & it’s stayed w/ me. A woman exploits a new technology & finds out the date of her death; her husband only knows the date, not the year. Their lives thenceforth are lived only partly in the shadow of this half-knowledge. A thoughtful analysis of the desire to know & the effects of knowing.
  5. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “Black-Eyed Women.” The narrator ghostwrites memoirs of loss & trauma. Her personal life is literally haunted by ghosts. Survivor’s guilt, trauma, and myths around how to lay ghosts to rest structure this densely packed story.

What I Wrote:

Worked on edits of “Evening” (now a 20k).

Drafted “The Scope of Empathy” (100 words); got critiques; needs substantial work.

Replotted and began drafting “Midnight Blue,” originally a 2k.

Began plotting a couple of new stories; replotted some recent and older drafted stories.

What I Published:

Submitted in May: “Highway” (100), “Waiting” (100), “The Best Sunday” (100), “Luck” (100), “Backsides” (1k), “Forgive” (3k), “The City” (4k).

Chamber Mag accepted “Night” (6,000 words).

Fairfield Scribes Micro accepted & published “Highway” (100 words). I forgot to withdraw this from other mags, so Microfiction Monday accepted it too. Submitting & withdrawing is a pain in the butt, & I need to review my process & streamline it.

The Penn Review published my flash story “Waiting” (650 words) in Vol. 71.

Funemployment published my literary speculative story, “Last Day of Freedom” (6,000 words) in Vol. 1. You need to pay for a print or digital copy; I’m still waiting for my free author copy; I’ll be republishing the story on my blog soon, so you can read it then.

How I Fared:

Wasted more than a week this month being depressed. Took part of another week getting back into the saddle.

All my life I thought my mental health problems were something I had to hide. (I also discuss my physical health problems as seldom as possible, so here they are: allergic rhinitis; & chronic neck-and-shoulderache, which becomes a nasty headache if left untreated.) Over the years I’ve discussed them with friends, & I’ve been working by myself on steps to manage them, and it’s still hard for me not to view any health problem, mental or physical, as in some sense a personal failure – but I no longer think it’s honest to pretend to be fine when I’m not. This depressive episode seemed linked to my menstrual cycle; I felt exhausted, skipped physical exercise – which I know is vital to my overall health – and then my wellbeing rolled downhill like Sisyphus’s boulder, and I lost all motivation, sticking around just because the means of exit are inaccessible and unreliable. And then, hey presto, I felt better again. And immediately, and as always, I thought, ‘I’m fine now, I’m cured forever, let’s not worry about that shit, let’s just forge ahead and do all the stuff I’ve fallen behind on’ – but I got myself to acknowledge current life tasks & problems & begin formulating solutions, and make changes to my routine to control these episodes of mania and depression. I need to keep doing these reflective exercises, exhausting as they can be – for nothing is as exhausting as these episodes. I’m revising my daily & weekly routine to make time for this and other necessary if tedious tasks. As a behaviourist I’m focussing on behaviour change; if I find myself repeatedly failing to do what I believe is healthy, that’s when I’ll do some proper “analysis.” This plan is open to change. I will update.

I’ve always been very ambitious, and my ambition has always been focussed on writing fiction. I believe that ultimately all that matters is what I do. I tend to be ashamed of anything that stops me from doing things I need or want to do: my intense neuroticism, my depressive episodes, my allergic rhinitis, my chronic neck aches (which become headaches if untreated), and my numerous sensitivities. But I don’t want to pretend anymore to be normal. I want to do my best to solve these problems, and I can do that only if I acknowledge them. I want to thank my friends and students and colleagues for showing me that it’s good to acknowledge one’s problems. I learn from you every day. And I hope you too, dear reader, will never stop trying to get better. Hold yourself accountable, but don’t blame yourself. Be your own best friend. End of cheesiness and see you again next month.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

One reply on “Monthly Review: May 2022”

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