Category Archives: Literature

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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The Sympathizer

The SympathizerI just finished the Pulitzer Prize winning The Sympathizer by Viet Thahn Nguyen about an American educated Vietnamese double-agent (of mixed European and Vietnamese parentage) that takes place during the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon. There were things about the book that I loved – fantastic insights into American culture, policy and its attitude towards Asians – but I ultimately did not always relate to or care about the main character. The book is supposed to be reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, but it felt more like The Orphan Master’s Son to me.

Here are a few samples of some of my favorite lines from Mr. Nguyen’s wonderful prose:

The General’s men, by preparing themselves to invade our now communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.

. . .  happiness, American style, is a zero-sum game […]. For someone to be happy, he must measure his happiness against someone else’s happiness, a process which most certainly works in reverse. If I said I was happy, someone else must be unhappy, most likely one of you. But if I said I was unhappy, that might make some of you happier, but it would also you uneasy, as no one is supposed to be unhappy in America. I believe our clever young man has intuited that while only the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, unhappiness is guaranteed for many.

What am I dying for? … I’m dying because this world I’m living in isn’t worth dying for! If something is worth dying for, then you’ve got a reason a live.

 

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My 2015 in Books

Layout 1In 2015, I read some really great books, in particular the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels and Dan Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line. Here’s the list:

Sharfstein

If it hadn’t been for Elena Ferrante, whose books I obsessively read and recommended throughout the months of Fall, all I would be talking about this year is Sharfstein’s book. Of course, I am very biased. Sharfstein and I were high school friends and I had lost contact with him over the past 25 years. Another major highlight was  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  But although Coates’ received universal praise for Between the World and Me, as an avid reader of his articles and huge fan, I didn’t find anything particularly new in the book. If you haven’t ever read him, I definitely recommend you go straight to The Atlantic right now. I’ve said it before, Coates is the best writer today on the American experience. Another big 2015 highlight was finding George Pelecanos’ crime fiction, which as a Washington, DC/Maryland native I particularly enjoy and will continue to read in 2016.

When I have more time in the new year, I hope to dedicate individual posts to the Ferrante novels and to Sharfstein and Coates.

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My Year in Books 2014

Books 2014

The year 2014 was a good year for reading. I was more prolific than other years, having read (assuming I finish the last two books I am presently reading by December 31st) a total of 24 books:

Of these, two are re-reads: Cien años de soledad and Wind Up Bird Chronicle. The first one I decided to read fifteen years after I had read it first (this time in Spanish) in honor of Mr. Garcia Marquez on his passing. The latter because I was so disappointed by the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki that I needed a Murakami fix to fill the void.

Most of what I read was pretty good, some definitely better than others. The three that definitely stood out as something special were first The Son by Philipp Meyer and The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Then Lalami’s The Moor’s Account deserves a special mention, not just because it was a great read, but because it has really inspired me to learn more about American history, and by that I mean the history of the people that were here before me and what happened to them, why, and how that relates to who we are today. And answers to those questions are in fact, in their own various ways, addressed by Meyer and McBrides’ books.

Overall, a good year indeed.

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The Moor’s Account, Slavery and the New World

LalamiA few weeks ago I finished Laila Lalami’s new novel A Moor’s Account, a fictionalized account of the 1527 Narvaez expedition in Floria as told through the eyes of Estevanico, a slave of Moroccan descent.

I was interested in Lalami’s book for a few reasons: she is from the same city in Morocco as my wife, I had read and enjoyed Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, and I follow her very insightful articles and commentary on twitter. So, I was excited to read her new novel.

After having read it, I realized that it was based on the same story as Walk the World’s Rim, a novel I had absolutely fallen in love with at the age of 12.

In any event, A Moor’s Account has sparked my interest in learning much more about slavery under the Spanish in the Americas and Native American history, and the Columbian Exchange. In the past few weeks since finishing Lalami’s book, I have read The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin that uses a slave mutiny aboard a Spanish vessel off the coast of Chile in 1805 to discuss the slave trade in the Southern Cone during Spanish rule and its relationship with New England.

I have since moved on to the excellent The Son by Philipp Meyer, a family saga that traces the history of Texas, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, soon to be followed by the sequel 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

It is amazing how much the history of slavery and Native Americans differs from what I had learned as a boy growing up in Potomac, a town with an Indian name. For example, I had not known that in the early 19th Century close to a half of Argentina’s population was of Black African descent. Their absence today is more than conspicuous. And when I was a kid in school we were given the impression that Manifest Destiny was about the expression of freedom of religion where a vast open, mostly unpopulated terrain was there for the taking.  But we wouldn’t want to upset Republicans by trying to teach our most able kids otherwise? And someone should tell Newt Gingrich that maybe Texans aren’t a people either.

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Extinguish Thou My Eyes

Shadowlands

Extinguish Thou my eyes:I still can see Thee,
deprive my ears of sound:I still can hear Thee,
and without feet I still can come to Thee,
and without voice I still can call to Thee.

Sever my arms from me, I still will hold Thee
with all my heart as with a single hand,
arrest my heart, my brain will keep on beating,
and Should Thy fire at last my brain consume,
the flowing of my blood will carry Thee.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

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