I’ll admit that my husband and I have been making fun of Rick Steves for years – in a good way of course. Sorry Rick. That said, we obviously love him as we have been watching his show on PBS pretty religiously for nearly twenty years. We love you Rick Steves! and this book is no let down. What a joyful read with deep insight and critical comparative thinking about countries he has traveled. He compares them to the United States and sheds a light of unbiased realism and intellectualism that can’t be ignored.
In the first chapter of Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind Rick Steves boldly begins “Many of today’s elected leaders have no better connection with real people–especially ones outside their borders–than those “divinely ordained” kings did centuries ago.” Rick Steves recommends traveling on purpose…..to learn and connect with people across our own borders. In his words…”travel broadens our perspectives personally, culturally, and politically”. He delves into Brexit, refugees, Trump, Nativism, Terrorism, and climate change. This is a well-written perspective from a master teacher traveler. I highly recommend Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind to crack open your mind just a little bit more, or to crack open your heart and let some love of your fellow human beings enter. Don’t be afraid to travel or fear the unknown. The world is yours for the taking….be fearless and travel widely.
Every year in the late summer or early fall, I anxiously anticipate a new mystery by Louise Penny in her continuing Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series set in Three Pines, a small village in Quebec. The fourteenth book in the series is Kingdom of the Blind and it is clear that Penny’s writing is as strong as ever. I usually listen to the audiobook version of Penny’s books. The narrator is Robert Bathurst, a former character on Downton Abbey (Edith’s suitor Sir Anthony Strallan) and his voice brings the Canadian inspector alive. If you are new to the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, start with Louise Penny’s first book,Still Life.
The book begins with Armand Gamache, the former head of the Surete du Quebec, who is waiting to hear the verdict concerning his botched drug raid, which was a complete disaster. As the case hangs over his head, the drugs that eluded his squad begins to snake through the streets of Montreal with deadly precision. Gamache also learns of the betrayal of one of his “second chance” recruits, who has slipped back into addiction.
While waiting for the internal investigation to end, Gamache, along with friend and Three Pines resident Myrna Landers, have learned that they been named as executors of a woman’s estate whom neither of them know, along with third man who is a stranger to them. Why would this woman, who referred to herself as “The Baroness” appoint Gamache and Myrna as two executors when she was an outsider to their close-knit group in Three Pines?
After one of her beneficiaries is found dead in The Baroness’ dilapidated former home, Gamache is determined to find out more about the self-proclaimed royal and her family secrets. The case of the Baroness runs parallels with Gamache’s fate in the drug raid and its consequences. But, the Baroness is not the only one with secrets. Gamache has secrets of his own that will be revealed when all the pieces fit neatly into place.
Sonically and lyrically, “Come Back To Earth,” perfectly establishes the feel of Swimming and encapsulates all the thematic elements of the album: breakups, vulnerability, addiction, despair, hope, and painful self-awareness. People connect with Mac Miller because he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He perfectly sums up what depression feels like when he wrote: “And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right / When you inside all day / I wish it was nice out, but it looked like rain /Grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever /They told me it only gets better.”
Now, the lyrics “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head” are just haunting.
It wasn’t until after Mac Miller died from a powerful combination of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol that I heard his most recent album, Swimming, and immediately started listening to his other work, Best Day Ever, and The Divine Feminine, among others. Like the inimitable artists who preceded him in death – Prince and Tom Petty, most recently – Miller’s reputation as a real-deal artist is not diminished due to his struggle with addiction. In a short lifespan, he managed to eat, breath, and sleep his craft, so much so that he was always writing, creating, performing, and improving. Just 26 years old after dropping his self-produced August 2018 album, Miller made an inspired appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, mere months before his body was found. His NPR performance immediately struck me as genuine as he bantered with his band and addressed the audience in between songs. Plus, Thundercat’s willingness to back you up is evidence of your awesomeness . But moreso: Mac Miller makes me feel something, and simple though that criteria may appear, it’s an indicator for great artistry. Even though he suffered, he nobly shared his vulnerability, sadness, and hope through his music.
Initially, the song “2009” was one of my fast favorites on the album, probably because of the self-reflective quality that the song conveys, both lyrically and instrumentally. The narrator appears to have looked back on his life having realized some hard-won truths but is ready to embrace a hopeful future. My favorite lyric is when he refers a conversation the narrator had with a woman and he cleverly characterizes her as an angel: “She tell me that I get her high ’cause a angel’s s’posed to fly”. The track has a dreamy wisdom about it that comes through the stripped-down instrumentation. Much of Miller’s music simplymakes me feel good.
Track number three, “What’s the Use” is a funky, laid back, feel-good groove featuring Snoop and that signature Thundercat bassline and that hits in all the right places and might be my favorite tune on the album because, hello, FIVE STRING BASS in the house
Then you have the trumpet-heavy funk and disco dance tune, “Ladders”, that seems to encapsulate the hope and despair Mac embodied in his music. Such a big, bright song evokes a wild night living large in the city but against the backdrop of a sad truth looming in the near future: that the sun would rise and the fun would be over. “Somehow we gotta find a way / No matter how many miles it takes / I know it feels so good right now / But it all comes fallin’ down / When the night meet the light /Turn to day. Where was it Mac wanted to go? Check out his live performance of ladders and the all-star 11-piece band on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Melodically and rhythmically, “Self-Care”(co-written by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange) is easily one of my favorite tunes on the album (but I’m hard-pressed to find a bad song on the album). Eerily, the music video portrays Miller lying in a coffin and nearly buried alive as he sings: “Somebody save me from myself, yeah /Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere / Self care, we gonna be good /Hell yeah, they lettin’ me go”. Given the trendiness of the concept of “self care” in a society marked by millenial backlash against the backdrop of growing social isolation in spite of vast widespread advancements in technology, Miller wanted to take better care of himself: he was envisioning a better life, but the question would be: how am I gonna get there?
A review in Pitchfork states so eloquently that the feeling of a work of art is indeed as valuable as the other more technical components of song crafting: “As always, Miller remains a step behind the prestige artists he emulates—Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, and, increasingly,Frank Ocean, whose nonchalant songcraft looms large here. Swimming is less virtuosic than those artists’ recent works, but no less heartfelt, and the album’s wistful soul and warm funk fits Miller like his oldest, coziest hoodie. He may be unable to escape his own head, as he laments on the opener “Come Back to Earth,” but he’s decided to make himself as comfortable as possible while he’s trapped there.”
Co-written by Pharell Williams (does he collaborate with everyone?) , “Hurt Feelings” (awesomely described in this article as “weirdly cocksure”) is another super-catchy tune on the album with a beat that’s perfect for head bobbing, and oddly enough, one of the tunes I crank in the morning to psych myself up for work or life.
Check out “Swimming” for honest, heart-felt poetry from a young soul who lived the life he rapped about only to die far too young, long before he had a chance to love himself back to life.
A new month means it’s time for a new topic for our Challenge and this month it’s : Food.
(Oh, this could be trouble. I feel like I’m putting on a few pounds just thinking about all the great descriptions of food….)
There is a veritable feast of choices (haha, see what I did there?) with this topic. Let’s get started with some suggestions.
If you’re interested in fiction try Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate where a woman’s emotions are infused into the food she prepares. Chocolat by Joanne Harris brings more magical, this time to the world of sweets. For something as light and sweet as angel food cake (more food jokes!), reach for Jeanne Ray’s Eat Cake, a delightful story about a woman saving the day with her baking. (Fun Fact: Ray is award-winning author Ann Patchet’s mother!) Like graphic novels? They you must read Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley which sets the standard for excellence in graphic novels.
For many years my number one, go-to, loved-by-everyone book recommendation was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. It seems like everyone has read it by now but if you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat, by turns (very) funny, heartbreaking and bittersweet, it’s a joyful celebration of community brought together by a diner.
There are lots of food mysteries too including the Tea Shop mysteries by Laura Childs and the Hannah Swenson mysteries by Joanne Fluke.
For non-fiction there’s Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where she and her family spend a year eating only what they can raise themselves or purchase from neighboring farmers. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell follows Powell as she sets out to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Gourmet Cookie Book is a unique way to study history – it lists the single best cookie recipe from Gourmet magazine (now defunct) from 1941 to 2009. The recipes reflect things such as food shortages and rationing during World War II and the trend for new and exotic in later years. It’s fascinating!
And it seems like any memoir set in France (A Year in Provenceby Peter Mayle) or Italy (Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis Mayes) is going to have large, lovely portions dedicated to the joy of eating.
Finally, the library has a huge selection of cookbooks from exotic coffee-table worthy tomes to practical, simple meal plans. You’ll find a wide range of ethnic and specialty topics, many with gorgeous, mouth-watering photography. (My Mom used to read cookbooks like a novel, reading and relishing each recipe whether she planned to attempt to make it or not.) If anyone should happen to read one of those lovely cookbooks and happen to drop off some homemade cookies or bread or cake to prove that they finished this month’s Challenge, well, that would just be a shame, wouldn’t it?
I’m not the cook that my Mother was (Although I’m quite accomplished at eating! ha) so I’m going to pass on the cookbooks. Instead I’m planning on reading Delicious by Ruth Reichl about a woman who takes over a food magazine just as it collapses. Reichl has written some award-winning memoirs (which would also be great for this month’s Challenge) with gorgeous titles such as Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone and a new one coming out in April, Save Me the Plums. Oh gosh, I’m so hungry now….
What about you? What delicious book do you plan to read in February?
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