Book review

Monthly Review: July 2022 (The Red & the Black; A Swim in the Pond in the Rain)

Read: Stendhal & George Saunders. Wrote: a fair bit of short fiction. Fared: energetic, optimistic, & focussed, bordering on manic territory.

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What I Read:

Stendhal’s The Red & the Black: A Chronicle of 1830 (1830). I read & loved Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma in secondary school. The Red & the Black is a masterpiece of psychological realism. Young Julien Sorel, 19-year-old son of a lumbermill owner in provincial Verrieres, admires Napoleon and longs for military glory, but shrewdly decides that the church is this epoch’s path to greatness. His Latin scholarship, handsome appearance, and expert hypocrisy open up doors: he becomes tutor in aristocratic families. He’s distracted from the pursuit of fame by women. He doesn’t exactly have a weakness for them: he considers it his duty as a hero-in-training to court the noble ladies he’s surrounded by. For this young peasant with a massive chip on his shoulder, passion doesn’t precede courtship: it succeeds it. The result is hilarity and tragedy, all executed with immense depth and realism of analysis. This novel documents the decidedly counterrevolutionary, even reactionary politics of aristocratic circles in the post-Napoleonic era. The portraits of Julien, M. and Mme. de Renal, and Mathilde de la Mole are vivid, distinct, and unforgettable.

George Saunders’ A Swim in A Pond in the Rain. Recommended by my critique partner and friend Anna Chapman. I’ve only read one or two of Saunders’s short stories; they didn’t make an impression on me; I need to revisit his fiction after this. Rain offers a masterclass in reading & writing great short fiction by analysing seven short stories by the Russian masters (three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Gogol and Turgenev). Saunders doesn’t subscribe here to any school of literary criticism; rather, he invites readers to analyse how each story develops momentum, escalates the action, builds causality, reveals character, plays with form to serve function, and uses structure to present a taut and unified whole. Saunders also offers exercises in editing to help solidify some important lessons. His style throughout is conversational, accessible, and sprinkled with numerous apt analogies and colourful anecdotes. I’ve only recently begun reading books on writing. This one (as well as Bird by Bird) have been enormously helpful. Rain is based on the class Saunders offers to a select group of students each year at Syracuse. Working through this book feels as good as attending an excellent writing workshop. It is very much a workbook: you’ll need to read and reread, and work through the exercises, to fully benefit from it.

Caught up with some podcasts: listened to Oliver Burkeman (excellent perspective on time management) and Judd Apatow on Sam Harris’s Making Sense; also listened to a couple of episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell’s podcast style resembles that of his books: he introduces one topic and cast of characters, then jumps to another totally different one, then explains the connection b/w the two units, & draws lessons. This style can get somewhat wearying. In his interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, Gladwell explains that he feels the need to tell multiple stories in one book (or, I’m guessing, podcast episode) because he doesn’t trust his powers enough to tell one story in one book. A couple of the episodes were relatively focussed & enjoyable: e.g. the episode on extraordinary, accurate, & affordable disease-detecting powers of dogs’ noses; and the one on how Proctor & Gamble are developing detergents that work in cold water, & that therefore eliminate the primary environmental cost of doing loads of laundry. (This was the claim, which I’m sceptical about.) On the Tim Ferriss show, listened to parts of the episodes featuring Bill Burr & Jack Kornfeld. Bill Burr’s angry onstage energy & misogynistic content puts me off; I watch standup comedy to unwind, so I like a mellow presence; in the interview he sounds refreshingly sane & thoughtful. Jack Kornfeld talks among other things about how we can balance the urge to work for the wider good w/ servicing the relationships closest to us; he also offers a fun & easy guided meditation exercise.

What I Wrote:

Edited “S vs. D” (17k); submitted it to a few places; sent it to critique partners; got some critiques. This will need another revision before I include it in the novella collection; I will wait for more critiques before I revisit this.

Outlined “Love in the Jungle” (7500) based on a plot/story from some months ago, and a world/characters I created back in secondary school (inspired by a high-fantasy TBS RPG, Age of Wonders). Drafted and edited: drafted this over three days, & began each session by editing what I’d written the day before; this took a while, but the final product was worthwhile, & I’m going to follow this tactic, discussed by many writers, for my own writing. Editing while I draft provides continuity (so I don’t repeat what’s come before, or go offtrack), & also results in a better ‘first’ draft, more quickly overall, I suspect, that drafting then editing. Sent to CPs. Got critique. I think this is ready to submit to lit mags this week.

Conceptualised, outlined, & drafted “Hope” (3000). Sent it to critique partners; got some crits; needs a rewrite.

Drafted “Retreat” (2000) from a plot/story some weeks ago. Sent it to critique partners; got some crits; needs minor revisions before subs this week.

Wrote “The Racist” (100). Got some critiques. Some readers don’t get the title; others think it makes things too obvious. Dilemma.

Worked on reconceptualising and outlining Evening. This will now be a novel, which I was apprehensive about, as I’ve never successfully finished a novel: I’ve either been stuck on the draft, or I’ve finished drafts and not revised them. But this novel is far more simple, concrete, & focussed than the others I’ve ventured on over the years (excepting a Batman novel I drafted around age 11, which was also nice & simple). So I think I can handle it. I’m creating a detailed outline, going slow (I’m working several hours a day, but thinking hard, testing the ground under my feet, so progress is slow.) I’ve got the majority of the outlining & conceptualising done; will continue working on this every alternate week till I finish it. Novels are a big majority of what I read, and have read all my life, so I am excited, but I’m reining in my enthusiasm, & going slow, so that I can do it right this time.

What I Published:

My novelette “To Decide Or Not to Decide” (10,000 words) was published in the Summer 2022 issue of The Courtship of the Winds :

The issue:

My story:

I drafted this novelette last year; the story was inspired by trips my family & I took around locked down Bangalore to look for a place to get vaccinated; we faced similar Kafkaesque problems using the national online database to find vaccines. It was critiqued in two rounds on IWW’s Fiction list and by my critique partner Anna Chapman.

The micro/flash fiction collection “One Day” (3,800 words) is out at Mean Pepper Vine.

Worked with The Dalhousie Review on edits of “Night.” The editors suggested cutting out 2,200 words out of 6,000; I agreed. Revisions bore me, and I trust the judgment of editors at a good mag: they’d already cut the sections out for me in Track Changes mode; all I had to do was Accept Changes. Page proofs are due soon.

My flash story “Backsides” (1,000) drafted this spring was accepted by CEA’s Mid-Atlantic Review, published by Bowie State University.

My short story “Forgive” (3,000) was accepted by The Bombay Lit Mag. This story was drafted last autumn and revised a couple of times this year.

Submitted to lit mags / novella publishers: “S vs. D” (17k); “Mosquito” (100); subbed to a couple more places these recently subbed stories: “The City,” “Backsides,” and recent micros. Did not sub previously pubbed pieces for reprint, as planned – may do so this week.

How I Fared:

Very busy; no depressive episodes this month. Did a lot of reading & writing. On the other hand, I now have my plate full, & need to avoid swinging in the other direction. I am determined to finish a book by year’s end, ready to start submitting to agents & pubs. As of now, this project looks doable – I’ve assigned stories to weeks or months to plan, draft, or revise. Ideally all or most of the pieces will also have been published by good mags by year’s end. (All the ones I’ve finished so far have already been published.)

In order to get a long uninterrupted session to write, I’ve been experimenting with going to bed around 6 or 7 pm, and getting up seven or eight hours later, between 1:30am and 3am (as opposed to my usual wakeup time of 4am). This does work, but leaves me tired for work. But this I can generally manage with mindfulness & just going slow. I’ve also got two new critique partners, who’re reading the stories for me: so lots of email & critique-reading for me to catch up on. My new obligations at work are taking up some time, but hopefully things will settle down soon & the students will handle most of the work.

I’ve been looking after my health rigorously to support all this work, & it’s paying off. A student last semester recommended magnesium supplements, which I am now taking religiously (along w/ my old habit of multivitamins, omega-3s, & zinc; I’ve also added iron). I’m exercising almost every day, even or especially when tired: I long since realised that daily, vigorous physical is essential to my cognitive functioning and mental health. Above all, I think quitting my caffeine addiction has helped. I’ve not had a drop of coffee since I quit; I no longer feel tempted. It’s startling to find that my energy levels are better than when I was mainlining coffee. This observation – besides the three days of nausea and intense, throbbing headaches I had during my detox – confirm that I truly was addicted. Interestingly, I can handle alcohol occasionally w/o getting hooked again. (I quit drinking in 2019: I was drinking every day, & realised I was psychologically addicted) but not coffee: probably b/c I crave energy more than I crave relaxation – though, again paradoxically, I have more trouble relaxing than getting energised. I wasn’t drinking enough alcohol to experience any withdrawal effects: the problem was that alcohol had become my only coping mechanism.) Whereas I was drinking so much coffee that it had become a chore, an obligation, an aversive taste, a source of occasional mild nausea. So I accept that, just as members of Alcoholics Anonymous accepts that he can never drink alcohol – that I can never again drink coffee.

So all in all I’m feeling energetic & focussed. I need to pace myself on these two projects – short story collection & novel – so that I don’t burn myself out into another depressive episode.

Overall things are going well: I celebrated my birthday this month, & this was perhaps the first time as an adult that I’ve not hated celebrating it: for I feel that I’m finally inching towards one of the only two goals I’ve ever had: to be a great writer. (The other goal, doing something for the environment, remains unfulfilled, a constant source of anxiety and guilt.) I prefer to celebrate my accomplishments rather than my birthdays, but this year I felt that I’d accomplished enough to not resent having grown another year older.

How was your July? What have you been reading & writing? I’d love to hear from you.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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