Category Archives: Literature

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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My 2017 Book List

With a really rough schedule this year, three kids, plus interruptions in reading due to other distractions such as the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts, I had a very fruitful year, finishing 24 books. Here’s what I read:

If I had to say there were two that I absolutely loved above the rest were The Sellout and Exit West. But  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thunder in the MountainsMen Without Women, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Mrs. Fletcher and Behold the Dreamers were all excellent, as was the short story “Five-Carat Soul” in the collection of the same name.

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Christmas Series #1 : The Muslim Jesus

I just really enjoy Christmas, first as a child and now even more that I have children. I hope that over the next few days I’ll have time to write a series of posts about my Christmas 2017.

To start with, last month I read Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. What does this have to do with Christmas? Well, Christmas is about the birth of Christ, and Mary (or Myriam in Arabic), the mother of Jesus, is a central figure in the Koran. While this should be no surprise to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Koran, Akyol explores more closely the historical Jesus and how Islam in many ways ties the knot between Judaism and Christianity in its view of Jesus.

According to the Koran and Islamic tradition, Jesus is the messiah in a very Jewish way. As Akyol explains, both Judaism and Islam are fiercely monotheistic. In Judaism, the Messiah was always intended to be a human prophet, not a God-Child or God incarnate. For the first Christians, what Akyol calls the Jewish Christians, Jesus was this Messiah. Not the son of God or the founder of a new religion, but the awaited prophet of the Jews who came to reform their religion. It is not until Saint Paul brings in Greco-Roman concepts of the divine, with gods who are born and die and beget, that Paul introduces the idea of Jesus as the Son of God (a notion absent in earlier Gospels).  Looking at history and scripture, Akyol then ties the knot between those first Jewish Christians and the Islamic concept of Jesus as the human messiah.

It is a shame that more Christians, Jews and Muslims cannot appreciate just how similar their religions are and where and why they have often parted. Akyol concludes with the following:

As Muslims, who are latecomers to this scene, we have disagreements with both Jews and Christians. But we have major agreements as well with Jews, we agree a lot on God. With Christians, we agree that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the messiah, and that he is the Word of God. Surely, we do not worship Jesus, like Christians do. Yet still, we can follow him. In fact, given our grim malaise and his shining wisdom, we need to follow him.

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Filed under Essays, Literature, Married to a Moroccan, Parenthood

The Novel I Have Not Yet Written

Tonight my daughter was crying a bit more than usual when I put her to bed. She hadn’t finished her dinner, so I decided to take her out of her crib and give her a bottle while the lights were still off. In the dark, I looked up to see the large framed Billie Holiday poster on the wall (maybe not the most common decor for a child’s room). And with that I began to sing, “Someday we’ll meet / And you’ll dry all my tears / Then whisper sweet little things in my ears . . .”

Then my mind traveled to a novel I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, one I would call “The Afternoon Sun” based on the following lines from the Cavafy poem of the same name:

One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only . . . And then-
that week became forever.

Sometimes I know the basic facts of the story, sometimes how it will begin and how it will end. I just haven’t figured out how to fill in the narrative.

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East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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Max Roach, Death, Jazz and Malcolm X

After giving up podcasts on my commute and spending an entire month listening to nothing other than Beyoncé’s Lemonade (that’s for another post), I decided to go back to my jazz listening days.

One day on shuffle, my iPod hit two Max Roach pieces back-to-back, the first one with trumpeter Clifford Brown and the second with trumpeter Booker Little. Both Brown and Little were perfect, innovative fits for Roach’s style, yet died tragically young. In fact, Roach — one of the great (if not greatest) Jazz drummers and pioneers– had close musical relationships with many promising Jazz musicians whose lives were tragically lost to substance abuse, car accidents, or disease. From the top of my head I can think of these Roach sidemen and leaders he played with who died young:

  • Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
  • Clifford Brown (1930-1956)
  • Rich Powell (1931-1956)
  • Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
  • Booker Little (1938-1961)
  • Douglas Watkins (1934-1962)
  • Herbie Nichols (1919-1963)
  • Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
  • Bud Powell (1924-1966)
  • Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
  • Wynton Kelly (1931-1971)
  • Kenny Dorham (1924-1972)
  • Charles Mingus (1922-1979)

Apparently, the sudden deaths of Clifford Brown and Rich Powell in a car accident in 1956 sent Brown in a deep depression that lasted for years. Back in the late 50s and 60s, I doubt anyone talked about depression, let alone PTSD or Survivor’s Guilt. So one can only imagine how Roach must have handled so many of his bandmates dying so young in such a short space of time.

On a happier note, my iPod would also shuffle to some less well-known gems that I had almost forgotten about:

  • Out of the Afternoon led by Roy Haynes on drums with Henry Grimes on bass, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Roland Kirk on every wind instrument you can imagine (and some you cannot).
  • Someday My Prince Will Come led by pianist Wynton Kelly with Paul Chambers or Sam Jones on bass, Billy Cobb on drums and the track “Wrinkles” with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter on trumpet and tenor sax respectively
  • Point of Departure by pianist Andrew Hill with Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax and flute, Richard Davis on double bass, and Tony Williams on drums
  • Blue Serge by baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff with Sonny Clark on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Leroy Vinnegar on bass
  • Where? led by bassist Ron Carter (playing both the cello and bass) with Eric Dolphy on alt sax, bass clarinet, and flute, Mal Waldron on piano, George Duvivier on bass, and Charlie Persip on drums.
  • Unity by organist Larry Young with Woody Young on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, and Elvin Jones on drums
  • Contours by Sam Young who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and flute, and with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Cambers on drums
  • The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy with Charles Davis on baritone sax, John Ore on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

I recommend all of these!

Talking about Jazz, I just finished the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley. What’s the connection? Besides the fact that like Jazz, Malcolm X was ironically very popular on white college campuses, he also spent a significant part of the 1930s and 40s as a hustler in Harlem, dancing at the Savoy and befriending many of the Jazz legends. While I really enjoyed the first third of the book where you get this amazing historical insight into Harlem life in the 30s and 40s, I found reading about Malcolm X’s entrance into the Nation of Islam and his relationship with Elijah Muhammad much less interesting. Politics aside, this could be due to the fact that I was frustrated to see the hustler getting hustled.

I recently read Claude Brown’s fantastic autobiographical Manchild in the Promise Land which is also about a young black man finding his way coming up in Harlem and which I have to admit I enjoyed more. But when I got to the end of Malcolm X where Malcolm returns from his pilgrimage to Mecca and has definitively broken with the Nation of Islam, you can clearly see what a gifted and charismatic thought-leader he had become. What earns the autobiography the full four stars is the afterword where Haley discusses how the book was written and his relationship with Malcolm. There you get the full sense of the times and Malcolm’s intensity and intellect. But for Malcolm’s talent in action, I can only recommend watching his speeches on youtube.

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