My Year in Books 2019

 

This year I felt like I was way behind in my reading. Maybe this was because of some longer books like The Brothers Karamazov or Embracing Defeat about how the US occupied Japan following WWII. Also some of my reading capacity was cannibalized by the My Brilliant Friend and Casa de Papel TV series. So I was quite surprised when I did the actual count: 29 books which is more than my usual average of 24 book per year.

Here is what I read (in reverse chronological order):

 

  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché
  • The Man Who Say Everything by Deborah Levy
  • I Wrote This Book Because I Love You by Tim Kreider
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Down by the River where the Dead Men Go by George Pelecanos
  • Nick’s Trip by George Pelecanos
  • Genesis by Eduardo Galeano
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mizra
  • Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower
  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
  • A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos
  • The Night Tiger by Yangzse Choo
  • River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon by Buddy Levy
  • Kitchen Confidential by Antony Bourdain
  • A Dance to the Music of Time: 1St Movement by Anthony Powell
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
  • The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
  • Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy
  • We Cast Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • If Beale Street Cold Talk by James Baldwin
  • The Street by Ann Petry
  • North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The year had some definite winners and one major disappointment. I was so excited to finally read The Brothers Karamazov yet found it very dated and slow moving. It only became interesting during the last fourth of the story. By far my favorite books this year were the two Buddy Levy histories of the Americas: Conquistador and River of Darkness. I also loved Carolyn Forchés memoir about El Salvador, What You Have Heard is True, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Honorable mentions go to Educated, the incredibly moving You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. I am always so impressed how each Lalami novel has a different voice and timber.

Finally as in other years, I always seek refuge in George Pelecano’s novels. This year I read four, including The Big Blowdown which may be along with The Turnaround my favorite to date. I don’t know what I will do when I have finished all of his work.

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Y2K 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago as we were about to enter the new century, as my hometown and place of residence Washington, DC was preparing for fireworks and a jubilant New Year’s Eve’s celebration on the Mall, all anyone was talking about was Y2K.

Not me. My mind was on other things. I had my first real law firm job and we were in the middle of heated litigation. As I was learning, litigants used filing motions to ruin each other’s holidays. If I recall correctly I had to file responsive briefs on the days just proceeding Christmas and immediately following New Year’s day. In fact, by December 31st, I had worked eighteen days straight including weekends, with the sole exception of Christmas Day. Even though my client was winning in court, the opposing party was putting lots of political pressure on our client to drop the case. In fact, the heat was getting to our client and our client – who until then had been extremely supportive – had suddenly starting taking their frustration out on us.

Like I said, I was a junior lawyer completely new to what I was doing. I had been working close to eighty hour weeks for the entire year almost exclusively on this one client’s case. During this time, my girlfriend had left for a job in Europe (and for good) and I barely saw friends or family. Yes, my bank account was growing. But when the clock struck 10:30pm on December 31, 1999 and my boss came to my desk to cheerfully suggest, “why don’t you find the security guard to see if he’ll let us on the rooftop to watch the fireworks at midnight,” I thought I was going to cry.

I searched the desolate building for the security guard but could not find him. As you can imagine, my boss and I were the only two losers in the building on New Year’s Eve. I finally got the courage to go to my boss and say, “if you don’t mind, out of principle I am not going to spend this change of the century in the office.”

“That’s fine. I will see you tomorrow morning at 9:00am. Happy New Year,” she replied.

By 11:15pm, I was back in my tiny studio apartment, sitting at my tiny table feeling awful about my predicament. I called up my friends Jeff and Rasdy with whom I had spent the previous four New Year’s Eves. Each year it was exactly the same. We’d plan to meet at one of their places, then an hour before we were supposed to be there, they’d get in a big fight, cancel the party only to make up 30 minutes later. By midnight we’d end up at Sesto Senso making the best of what was always the most disappointing night out of the year.

I can’t remember whether it was Jeff or Raz who answered the phone, but they said come on over, we’re waiting for you. Like always, we ended up at Sesto with Jeff and I making fools of ourselves on the dance floors while we made fun of everyone around us.

The next morning, I was at the office at 9:30am. I went on to work the next 15 days straight, responding to more motions and attending court proceedings while sick with the flu.

Y2K turned out to be the biggest much ado about nothing of the 20th Century. Later that year, I moved to Madrid. But ever since that night of Y2K whenever it is time to plan for New Year’s Eve, I always play Ella Fitzgerald signingWhat Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and think of Jeff and Rasdy.

 

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Trump and Who’s Revolting

From an objective standpoint, whether you agree with Trump’s views or not, Trump entered into politics based on vile criticisms of then sitting President Obama and ran on a campaign platform and stump-speech that argued that the United States was in dire shape. In fact, Trump’s inauguration speech was an unprecedentedly bleak depiction of the state of America’s democracy. In his address, Trump painted a picture of an oppressed, powerless citizenry at the hands of a corrupt government living in a violent society.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Trump  — who himself is a first generation immigrant and whose household is made up of immigrant spouses and first generation children — has argued that his call for three first generation and one naturalized congresswomen to go back to their countries is not racist because he was attacking them for their vile depictions of the U.S. (and Israel, a foreign country). But in what way have these women been less critical of America than Mr. Trump? What makes their alleged criticisms less American than Trump’s and any more revolting?

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The Peace at Omaha Beach

 

Last summer on a road trip through the west of France, I decided that as an American I needed to do the obligatory stop at Omaha Beach, the site of the infamous D-Day.

Not a huge World War II buff, I didn’t have many expectations. But, the moment I arrived, crossing the bluff just across the street from the La Sapienere Hotel (a must place to stay) – past the Charles Shay Indian Memorial with an American flag flapping in the wind – I was absolutely moved to behold the absolute peacefulness of the beach before me.

How could so many young people’s lives be shattered – many due to poor planning, poor strategy and poor logistics – on this very beach, one of the most peaceful and rustic beaches I have ever set foot on. In front of us was a local man, a father with his two small children pulling small octopuses and flounders from the surf with his little homemade net. Explain to me how this seemingly empty and pristine beach, full of tiny aquatic life,  was in reality the brutal resting place of +2000 young lives on a single morning 75 years ago. How could a place of such natural beauty, simplicity and calm once have been a theater of death, a turning point in history?

The next day when we walked by the various monuments and plaques commemorating the allied forces, I came across one that listed the National Guard units from my home state of Maryland, and I had to turn away so that my children wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

My grandmother’s two brothers – both the sons of immigrants – had been drafted and sent to fight in Europe (though not in Normandy). One was left for dead on a battle field near to where his parents had emigrated from. He eventually survived (never to discuss any of it). Most Americans today do not know that our involvement in the War was controversial. Many Americans, especially on the Right, were against U.S. intervention, and many claimed FDR was a communist for taking us to war and thus benefiting the Russians. I cannot imagine my great uncles or their cousins as having gone to war  enthusiastically to put their lives on the line. We forget that today.

We also forget, as the New York Times mentions, that our current president has been outspoken against those institutions – in particular NATO and the European Union – that have been absolutely fundamental in the unprecedented peace and stability that has been sustained in Europe since World War II and that so many of our young men fought for with their lives for 75 years ago today.

Any of you who know me, know that I am no fan of over-the-top worship of men in uniform or public displays of patriotism. But, please if you have the chance, travel to Normandy. Walk on that pristine beach at Omaha. There is nothing more moving than the peacefulness there today that was achieved by the sacrifices of so many young men 75 years ago. It is the most peaceful place that I have witnessed.

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Trump’s Immigrant Complex

UPDATE BELOW

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Let’s be fair to presidents and other politicians. When you have to speak a lot and for long periods of time in public, you will inevitably mangle words and they won’t always come out right. We laugh and criticize them for it, but we could cut them a break. It’s going to happen and is usually harmless.

That’s why we should give Trump a pass on saying that his father was born in Germany. We should assume that he meant his grandfather. I joked on twitter about the potential following headlines:

  • Trump claims he’s First Anchor Baby President
  • Trump requesting his own father’s birth certificate
  • The healthiest president ever
  • Trump Proves Immigrant Parents a National Security Threat

Joking aside, there is a serious question to be asked about Trump’s obsession with immigrants, including his pushing the conspiracy theory that Obama’s own authenticity as an American should be challenged due to the foreign birth and nationality of his father.

This is all very strange taking into account that Trump has closer ties to immigration than any other US president in memory. In fact, Trump’s family ties to the U.S. are newer than Obama’s (the first Trump arrived in the U.S. in 1885). Trump’s own mother was an immigrant. On his father’s side, both of his grandparents were immigrants. Two of his three wives are immigrants, and four of his five children have immigrant mothers and immigrant grandparents and have spoken a language other than English at home. Trump’s current in-laws emigrated to the U.S. and obtained U.S. citizenship as a result of their immigrant daughter’s marriage to Trump.

So it begs the question: does Trump have an immigrant complex? Maybe he’s just a self-hating child, husband and father of immigrants?

UPDATE April 9, 2019

Trump has just said that the “Country is FULL“. That’s ironic coming from a man whose entire household – with one exception I will get to in a moment – are all either foreign born or the children of someone foreign born. In other words, they are all either immigrants or first generation Americans. The one exception? Tiffany, the least favored and least featured Trump child, is the only immediate member of his family with two non-immigrant parents. Don Jr.? Mom’s an immigrant. Eric? Mom’s an immigrant. Ivanka? Mom’s an immigrant? Barron? Mom’s an immigrant. Melania? Immigrant. Trump? Mom’s an immigrant. You almost think that Trump shuns the only real American in the family.

If Trump thinks the country is so full, why no start with his own household?

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What I read in 2018

This year I surprised myself by reading 29 books. As I started the year off with the VERY LONG biography of Grant, taking over one month to finish, I was sure I wouldn’t break the 20 book mark for the year. Nevertheless, I rallied. Few books were out of this world, but plenty were very good reads.

Here is my list:

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Ham on Rye by Charlos Bukowski
  • Godsend by John Wray
  • Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
  • Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  • Trash by Andy Mulligan
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • What It Was by George Pelecanos
  • Down These Mean Streets by Thomas Piri
  • The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes
  • The Leavers by Kisa Ko
  • Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh
  • Calypso by David Sedaris
  • Packinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos
  • The Double by George Pelecanos
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman
  • Daddy Was a Numbers Runner
  • MacGregor Tells the World by Elizabeth Mckenzie
  • Chanson Douce by Leila Slimani
  • Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
  • Grant by Ron Chernow

Looking at the list, you’d think I was obsessed with George Pelecanos. He’s from DC like me, and his writing is real smooth and easy sailing. He may not be my favorite writer, but I love to use him between books to help clean my mind.

Overall, I would say that Tayari Jone’s An American Family was my favorite read of the year, with Pachinko, The World As It Is and Kindred as runners up. Evelyn Hugo and Sing, Unburied, Sing are also highly recommended.

 

 

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Eid Mubarak

Eid Mubarak everyone! I cannot believe that Ramadan is over. This is the first time I ever fasted for the entire 30 days, and it was an incredibly cool and rewarding experience. Believe it or not, I am sad to see it come to an end.

Let me explain. “Ramadan” is literally the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. In Islam, healthy adult Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down for the entire month. Unlike in some other religions where fasting is a form of penitence, in Islam fasting is essentially about community, walking in the shoes of the less fortunate, and recognizing the blessing that is the privilege to have food on your plate. And of course, there is the element of obedience. You do it because it is what God wants.

I am absolutely not a religious person. In fact, for me God existing is at most a “good to have”, but with the sole and selfish objective that the spirits of my deceased loved ones are preserved after death. So let’s get this straight, I did not fast for religious reasons or for obedience to God.

So why Ramadan? I am married to a Moroccan. In the past, if I were in Morocco during Ramadan, I’d do as the Moroccans do, but I had never fasted for more than four days. So why fast this year? First, even though I am not religious, I have a huge respect for religion and believers, at least as long as they are respectful of others. I grew up in a mixed household (a Catholic father, Protestant mother) and spent more time in synagogues (for Bar Mitzvahs) than I did in a church. I also love tradition and want my children to celebrate our family’s diverse cultures. So we do Christmas and Thanksgiving. We eat loads of pasta (more than my wife can often bear), and we eat our share of tagine and couscous.

Now that my kids are getting bigger, I want to make sure that Ramadan becomes part of the family culture and that it is not seen as something that only mommy does. Furthermore, you shouldn’t think about Ramadan as a time of extreme sacrifice. It is actually a celebration, and I wanted that in my home.

Next, I wanted to make it easier for my wife because it is really hard to fast and enjoy Ramadan if you are doing it all alone. I also did it out of pride and self-defense. Pride in the sense that if one billion Muslims in the world can fast for one month, then I can too. If my wife can do it, then why can’t I? And by self-defense, I mean to defend myself against my wife when she says, “I am too exhausted from fasting to put the kids to bed,” I can say, ” well, I have been fasting too. You’re not that only one who is exhausted!” Unfortunately, I never got to play that card because my wife — believe it or not — in the 12 years I have known her has never once complained about fasting.

Finally, I wanted to know what it would be like to fast for 30 days. I wanted to know if I could do it, whether it would change the way I thought, and how my body would react. And guess what? It was really special. Here’s what I learned:

I lost 5 kilos (11 pounds), which I will surely gain back by Monday. I learned that your body adjusts to change over time, but that food and nourishment rule your life, from how you use your time, to your ability to think and work. How when you’re hungry you fantasize about food, and your fantasies are almost always of comfort food. It is primordial. While my wife dreamed of tagine, I dreamed of my grandmother’s meatballs. Not hot off the stove, by cold the next morning.

I learned how being able to feed yourself and your family is a privilege, and how not having food makes simple things impossible. How without food, my brain stopped functioning.  I learned that when you challenge yourself with someone else (in my case with my wife, but also with others within a community), you form a special bond.

Because I am not a religious person, I didn’t partake in the spirituality of fasting, but I can imagine that it is very powerful. Overall, Ramadan reminded me of Christmas where I basically celebrate for an entire month, but by Christmas day I am so burnt out that I need it to be over. Then I take down the Christmas tree, and am sad to see it end.

Now I am left with a wonderful sense of accomplishment and an increased feeling of complicity with my wife for having spent this time together.

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