Monthly Archives: December 2016

My Year in Books 2016

fiction

Y2016 was a busy year. We had our third child, but somehow I still found time to read a slightly larger than normal volume of books. Here is my list:

non-fiction

While I did read some very good books, I wouldn’t say that there were any must reads this year. I probably got the most from non-fiction, with highlights being: The Snakeshead, an amazing story of a Chinese woman who became a billionaire illegally bringing Fujianese Chinese to the U.S.; Sahara Unveiled about a trip across the desert; Servants of Allah about the many African slaves in the Americas who were Muslims and carried their religion with them; Sapiens about the history of humankind and our evolution put into a behavioral/political/historical context; and A Short History of Reconstruction about, you guessed it, the period after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to rebuild the divided nation and economy based on free labor and find a place for recently freed slaves, marked by white supremacist violence and terrorism.

manchild

There were a handful of good novels including Youngblood, A Homegoing, Goat Days, and a General Theory of Oblivion. There was also an underlying – though not intentional – theme of African American lives which included the aforementioned non-fiction about Muslims in America and Reconstruction and the novel A Homegoing. Even Goat Days is a story about slavery. I also read Edward P. Jones’ excellent short stories about D.C,. Lost in the City. But probably my best read of the year was Claude Brown’s semi-autobiographical Manchild in the Promised Land.

pelecanos

And, whenever I needed a break from my ambitious list, I could always turn to the D.C. crime writer George Pelecanos. Though most of his books are similar in theme, characters and stories they are so easy and enjoyable to read, especially as a Washingtonian.

Finally, I finished the year off by re-reading Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun. It was never my favorite of his novels, but there were three pieces of narrative in the novel that always stuck with me and that I wanted to revisit:

But I didn’t understand then that I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

Izumi wasn’t the only one who got hurt. I hurt myself deeply, though at the time I had no idea how deeply. I should have learned many things from that experience, when I look back on it, all I gained was one single, undeniable fact. That ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centered, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for a wound that would never heal.

Every time we met, I took a good long look at her. And I loved what I saw.

“Why are you staring at me?” she’d ask.

“Cause you’re pretty,” I’d reply.

“You’re the first one who’s ever said that.”

“I’m the only one who know,” I’d tell her. “And believe me, I know.”

. . . for no particular reason.

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Things I’ve Read (recently)

things-ive-read

The following are some interesting and insightful things I have read in the past few months from the following three non-fiction works of history:

Servants of Allah traces the history and influence of the large number of African Muslims who were brought to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. The book documents how, contrary to the popular historical depiction of African slaves as peasants, many – especially those who were Muslim – were educated and literate. In particular, I find the following except interesting as it serves as a reminder that in the populist Islam vs. the West narrative, Christianity isn’t always the brightest light on the hill:

Ibrahima pointed out “very forcibly the incongruities in the conduct of those who profess to be the disciples of the immaculate Son of God.” The Africans had experienced or witnessed forced conversion as a justifications for slavery, whereas in their religion, conversion was a means of emancipation. They were in daily contact with religious men and women who were nevertheless sadistically brutal. The debauchery of Christian men who sexually exploited powerless women—not accorded the status of concubines—could not have escaped them. As slaves, they had experienced the Christians at their utter worse. Because they did not have a race or class consciousness, they saw the Americans primarily not as whites or as slaveholders but rather as Christians.

Similarly, Sapiens – a materialist recount of the evolution of humans in a historical context – helps put current Western/Christian fears of the Other into perspective:

These theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands. On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind. In this attack, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors). More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.

The figures of 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide. It turns out that in the year following the 911 attacks, despite all the talk about terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.

With A Short History of Reconstruction what I found most interesting was how (i) terrorism, in the form of organized violence was employed successfully by Southern whites to maintain the status quo of white supremacy; (ii) an assortment of coordinated efforts by the police, the legislature and courts, and white civil society (often through terrorist violence) were employed in full force to sustain white supremacy and the economics of free labor; (iii) the political rhetoric to rationalize the above – for example, on taxation, federalism, and personal responsibility – are all very much alive and part of the conservative lexicon and worldview today; and (iv) all of the above defined the Jim Crow South up until 1970, a legacy which we undoubtedly still suffer. Continue reading

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