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Art and About: Binging on Books

Give your brain a break from screens by reading. Whether you want to travel the world from your living room or learn about history or cooking, there’s a book for you.

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Before the pandemic, sensory overload was the new normal. Smartphones and computers plugged us into a global communications network that bombarded us with instant answers — and instant questions, usually work-related. That network is still in place, but many of its users are now stuck at home. That has unintended consequences. For the new wave of shut-ins, it’s a lot like a meditative retreat. Once the urgency is gone, the mind slows down. Fractured attention spans come back into focus. After years of multitasking, there’s now time to think. There’s even time to read. Netflix and Hulu are still just a click away. But try reading instead. After all, you’ve got the time.

Here are a few great books to get you started.


Medicine for the Mind

Tara Brach is a psychologist, author and meditation teacher. Her teachings blend Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices. Brach’s latest book, “Radical Compassion,” explores the concept of RAIN, a tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using four steps: recognize, allow, investigate and nurture. Her gentle practice unplugs old patterns and opens you up to the beauty of the now.

Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret Savoy’s “The Colors of Nature” is a savvy anthology of multicultural, environmental literature. Readers get a glimpse of the natural world through the eyes of more than 30 contributors exploring the intersection of cultural diversity and ecological awareness.

Following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is a philosophical diary that unfolds her year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. It’s far from the madding crowd — and the perfect place to consider humanity’s place in the greater scheme.

Who doesn’t need penguins during a pandemic? In “My Penguin Year,” Lindsay McCrae follows 11,000 emperor penguins amid the astonishing beauty of Antarctica. This masterful work chronicles the author and photographer’s 337 days of isolation in a hostile, frozen landscape. It makes a few weeks stuck at home watching Netflix seem like nothing.


What’s Cooking?

Bestselling cookbook guru Nigella Lawson rightly describes Ella Risbridger’s “Midnight Chicken and Other Recipes Worth Living For” as “a manual for living and a declaration of hope.” Lawson’s uplifting “manual” offers soul-warming recipes for everything from chili-lemon spaghetti and spicy fish finger sandwiches to yes, roast chicken. The stories behind the recipes are equally tasty.

Toni Tipton-Martin’s “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking” celebrates African American cuisine in the here and now. Along the way, she shines a light on how contemporary cooks have reinvented the African American classics from days gone by.

Shut-ins could use a culinary survival guide. Ned Baldwin’s “How to Dress an Egg: Surprising and Simple Ways to Cook Dinner” will do the job. Baldwin reinvents classic gourmet recipes and makes them easy for home cooks. His methodology leads to wonderfully tasty meals, one ingredient at a time.


Armchair Traveling

Frances Mayes (author of “Under the Tuscan Sun”) continues her celebration of Italy in “See You in the Piazza,” which chronicles an upscale journey she and her husband took through 80 towns and 13 regions. It’s a multisensory, sensual vacation in print. Buon viaggio!

John Baxter’s “A Year in Paris: Season by Season in the City of Light” is a luminous romp through the city of artists, composers, writers and dreamers. If Paris is on your mind, this book of days is the next best thing to booking that ticket.

Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster” is just the ticket for cynical armchair travelers who hate happy-happy puff pieces. This train ride through China in the 1980s is packed with sharp observations and an even sharper wit. Theroux’s writing is strong medicine and a sure-fire cure for cabin fever. That applies to all of his 19 travel books. Take as often as needed.


Funny Stuff

Patrick McGilligan’s “Funny Man: Mel Brooks” takes a serious look at a comedic giant. Brooks reinvented American comedy — and himself, in the process. Brook’s life story is as engaging (and hilarious) as his life’s work.

David Sedaris’ “Calypso” is an anthology of 21 semi-autobiographical, witty essays. Start with the title story, where Sedaris shares his childhood fantasy of a beach house. “It would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it.” That dream came true when the adult Sedaris and his husband purchased a charming seaside cottage. But be careful what you wish for.


Timely. Maybe a Little Too Timely

Stephen King’s “The Stand” is a fever dream of a killer super-flu that leads to an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil in humanity’s few survivors. (The author notes that his fictional pandemic is far worse than our real one.)

John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” is fascinating, frightening and ultimately hopeful. The 1918 flu pandemic might have killed 100 million people around the world, but medical practices rose to the challenge. Science, not superstition, turned the pandemic around. That lesson was burned in humanity’s collective memory. Hopefully, we’ll never forget it.

Albert Camus’ “The Plague” offers a fictional version of 1918’s real-life heroes. Dr. Bernard Rieux is a rationalist. He scorns the notion that the plague is God’s punishment for humanity’s sins. As he sees it, the plague has no reason. It’s a random event and ultimately absurd. Rieux fights it — because it’s the rational thing to do.


Florida Fare

Carl Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season” is a snarky whodunnit from Florida’s glory days. Tourists, and the promoters who lure them to the Sunshine State, wind up dead in ghastly yet creative ways. That’s always bad for tourism. Hiaasen’s book is hilarious — and a bittersweet reminder of a time when there were actually too many tourists.

To continue your deep dive into Florida crime fiction, check out Sanibel author Randy Wayne White’s “Sanibel Flats,” the first novel in his addictive “Doc Ford” series. White’s eponymous hero is a marine biologist, environmentalist and retired government agent who tangles with bad guys on the low-rent fringes of Florida life — the seedy bars and fishing shacks that eccentrics love and tourists never visit.


Science Fiction

Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” is a near-future odyssey of linguistics, cryptography, anthropology, religious megalomaniacs and pizza delivery. His book is a trip, and it’s well worth taking.


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