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Best Non-Fiction of 2019

When social distancing stopped being the exclusive domain of introverts and curmudgeons, I resolved to catch up on Orwell and Austen and all those books piling up on my nightstand. 

Only to find myself consuming too much Cabernet Sauvignon, liking every other Facebook post, and binging on Tiger King instead. 

It can be a frustrating time to be alive. But it does not have to be. As long as you do not imitate my sorry ways and read something worthwhile.  But like what, you may wonder? Let me present to you a non-scientific list of the best books I’ve read last year. This is four months late but probably never more timely. 

As was the case last year when I wrote about the best books I read in 2018, I have selected five non-fiction books because:

  1. Non-fiction is better – and stranger – than fiction. Don’t believe me? Read the Washington Post.   
  2. This is 5tern.com. 
  3. Even numbers may be orderly but odd numbers are, well, odd in the most  interesting way.
  4. You do not have time for 7. 
  5. IDK. I wanted five reasons for selecting five non-fiction books  but am hopelessly stuck at four.

Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:  

Sprawlball

Kirk Goldsberry’s book is a gorgeously written and illustrated ode to the most beautiful game known to mankind. Full of pithy sentences and frame-worthy infographics, the trained cartographer brings granular clarity to modern basketball by integrating and mapping shot charts to show how it’s evolved over time, for better and worse, to eliminate the mid-range shot. 

If you want to understand how Mitchell Robinson, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic are the future of basketball, and why Karl Malone’s pick-and-pop, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, and Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumper are historical relics unlikely to be replicated, Goldsberry is your man. 

Whether you are an occasional fan or a diehard obsessive, his visual and verbal depictions are candy for the eyes, catnip for the mind, and worth checking out. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara was obsessed with serial murderers. Which is just an interesting way of saying she was obsessed with justice. And the best part? She administered it by sleuthing psychopaths from her laptop and giving unsolved mysteries unexpected endings. 

Do not say you were not forewarned, though: this is not a book conducive to sleeping or working. I couldn’t do either when I opened the book. Finishing up a day later, I remember staying in the bathtub for an extra beat when I was supposed to be grading papers, staring at that tiny black spot on the ceiling, not wanting to get out and get with life.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

McNamara’s depictions of evil terrify;  her clarity and compassion mesmerize; her search for light and right inspires. 

Read. The. Book. 

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

With a 912 page biography of Frederick Douglass that didn’t feel half that long, David Blight does a masterful job of capturing Douglass as who he was – a human being and a fascinating, self-made, towering genius.

What to the Slave is the 4th of July.

Douglass was born into chains but “prayed with [his] legs” by escaping, traded bread for education, shined a searing light at the “gross injustice and cruelty” of slavery through writing, speaking, and organizing, and supported women’s suffrage en route to becoming the most photographed American in the 19th century.  Which is why the Obamas are reportedly working on making a NetFlix movie based on this book. 

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Not to imitate my 7th grade English teacher, but read the book before you watch the movie.     

King of the World

When I looked at the posters of Muhammad Ali on my dorm wall when I was an undergraduate student and imagined his boxing fights and his battles outside the ring, it was always in black and white. He fought boxers and won. He refused to go to Vietnam and won. He punched and changed the world. 

But David Remnick’s lyrical narrative of Cassius Clay’s early years brings color to his journey – to the 1950s and the 1960s in which he grew up, and to the Muhammad Ali we remember today.   

So many characters and moments are vivid in my imagination, several months after reading the book. The blistering stare and punching power of Sonny Liston. The soft eyes and wisdom of Floyd Patterson. The greatness of James Baldwin. The intellect of Malcolm X and his tragic friendship with Ali. The public enmity and private allegiance between Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. The curious exhortations of Elijah Muhammad. The unrepentant racism and petty meanness of sportswriters, political leaders, business owners, and so many ordinary (banal!) people.

And Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.? Muhammad Ali who shocked and changed the world? He was a fascinating human being, full of convictions and contradictions. He was tolerant and judgmental, insightful and dogmatic, charismatic and austere, an integrationist and a separationist, disciplined and impulsive, progressive and old-fashioned, all at once. 

Today, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” emblazoned on that famous photograph of Ali standing over Liston is no longer a black & white poster in my head. Thanks to King of the World, it is an intensely hued illustration of how an energetic human being rhymed, gloved, and paved his way through a tumultuous age to make it his own. 

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in America and one of the 25 books that we’ve gotta read before we die. 

But know what? We should read about Frankl’s internment at a concentration camp and his form of psychotherapy – logotherapy – long before we die. 

In the book, he connects the particular with the general, anecdote with theory with extraordinary simplicity to illuminate how meaning is the fundamental quest for human beings.

Several (i.e., five) takeaways:

  1. Contrary to popular opinion, it is healthy to strive and struggle. Absent this tension, meaning is unlikely to be at its most meaningful.
  2. Suffering is unique. Not in that nobody else suffers because everybody suffers. But unique in the sense that while there are millions of snowflakes, there are no identical snowflakes. It is incumbent on us to find special meaning in our pain, to make it a vehicle to something more lasting, whether it be dignity, discovery, or discipline.
     
  3. Accepting personal responsibility is the path to well-being. It is not about blaming ourselves but about choosing the right mindset, which is entirely up to us. Even in the most atrocious of settings in the face of some of the most sinister plans ever known to mankind, Frankl points out that nobody can take away somebody’s ability “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
  4. Good and evil are rooted in personal choices, more so than group affiliations. As Frankl observes, there were decent Nazis and indecent prisoners at the concentration camp, leading him to conclude that there was no pure race but two races of people: the indecent and the decent. 
  5. The future is more important than the past; others than the self. In contrast with Freud, for instance, who favors psychoanalysis to focus on the self to uncover dreams and unload anguish, Frankl makes a profound case that it is often more helpful to stop navel-gazing and to focus on what has yet to come. 

So, what next? One is personal and the other professional. From now on, I will try to remind myself that it is my responsibility to choose how I wish to respond to a situation and find meaning, no matter how trivial or onerous.

The other is to cultivate the search for meaning in my students. Frankl cites a Johns Hopkins study which found that over 80 percent of college students were more concerned about finding their purpose in life than making money. Over 70 years later today, a cursory review of public opinion polls show a similar percentage in our youth. Not to mention the highest occurrence of anxiety and depression in any generation ever. 

The least I can do, as a professor, is to encourage them to find meaning by creating work, experiencing something or somebody, or choosing our attitude by which to face hardship that cannot be avoided.

And by recommending them to read this book. 

***

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?  Do you have a book to recommend for 2020? If so, hit me up and let me know.  

Until more soon, stay well and stay the fuck at home, curmudgeon or not. 

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Opa

A French writer by the name of Guy de Maupassant was known for taking hallucinogens to give substance to his screeds about the futility of life, which is quite interesting because today, we simply take coffee and log onto Facebook to do the trick. 

But, anyway. 

That Guy wrote something that is sticking in my head now: “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” 

Because memory is not only sacred but also fleeting, I thought I would put on paper my favorite memories of James Maurice Stern, who passed away recently but will always remain “Opa” in my heart. While I may have witnessed it first-hand or heard it repeated quite often, let me share what I remember today with the hope of giving undying life to his essence and the virtues that he embodied: 

OPA being pessimistic about leaders, current events, and, above all, himself, becoming disappointed every time he would miss a left-handed hook shot in the backyard of our Fremont home, declaring it was unbearable and that he would have to practice more, notwithstanding how he was right-handed and 75+ years old at the time, and shaking his head in disgust as recently as a week ago when learning about the latest tweets of the POTUS; and yet, being an eternal optimist about his loved ones, thinking the world of our potential even if, and especially when, we were undeserving;

OPA smiling the sweetest smile, despite being in pain and extremely weak, upon seeing his great-granddaughter climb onto his hospice bed last week, and making the “ILY” sign despite limited faculties; 

OPA walking that fine line between being sweet, generous, well-mannered, and yet also being determined, stubborn, competitive enough to bang on the locker room door and barge in at halftime to yell at my 24-year-old father for not switching onto his man quickly enough during the American Athletic Association of the Deaf (AAAD) championship game in 1976; 

OPA ignoring the strict orders of Oma who meant oh-so-well by telling him that he was crazy for wanting to hike almost a mile under the sweltering sun of the Yucatan in the summer at the age of 90, and then trekking to get to that far-flung cenote, climbing down a steep incline to get in the limestone pool and floating blissfully alongside fish, kids, water lilies, and adults half his age with a Cheshire grin on his face; 

OPA drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with my brother- in-law and me during my wedding; 

OPA smiling contentedly in the front seat last month, on his way home from the hospital, with the sun shining on his well-tanned face, and then remarking that he’s happy to be still here; 

OPA reminding us that he is a sun worshipper on his way to the pool with a towel slung over his shoulder and slide sandals exposing his gorgeous feet for which he was supposedly renowned; 

OPA asking his hospice doctors whether he’d be able to drink wine and visit Argentina for his grandson’s wedding, and holding onto his bike and skis until the very end because he was so sure he would, somehow, travel and bike and ski and live the Good Life once again; 

OPA volunteering to start a Jr. NAD chapter in New York City, to serve as an active member and officer for several organizations, to help organize the Winter Deaflympics in Lake Placid in 1975, and to develop crossword puzzles by hand (then finally via a computer program) monthly for over 40 years for Silent News;    

OPA thanking the nurses and doctors each and every time during his countless visits to the hospital over the past two months and insisting that he was OK, even though he hated the hospital like no other and was suffering the inevitable consequences of congestive heart failure; 

OPA searching high and low for a urinal in a Turkish bath in Istanbul in 1993 then peeing in a bowl he deemed to be precisely that, only to return with his face as white as a sheet upon witnessing a masseur using that bowl to pour water over the back of his client; 

OPA watching and rooting for the Yankees and the Knicks at every opportunity for over 70 years, no matter if they were great, awful, or in-between; 

OPA taking pride in how he dressed and his achievements; yet, never being excessively concerned about his appearance or his triumphs; 

OPA becoming pleased upon being told that Gleyber Torres had hit 5 RBIs v. the Astros and that the Yankees won the first game of the ALCS handily, even though he had just woken up after an entire day of total silence and non-movement in the hospice, then straining with all the strength he could muster to kiss the love of his life, Oma, by his side;  

OPA understanding, like Sylvia Plath, that there may be some stuff a hot bath won’t cure, but not knowing many of them, and passing along this valuable insight to his progeny;

OPA making a friendly bet several days before moving into the hospice that Walt Frazier of Knicks fame had once played for Cleveland. When I found out he had indeed played two years for the Cavaliers and asked him what I owed, he smiled that gracious smile only he can pull off and fingerspelled “P-L-E-N-T-Y.” 

Opa, thank you for teaching us that life lived with kindness, fullness, and goodness is never an exercise in futility, not through words but through example, for which we owe you P-L-E-N-T-Y. If we can somehow emulate your decency in living, your joy for life, your will to live, and your love for friends and family, we will be the luckiest people on Earth.  

You will be sorely missed but never forgotten. 

Rest in peace, Opa. 

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Summer Break

As Oscar Wilde said, we are all in the gutter, but some of us will be muttering to ourselves in August.

I started blogging (almost) every week on 5tern.com last January, and it has been a fun journey. What has made it particularly rewarding is the conversations that I have had with those of you who have made time to read/subscribe/disagree/comment.

Maybe it is the Jew in me (my wife insists it’s the annoying professor in me) but I think it is fundamental that we are constantly thinking and re-thinking about how we could improve ourselves and the world. And to question ourselves at every opportunity.

To that end, you have forced me to clarify & expand my understandings, and provided new questions for me to ponder.

For this alone, THANK YOU.

I am taking some time off from blogging to ruminate about what I want to pretend to be. And, well, to spend quality time with friends & family when I am not too busy logging onto Twitter 71 times a day to re-tweet too-good-to-be-true threads from Shane Morris and working on some writing & institutional projects that I look forward to sharing in due time.

I will post regularly again, starting in January 2020. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or feedback. Or, yes, if you just want to tell me that I’m a curmudgeon.

Until more soon, enjoy your summer.

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Injured List

My little finger. My right pinkie. Are you frustrated, being the smallest finger of my hand? Upset that you do not have the honor of carrying my wedding ring? Miffed that when I get upset with bad drivers and Knicks who do not run back on defense, I choose to flip your neighbor two fingers away?

Well, nothing good ever comes from speculation. (Unless you were a gold digger in 1849.) In the meantime, I am committed to my training program to play for the Yankees by remaining on the injured list. 5tern will return next week on May 3rd, less fractured than ever.

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Bye Week(s)

Life the next two weeks is particularly crazy. I will post again on Thursday, the 25th of April.

In the meantime, for the record, I am picking the Bucks in 4, the Raptors in 5, the 76ers squeaking past the Nets in 7, and the Celtics in 6 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

On the left side of the bracket, I have the Warriors sweeping, the Spurs upsetting the Nuggets in 7, and the Thunder and the Rockets winning in 6.

Who do you’ve got?

#NBAPLAYOFFS

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5tern Haiku

You know the rules, right? Three lines. Five syllables, then seven, then five again. I decided to write five of ’em because they say we will never understand each other until we reduce the language to 17 syllables. And yes, because this is 5tern.com.

ne

within the steel fences
a free, keen hand signs
whilst watching the eye 

white chocolate

no-look elbow pass
nobody like him ever
he played like he knew

to student

we were once alike:
certain, glib, wild-eyed, pompous.
and then i was mugged

sound and fury

we always extol
hands, eyes & community,
but is love enough? 

two thousand and twenty

who do you’ve got? 
that veteran in south bend 
knows seven languages.