Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (2004-02-05)

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A Year in Reading: Arif Anwar

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I’m on track to have finished a book a week in 2021, which I’m happy with given that so much of my time is spoken for by family, work, and writing. I don’t like stuffing 100-plus books into a year like passengers in a rush hour subway car, leaving me unable to savor, reflect upon, or even mourn a memorable read. I am selective in what I read, sometimes strategic— a “selfish reader” who “consume[s] literature for the sustenance of my own writing,” as Anthony Veasna So put it last year. 

I’ve been writing my second novel for a year and a half now, starting in May 2020, the peak of the pandemic lockdowns when time was crushed into a colorless smear of minutes, hours, and days. A deadline of Dec. 31st and an approximate word count of 170,000 (it’s gonna be a big one) were my guiding stars in that grey mire, and Scrivener’s daily word count meter my sextant. Day after day after day I woke up, taught classes, hit my daily word count, and went to bed until I woke up on the day of my deadline, finally finished. The completed manuscript stood at nearly 700 pages.

In January 2021, I started the second draft with the objectively insane deadline of mid-May (which I met). Thankfully, I find second drafts (also shitty like my first) to be often easier. I’m currently on the third draft. Some of the books below contributed to the research I needed for this novel. Some I read for pleasure. 

I read in both Bangla and English, and although I read some excellent books in Bangla this year, only the English books are included in this list. I also read other books in 2021 that I enjoyed, including The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, Later by Stephen King, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I was fortunate to read an ARC of C.A. David’s How to Be a Revolutionary, which should garner attention with its themes of transnational uprisings and individual responsibility when it’s published in February 2022. In between books, I read manga by Junji Ito and Kentaro Miura. I watched a lot of TV, but only Succession and Midnight Mass stood out. As for movies, I watched very few but Blood Red Sky on Netflix was surprisingly good.

I don’t know if it’s common knowledge that Yeats liked lots of weird stuff. It didn’t make him stand out too much in contemporary Europe, as obsessing with the occult, the afterlife, ghosts and mediums (media?), and the like were at a peak 100 years ago—a spiritualist, romantic backlash against the rationalism of the two centuries prior. Monographs such as Gorski’s, while illuminating, must by necessity be deconstructive, which is ironic given Yeats’s lifelong obsession with the unity, refinement and ultimately, “transmutation” of the human soul.

Without Ezra Pound, James Joyce would have continued to write in obscurity in Dublin, his eyesight fading as quickly as his literary prospects, and T.S. Elliot would continue to toil in his day job at a bank, fretting over whether The Waste Land was good enough to garner attention. Pound was hawk-eyed in spotting talent and relentless in promoting the writers lucky to call him a friend. John Tytell focuses on the early color of Pound’s personality (he railed against the poetry of 1890’s as defined by “decayed lily verbiage” and “a riot of decayed fruit”) and his inexhaustible font of literary confidence and bravado (Yeats was taken aback but frequently accepted Pound’s respectful though intrepid feedback on his poetry). Pound’s well-documented anti-Semitism, unremarkable for the time, stood out for its virulence. His career ended in ignominy, with fascist rants against Jews on Mussolini’s Italian radio, then a 12-year period of institutionalization in America following the war, where he continued to write poetry.

I read Rumaan Alam’s (accidentally) timely Leave the World Behind early in the year. I was surprised by the book, built up as more of a subtle treatise on race relations in America than it ended up being. Alam’s solid, restrained prose, his light touch, ramp up dread well, but he is at his most effective when he beckons us to stare at the howling emptiness, the bottomless ennui girding the champagne-gold, retina-screened bourgeois life in America.

I love “genre” fiction, and read it as palate cleansers between “heavier” works. I picked up Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel having seen it on numerous summer reading lists. The Plot, as you can surmise, is about literary appropriation of the purest kind—the outright theft of a plot line. Korelitz treats the protagonist’s dilemma (whether to write a book whose plot he was told by the author who passed away before he could write it), if not with sympathy, but with the studied neutrality of someone who understands the ambition-driven stresses of the book world. As is required in this genre, there’s a twist at the end that you’ll see coming from a mile away and still be irritated by it when it happens. The book is at its best when it deals with not just the minutiae and aggravations of literary fame, but also the thrills and privileges that we writers are more susceptible to than we pretend.

The Patient Assassin tells the story of Marxist revolutionary Udham Singh, a survivor of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar. The legend (reinforced by a recently erected statue) is that he swore an oath holding the blood-soaked earth of the grounds where 1,000 peaceful protestors were gunned down in minutes at the order of Reginald Dyer, the British General tasked with restoring calm to a restive city. Reginald Dyer died before Udham could get to him. Ultimately, Udham’s path of vengeance would span more than 20 years and take him from India to Kenya to America and finally to England, where, one day in 1940, he would walk with a loaded gun into a speaking engagement by Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab. A journalist and an able writer, Anand scrapes off the barnacle of legend built up around the character of Udham to reveal a man who was more complicated than nationalist narratives would have us believe.

Disappearing Earth begins with the abduction of a pair of young sisters on the shores of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the principal city on the remote Kamchatka peninsula. The city is small, close knit, but tensions abound between the historically deprived aboriginal populations and settlers. As weeks and months pass following the abduction, relationships fracture like the narrative, into multiple points of views—from brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and significant others foundering in the wake of the kidnapping. Phillips makes the forbiddingly beautiful landscape the star and anchor while handling the many characters with a deftness that is astounding for a first-time novelist. This book is a rare thing: a true “literary thriller.”

Meditations was a re-read. I keep going back to the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. The timeless nature of this volume is aided by Gregory Hays’s translation, which puts the Roman Emperor’s observations on life and our duties to the living world in simple, unadorned language highlighting Aurelius’s “unrestrained moderation.” Aurelius can be grim: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Martially eloquent: “Not a dancer but a wrestler; waiting, poised and dug in, for sudden assaults”;  “The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him.” Wry: “You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it.” Bleak: “Blot out your imagination. Turn your desires to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself.”; “Everything in flux. And you too will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well,” before blooming with hope at the world’s joys and beauty as when he yearns “not for a cistern, but a spring,” finding life, like other stoics, in water: “Dig deep; the water—goodness—is download there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.” 

I wish East African authors were more widely read in the West, as this is a region with a rich literary history. Weep Not Child is Gikuyu author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s first book, a tale of brothers weighing loyalties in the backdrop of the Mau Mau Uprising. Njoroge, the younger, simply wants to attend school, to be lettered, while Kamau’s motivations are more complicated. There is a scene at the beginning where their father tells Kamau and Njoroge the Gikuyu creation myth where Murungu the Creator gives the tree of life and all the lands it illuminates to Gikuyu, the first man, and Mumbi, the first woman. Ngotho, the storyteller, a sharecropper working the lands of the white farmer Mr. Howland, loses himself in his own story, contemplating the creator’s words, when he is snapped back to this world by Njoroge’s simple question: “Where did the land go?”

Orlando was another re-read. Woolf’s hero was allegedly inspired by her long affair with Vita Sackville-West, and looking at photos of both, I am struck by how alike the two women look. The eponymous protagonist is a flame flickering and dancing to the winds of the Elizabethan age, possessing wealth and power but not what they desire the most: literary fame, their North Star no matter what body they find themselves inhabiting. My favorite passage remains Woolf’s uncanny recounting of the Great Frost of 1608, a time when “[b]irds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground, [c]orpses […] could not be drawn from the sheets” and standing on the Thames, which froze to a depth of 20 feet, one could see boatmen and women encased in the ice below.

I love alternate history novels, but good books in this genre are rare. The last memorable one I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which could drag more often than not. Civilizations is Laurent Binet’s third book, and one of my favorite reads this year. Binet’s 16th-century Peru is already seeded with steel and old-world disease antibodies from earlier Viking excursions into the Americas. In a brilliant literary sleight of hand, Binet uses these advantages to flip Pizarro’s brutal conquest of Peru by instead bringing the Inca Emperor Atahualpa to Europe, where he subsequently leads a conquest of the Iberian peninsula with only a handful of soldiers, sparking a transformation on the continent and a three-way tussle between the Lutherans, Catholics, and the new adherents of the Religion of the Sun.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

I’ve been writing my second novel for a year and a half now, starting in May 2020, the peak of the pandemic lockdowns when time was crushed into a colorless smear of minutes, hours, and days. A deadline of Dec. 31st and an approximate word count of 170,000 (it’s gonna be a big one) were my guiding stars in that grey mire, and Scrivener’s daily word count meter my sextant. Day after day after day I woke up, taught classes, hit my daily word count, and went to bed until I woke up on the day of my deadline, finally finished. The completed manuscript stood at nearly 700 pages.

In January 2021, I started the second draft with the objectively insane deadline of mid-May (which I met). Thankfully, I find second drafts (also shitty like my first) to be often easier. I’m currently on the third draft. Some of the books below contributed to the research I needed for this novel. Some I read for pleasure. 

I read in both Bangla and English, and although I read some excellent books in Bangla this year, only the English books are included in this list. I also read other books in 2021 that I enjoyed, including The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, Later by Stephen King, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I was fortunate to read an ARC of C.A. David’s How to Be a Revolutionary, which should garner attention with its themes of transnational uprisings and individual responsibility when it’s published in February 2022. In between books, I read manga by Junji Ito and Kentaro Miura. I watched a lot of TV, but only Succession and Midnight Mass stood out. As for movies, I watched very few but Blood Red Sky on Netflix was surprisingly good.

I don’t know if it’s common knowledge that Yeats liked lots of weird stuff. It didn’t make him stand out too much in contemporary Europe, as obsessing with the occult, the afterlife, ghosts and mediums (media?), and the like were at a peak 100 years ago—a spiritualist, romantic backlash against the rationalism of the two centuries prior. Monographs such as Gorski’s, while illuminating, must by necessity be deconstructive, which is ironic given Yeats’s lifelong obsession with the unity, refinement and ultimately, “transmutation” of the human soul.

Without Ezra Pound, James Joyce would have continued to write in obscurity in Dublin, his eyesight fading as quickly as his literary prospects, and T.S. Elliot would continue to toil in his day job at a bank, fretting over whether The Waste Land was good enough to garner attention. Pound was hawk-eyed in spotting talent and relentless in promoting the writers lucky to call him a friend. John Tytell focuses on the early color of Pound’s personality (he railed against the poetry of 1890’s as defined by “decayed lily verbiage” and “a riot of decayed fruit”) and his inexhaustible font of literary confidence and bravado (Yeats was taken aback but frequently accepted Pound’s respectful though intrepid feedback on his poetry). Pound’s well-documented anti-Semitism, unremarkable for the time, stood out for its virulence. His career ended in ignominy, with fascist rants against Jews on Mussolini’s Italian radio, then a 12-year period of institutionalization in America following the war, where he continued to write poetry.

I read Rumaan Alam’s (accidentally) timely Leave the World Behind early in the year. I was surprised by the book, built up as more of a subtle treatise on race relations in America than it ended up being. Alam’s solid, restrained prose, his light touch, ramp up dread well, but he is at his most effective when he beckons us to stare at the howling emptiness, the bottomless ennui girding the champagne-gold, retina-screened bourgeois life in America.

I love “genre” fiction, and read it as palate cleansers between “heavier” works. I picked up Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel having seen it on numerous summer reading lists. The Plot, as you can surmise, is about literary appropriation of the purest kind—the outright theft of a plot line. Korelitz treats the protagonist’s dilemma (whether to write a book whose plot he was told by the author who passed away before he could write it), if not with sympathy, but with the studied neutrality of someone who understands the ambition-driven stresses of the book world. As is required in this genre, there’s a twist at the end that you’ll see coming from a mile away and still be irritated by it when it happens. The book is at its best when it deals with not just the minutiae and aggravations of literary fame, but also the thrills and privileges that we writers are more susceptible to than we pretend.

The Patient Assassin tells the story of Marxist revolutionary Udham Singh, a survivor of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar. The legend (reinforced by a recently erected statue) is that he swore an oath holding the blood-soaked earth of the grounds where 1,000 peaceful protestors were gunned down in minutes at the order of Reginald Dyer, the British General tasked with restoring calm to a restive city. Reginald Dyer died before Udham could get to him. Ultimately, Udham’s path of vengeance would span more than 20 years and take him from India to Kenya to America and finally to England, where, one day in 1940, he would walk with a loaded gun into a speaking engagement by Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab. A journalist and an able writer, Anand scrapes off the barnacle of legend built up around the character of Udham to reveal a man who was more complicated than nationalist narratives would have us believe.

Disappearing Earth begins with the abduction of a pair of young sisters on the shores of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the principal city on the remote Kamchatka peninsula. The city is small, close knit, but tensions abound between the historically deprived aboriginal populations and settlers. As weeks and months pass following the abduction, relationships fracture like the narrative, into multiple points of views—from brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and significant others foundering in the wake of the kidnapping. Phillips makes the forbiddingly beautiful landscape the star and anchor while handling the many characters with a deftness that is astounding for a first-time novelist. This book is a rare thing: a true “literary thriller.”

Meditations was a re-read. I keep going back to the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. The timeless nature of this volume is aided by Gregory Hays’s translation, which puts the Roman Emperor’s observations on life and our duties to the living world in simple, unadorned language highlighting Aurelius’s “unrestrained moderation.” Aurelius can be grim: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Martially eloquent: “Not a dancer but a wrestler; waiting, poised and dug in, for sudden assaults”;  “The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him.” Wry: “You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it.” Bleak: “Blot out your imagination. Turn your desires to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself.”; “Everything in flux. And you too will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well,” before blooming with hope at the world’s joys and beauty as when he yearns “not for a cistern, but a spring,” finding life, like other stoics, in water: “Dig deep; the water—goodness—is download there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.” 

I wish East African authors were more widely read in the West, as this is a region with a rich literary history. Weep Not Child is Gikuyu author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s first book, a tale of brothers weighing loyalties in the backdrop of the Mau Mau Uprising. Njoroge, the younger, simply wants to attend school, to be lettered, while Kamau’s motivations are more complicated. There is a scene at the beginning where their father tells Kamau and Njoroge the Gikuyu creation myth where Murungu the Creator gives the tree of life and all the lands it illuminates to Gikuyu, the first man, and Mumbi, the first woman. Ngotho, the storyteller, a sharecropper working the lands of the white farmer Mr. Howland, loses himself in his own story, contemplating the creator’s words, when he is snapped back to this world by Njoroge’s simple question: “Where did the land go?”

Orlando was another re-read. Woolf’s hero was allegedly inspired by her long affair with Vita Sackville-West, and looking at photos of both, I am struck by how alike the two women look. The eponymous protagonist is a flame flickering and dancing to the winds of the Elizabethan age, possessing wealth and power but not what they desire the most: literary fame, their North Star no matter what body they find themselves inhabiting. My favorite passage remains Woolf’s uncanny recounting of the Great Frost of 1608, a time when “[b]irds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground, [c]orpses […] could not be drawn from the sheets” and standing on the Thames, which froze to a depth of 20 feet, one could see boatmen and women encased in the ice below.

I love alternate history novels, but good books in this genre are rare. The last memorable one I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which could drag more often than not. Civilizations is Laurent Binet’s third book, and one of my favorite reads this year. Binet’s 16th-century Peru is already seeded with steel and old-world disease antibodies from earlier Viking excursions into the Americas. In a brilliant literary sleight of hand, Binet uses these advantages to flip Pizarro’s brutal conquest of Peru by instead bringing the Inca Emperor Atahualpa to Europe, where he subsequently leads a conquest of the Iberian peninsula with only a handful of soldiers, sparking a transformation on the continent and a three-way tussle between the Lutherans, Catholics, and the new adherents of the Religion of the Sun.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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