Category Archives: Literature

My Year in Books 2021

In 2021, I read just over 30 books. That seems like a pretty good year for me ! Had it not been for TV bingeing, I could have read much more.

When 2020 came to an end, I was about half way through Obama’s memoir A Promise Land which is essentially his apology tour for not having taken greater advantage of his time in office. Nonetheless, the book is highly recommendable, no matter your political affiliation.

And as this year comes to an end, I am currently trying to make my way through the incredibly frustrating biography of Stephen Crane by famed novelist Paul Auster. I really would love to love this book. Sometimes I find myself enjoying it, but most of the time, I am just angry with Auster for making it feel interminable.

So here is my 2021 list in reverse chronological order:

  • Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane by Paul Auster (currently reading)
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • The River by Peter Heller
  • Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain by Matthew Carr
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
  • Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music by Gerald Horne
  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
  • First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami
  • Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuar
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
  • Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross
  • The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah
  • Orientalism by Edward W. Said
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
  • The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
  • Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist by Heather Augustyn
  • The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean by Gerald Horne
  • Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Writers and Lovers by Lily King
  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
  • American Dirt by Jeannie Cummins
  • This is Happiness by Niall Williams
  • The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
  • A Promise Land by Barrack Obama

Hands down my three favorite books on the list were The Great Believers, Homeland Elegies, and Blood and Faith. The Great Believers takes us back to 1980s Chicago, the AIDS epidemic, how little we understood about the virus, and the stigmatizing effects on the gay community. Along with Pale Rider and The Last Town on Earth from this year’s list, The Great Believers helped put the current pandemic into perspective.

Over the past few years, I have read so many novels about first generation Americans and the psychological toll they pay straddling their parents’ culture and that of American society. This year these included Homeland Elegies, The Beauty of Your Face, and Transcendent Kingdom. By far, Homeland Elegies is the best I have read in a long, long time. A real magnum opus. In defense of Transcendent Kingdom, at first it read like just another one of the lot, but it turned out to be a richer and deeper novel about addiction, depression and faith.

After having spent a few days in Granada with my family, I couldn’t stop thinking about how after 1492, Spain couldn’t just replace an entire city population with another from one day to the next. That led to Blood and Faith, Carr’s history of how for a over a century after the end of the Reconquest, Spain systematically and brutally ethnically cleansed Spain of its Morisco population. Everyone interested in Spain and even contemporary politics should be knowledgeable about this history.

There were many other books on the list that merit further mention. I highly recommend: American Dirt, The Girl with the Louding Voice, If I had your Face, and The River. It was also somewhat of a Korean themed year between If I had your Face, Island of the Sea Women, and Squid Game. Then the two S.A. Cosby crime stories (Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland), very much like George Pelecanos, were highly enjoyable and excellent fillers between more emotionally charged books.

Finally, a few big disappointments. The Don Drummond biography was poorly told, but at least it inspired me to revisit Ska which I have been playing non-stop ever since. And Haruki Murakami breaks my heart. When I first read through his main body of work, he quickly became one of my all time favorite novelists. Over the years, I have gone back and re-read most of his novels and whenever a new book comes out, I always walk away wondering what I loved the first time around. Like a boxer or politician he should have stopped when he was still great.  

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What I watched in 2021

I normally do not watch many TV series, and I have pretty much given up film all together. A couple times a year, I may watch a series or two, or when I need an easy smile, I’ll watch an old Seinfeld episode.

But in 2021 – and I don’t have a good reason why – I watched much more than in recent years. This ended up competing with my reading time. As you’ve probably heard me say a million times, I’ve had a bit of a Ted Lasso obsession (season 2 not so much). I also really enjoyed The Good Place which like Ted Lasso was about how we need other people in our lives to make us stronger and better human beings. Honorable mention to Borgen. I spent a few weeks pretending like I could speak Danish.

The Last Dance (which fascinated me and when I have time, I hope to write about as a contrast to Ted Lasso), The People v OJ Simpson and The Kings all made me reflect on the past, as I lived through those historical periods, often much more distracted by the trials and tribulations of my own day-to-day to consider their importance. I definitely enjoyed all three. I particularly liked learning more about Sugar Ray Leonard who lived down the street from me.  

Finally, Squid Game was fun for the sole reason that it was Korean, and most of what we get to watch on Netflix et al is American with a couple of European exceptions. The acting was great, but otherwise it was just The Hunger Games for adults.

Here’s my list:

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My Year in Books 2020

Nothing we write about 2020 can start without the caveat that it has been a strange year. In a normal year, I average about two books per/month and generally reach around 24 books for the year. This year I struggled to hit 19.

The year started off pretty routine. I completed my last book of 2019 – Samantha Power’s memoir (coincidentally I am ending this year with Obama’s memoir) — and then did what I normally do, I turned to a George Pelecanos staple to pick up the pace. One day on my bus commute back from work (when no one thought twice about taking public transportation), I was listening to a podcast with an old interview of Mario Puzo where he talks about how his magnum opus was The Fortunate Pilgrim, not any of his mafia stories. So I read that, and then a variety of other books (including re-reading Dance Dance Dance) until finally Covid hit and the lockdown began.

During lockdown, I read the very appropriate The Plague, but also spent many nights reading about the virus. I didn’t touch Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon Prime until the Fall. Instead I tried my hand at the Ken Follet Kingsbridge novels. At the end of the summer, I finally caved to the easy thrills of The Mandalorian, Cobra Kai, and then Seinfeld re-runs for lots of late 90s nostalgia.

So to make a long story short, there were lots of distractions from my normal reading pace, yet I was still able to get in some very good books. Here’s what I read this year:

  • How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices by Annie Duke (currently reading)
  • The Promise Land by Barack Obama (currently reading)
  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follet
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • World Without End by Ken Follet
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
  • Deacon King Kong by James McBride
  • Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas
  • Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami (a re-read)
  • Shame the Devil by George Pelecanos
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos
  • Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzzo
  • Warrior of the Light by Paolo Coelho
  • In the Woods by Tana French
  • King Suckerman by George Pelecanos

The Kingsbridge series pretty much dominated my year. Of the three, A World Without End was my favorite as it takes place during the Black Death (which felt very timely). Kim Ghattas history of the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dominate the Muslim world by competing to push the extremist ideologies across the region was incredibly informative, as was Jeff Chang’s history of Hip-Hop culture. Dance Dance Dance like almost all of the Murakami novels I have re-read seemed much more flat and repetitive the second time around (which always breaks my heart because he has been one of my all time favorites). I loved The Fortunate Pilgrim which is an Italian immigrant family struggling to make it in Hell’s Kitchen during the Depression. I could imagine the characters as my grandmother and her brothers who suffered through the same time period and circumstances just a dozen blocks away. Butler’s excellent Parable of the Sower about an unraveled and dystopian American society felt all too possible. And of course, for a DC boy like me, anything by George Pelecanos is always enjoyable. All in all, though, I will go with A World Without End as my favorite read of the 2020, with Parable of the Sower coming in second.

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Confinement and Ramadan

UPDATED BELOW

At the beginning of confinement back in March, one of my first thoughts was that lockdown was going to be a lot like Ramadan, just instead of not eating, we wouldn’t be able to go outside. One clear difference, though, was that with Ramadan at least you knew it would last no more than 30 days.

This is only my third year observing Ramadan, but my wife who has celebrated it her entire life always says (and I can now corroborate) that the first week is hard because your body is adjusting. The last week is hard because of the anticipation of it being over. During both the first and last weeks, you are very vocal. You spend a lot of energy speaking to friends and family, first about what you are preparing for evening meals, and then later about what you will do when Ramadan is over. It is that middle period – the in-between days where no one is as excited about what they are cooking and no one sees the light at the end of the tunnel – that is the hardest. Things get real quiet and fasting becomes tedious, losing its celebratory luster.

When confinement began, I switched what I was reading at the time and re-read Camus’ The Plague. One of the things that struck me the most was this comment from one of the characters:

At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there is always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth. In other words, to silence. So let’s wait.

That is exactly how I have felt during this prolonged period of confinement. At first, it was about adjusting to the staying inside, and now it is about what the new normal will be like as we try to slowly reopen. In the middle, it has been real quiet and tedious.

Today is day 15 of Ramadan, so I am in the midst of the silence, routine and grunt of it (and also the secondary effect of lots and lots of hunger-induced typos and grammatical errors). On the bright side, I have shaved off a couple of pounds/kilos.

UPDATE: Continue reading

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Living The Plague

A week ago – based on other global realities – I started Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. But sometimes the world changes, and sometimes it changes so quickly and so all of a sudden that you have no chance to adjust.

As you may know, I live in Madrid, Spain, and we are living in total lock-down. I could write (and still may) volumes about the Quarantined Life, but let me just say that as quickly as Covid-19 changed my world, I lost the ability to focus on the problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia regardless of how engaging Ghattas’ work was.

Then I was reminded of one of my favorite books from my late teens. When I was a senior in high school, now 30 years ago (!!!), I was a die hard soccer jock who paid little attention to school. One day I found myself injured, sidelined and with little to occupy my time. Cliché as it was, I turned to the existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Miguel de Unamuno. For a guy who never studied, I started getting to school early every morning. I’d park myself in front of my locker and start the day reading The Stranger or Nausea and not be able to put them down. In fact, a teacher kicked me out of class one day for reading a poetry book during Trigonometry. All these years later, I had almost completely forgotten that Camus’ The Plague was one of my favorites.

Until last week. I picked up the book, and it is the world I am currently living in:

The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise, since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When war breaks out, people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.

Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families would be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given to them lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.

Two years ago when I visited Normandy where so many young Americans sacrificed so much, and I already had the feeling between Brexit and Trump trashing NATO we were taking for granted the long, unique arch of peace that had covered so much of the world since World War II. As Camus explains, no one expects war and no one expects a pestilence and when they come we are always left dumbfounded.  This is where we are today.

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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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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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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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