An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth [1929/48] by Mohandas K. Gandhi – ★★★★★
In this frank, unputdownable autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi talks about his life, from his upbringing in India (including child marriage) and travel to the UK (to study law) to actions in India, and thoughts on everything, from his relationship with his wife, to the WWI, religion and racism. I particularly appreciated book passages on his vegetarianism and Gandhi’s comments on introversion. Rather than it being a weakness or some “fault”, it helped him to establish that “quiet power” to conquer hearts and minds, and try to lead people to a better life; a very philosophical and deeply honest book with important life lessons.
Letter from an Unknown Woman  by Stefan Zweig – ★★★★★
This short novella was a heart-breaking read and probably goes well with the film of the same name by Max Ophüls. It is as much a story of hidden and forbidden passion as it is a tale about coming to terms with life disappointments and acknowledging people affected by one’s spur-of-the-moment whims and short-lived desires.
Thus Were Their Faces  by Silvina Ocampo – ★★★★1/2
This book by an Argentinian author contains a selection of surrealist short stories – “the tales of cruelty”. Gothic, strange and downright disturbing, the stories focus on malicious children, deranged-by-passion lovers, the supernatural and superstitions, exploring identity in particular through curious angles; although there are some repetitions, abrupt endings and the writing may not suit everyone, it is an enjoyable collection recommended in particular for lovers of magical realism, or for fans of Franz Kafka, Adolfo Bioy Casares or Jorge Luis Borges.
Look at Me  by Anita Brookner – ★★★★
I noticed this book on Radhika’s Reading Retreat, and because I previously enjoyed Brookner’s Hotel du Lac  and Look at Me is now said to have similarities with Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange , I decided to try it out. In this story, Frances Hinton is a librarian working at a medical research institute. Living only with her aging nanny, quiet and shy Frances longs for a different life for herself, that kind of a life where she gains some spotlight for herself, escapes dullness and can have interesting things in it. When a handsome couple, Alix and Nick, invite her into their circle, Frances is thrilled, but what could be the cost of that invitation? Another person also soon attaches himself to the group – James, a handsome doctor. Can Frances also hope for some personal happiness? Anita Brookner delves into the internal psychology of her character, and Frances’s superior observational abilities mean that the read is fascinating, even if deeply sad. The novel tries to show what it may feel like to live in the shadow of other, more successful, people, being torn constantly between hope and despair, and what could be the consequences of being engulfed in the fantasy of other people’s lives. Still Me is a beautifully-written book and a penetrating look at loneliness and the desire to fit it.
The Impossible Planet  by Philip K. Dick – ★★★★
This short story was first published in the magazine Imagination in 1953. In a very distant future, a three hundred and fifty year-old woman has her dying wish – to see and visit planet Earth. She is one of the original settlers of the Riga inter-planetary system. Only there is a problem: there is no such planet in existence (“it’s a myth, and this has been proven a thousand times“). Planet Earth is considered to be simply “the legendary birthplace of the human race“, and not a scientific fact. However, in return for her wish, the elderly lady offers a considerable amount of money to some space officers who finally decide to help the woman, or do they? This story may be under ten pages, but it is an enjoyable cautionary tale nevertheless. Philip K. Dick can always be counted on when it comes to delivering sci-fi wonder mixed with irony and mind-boggling paradoxes.
Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital  by Alex Beam – ★★★1/2
This non-fiction book is about McLean Hospital in New England, “one of America’s oldest and most prestigious mental hospitals” [Beam, 2001: 1], whose residents once included mathematician John Nash and authors Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted ) and Sylvia Path (The Bell Jar ). Comprised of beautiful Tudor mansions and set in a picturesque area, the institution became the first mental hospital in Boston and has been called a “cultural museum”. It also inspired Dennis Lehane’s thriller Shutter Island , and is an unusual mental hospital in many respects. McLean was known not only for its celebrity-patients and “moral treatment”, but also for its patient rooms furnished with every comfort, tennis courts, extensive gardens and free-standing cottages for its aristocratic clientele. From the hospital’s founding in 1811 to the late 1990s, Alex Beam traces the history of this institution, emphasising the contributions of different individuals on its development and how changes in the treatment of mental disorders throughout the two centuries impacted the running, structure and the organisation of McLean. We read both the doctors and the patients’ accounts.
Beam’s book may be chaotic and disjointed, but it is interesting, especially in its insights offered on the rise and decline of various popular treatments to treat mental disorders (and how McLean responded to various “medical treatment” trends), including lobotomy, electroshock therapy, hydrotherapies, psychoanalysis and drugs. The book ends with the overview of the 1970-90s, which “have been a time of trouble for full-service mental hospitals” [Beam, 2001: 233], since “the world has given up on long-term, residential mental health care”, in favour of “psychopharmacology…quick diagnoses [and] rapid drug prescriptions”.
Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices  by Lisa Charleyboy & Mary Leatherdale (ed.) – ★★★1/2
“This book stemmed from a desire to showcase real life of indigenous people. Not the life portrayed in mainstream media and certainly not the life of native people as it is seen through the lens of Hollywood [2014: 11], says the book introduction. This book is a compilation of poetry, lyrics, art and articles on a wide range of topics, including urban life, bullying, discrimination, stereotyping, poverty, drugs and the process of growing up, trying to demonstrate the issues that are of concern to the Native American population. There is much talent on display here, and, more importantly, the voice is genuine and comes from indigenous people themselves, who are a very diverse group of people with a variety of life experiences and living in different environments, from quiet small villages of Canada to hectic city centres of the US. The contributions come from lawyers, singers, poets, dancers, chefs and students, who all value their culture and find strength in their shared heritage. While some contributions are heart-breaking, others are inspirational.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule  by Rick Strassman – ★★★1/2
“Psychedelics affect every aspect of our consciousness. It is this unique consciousness that separates our species from all others…, and that gives us access to what we consider the divine above. Maybe that’s another reason why the psychedelics are so frightening and so inspiring: they bend and stretch the basic pillars, the structure and defining characteristics, of our human identity” [Strassman, 2000: 40].
This non-fiction book tells of a study conducted in the 1990s in New Mexico on the effects of DMT, “an extremely short acting and powerful psychedelic” [Strassman, 2000: xv]. DMT, which is closely related to serotonin and present naturally in human bodies, was administered intravenously to human participants whose reactions and sensations were then carefully recorded. In particular, Rick Strassman was looking for evidence of a “transcendent experience”. On DMT, his subjects experienced vivid visual and auditory hallucinations (“saw all sort of imaginable and unimaginable things“), and some reported a sense of awe, euphoria, timelessness, separation of consciousness from the body and the presence of “the other” in the room.
The book starts with a discussion of different types of drugs, their origin, composition and usage in various experiments throughout history, including so-called “magic mushrooms” and LSD. It then goes to discuss the nature of the experiment involving DMT, its aims and who were the participants. The following chapters talk about the participants’ reactions to the drug, their joy, fear and otherworldly feelings. Chapter 15 is particularly good since it talks about the link between DMT and the near-death experience, though it hardly arrives to any comprehensible idea in this respect. The problem is that DMT: The Spirit Molecule is not that interesting and not as eye-opening a book as one would have hoped. There is much more inside the book about the author’s biographical details and the boring nuts and bolts of the experiment itself than about the precise conclusions about DMT. “The three pillars of self, time, and space all undergo profound transfiguration in a mystical experience”, states the author, as though divulging to us some secret, previously unheard-of knowledge. DMT: The Spirit Molecule is also a controversial book in many respects, but, as the author states, at the very least it has the ability “to enlarge the discussion on psychedelics“.
The Farming of Bones  by Edwidge Danticat – ★★★
This historical fiction book centres on Amabelle, a Haitian-born girl and her lover Sebastian, and the action surrounds the real, violent Parsley Massacre of 1937. In this massacre, thousands and thousands of Haitian people lost their lives through being shot by Dominican troops on orders of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Perhaps this is an important book and Danticat does try to demonstrate the full effect of the massacre on various people, but I also thought that the characters were flat, the writing style leaves much to be desired, and the story never seemed to decide whether it wants to be historical fiction based on concrete facts or a dreamy fantasy.
The Musical Illusionist (and Other Tales)  by Alex Rose – ★★★
This book was compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths ) and Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ). It weaves together fantasy and fiction to produce an encyclopaedia of fantastical curiosities, with each chapter focusing on this or that oddity, fantastical place or imaginary object. Alex Rose plays with paradoxes, delves into mysterious manuscripts and talks about lost cities. For example, Rose talks about a real historical person Giovanni Battista Della Porta and his work on cryptography and dissects a mathematic problem “The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg”. Some chapters are devoted to curious mental abnormalities and illnesses, both completely imaginary and inspired by real cases, probably by the work of eminent American neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks. For example, we are told of a strange epidemic, survivors of which experience unusual “un-forgetfulness” and “acuity of memory” [Rose, 2007: 57]. The extent of it is so great that they no longer know what to do with their newly-acquired superhuman ability.
Although Borges and Calvino were clear inspirations, The Musical Illusionist actually reminded me of graphic novel L’ Archiviste (Les Cites Obscures) by François Schuiten and Benoit Peeters, which also contain fantastical vignettes focusing on strange curiosities around the world. At times it becomes difficult to distinguish what is a historical fact and what is the author’s own imagination in The Musical Illusionist. The book is thought-provoking and interesting, but also, unfortunately, rather shallow. The problem is that Alex Rose, who has a very active imagination, often adds his own “preposterousness” to each chapter, which is never as interesting as the real curious facts or the original source material. His additions also seem like a hurriedly put together Wikipedia page with generalisations, cherry-picking of information produced by others and all sorts of examples of “factual messiness”.
This month I also finished my Latin America Reading Challenge, which I started as far back as January 2020, but could not finish it by January 2021 because of my library closure and other unforeseen circumstances. I am happy it is completed now, though! See all the titles and the links to reviews here.