Nighttime at Nationals Park

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Nationals Park; Washington, District of Columbia, USA

Sunset Over The Monuments

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Arlington, Virginia, USA

Thoughts on ‘Roadrunner’

“If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by.”

If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by. He was also a husband, father, friend, chef, writer, television host, and a cultural ambassador who made the world his oyster after many years as a cook in hot, windowless, stressful New York City kitchens. For some people, travel is a birthright that they have from a young age but for Anthony Bourdain, it was an unexpected gift at middle age after writing the excellent ‘Kitchen Confidential’ book highlighting his years in the underbelly of those same kitchens, which became a New York Times bestseller, and helped lead him into fame, stardom, and notoriety.

Bourdain’s life would never be the same as he was offered other book deals, his first television contract for the show, ‘A Cook’s Tour’, and started to be recognized around the world from Tokyo to Los Angeles. While his life as a newly minted TV host traveling worldwide, tasting different cuisines, meeting different peoples, he opened the world to those of us who only knew what they had read, learned about in school, or heard from others. Those of us who watched his shows learned about the world through the medium of television, but it was Anthony’s narration, his willingness to listen and empathize with whom he shared a meal that made him stand out from others in the travel show business. Bourdain never sugarcoated things and didn’t mince words about what he saw in his travels especially as the focus became less on food and more on culture, politics, and the trajectory of humanity itself. All this time though, watching his shows and reading his books, we knew more about the man’s reflections on the world and then how the world reflected on him.

The shock of his loss still hurts those who were fans of his works over three years later, I included, among the millions of people who were touched by his words, his spirit, and his lust for life. It is hard even now to reconcile the fact that the man who appeared to have had it all still suffered and that there was no outreach, gesture, or love shown that could have prevented his tragic suicide. Feelings of anger, disbelief, regret, and sadness come to mind when you think of how anyone, especially Anthony Bourdain, could decide to let go of life itself especially when it had enveloped him in such a warm embrace especially after his 2nd life of fame, success, and travel had gone on for almost two decades.

What ‘Roadrunner’, the film documentary on Anthony Bourdain’s life tries to answer is not the ‘why?’ of his death but the ‘how?’ of his illustrious life and how it changed, evolved, shifted, swinged on its ups and downs, which the documentary is successful at achieving. Rather than the director, Morgan Neville, attempt to get all of the answers on an unknowable concept such as what makes a person decide to take their own life, which left his friends, family, and fans devastated and unable to make sense of it either, the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary looks at how his life was, which people changed Anthony for better or worse, how he changed as a person, and how did travel affect him over almost 18 years. As a fan of Anthony’s written and television work, you learn a lot about the world through him, but I never got a full sense of who the man was as a person and I’m sure others can relate to this feeling.

Although he gave his all in his craft and in his vision, he rarely liked to be the center of attention in any room and was a shy, slightly self-deprecating, yet also a kind and generous man that would give more to others than would receive himself in return, and who never seemed fully quite comfortable with the fame, success, and notoriety his works produced. Those who remember him in the documentary talk about how he would always reach out to them to see how they are doing and to be a real people-pleaser but not ask for much in return or would find it difficult to confide in others with problems that may have been affecting him, personal or otherwise. While the film does a great job of capturing what it was like for Bourdain as he went from a line cook to a chef to an author to a television host to a cultural icon, we don’t really get to see much about his personal life beyond bits and snippets of details.

The viewer knows Bourdain came from a stable childhood, summers spent in France, loving parents, and a younger brother who he got along with well. However, you can sense from the documentary that he never grasped what most people would want from a ‘normal life.’ Bourdain was a creative soul who was curious by nature, inquisitive, had a taste for linguistics, and had a big imagination given his literary and musical tastes. He was not a man as Mark Twain would rail against as “vegetating in one corner of the planet” for their whole lives. Once he had the opportunity to do so financially and professionally, he seized it and took full advantage of the gifts that he had been given from a young age.

What was missing from the documentary sadly is Bourdain’s own reflections beyond his travels and perhaps the family he built from scratch. We do not hear much about what his childhood was like, how he got introduced to drugs such as heroin, how did he succumb to his addiction to it, and what how his two marriages and past girlfriends affected his outlook on love and life. During the documentary, we are perhaps best informed about who Anthony was as a cook, as a traveler, as a friend, who he was as a father, but it is hard to know who we were behind closed doors when the cameras were not rolling.

There are some aspects of his personality that you can glean from the documentary such as his addictive habits whether it would be using heroin, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or wanting to hold on to his relationships even perhaps their natural end date. For better or worse, as the film portrays, Bourdain loved experiencing novelty and new things which led him to his legendary status as a globetrotter, but it also could backfire in terms of giving too much of himself to people without getting as much in return. It seemed from ‘Roadrunner’ that Bourdain would seek to please others before pleasing himself and that could have led to some deeper dissatisfaction with life. It can be hard to feel as if you’re giving more than receiving and I do believe that does play a role in depression.

You can also infer from ‘Roadrunner’ that Anthony’s romantic views on life, on love and on travel did not always meet reality. He could be very demanding in his professional career and rude or dismissive of his long-time camera crew and production team. It’s shown that he could make rash decisions about hiring and firing of personnel as well as set very high expectations for his television show, which could not always be met by those who worked with him. It’s also true that in his last romantic relationship with Ms. Argento, he would let his personal desires to please her or work with a famous director like Mr. Feng that led to him putting his crew’s creative input on the back burner. When he expressed his desire to quit traveling a few years before his death, his production team encouraged him to do it if he felt it was time to do so and they wouldn’t stop him, but it was as if Bourdain needed someone to validate his decisions to go through with them.

‘Roadrunner’ succeeds in telling the story of one of our young century’s great explorers and cultural ambassadors. In 2021, there are still some gaps in our knowledge of who Anthony Bourdain was and how he felt about his life. Sadly, we will never know the full story because of his tragic death by suicide and we can only infer on how such a bright life could be extinguished too soon when he had so much more to give to the world, to his family, and to his friends. Unfortunately, not all men make it to a ripe old age to be surrounded by those who matter most to them.

Names like Hemingway, London, and now Bourdain died at middle-aged by in their lives accomplished or saw or did as much as five men combined who lived longer than them. It is not the years in your life that matter but the life in your years and Anthony Bourdain made the most of his life as few could or will do again. Even more than three years after his death, he is sorely missed, and the world is not as well off without him and his impact. From the Congo to Iran to Antarctica to Libya, he was not afraid or reticent of sharing a meal with those who were different than him even when he had nothing personally in common with them.

I hope that the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary becomes part of Anthony Bourdain’s legacy and inspires both young and old people to see the world as it is and to hopefully mold it little by little through travels and meals to change the world bit by bit into the world that we would like it to be. That would be a fine way to honor his legacy and to make the world a little less unknown.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial and Museum

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Juscelino Kubitschek Memorial and Museum; Brasilia, Federal District (DF), Brazil

‘The Terminal’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Perhaps that is what endears Viktor so much to the audience in this film is that he does not give up hope, makes the best of the awful situation he is in, and even starts to befriend other airport workers who are often ignored, underpaid, or even mistreated at times by both customers and their employers.”

A lot of us know what it is like to wait in an airport and have to stay overnight at one because your flight runs into an unexpected delay whether it’s due to a plane’s mechanical issue, or there are weather complications, or if a global pandemic cancels your flight unexpectedly. Whatever the cause of your delay, I am sure you never have had to live in an airport for months on end let alone for more than a day. The questions you should ask yourself though if you could put yourself in this following hypothetical scenario: What if you couldn’t leave the airport upon arrival in a new country? What if the country you just left, your home country, underwent significant political changes or even revolution overnight leaving you stranded? The very underrated yet enjoyable ‘The Terminal’ movie asks these unique questions.

A mix of fiction and non-fiction, a concoction of drama, comedy, and a little bit of tragedy all together, ‘The Terminal’ is a 2004 American film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones. The premise may seem out there of someone being stuck in an airport for months or years but ‘The Terminal’ is partly based on the true story of a real-life refugee. Mr. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport and was considered ‘stateless’ for many years and was denied entry into France while also not being expelled from the airport. In total, he lived in the de Gaulle airport for over 18 years and only left from there in 2008 when he was moved for medical treatment and then a Paris shelter.

Nasseri, like ‘The Terminal’s main character have that premise in common of not being able to enter their new chosen destination but also having the right to live in the airport without being expelled. Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) is on his way to New York City from the fictional Eastern European country known as ‘Krakozhia’ looking to fulfill a personal mission, which is unknown to the viewer right away. We see images of him arriving at JFK along with thousands of others looking to visit America from far-flung countries. However, a routine Visa check and Passport stamp ends up as a nightmare for poor Viktor.

While Viktor was flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, his country underwent a political revolution and civil conflict leaving him without international recognition of his Passport since Krakozhia no longer has a recognized government. Since his passport is no longer valid, he cannot enter the United States because the U.S. does not recognize the country anymore due to the ongoing civil strife. Viktor is now ‘stateless’ as he cannot return home and he cannot leave the airport rendering him stranded there. Viktor is forced to remain in the international transit lounge and is not given much help by Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci) who would much rather Viktor leave the airport to get arrested so he becomes someone else’s problem. Mr. Dixon, the Acting Field commissioner for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, gives Viktor only a handful of food vouchers and a calling card but not much else to get by on.

Viktor has a destination in mind for his New York City trip but has limited English skills when he arrives and is only able to tell the CBP officer the name of a local hotel but does not go into much detail about why he is going there and what the purpose of his stay might be. Without his passport and his return ticket, Viktor’s life shrinks down to the international transit lounge at JFK airport where he spends his days collecting luggage carts to order Burger King, accidentally breaks a young girl’s luggage, and slips, falls when he runs to see news about Krakozhia because the Indian American janitor enjoys seeing people slip for his only entertainment.

Eventually, Viktor becomes accustomed to living in an airport and at first, while both daunting and scary to the stateless refugee, he adapts to his new living conditions with some ingenuity and perseverance. He constructs his own bed by dismantling the arm rests of the seats at an abandoned terminal, he learns English through travel guides and by watching the scroll of news information come across the screen to keep up to date with what is going on with his beloved Krakozhia and can both shower and shave somehow when using the airport bathroom.

Human beings have an innate need to adapt to our surroundings even when they are unfamiliar, foreign, or stressful for us. Perhaps that is what endears Viktor so much to the audience in this film is that he does not give up hope, makes the best of the awful situation he is in, and even starts to befriend other airport workers who are often ignored, underpaid, or even mistreated at times by both customers and their employers. The power of perseverance in the face of obstacles makes ‘The Terminal’ a heartwarming and memorable film. Instead of getting down on life and giving up on his situation, he turns the tables on Frank and the border agents by not falling into their traps that they set for him. He makes his own happiness. One of the best moments of this film is when a random gentleman is shaving alongside Vikor, stops for a second, and says to Viktor, “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just living in an airport?”

Being stuck in an airport terminal means a lot of time on your hands too. Viktor spends his almost limitless time in waiting by honing his skills as a carpenter and a painter even getting himself a job that allows him to earn money ‘under the table’ as a contractor mostly so he can eat. He befriends the CBP officers he sees each day even though they continue to deny his tourist visa due to his invalid passport. One CBP officer whom he gets to know very well is Dolores who Enrique (Diego Luna) has a massive crush on and would like Viktor to ask her questions to start an eventual conversation with her.

In return, Enrique gives him some extra airplane meals that he delivers on to the planes. Gupta, the janitor who at first makes fun of Viktor for slipping and not seeing the ‘wet floor’ sign eventually gains respect for Viktor because he makes him feel less lonely. Viktor befriends other transit lounge employees, plays card games with them over ‘lost’ items never picked up by passengers, and is able to win the admiration and possible affection of Amelia, a wayward flight attendant who ends up caught in a ‘love triangle’ between Viktor and another man.

While Amelia is always on the go and can’t seem to stand still in her relationships or in her job, Viktor is the exact opposite in that he can’t go and must always stay. Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones have real chemistry in this movie and represent how different their characters are from each other but can bond over their shared humor, interests, and lust for life even if they are opposites in an ironic sense with where they are in their lives, one stuck in limbo and the other always on the go.

The main mystery that I will not spoil for you is why Viktor flew halfway around the world to be in New York and what exactly is in the Planters peanut can, which he won’t let go of even after being in the airport for nine months. More important than his passport or return ticket, the closed Planters can contain the reason for Viktor’s trip and how he ended up this limbo state even though he has a place to go to before he returns to Krakozhia.

By the end of the film, you and the rest of the audience are rooting for a happy ending for Viktor and even for perhaps with Amelia as well. You also see heartwarming stories of Viktor helping a fellow Krakozhian in need of translation help, aiding Gupta with staying in his job and the U.S., as well as getting Enrique and Dolores to successfully date and marry each other.

‘The Terminal’ is perhaps Spielberg’s most heartwarming, underrated, and emotionally uplifting movie in his storied career as one of the world’s greatest directors. With great acting and an impressive accent by Hanks, lovely humor and touching romantic scenes with Zeta-Jones and the excellent Stanley Tucci who plays a man who can be cruel but also compassionate in the same scene but ends up as the film’s antagonist. This film has a little bit of everything and will make you laugh, cry, and even cheer at the ending.

‘The Terminal’ is a reminder that we are all waiting for something or someone in the winding road that is life itself. Sometimes, we get sidetracked, turned around, or even stuck in an airport for days or months even, but we always can find a way to make the best of our new surroundings, even find happiness or love in the place where we least expect it. Viktor Navorski as I would say is a real mensch who finds himself in a terrible situation, one not of his own making, but is able to create an odd life out of being given nothing and is able to help others and become a favorite of the JFK international transit lounge, which is a place that people want to get out of as soon as possible. He can’t leave but he ends up enjoying the long stay thanks to his compassion, kindness, and genuine warmth as a good person.

Paranoa Lake

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Paranoa Lake; Brasilia, Federal District (DF), Brazil

Pirenopolis

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Pirenopolis, Goias, Brazil

Greed Is Not Good

“My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.”

The ethos of an era or a generation usually spans about 40-50 years. I think we are living in a time of great upheaval obviously due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to the economic and social disruptions that occur as a result. What was thought to be as acceptable before the pandemic will likely draw condemnation and pushback after the pandemic. My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.

I’m not sure exactly what that new ethos will become but I do fervently hope that it will push back on the notion of greed being good at all but rather a detriment to the wider society. This new ethos in the 2020s and beyond will hopefully not prioritize the pursuit of money and fame above all else but rather the pursuit of kindness, caring for others, and leaving the world better than we found it.

While Gordon Gekko is just a fictional villain and the movie ‘Wall Street’ fictional in nature, there are examples throughout our society where people actually believe the ethos of ‘greed is good’ and actively pursue it in different ways without understanding or caring about the repercussions.

I’ll give a few examples that are not from 1987 or even earlier in the 1980s but from 2020: A college admissions scandal which involved bribery so the children of well-to-do families could get into prestigious colleges without earning their admissions, Multiple U.S. Senators caught red-handed doing insider trading to profit off of a pandemic and then not admitting their wrong doing, and large firms receiving loans they likely don’t need while they use that money for stock buybacks rather than investing in the solvency of their workers during the height of this unemployment crisis.

These are just three examples of this hopefully dying ethos of ‘greed is good’ but the problem still is that these kinds of practices, while they are being condemned, they are not being cracked down hard enough and the laws have not been changed enough to prevent future misdeeds. When you have an economy that protects high income inequality, lopsided CEO-to-worker compensation ratios, and a consistent hesitancy to guarantee collective bargaining rates for employees and an ability to raise wages to livable levels, that shows that ‘greed is good’ is still a predominant ideology that is hurting the average person.

The stock market may hit all-time highs but that is good news only for those who actually own stocks and that number is only over half of Americans whereas the gains of the stock market are only truly felt by the Top 10% of income earners. The previous financial crisis of 2007-2009 showed the world how ‘greed is good’ can cause companies to go bankrupt, houses to be foreclosed, and businesses to be shuttered, while no CEO who was responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis actually went to jail. The bonuses continued to flow, and the banking system maintained its solvency, but unemployment and inequality grew for the next few years with both now increasing in 2020 even while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 30k for the first time.

I should state clearly that I am not against people going into business, try to make money for themselves to feed themselves and their families, and enjoying the fruits of their labor. However, when people are caught being greedy and harming others in the process as which continues to happen, there need to be harsh consequences and changes to the law. As Theodore Roosevelt knew as President, corporate oligopolies need to be reined in, broken up, and held accountable. Gilded ages may be good for the few, but they lead to disaster for the many. In this pandemic, many billionaires have seen their net worth skyrocket and their stock prices increase but at the same time, you have millions of people jobless, homeless, and in food lines often for the first time in their lives.

The ethos of a culture has to push back against this kind of greed and ignorance. It starts with condemning the actions of those who don’t play by the rules, won’t change the rules to be fairer, and who go out of their way to make life difficult and unfair for others trying to succeed. It also means calling out those people who refuse to pay taxes, use offshore tax laws to park their money elsewhere, and whose companies don’t pay a time in actual taxes while other parts of society suffer. Not only should these practices be condemned but they should be made illegal as well.

Social trust, belief in the goodness of others, and the willingness to do what’s right suffers when greed is pursued #1 above all else. The past thirty years have shown this to be true as the increased financialization of the economy as a whole, loose regulations, increased corporate influence and money in government have all atrophied our system to where we are dealing with serious labor, environmental, and employment concerns.

Not everybody who has earned a lot of money is greedy, but they have a role in helping to make the system fairer by abiding by the rules and respecting the fact that they do have a role in allowing others to have their chance to be successful. You can’t climb up the ladder and then pull it out from under you when you get there. Others who are not greedy but do well for themselves have to remember that they have a responsibility to hold those in power and those who have immense wealth in check to be consistently vigilant that they are not flouting the rules or if the rules don’t exist yet, perhaps they should be incorporated to combat unrestrained greed.

There will always be some kind of inequality and differences in outcomes in a capitalist system but there are clear signs to tell when that inequality has gotten out of control, when greed has become too prominent, and when justice or basic fairness has taken a back seat. Greed is not good, and it should be one of the guiding ethos of the next generation. Being a success, working hard for that success, and spreading that success around so others have a good shot at it is a much better philosophy to embody. What’s good for you is not always good for others. It is important that those with immense wealth or power understand that they too live in a society and there are certain duties and obligations that we have to one another.

Knowing when enough is enough, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and knowing when things have gone sideways and need to be fixed, those are all key components on pushing back against the ‘greed is good’ ethos, which has had its prominence over the past four decades. Greed can harm others, do tremendous damage, and atrophy the bonds of trust in our society. It is important that we never forget these facts and to fight against it as much as we can in our lives, both personally and professionally.  

Cuisine Spotlight – Pão de Queijo

“Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night.”

Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night. While often served as part of a traditional Brazilian breakfast (café da manha), you can have it as an appetizer, a snack, or even as a side dish with some meals depending on your preference. I do believe it is best served with come coffee or tea to wash down the bread. It really is a traditional Brazilian staple with interesting ingredients as well as a deep and culturally rich history to go with this practical dish. You should be aware though that it is hard to have just one of the cheese bread pieces and it is likely you will eat six or seven in one try.

While there are various forms of cheese bread, the Brazilian ‘pao de queijo’ is perhaps the most famous in the world and for which has the longest history. Originally from the state of Minas Gerais, ‘pao de queijo originates back to the early 18th century when many enslaved African people who worked in the local mines would make the bread as a staple food while migrating from the Northeast of Brazil to the Southeast such as the historical city of Ouro Preto in the modern-day state of Minas Gerais.

The mining cycle and lifestyle caused staple food production to increase such as for rice, beans, cornmeal, pork, but also cheese. In Minas Gerais, farmers and cooks would use starch or cassava as a substitute for wheat to bake as a wheat substitute for form the bread for the cheese. With cheese chips or pieces mixed into the cassava or starch, the cheese bread would be made for the farmers by the slaves or for themselves as miners as they mined for gold in the colonial era.

Wheat never took hold in terms of forming the bread needed especially since the climate was not suitable for Northeast Brazil, which was instead imported from Europe later on for the King and his royal adherents. Instead, cassava tuber was used as a substitute in making ‘pao de queijo’ as a staple food. The cheese would be grated and hardened inside the cassava flour and rise after being baked in the oven to become the popular cheese bread food it is today across Brazil.

Today, there are many different variations on ‘pao de queijo’ making it a fun dish to make depending upon your preference of starch, of cheese, and of temperature to bake it at. You can use both sweet or sour starch or cassava as is traditionally done. You also can choose from different types of cheeses as well from mozzarella to parmesan to cheese which is native to the state of Minas Gerais and has its own unique flavor. Adding egg to the recipe also adds flavor and needed color to the final product as well. Also, as an option, you can smear a bit of fat whether it is butter, margarine, lard, or vegetable oil on the cheese bread to make it more elastic and stretchable to eat pieces of at a time.

Some recipes can add meat inside with the cheese or potato as well although I confess that this kind of ‘pao de queijo’ is not that popular. I think it is important to keep in mind that the cheese can also be pre-boiled to add to its overall flour before baking too although it is not necessary. As for the cheese, it is good to use the traditional ‘Minas’ cheese if you’re in Brazil but if you don’t have it available, mozzarella or parmesan are good substitute options to have.

You cannot have ‘pao de queijo’ without having the texture down, so you need to have the cassava starch as part of the main ingredients. The balls need to be an inch or two (3-5 cm in diameter) and need to be in that form before you bake them. Unlike other cheese breads, you are using unleavened bread for this snack dish so the dough will expand due to small pockets of air that are left to grow during the baking process. Tapioca starch is also used for the ‘pao de queijo’ as well and it is quite common to add dipping sauces or additions like catupiry (Brazilian cream cheese), Guava sauce, dulce de leche (caramel sauce) as well to have as a dessert.

When you come to Brazil, you will find this popular snack almost everywhere including convenience stores, delicatessens, restaurants, snack bars, etc. The locals will encourage to at least have a few of them and sometimes up to eight or ten. It is the perfect snack to have with friends, with family, or over a coffee with a new acquaintance. A simple yet delicious staple food of Brazilian cuisine: You haven’t experienced all of Brazil until you have had a bite of ‘pao de queijo.’

Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?