This morning, my brother and I woke up early and made the drive out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. The day was supposed to peak at 93 degrees, but at 7:30 in the morning, the sun was low, the shadows long and cool, and the air less than 80. It’s difficult to beat that peculiar but lovely clarity of morning light.
We arrived too early to experience the historical park, which we had seen some years earlier, but we wanted to beat the day’s heat and hike. The park has a long dirt towpath that runs a few miles but has several places to depart for more rugged terrain along the way, the first being to Olmsted Island, the Maryland side of the Great Falls of the Potomac River.
I want to see how beautiful and wide the world is, soak up every piece
I want to do what I can to ease suffering and injustice, making my gifts useful
I want to be known to treat others with kindness and real warmth, making my love known
I want to be a light, a small, true light
at least more light than not
Lincoln by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I really loved this book. One of the reviews I read on Goodreads compared it to The West Wing set in the Civil War era, which I would strongly agree with. Even though the plot snakes through well-known political events whose outcomes are common historical knowledge, the political maneuvering and chess matches remain gripping and the fictionalized look into some of the most important politicians of the day and the evolution of their characters, values, and relationships humanizes them and gives new perspective. Vidal makes historical events truly come alive- the scene where Lincoln confronts pro-Chase Congress members and reminds the ambitious Secretary of Treasury of his place in the administration was page-turning and as satisfying as any perfectly-executed political ploy you might see in Game of Thrones.
Vidal also refuses to demonize any character: Mary Todd’s heartbreaking narrative of her mental illness is portrayed with intensity but also empathy, and he equally refuses to place any man, including the titular president himself, on a pedestal. Lincoln is of course treated with reverence, but Vidal does not shy away from policies that today we find shameful and ludicrous, such as Lincoln’s own oft-forgot racism and his proposed Reconstructionist policy of deporting African-Americans to colonize South America. In a world where ‘alternatives facts’ is a phrase that even exists and where Sarah Palin would like to pretend the Founding Fathers were against slavery, frankness about and acknowledgment of the prejudice and racism of our nation’s most beloved figures is all too rare.
As someone who is from the DC/MD area and who has a very amateur but very enthusiastic interest in Civil War history, I also enjoyed the historical research that went into this novel. As a result of Vidal’s careful research, you truly find yourself immersed in the 19th century Washington DC and learning a lot about the period and events. In fact, you have to remind yourself to take things with a grain of salt because the genre is historical fiction, though you feel you are learning so much. (Seriously, reading this inspired, soooo many google searches / wikipedia article reads!)
If you enjoy Civil War history or media about political machinations, I definitely give this book a try. It is a lengthy novel at 600+ pages, but it went so fast, and like any good novel, leaves you feeling a little empty at the end, like the end of a journey or goodbye to a friend.
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Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was an engaging book, difficult to put down yet fast enough to read in a few hours. It tells the story of Trevor Noah’s boyhood and his relationship with his mother, as a mixed race child in a time and place (the twilight hours of apartheid-era South Africa) where having a white father and a Xhosa mother was a criminal offense. He tells stories of growing up – of family, school, and church, childhood pranks, business ventures, friendships, and romantic misadventures of young adulthood, and does it all with a respect, wisdom, and reverence for his surroundings and family. His openness, his deep respect and love for his mother (who is a fascinating, strong-willed character), and his easy-going, humorous narration made this a heartfelt and enjoyable read. It was also a personal, intimate look into post-Apartheid South Africa.
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I have always been someone who is much better at collecting dreams, ambitions, and wishes than at taking any sort of real action towards making them happen for myself. Currently, I am a little at sea- swimming in ideas, but unable to take in enough air to take action quite yet. Last week, I ended a year-long contract at an international education company as a co-manager of a curriculum writing team- we wrote individual lesson plans, textbooks, exams, timetables, inventory lists, you name it for a chain of low-cost private schools that run in Lagos, Nigeria.