2014 in Books – A Year in Review

IMG-20150129-00190At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.

I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos XavierThis story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there.  The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.

Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.

I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.

Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.

The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…

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The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964)

Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.

Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…

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Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.

I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.

And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.

P1050740I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.

Cheers to a more value dense 2015, filled with really awesome bookmarks!

Food Mubarak!

Fasting has a way of resurrecting old foodgasms. I find myself thinking about iftar very early on in the day. Often I oscillate between wondering how I can avoid spending my whole paycheck on a fancy dinner and wondering how fast I can make microwaveable oatmeal. But there are glimpses in the middle of great food experiences of yesteryear, which then lead me to wonder where I should go to break my fast. There are many places to choose from, but I’m drawn to locales where the food is delicious, the prices are decent, and the portion sizes are disciplined.

Today’s musing led me to list my favorite restaurants from around the world. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible of all my travels but, so as not to taint your experience in any way and also not to get too hungry too early in my fast, I’ll give you recommendations and reviews from others. Happy global hunger hunting!

chefette

Barbados: 10 Best says “Chefette is a small fast food chain, and there are 14 locations all over the island. It’s not particularly fast, but the prices are reasonable and the food is quite good. Tasty chicken and chips is the staple offering, but the “broasted” chicken sandwich and the various rotis are also satisfying. Several locations have drive-throughs and playgrounds for the kids, and some also serve pizza, barbecue or ice cream.”

framboise

France: Creperie Framboise in Paris really got me to appreciate crepes for their decadence. Before this they were just thin pancakes with nutella inside:  -_- (boring face). After Framboise, I see crepes and I smile. 

escale caraibe

L’escale Caraibe on Rue de Guerre was a delightful treat for me, someone who believes I know Caribbean food. Trying the cuisine of Martinique & Guadeloupe was a culinary pleasure of awesome proportions. Yum Yum!

el perro

Germany: Leave it to me to find an awesome Spanish restaurant in the middle of Munich. But, hey, que será será. El Perro y El Griego is as good as I say it is.

 

 

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Grenada: This isn’t a restaurant review. Grenada produces two good food items – nutmeg (who uses nutmeg though, really?) and thee best chocolate I’ve had in all the world. Don’t take my word for it!

 

 

sanchos logoIndiaSancho’s is in Mumbai, and here’s what the good folks at Zomato have to say: “Bandra rather Mumbai has its fair share of Mexican restaurants, but not an overwhelming amount, fading in comparison to the number of Chinese, Sports Bars and Sea Food institutions in town. Broadly speaking, Sancho’s falls firmly in the “Awesome” category. More specifically, the food is “Delicious,” albeit generally a bit too hyped given the prices.”

sant lucias

Santa Lucia is in Fort Aguada, Goa and my mouth is watering just thinking of their Goan fish curry. Check out the reviews here.

 

 

mashua

Netherlands: Mashua in Amsterdam has me reeling from great cocktails to Quinoa Risotto. Oy vey! Gianguido says, “It is Peruvian fusion food. The menu is quite short, which I actually like it. Ample choice of whine.. which I also like 🙂 I went for Ceviche as starter… it was nicely prepared with all the whistles and bells…. I could feel a bit too much the lemon for my personal taste, but over all well done. My main course was a great boneless chicken leg prepared with cumin crust/sauce with wild spinach and young potatoes. it was really delish!” Need I say more?

 


tongue thaiThailand:  Tongue Thai in Bangkok had me with the vintage pics, the jazz music and the authentic food. I went back twice in three days.

 

 

The Corson Building picnic

United States: The Corson Building in Seattle is exactly how I’d want to run a restaurant, if ever I wanted to run a restaurant. Read up for yourself. And here’s what 50 Shades of Delicious has got to say…

 


sala 1 9

Sala One Nine is my favorite restaurant in New York City, which means its probably my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world. Zagat says 90% of people like the restaurant.

 

 

And with that, I’m famished. It’s time to head off to the Blue Nile for some injera stuffed goodness. Ramzan Mubarak!

Social consciousness disclaimer: Everything I’ve had to say about Trayvon Martin trial/fiasco has already been said.

Every good turn…

“Finally in the plane. after a very intense last day! Will be back soon…keep in touch. Lots of love, r” read her 4am text, as if I knew she was leaving at all.  Last I heard, she’d gotten her visa extended, and I was pretty sure she’d be sticking around, at least through the summer. But, clearly, if she’s “in the plane” she’s either headed back to Réunion or France proper. She’s definitely NOT staying in Delhi (Indian translation: she has left Delhi itself). We hadn’t any chance to say goodbye, and I wonder why she didn’t force the issue of having tea before she left.

I thought that throughout the course of the day the mental kerfuffle caused by waking up to the departure of one of my very first friends here in Delhi would slowly abate. But, as I furiously pushed grammatically correct papers back to Washington, sometime around 10am I got a call from Syeda. “I don’t think I can come up there right now, because I’m still at my desk. I’ve been here since 3 in the morning and I’m still not done checking out,” she said, with her usual nervous laughter. Sometimes I wanted to shake her or defend her when she used that “I laugh to keep from crying” tone. But, she, one of my very best friends here in Delhi, was going back home and vowed only to return for jewelry shopping.  And what use is making that trip when I know her ring size, her favorite jeweler, and her over the top South Asian preferences?

Yea, she’s never coming back.

And so, Thursday was a day of formidable goodbyes and reconciliation with the migrations of Delhi. Making friends is hard here, because most people don’t intend to stay. Like in DC, or any nation’s capital I suppose, the population that is not native is nomadic. In reality, that means that my Thursday was the equivalent of a big bag of balls. And I kept thinking, “I knew I should have just gone to Baghdad!”

Then I remembered the email that I red flagged from the day before. “The keys to D1/9 are ready for pick up.” FUCK!

It was 4:59pm. I had to get the keys to the new lady’s house from an office that closed at 5:30pm. I had to get her groceries. Go to the airport at 12am. Pick her up. Take her home. Make sure her keys worked. Get her 3 bags to the top of a third floor walk up. Show her how to turn on the air conditioners. [I forgot to show her the water distiller.] And go home. Go to sleep. Wake up. Pick her up for work. Take her to her office. Go to mine. And push more paper. All I could think was, ‘if she’s lame – this will be the worst 24 hours ever.’

They say when one door closes, two windows open. Thus far, this week has been a one for one scenario. Maybe my other two are on back order? The new lady was pretty cool – and it doesn’t hurt to make a friend in the health unit. Around my mom’s age. Southern, with lots of time in New Orleans and Texas. A talker, but not in an obnoxious way. Her first time abroad – second career. And curious.

So, it was my turn to be somebody’s first friend. I spent all Saturday dragging her from self-soothing shopping site to self-soothing shopping site. I’m sure she has a horrible impression of my spending habits, but a great understanding of where to go for those who consider suicide when Delhi is enuf. We went to all of Syeda’s old haunts: the jeweler in Le Meridien, the sari shop in Sarojini Nagar Market, the DLF Emporio – which now has a Christian Louboutin (fast forward to 3:15) store!, and Smokehouse Grill for dinner. And after I dropped the new lady off at home, I remembered that an old college chum had arrived in town too.

I’m not sure how, but I dragged him out of his flat clear across town, and we made it to a farm house party only 10 minutes from my house – though it felt a world away. An interesting collage of expats, diplomats, lesbians, (closet) gays, locals, nomads, Africans, Europeans, beer and sheeshah made for quite the evening.

And aside from all the happy thoughts swarming in my head about how I wasn’t in Delhi alone after all, all my selfish ass could think about was, “these two newbies are sooo lucky they found me, or else their time here in Delhi would suck big balls.” C’mon, on your first day in Delhi you go to the DLF Emporio and the jeweler in Le Meridien?? It took me months to find this stuff! Or this farm house pool party near Mehrauli?? That was my first time going, and this guy I haven’t seen in 6 years just plops down in Delhi for 12 hours and gets a super awesome invite to come with?  Dude, my life is awesome! And they reaped the benefits of the mushroom cloud of awesomeness that surrounds narcissistic ole’ me.

But every good turn deserves another. And my two bygone besties really showed me around town as much as they could too. After all, R. had shown me Boheme in Hauz Khas, after we met at a Belgian diplomat’s house party that we’d both crashed. And Syeda really pushed me, professionally and personally, to go out on a limb for myself. And I felt like I owed it to them to make sure that this new duo had the best time possible. After all, we’re in Delhi, and sh!t doesn’t just happen – life here can be sh!t. But, there are times, like last night, when I look up in the sky and I can actually see the stars through the smog and it’s a pretty awe-inspiring moment.

And this is all against the backdrop of having been here when my grandfather was laid to rest back home. I didn’t make the funeral this week. And I really haven’t talked about it – perhaps because I fully intend to act like it’s not really the case until I have a breakdown. (Don’t judge me.)

But, all the coming and going really had me thinking about how our days are always numbered. Not because we have to worry about passing on, but because life is too exciting to sit still and wait for experiences to come. People like me chase the next moment, and that means learning to be ok with saying ‘see you later,’ when you know it’s really ‘goodbye.’

Perhaps that’s the same flexibility it takes to convert a 4am g’bye text message into tour guide inspiration. It’s the leading by example aspect of just enjoying every day and watching others around you reflect the same or choose another circle where their miseries have an audience. It’s the out-of-wedlock child born of 2 principles: being who you are and paying it forward.  While I have very specific plans to pay forward my grandfather’s legacy, this whole Delhi bit is a high-speed revolving door that I will just have to get used to.

Watch my red bottoms spin!