Days, Years, and Millenia: Organizing Layers of History Into a Single Narrative
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
By Lawrence Wright
368 pp. Knopf, 2014
The Carter Presidential Library is only a few minutes from downtown Atlanta, yet feels a world away from the bustling metropolitan area. The museum is situated on thirty acres of manicured lawns, colorful flowerbeds and tree-lined walkways. There is a fountain, a duck pond, winding paths, and benches tucked under trees. I visited the museum in the summer of 2015, shortly after I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David.
As you wander through the museum, you pass a series of exhibits on everything from the Panama Canal Treaty to the Carter White House’s diplomatic relationship with China. (If you can't make it to Atlanta, you can still take a virtual tour inside the Carter Presidential Museum.) And then, just past a sparkly silver dress of First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s, the blue carpet shifts to a hardwood floor, the passage narrows, and the ambient colors become bright and woodsy. The greens and browns dramatically contrast with a large blue Star of David that takes up much of the left wall. Across from it is the large outline of a rustic cabin. You have entered Camp David.
Photos line the walls of the twisty narrow exhibit, showing the president and first lady with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, their wives, and various aids and advisors—shaking hands, relaxing on a deck in wooden lawn chairs, playing chess, deep in though late at night, walking along wooded paths, and with feet up on coffee tables. They called it “cabin-to-cabin diplomacy.” Despite many obstacles, stand-stills, and disagreements, and several threats of failure, Jimmy Carter’s long-dreamed peace talks between Egypt and Israel succeeded. Although they obviously did not solve all the region’s problems, the tenuous peace signed on 17 September 1978 still holds. It was the first agreement between Israel and an Arab state, and it resulted in Nobel Peace Prizes for Sadat and Begin (but not for Carter).
My kids love to watch "Elmo’s World." In one of their favorite episodes a little girl visits the American Museum of Natural History to look at the dinosaurs. She explains that "scientists called 'paleontologists' dig up the fossils of dinosaur bones and they put together skeletons which show how big they were!" The little girl plays with a toy skeleton, which she puts together "just like PALEONTOLOGISTS do!" She grins up to her mom, "Maybe I’ll be a paleontologist someday!" Fuzzy red Elmo comes back to wonder, "Where can Elmo learn more about paleontologists?" Why, the Dinosaur Channel of course!
I let my kids watch cartoons while I cook dinner, and this was the point in the episode when one day I let the food sizzle and popped my head into their field of vision. "Did you know I was—am—a paleontologist?" I asked. Oh the look of confused disenchantment on their sweet little faces! Paleontologists are supposed to be cool and exciting and amazing, but I’m just… their mom!
"Did you study dinosaurs?" Marie asked.
"Nope, I studied tiny little animals that live in the ocean, so small you need a microscope to see them! They’re called foraminifera. Can you say that?"
"For. A. Min. If. Era," three little voices dutifully piped back.
Unimpressed, they asked me to turn Elmo back on.
But the information must have settled somewhere in Marie’s brain because a few weeks later she asked me what the little animals were called, the ones that lived in the ocean and you needed a periscope to see.
"Yes. What are they called?"
"Foraminifera. But we call them forams for short."
"Did they also die at the same time as the dinosaurs?"
"Well, some did. Some died a long time before the dinosaurs, and some are still around."
"Mommy, are there still some dinosaurs around?"
This is the question I have been waiting for! For Christmas I got Nick a t-shirt that’s a riff on the classic monkey-to-man image, but this shirt shows evolution from a Tyrannosaurus Rex to a chicken. Yes it’s true: birds evolved from dinosaurs.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
By Dan Egan
384 pp. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017
In 2012, journalist Dan Egan, his wife, and their four children moved to New York City for a year so he could pursue a fellowship at Columbia University. Part of the program was to write a book proposal. "There were sixteen students in the classroom," he recalled several years later. "I don't think any of them were from the Great Lakes Basin. There was a lot of discussion about what we were pursuing, and every time I started telling Great Lakes stories, they just became rapt. It was really eye-opening to me, because of what we take for granted here [in the midwest]—the story of the Great Lakes."
By that point he had been reporting on the Great Lakes for nearly a decade for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He imagined his various stories, on everything from invasive species to algal blooms, and "they seemed to stack up like chapters." He hadn't planned to actually write the book—just fulfill his course requirement—but he got good feedback from his peers and professors. "Basically," Egan said, his professor told him he would be "crazy not to harvest a decade's worth of reporting and put it all between two covers. It was good advice."
A lifetime of fishing on the lakes—and fifteen years reporting on the lakes—makes Egan a knowledgeable and passionate guide to a wondrous and complex fresh-water system. He grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and lives in Milwaukee. As a child he vacationed with his grandparents on the Door Peninsula, swimming in the clean waters north of industrialized Green Bay. His expertise runs far beyond childhood fancy, however. His work on the Great Lakes has made him a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting, first in 2010 for writing on how invasive species have disrupted the ecosystem and economy of the Great Lakes, and again in 2013 for reporting on efforts to keep new invasive species—especially Asian carp—out of the lakes. Both of these topics make up the bulk of his book. Egan's knowledge of the subject is apparent in the clarity with which he explains the various environmental, economic, social, political, and historic factors at play.
My Favorite Books of 2019
At the beginning of 2020, the twins turned 3 and Marie turned 5. I feel as though I'm finally coming out of the tunnel I've been in ever since the midwife said, "wait a second, I think it might be twins?" My mind has woken up and I am hungry for all the books! Here are my favorite books I read in 2019. All the books link to an assortment of independent bookstores around the United States.