Book review Film review What I read

Monthly Review: January 2023

What I read and wrote and published and how I fared

What I Read:

The Andromeda Strain (1969). Michael Crichton.

I’d watched the 1971 film back in college: when I began reading the book, I still remembered with shivers the chilling image of powder-dry blood falling from the victims’ opened veins. The book is high-concept but oddly-paced with structural flaws: several storylines on which we spend a while go nowhere; and, after we’ve spent the whole book following in exhaustive detail the problem-solving of a group of scientists in an underground facility, the problem of the alien invasion/contamination solves itself, rendering everything we’ve watched pointless. We also never learn the whys or wherefores of the contamination. Bits of action and thrilling moments are interspersed with long tracts of somewhat dull exposition or scientific study. The book does excellent work distilling advanced scientific concepts into bite-sized chunks of clear explication, but as a story it’s subpar.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2002). Steven Pressfield. Heard this cleverly-named book recommended on the Joe Rogan podcast in an interview with the author. In tiny, aphoristic chapters, and unapologetically spiritual language, Pressfield describes the various forms ‘Resistance’ can take – procrastination, addiction to material goods, low self-esteem, grandiose fantasies that replace action, etc. Pressfield insists that the only way to break Resistance and commence a steady relationship with one’s Muse is to do one’s Work – heed one’s calling and then show up every day.

Pressfield says here that this is his first nonfiction book, and that one of the barriers he himself had to overcome was the voice in his head telling him that he was not a nonfiction writer. The War of Art is in fact a pretty unconventional nonfiction book. The chapters are extremely short, most of them a single paragraph, and the terminology is unabashedly mystical. Pressfield is not only religious, he seems to believe in the Muses, and a person’s Vocation, and their Resistance, as tangible entities. To the sceptical atheist reader these entities come across not as psychological but as supernatural realities. While the vocabulary of the book may take some getting used to, its message is sound. Pressfield observes that every creator faces the problem of internal blockages, which he broadly calls Resistance. He considers resistance consanguineous with the Freudian death wish. He discusses why it’s important for every person who has a vocation to follow it, briefly analysing the devastating effects that emanate from a vocation or passion thwarted. (As a case study, he cites Hitler. Hackneyed but effective.) He offers anecdotes from his own life to illustrate how universal Resistance is, and how it keeps cropping up even for an established, successful creator. The War of Art is a very quick read, but worth back dipping into for inspiration at those moments when your own inspiration is calling but you haven’t the courage to respond.

Transactions In A Foreign Currency (1986). Deborah Eisenberg.

I read Eisenberg’s short story “Your Duck Is My Duck” on Electric Lit above a year ago and downloaded her collected stories. Transactions is the first published collection of this doyenne of the short story. All seven stories are written in first person, following the lives of women of different ages and in different circumstances – from an English socialite to an American teenager. The first few stories are studiously external: the protagonist – generally a clumsy, self-conscious person – remains a mystery to herself. In the next few stories Eisenberg eases up, and the action begins to serve as a voyage inwards. In “A Lesson in Travelling Light,” a young woman living with an older man deals with insecurity and the looming end of their relationship. In the titular story, the narrator/protagonist deals with the death of her mother by vacationing in an unnamed Latin American country. She despises her hosts, American expatriates who wash their dirty laundry in public and host regular, clearly desperate parties. At the end of the story, she reaches over the gulf of her own bereavement to acknowledge her hosts’ common humanity.

Psmith, Journalist (1915). P. G. Wodehouse.

I’m a fan of the Jeeves and Wooster stories and novels, but this is my first Psmith novel. Psmith is a wealthy young English college student vacationing in New York City. He decides on a whim to take up journalism. He backs a small weekly newspaper, reports on shocking living conditions in a slum owned by a millionaire businessman (who’s also up for alderman elections), and finds himself embroiled, along with acting editor Windsor, in criminal doings. The duo leap from fire to frying pan, facing whole armies of armed ruffians, but escape unscathed thanks to Psmith’s fabulous cool and ingenuity.

The combination of comedy and action and witticism in this novel does not quite work. The premise & interest of the whole novel is that Windsor’s and Psmith’s lives are continually endangered. But Psmith is always so perfectly in command of the situation that nothing ever really happens. Smith’s poised, fluent persona remains entirely in charge of the situation: it’s as if he’s staging the whole thing for his own entertainment. There’s no real sense of suspense. You know from the first that he’ll come out on top, and he does so with devices that – being often concealed from the reader, and narrated by Psmith only after the fact – seem increasingly improbable and unsatisfactory. Though this book is so short and easy to read, I lost interest in it about 2/3 of the way through, and had to entice myself into finishing it. This doesn’t happen in the Jeeves and Wooster novels: those are similarly episodic, but there are no trailing plot threads, and the situations in which Bertie is entangled seem genuinely hopeless, creating a real sense of tension, however comic. There the comic tone doesn’t detract from the plot, which is very low-stakes: at worst Bertie will be forced to get married and Jeeves dismissed. In those stories you know from the start that this won’t happen, yet there is genuine interest in finding out how Jeeves will avert disaster. Whereas in Psmith, Journalist, the stakes are high, and call for resolution through realistic plot devices. But the only plot device that Wodehouse has is Psmith’s superhuman sangfroid. His personality outweighs all the guns and muscle of all the New York gangs put together. This does not make for satisfying reading.

What I Wrote:

Revising “Growing Pains,” now a novella. WIP – will take several more weeks.

Edited “The Toy Soldier” (15k). Mostly minor edits.

Drafted micros: “Dig,” “Hiccup,” and “Peace.”

Drafted “The Cure” (3k), a speculative short story.

Edited 100-word stories: Dig, Hiccup, Peace, Fun, Moan, Friend, Change, Control, Dig, Love Addicts Anonymous, Rage, Don’t Tell.

Edited micros: Walking, Time, and Peace.

Drafted flash story: Oasis.

Revised “The Problem” (now 1,500 words) & The Cure (still a 3k). Replanned “Oasis” & “Conversations: The Maid.”

Reread & slightly edited outline of Shoes (5k); ready to draft.

What I Published:

Mean Pepper Vine accepted and published “The Why and the How.” This story has been previously published in Bewildering Stories, where it was awarded Best Fiction in the 2022 third-quarterly review. Mean Pepper Vine has previously published my flash collection “One Day.” Thank you to Chandrika Ramakrishnan from the Internet Writing workshop for telling me about Mean Pepper Vine.

My short stories “Courage Anniversary” and “Re:Birth” are out in the latest issue of Caustic Frolic, run by the Experimental Humanities department of NYU. Here are the stories on the site and in the beautifully-designed PDF version.

My short story “Night” was published in the original 6,000-word version in The Chamber Magazine (published in June 2022, but I found out about it only now).

“Night” is out in The Dalhousie Review’s Summer 2022 Issue (The India Issue). I received my two contributor copies in late January; didn’t know the issue was out. The online edition is available only to paying subscribers; I’ve reposted the story on my site in its original version.

My microstory “DIY” is out in Fairfield Scribes Microfiction Issue #25.

My flash story “The Revolutionaries” was published in Bewildering Stories” Issue #979.

How I Fared:

A pretty productive month until the last week when I caught another cold and sore throat. The air pollution is getting to me, punishing me for walking outdoors – my sensitive respiratory tract makes me prone to infections when exposed to polluted air. In the winter mornings the smog even here in the suburbs is a thing to see. (There are factories and open-air rubbish-burning lots within breathing distance.) Exercising outdoors is supposed to be good for you, and it’s 100x more enjoyable than exercising indoors, and when I try to do something for my health and it backfires because we humans are fucking up the planet – it’s too exasperating to talk about. So I shan’t.

Rewatched Amadeus (1984), which we watched in Music Appreciation class in high school. I appreciate the frame story better now; I feel in my heart the agony of the studious, chaste, boring little talentless man; and, being a little less priggish than I was in my teens, I’ve come slowly to realise the importance of having fun (ugh) for good art. A fun film, with insightful portraits of two compelling characters, mostly steering clear of caricature. A colourful, wonderful, thoughtful, beautifully-paced, uplifting film.

Rewatched Arrival (2016), which I’d watched around the time it released, though not in the theatre. Enjoyed it thoroughly. Understated, focussed, intensely moving. An examination of communication: how it’s foundational to civilisation and to interpersonal relationships, and how its breakdown can end worlds. The film feels taut and spare, but this main theme is well-layered: we can for instance compare how Louise communicates with Ian vs. with her daughter about her daughter’s condition, and how communication breaks down both among the humans, and between the humans and the aliens.

This is science fiction at its best: the integration of stories at different scales is mostly effective, and the time travel sort of makes sense – while you’re watching it, if not entirely afterwards as you piece together the loopy timeline. (Why does Louise Banks forget how she managed to change the general’s mind? Just a plot device to justify exposition?) I’m also not sure if the protagonist’s decision to have this particular child, knowing what she knew, is justifiable. (Why not adopt a child, or have the embryo tested? Having a child today is a morally iffy proposition at the best of times; when you know you’re bringing misery into the world, the proposition becomes more than speckled with gray.)

Began watching Rescue Dawn (2006), because I wanted to watch a Christian Bale movie. This phenomenal actor has been in a lot of strangely mediocre or outright bad films. I’ve already watched Thor 4 (shittiest film I’ve watched in years) and also Ford v. Ferrari & The Fighter (good films, but I’d never have watched sports films but for CB), and I’ve also watched most of the other decent or good CB films (including Empire of the Sun and Little Women), so my choices were slim. Watched the first 40-odd minutes; grim; hope to return to it someday.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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