Category Archives: Literature

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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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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