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Book review

Monthly Review: June 2022

What I read, wrote, & published, & how I fared.

What I Read:

Anita Saran’s novella City of Victory (2009). This story set in Vijaynagar (Hampi) in the 16th-century reign of King Krishna Deva Raya mostly follows the adventures of four women: queen Nagala Devi, a former courtesan; Jehaan, an Egyptian girl captured and forced into the king’s harem; Meherbaanu, a Muslim woman who has discovered Buddhism; and the Vish Kanya, a woman in the king’s employ who seduces his enemies and kills them with her poisonous touch: a combination of Mata Hari and Rappaccini’s daughter. The events follow the days before the king’s death and the subsequent sati of all his woman.

City of Victory has some picturesque language that evokes the striking landscape: “Amidst these, temples and pavilions sprang as though born from earth, in complete harmony with the pink and ochre rocks that seemed to be flung about as in a giant playpen.” But much of the characterisation is done via speech and the characters narrating their own backstory; the pacing is awkward, with sections shifting between narrators; and the plot is mixed up: we’re introduced to Jehaan’s lover, but he turns out a fantasy and we hear no more of him; and too many rivalries and characters are introduced for a novella, and without being adequately fleshed out: catamites and eunuchs in the harem, and rivalries among the women.

Nonetheless, this novella is easy and pleasant to read, and the short story version was selected by BBC Radio 4 as among the top five historical novels set in Hampi, and was read aloud on their channel.

(City of Victory is available for free on Kindle Unlimited, and the writer, Anita Saran, is probably the coolest person I know: ex-fashion model & copywriter, now a writer & artist, patroness of strat dogs, passionate Buddhist, postmistress of seizing the day: a woman endlessly reinventing herself, a sexagenarian with the heart of a child and the wisdom of the river from Siddharta.)

Reread Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1903). I’d read this as a kid, one of the few proper children’s books I read, & I loved it then & love it now. Interesting characters, each sympathetic, w/ virtues & flaws: Toad the vainglorious but goodhearted, foolhardy but resourceful; Mole the emotional but intelligent; Rat the slow-to-catch-on but generous; and Badger who is bold and commanding, though shabby and coarse-mannered. Each chapter is a story in itself – similar to another children’s classic, Little Women – but Toad’s adventures also lend the whole book a unity. There’s room for adventure, nature, mysticism (I love the chapters featuring Pan & the Sea-Rat), lots of food and drink, friendship, and emotion: so much emotion! The heart of fiction, which some contemporary & modern writers shy away from. Rereading this book was a bracing reminder of what I want to aim for in my own writing: to move the reader.

Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money (2020). Two students presented this to me so I had to read it. Housel is a financial analyst. The writing’s wanting, and the analysis is not very sophisticated. The book’s thesis is: ‘People act irrationally with money.’ Main takeaway: ‘Save money. Save lots. Save even if you haven’t a concrete reason to save.’ This is excellent advice, and going forward I intend to save an even greater percentage of my income, and to minimise that part of my spending which doesn’t maximise my net utility – but you’ll have to sit through a series of narratives told without adequate detail or analysis. Without an overarching theory of the psychology of money, these anecdotes read like so many unconnected fragments.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). My first DeLillo. This novel follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney and his family in small-town USA: fictitious Blacksmith, set in New England or the Midwest. Gladney is the American pioneer of Hitler Studies, and heads his department at the College-on-the-Hill. He has two secrets: he doesn’t speak German, and he worries constantly about death. Constituting Gladney’s family are his fourth wife Babette, who shares this worry; and four of the couple’s children from previous marriages. White Noise documents an eventful period in American history: mass consumerism has redefined the suburban landscape, with massive malls on the highway where an old couple gets lost overnight, as in a jungle, and also with rising rates of overweight; artificial chemicals are in the air and water, threatening human life so frequently that a whole new government department has been established to simulate spills and organise preparedness-and-evacuation drills; the pharmaceutical industry is medicalising universal phenomena such as fear of death, to treat these aspects of the human condition with fabulously over-engineered products; the family is fragmenting, creating well-travelled, worldly-wise precocious children; and academia has devolved into the study of trivia: the novel’s cultural-commentator-in-residence, Murray Jay Suskind, teaches undergraduate courses on Elvis Presley and “Car Crashes in Film.” As such, White Noise is an important document of its time, narrated with humour, irony, a brisk pace, colourful characters, and striking language. Some excerpts:

“There is an expressway beyond the backyard now, well below us, and at night as we settle into our brass bed the sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream.”

“Babette is tall and fairly ample; there is a girth and heft to her. Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond. If she were a petite woman, the hair would be too cute, too mischievous and contrived. Size gives her tousled aspect a certain seriousness. Ample women do not plan such things. They lack the guile for conspiracies of the body.”

“What a surprise it was to ease my way between people at the outer edges of one of the largest clusters and discover that my own son was at the centre of things, speaking in his newfound voice, his tone of enthusiasm for runaway calamity. He was talking about the airborne toxic event in a technical way, although his voice all but sang with prophetic disclosure. He pronounced the name itself, Nyodene Derivative, with an unseemly relish, taking morbid delight in the very sound. People listened attentively to this adolescent boy in a field jacket and cap, with binoculars strapped around his neck and an Instamatic fastened to his belt. No doubt his listeners were influenced by his age. He would be truthful and earnest, serving no special interest; he would have an awareness of the environment; his knowledge of chemistry would be fresh and up-to-date.”

White Noise suffers from the lack of a clear arc; it’s a short novel but I struggled to get through it. An interesting opening devolves into a series of vignettes featuring interesting characters having interesting conversations without any real momentum building. Soon enough, the arc seems to become: Who will die first: Gladney or Babette? This is a somewhat lame & generic arc, but okay, I kept reading. White Noise has plenty of incidents involving brushes with death, but none of them really cohere into an exploration of character. The novel’s climactic incident (during which the white noise appears) seems deliberately designed as an anticlimax, which is fine for this borderline magic realist ironical novel – but this incident’s fallout is also inconsistent with the character we’ve come to know, & with reality. (Attempted murder in a small town, and no police investigation? Not even the family comes to know?) The book’s incidents also fail to provide any resolution of the underlying psychological issues that have been developed so well: the couple’s fear of death; Murray’s fascination w/ consumer culture contrasted w/ his insistence on buying only white-packaged generic products; Heinrich’s precocity, his morbid interests, & his contempt for the poverty of adult knowledge; the family’s amusing & realistic tendency to have nonsense conversations where they confidently make up facts. And what becomes of Gladney’s secret German lessons, his tutor’s increasingly isolated lifestyle, Murray the former metropolitan libertine now living a chaste and small life in Blacksmith, Wilder the mentally retarded sweet-tempered child, Denise the perceptive, and Steffie the sensitive? None of the storylines begun and concerns raised by the novel is resolved. This might possibly make for a satisfying short story, but it does not make for a satisfying novel.

What I Wrote:

Continued working on edits of “Evening” (novella). Needs a restructure.

Drafted “Mosquito” (100 words); got critiques; edited.

Outlined a new draft of “The Ants Are Thirsty” based on critiques of the 1k; it’s a 12k now & needs more work.

Finished redrafting “Midnight Blue,” now called “S vs. D” (17k); ready to submit. This is too long for my short story collection so I’ll put this into a collection of novellas I’m writing & revising in parallel. Will get myself to focus mostly on these for the rest of this year, so that I can finish one or both – I’m always tempted to follow new ideas & draft new stories rather than revise old ones, but it’s necessary if I want to get a book ready to send to publishers.

Began working on revising of “Trap” (1k). Needs substantial work.

What I Published:

The Dalhousie Review accepted “Night” (6,000 words). They’ve suggested some revisions, which I’ve not yet looked at – just got the email – but, whatever they are, I’ll make them. A good mag & an old one. This story was previously accepted by another mag; I’m glad I held out for something better. I’m learning to write better stories, so I am developing in parallel the self-confidence to trust that my stories will find good homes.

Mean Pepper Vine accepted my microstory collection “One Day” (3,800 words) for their July issues. I worked with them on proofs. Lovely people, & the mag pays.

Need to submit in July (will do in the next couple of days): “S vs. D” (10k); “Mosquito” (100), & the following previously published pieces for which I want to find second homes: “Courage Anniversary” (2100); “The Why & the How” (3k); “The Photograph” (2k); “How to Catch a Bee” (1k); “Trio” (500; a play); “Rush” (2400); “They Told My Friend” (1k); and “Re:Birth” (3500).

How I Fared:

Had most of June off: summer hols at work. Had grand plans to read lots & revise/write lots; in the end, only worked on a couple of pieces, & only finished one substantial piece: “S vs. D” (17k). Didn’t read too much, either. But am having my eyes opened (& I hope, soon, benefitting enormously) from George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an analysis of the craft of reading & writing short fiction. More on this when I finish.

Had another low period: was too holed up. Decided to use it to quit caffeine, for good this time. I get addicted very easily to anything, & had developed a physiological dependence on caffeine. Had done detoxes before; now I’m quitting. I’ve begun developing other means to stay engaged & alert: a variety of them, so that I don’t get addicted to any one: a snatch of music; a range herbs to infuse and sip through the day instead of coffee; and the beginnings of a mindfulness practice.

Work resumes tomorrow, & I’ve learned to kind of look forward to it: for I tend to get more writing & reading done when I have to go to work, when time is short. I love writing, but I guess I feel more urgently about it: like when an interpersonal relationship feels more precious, & you give more to it, when you know your time is limited. I’ve always been this way: when I have too much time, I waste much of it & get depressed. Work is the memento mori that I clearly need in order to write & read & live better; for that I am grateful. My error during hols was not to set up other mementoes mori, such as making nonnegotiable plans to go out etc. I did go out a couple of times.

Do you do your writing or other work better when you have a strict timeline or other obligation to remind you that time is short? I’d love to hear from you on this or another topic. On another note, I’m looking for more critique partners for my short fiction (anything from micros to novellas). I write mostly contemporary realist literary fiction; occasionally I write magic realism. If you’re also a writer & reader of this genre, & would like to explore a critique partnership, please contact me through the Contact Form below. We can exchange samples of our writing to see if we’re a good fit.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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