Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading List Update...etc.

After a week of vacation in Nova Scotia, my completed reading list has expanded to contain the following books:

1. God's Politics by Jim Wallis
2. What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles
3. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
4. Stiff by Mary Roach
5. The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill
6. Against the Tide by Sen. Lincoln Chafee
7. The Summons by John Grisham
8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
9. Twilight by Stephanie Miller
10. New Moon by Stephanie Miller
11. Eclipse by Stephanie Miller
12. The King of Torts by John Grisham
13. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin
14. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Still working on reading The Great Bridge by David McCullough, and am also working on The Pelican Brief by John Grisham and Big Russ & Me by the late Tim Russert.
Most of the books I read last week (#9-11 and #13-14 on the list) I primarily picked up for the purpose of being more familiar with some of the hot books in kids and teen fiction. I found all of them quite enjoyable, although I have to say I was especially attached to Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac after my experience with amnesia of sorts last fall. I thoroughly enjoyed all of those books however, even the Twilight saga, despite the fact that trashy supernatural teen romances are not my usual choice of reading material. They were very well-written and engrossing; the character development was particularly strong.
Here and there I've also been reading from Katharine Graham's Washington, a book of essays selected by the former publisher of the Washington Post about life in Washington, DC. Very nice selection-- the topics are broad, the opinions are broader still, and the authors include people ranging from Will Rogers to David McCullough, "small" names and big names, but all people who lived in the District, at least for a time. I got inspired after reading some to write my own essay about my admittedly limited experiences in DC. Here it is.


The District

Washington is not my hometown. I doubt it ever will be. At heart I am, and will always be, a small-town New England girl. Yet Washington has its charming small-town aspects-- perhaps it is this that endears it to me. For I have never in my life been drawn to cities. I hate to be in New York longer than a week, I rarely venture into Boston despite living so close, and Toronto beyond my uncle's house feels like a rat race that the rats are winning. Paris and Rome, likewise, did not appeal terribly beyond the history and foreign mystique. Madrid, Halifax, and Ottawa are the only other cities I have appreciated much.

But captivates and intrigues me as few other cities do. Moreover, it has grown to feel like a second home-- perhaps not one I would choose to live in year-round, but certainly it is the city in which I can contentedly spend half the year, particularly for academic purposes.

It's my college town-- although that description is not entirely accurate, as the phrase “college town” evokes images of smaller places like Durham, NH or Newark, DE, which swarm with students from August to May, and all but empty out in December, May, June, and July. That is not Washington. I term it my college town only because it is where I study, and truth be told this academic aspect is part of Washington's identity.

I can picture no place more perfect to be a college student. Naturally it is most ideally suited to those studying politics, but students of other subjects can find a home here too. It is, after all, the home of the Center for Disease Control, the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, and hundreds of nonprofit groups. If you seek a place to learn about your major's real-life applications, look no further.

As I said, however, the specialty of Washington is clearly politics. Really, political doings are the lifeblood of this city. You can expect it to manifest itself anywhere and everywhere. If you love the intricacies of government, from the gossip to the serious policy debate, there is no finer place to be. It starts at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue and spreads like a ripple effect from there, to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. The political discussion that pervades my college campus in northwest Washington would warm a policy wonk's heart. Really, I'm pretty sure it's the dialog as much as the opportunities that draws political science majors the world over to the small piece of land on the Potomac known as the District of Columbia.

No matter how much government and political formality and discussion permeate life in Washington, it's a fairly comfortable place to live, at least in some places. Northwest Washington is probably one of the nicest. As you drive up Massachusetts Avenue from Union Station, along Embassy Row, past Dupont Circle, past the Naval Observatory, you start getting out to a place where you feel like you could be in any suburb in the U.S. of A. (This is before you get out to the ritzier neighborhoods of Chevy Chase that do less to suggest middle America.) I love the walk from my campus to the nearest SuperFresh grocery store, and even more so the walk to church. The latter takes me through a park and through a neighborhood that is nice, but not to the point of excess. It's a glimpse-- no, it's more than a glimpse, it's an ever-present balance of normality in a thoroughly abnormal city.

Because it really isn't normal at all. What is normal about over a quarter of a million government employees in one city? Or one of the highest poverty rates in the country in the same city as a large number of incredibly wealthy individuals in astounding mansions? How about the fact that the capital of “no taxation without representation” America has no voting representation in the governing bodies it houses? The stark contradictions are sometimes unsettling, but always fascinating.

By the end of this past academic year, I could hardly wait to get away from Washington. I thought it nothing more than a city of facades, corruption masked in white marble, appalling problems hiding under tourist attractions. And I cannot honestly say, having now gotten away from Washington to the barns and bookstores where I now spend my days, that this opinion has entirely changed. Upon reflection, however, I view Washington as a city of many colors. A tapestry, if you will. Each color is different, and they don't all match each other perfectly. But despite the problems inherent in this lack of matching, the tapestry of Washington is woven together in such an excellent way that I have found myself joining the numbers of those who are enchanted and drawn into the District, captivated by the charms of the capital city.

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