Trespassing Across America

Ken_Ilgunas_Trespassing_Across_America

Something that fascinates me about America is the fact that there is more land without people than there is with people. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mire of the ever-raging political battles and America’s position on the global stage, but the true spirit of the U.S. lies in its uninhabited wild spaces.

But despite being wild and open, much of the privately-owned land is not open to hikers. When Ken Ilgunas set out on a 1700-mile walk from Alberta to Texas in 2012, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, most of his journey took him across “No Trespassing” land.

As Ilgunas explains, walking across wild America is difficult unless you’re either in a national park or on a trail approved by the government — “In America, the so-called freest country on earth, no one really has the right to roam” (Ilgunas, 2016).

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A Very Literary Christmas – Part III

Happy

Public domain image by Pavan Trikutam

This is the final post in my “Very Literary Christmas” series, for this year at least. We began in Jane Austen’s England, exploring how Christmas was celebrated, and then we took a trip to the wild landscapes of Russia – a land of tundra, wolves, mountains and forests.

Last, but not least, we’ll drop by the March sisters in 19th century America. Little Women has to be one of the quintessential Christmas books. It opens with that well-known line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug“, and Christmas scenes play a large part in the novel.

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Weekend link love

Here’s a selection of links to things I’ve read and watched during the past few days, in between my hectic study schedule. Winter break starts in a week; it’s the first Sunday of Advent today and December starts tomorrow….where has the year gone?! Although I will still be busy working on my sociolinguistic project that is due at the beginning of January, it will be great to have a break from driving to campus every day!

Homes of the River Gods: The History of American Mansions: a short piece from JSTOR Daily. As I have an interest in country homes, à la Jane Austen, I was intrigued to learn a little about the history of mansions in America. On a side note, I use JSTOR a lot for sourcing academic papers and the JSTOR Daily section is a pleasant place to browse during a study break, with lots of fascinating short articles!

Tenure, She Wrote: this post, The strange duality of being a pregnant professor, was featured on Freshly Pressed a couple of days ago. As I am an aspiring academic, I’m always interested to hear about women’s experiences in academia.

A Bad Lip Reading of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This is very silly, but rather clever, and it made me giggle this weekend! Bad Lip Reading is a YouTube channel that produces spoof videos of popular movies and TV shows with dubbed speech that ‘matches’ the vocal movements of the actors; hence, a bad lip reading. The videos are addictive and entertaining! They just released the Catching Fire video and I hope they do a Mockingjay one soon.

NPR – How Dogs Understand What We Say: we already know that canines are incredibly intelligent and can do many amazing things, such as sniffing out drugs and explosives and assisting people who are hearing-impaired or disabled. But a new study suggests that dogs understand more of human language than we think. Research conducted at the University of Sussex shows that dogs process both meaning and emotion in human speech and that “dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences”. As a student linguist, this kind of study is fascinating, but I imagine there are many difficulties in designing experiments for canine subjects and probably as many complexities in interpreting the results.

Pretty Stella

Roasted Fennel & Butternut Squash Soup: this soup is so tasty and quick to make. I changed the recipe slightly (I used vegetable stock and omitted the half and half) and it is an excellent winter meal!

What have you been reading, watching and listening to on the internet this weekend? Share some link love in the comments!

The end of the academic year

Classrooms and exam halls lie empty, until the academic year begins anew
Public domain image

At the beginning of June, I published this post, which marked the third anniversary of Cultural Life and let my readers know that my blogging over the next few days would be sporadic due to my exam schedule.

I am very happy to report that, all the exams were fine. I have a tendency to put pressure on myself and I always think that I can do better, but I was delighted when I got my results last week. Overall, for my second year of university, I achieved a First! In GPA terms, because many of my readers hail from Canada and the U.S., that equates to a 4.0 GPA. Not too shabby! 🙂

Now that I have absolutely no studying to do and no deadlines to work towards, I have more time for reading non-academic books without feeling guilty. This morning, I finished reading Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

It is a highly acclaimed novel which has won many awards, including the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award and the U.K. Man Booker Prize. The story spans three continents and explores themes of race and identity, focusing on the main character, Ifemelu, who leaves her native Nigeria and her teenage sweetheart, Obinze, to study at college in the States. The novel begins with a description of a Princeton summer and evocatively compares its “lack of a smell” to other American places in the summer: “Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage”. Ifemelu is an immigrant and she views the U.S. from the refreshing perspective of a non-native.

Her insights into modern-day America are sometimes pithy and always insightful. To express her observations, she starts a WordPress blog, writing about race and racism in the U.S. from the point of view of a “Non-American Black”.

Ifemelu: “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America”

Her blog, entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, soon becomes well-known for its controversial, unreserved and challenging posts about racial identity and ethnicity in the U.S. Many of her posts are included in the book and I have no doubt that if Ifemelu was a real life WordPress blogger, she would be featured on Freshly Pressed a few times!

Americanah is a novel of many genres. It is a story of returning to your roots, to the country which runs in your veins. Ifemelu and Obinze, at different times, both return to Nigeria and Adichie’s writing strongly evokes the spirit of living in the country: the juxtaposition between the wealthy Lagos businessmen and the traditional ways of life, the Nigerian heat and sounds and colours. After reading this novel, I feel like I was given an insight into parts of Nigerian society: the part that longs to better itself, the ambitious young men and women who seek education and opportunities in the U.S. and the U.K., and the wealth of political corruption in Nigeria.

It is also a romantic story of love, which is divided by bureaucracy and rejected visa applications. It is a story of the search to discover one’s identity and, above all, it is an insightful narrative of attitudes towards race in three different countries: America, England and Nigeria. It left me pondering anew how shocking it is that, in this day and age, people still face discrimination based on their skin colour, even in the wealthy, highly educated and highly developed nations on the planet. I’ll finish with a quote which stood out to me: “Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding”. Yes, indeed.

Have you read Americanah? If not, has my review made you want to pick it up?

New music from The Civil Wars

The Nashville duo, The Civil Wars, released their second album this week. I first found out about The Civil Wars thanks to a song on The Hunger Games soundtrack which I heard in December 2011. I bought their début album, Barton Hollow, and for most of last spring I played it on repeat on my iPod. The music, sung by Joy Williams and John Paul White, is haunting and melodic. Joy Williams’s voice is astoundingly beautiful combined with the raw simplicity of acoustic guitar. From melancholy ballads to foot-tapping melodies, each song tells a story, combining rootsy Americana, bluegrass and country in a captivating blend.

I would love to see them play live but unfortunately last year they cancelled tour dates on their European tour, giving “irreconcilable differences” as the reason. I hope they don’t stop producing music together. It is unclear whether they will tour again or release another album. It is a real shame as they are definitely one of the most talented Americana/country duos around at the moment. Let’s hope they manage to resolve the problems.

This song from their latest album left me with goosebumps. Go have a listen!

(Video linked from The Civil Wars Youtube channel. No copyright infringement is intended. All rights belong to their respective owners)

If you enjoyed hearing this, I also recommend “20 Years” and “Barton Hollow” from their first album.

For more about The Civil Wars with music videos and other info, you can visit their official website: The Civil Wars and follow them on Twitter @thecivilwars

What do you think of The Civil Wars’ music? If you have any recommendations for other Americana and country artists, let me know by leaving a comment on this post. I would love to hear them!

Book review: Into the Beautiful North

There are almost no men in the small Mexican town of Tres Camerones. They have all left to pursue dreams of wealth and a better life in the U.S.: the “beautiful north” of the title. But when the bandidos move into town, the women of Tres Camerones realize something must be done and so nineteen year old waitress Nayeli, inspired by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, sets off with three friends on a journey to el norte to bring seven Mexican men back to Tres Camerones. Interwoven with this tale is Nayeli’s personal story: her father was one of the men who left his family in order to find work in ‘Los Yunaites’ and she is determined to find him, basing her search on a treasured post-card he sent her from Kankakee, Illinois.

Luis Alberto Urrea brings Tres Camerones to life with his prose: the Mexican sun, the dust swirling from the wind and the colorful food. Into the Beautiful North is a skilfully written novel, blending social issues such as immigration and undocumented migrant workers with a mix of vibrant characters, humor and suspense. Whatever you think about illegal immigration, the novel gives a different and much more humanizing perspective than the harsh views we often hear. It is a thought-provoking, moving novel which is well worth your time.

Into the Beautiful North at www.luisurrea.com

Weekly writing challenge: my dream trip

Writing challenge: You’ve got three months, an unlimited budget, and a severe case of wanderlust. Where would you go?

This writing challenge from The Daily Post at WordPress.com sent my imagination into dizzying whirls of euphoric bliss. One of my big dreams is to travel with plenty of time to spare and a sizable (preferably unlimited) budget. Why not dream big?

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry” – Jack Kerouac

Month 1

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

I would begin by spending two weeks in New York City, reveling in the bustling metropolis, seeing the sights and picking up a few bags of shopping along the way. My budget is unlimited, remember. But I am traveling partly via public transportation so I need to keep my luggage load light. This factor restricts me from an overly extravagant shopping spree. When it is time to leave NYC, instead of hiring a car, I hop on an Amtrak train at Penn Station.

I might take the Acela Express to Boston or I might prefer to take the Empire Service for a scenic tour through New York State. Either way, I would eventually arrive in Boston. The city is historic, beautiful and full to the brim with places to see and people to talk to about its fascinating past and the pivotal role it played in U.S. history. I visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, join a guided tour at Harvard Yard and follow the Freedom Trail: a 2.5 mile tour of Boston around some of its most historic places. It begins at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill Monument.

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

After seeing the sights of Boston I get on the train and travel to Amherst, MA.

In Amherst, I plan to see the birthplace of Emily Dickinson and enjoy other sites of interest. I might check out a movie at the Amherst Cinema Arts Center, which shows a lot of indie films, before hiring a car and driving up to Portland, Maine on I-95.

On the way to Portland I spend two or three days exploring the Kennebunks (Kennebunk and Kennebunkport). Kennebunk and its sister are only 30 miles south of Portland and the two small towns are situated along a rocky coast. St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery is a peaceful place to visit, with a calm atmosphere and lovely gardens to wander around. Strolling along Kennebunk beach is simply glorious and I dip into the waves for a swim, admiring the expansiveness of the Maine sky and the vivid colors of the sunset.

I spend a week in Portland itself where I have a lot of fun exploring the quirky side of the city. The little arty coffee shops are ideal for lingering over a delicious brunch, chatting with the locals and hanging out with a good book and a cup of coffee.

Month 2

When the second month of my travels begins, I leave Portland and drive up the beautiful Maine coast.

I stop off at various towns along the way, staying in Bath and Camden for a few days. Visiting Bath gives me a fascinating history lesson into Maine’s Colonial past: the industry of wooden ship builders was a thriving way of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Visiting Maine Maritime Museum is a great way to find out more.

I enjoy the beaches of lovely Penobscot Bay and sample some of Maine’s finest seafood. Then I get back in the car and drive to the quiet, unspoiled Blue Hill Peninsula. I stay in the tiny town of Blue Hill and every day, come rain or shine, begins with a walk along the beach. I explore to my heart’s content, chatting to the locals and absorbing every bit of Maine life that I can.

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

My eyes are filled with beauty and I hike the forest trails, cheeks rosy from vigorous exercise and legs aching at the end of a long day in the open air. From Blue Hill, I head to Bar Harbor which will be my base camp for a week as I explore Acadia National Park and take a trip to Bass Harbor.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Then I backtrack to Boston, where I return my rental car and get on a plane at Logan International.

Month 3

My plane arrives in Nashville, TN.

I am so excited when I get off the plane that I almost begin singing a country music anthem under my breath.

On Stage by Junior Libby

On Stage by Junior Libby

I love country music and spending a whole week immersed in the Music City is heaven. By sheer coincidence, Dolly Parton is performing a gig in the middle of my week in Nashville. It is sold out but I exercise the power of my unlimited budget and manage to get myself a ticket. The week goes past too quickly and it won’t be long before I have to get on the road again. I have fun visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and shopping at the numerous vintage shops in Nashville. I spend my nights dancing to great music!

I drive from Tennessee to Louisiana.

It is an approx. eight hour drive so I am tired by the time I arrive in New Orleans and I head straight to bed. But the next day I am ready to take on the city! New Orleans is a vibrant, atmospheric city and I spend a few days enjoying the music, the food and the culture. The soul of the city is enthralling and the beat of the music makes your foot tap and your heart feel good. Laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll!

Alas, my three months of ‘wanderlusting’ across the States are nearly up and I speed up my leisurely pace a bit so I can fit in the other places I want to visit before I have to return to normal, everyday life. I fly from New Orleans to Denver.

In Colorado I stay at a ranch and go horseback riding in the beautiful Rockies.

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

I finish my trip by flying from Denver to Seattle where I spend a few days in the city.

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Downtown Seattle’s Pike Place Market is great fun to explore and I could easily spend a whole day meandering around there. I love a good book and a whole morning flies by when I visit the Elliott Bay Book Co.. Over 150,000 titles – oh yes, bliss! I also love a good latte and a trip to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the original Starbucks, along with one of my new literary purchases so I can drink coffee, people-watch and read too. While in Seattle, I head to The Space Needle: one of Seattle’s most exciting attractions. I enjoy the novelty of dining at SkyCity restaurant, which moves 360 degrees!

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

After Seattle, I drive into rural Washington state, making sure my suitcase contains plenty of wet weather clothing! The Olympic peninsula is wildly beautiful and I love my time exploring the untamed, spectacular Olympia National Park.

When my three months come to end, I reluctantly have to conclude my trip. On the way, I have seen some spectacular places, eaten some amazing food, met some fascinating people and, to use a cliché, I have quite simply had the time of my life. My hunger for seeing the world has only increased and I would do this trip twice over if I could.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: a review

My copy of Once Upon a River

A couple of weeks ago, I read a book called Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. At first glance, Once Upon a River has an old-fashioned, archaic kind of feel to it. The ‘once upon a…’ title reminds me of legends and fairy tales and the cover picture makes me think of settlers in the old American West: I came to this book expecting a Wild West type of story. When I skimmed the synopsis on Amazon, I thought it was going to be a tale set in the wilderness in the nineteenth century. It was only when I started reading the book itself that I realized it is in fact set in the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, the lifestyle of the teenage protagonist, Margaret Louise Crane, who hunts animals and gathers plant in order to eat, and the settings of rural southern Michigan lend the book a much older feeling.

When Margo’s father is killed, a death “in which she [Margo] is complicit”, she sets off on a journey down the Stark River, a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo, in an attempt to find the mother who abandoned her. Her journey on the river becomes “one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices” (quotes from the back cover of Once Upon a River).

Part of the blurb on Amazon for the book says it will appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and that caught my attention. But Once Upon a River is not just for Hunger Games fans and Once Upon a River is mostly very different than the tales of Katniss Everdeen. The most obvious difference is the fact that The Hunger Games is a science-fiction story which takes place in a futuristic dystopian North America whereas Once Upon a River is not. However, the key similarity between THG and Once Upon a River, if the two must be compared, is the nature of the principal female character in each book. Katniss and Margaret (aka Margo, as she is called in most of the book) are both strong, independent girls in their mid to late teens. Both of them hunt, fish and gather in order to live and they each have a gutsy, gritty streak in their character that serves to carry them through hard times.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. Although I think Campbell concluded the book in a satisfactory way for the reader, I still wanted the last few chapters to be a bit thicker! I was absolutely gripped and read it cover-to-cover in little more than 24 hours. Campbell’s style is eloquent, especially in terms of the descriptions of her native Michigan, and it is absolutely compelling. Before I read this novel, I had not heard of the author but I will certainly be seeking out more of her work in the near future. A link to her website is below:

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website

The author, Bonnie Jo Campbell — photo © John Campbell

What I’m listening to this weekend

I just ordered the latest album by The Black Keys, ‘El Camino’. The song, Lonely Boy, is the first single from it and if you haven’t seen the music video for it, you should. It puts a smile on my face every time: that guy’s dance moves are great!

Video linked from YouTube.

What’s on your music playlist this weekend?

Blog challenge recipe #10: American brownies

As you all know, yesterday was the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and so it seemed appropriate for #10 of my blog challenge recipes to have a U.S. theme.

US flag. Source: Wikipedia

Brownies were invented in the US; for the history of the brownie, check out ‘The History of the Brownie at The Nibble. I always thought cheesecake originated from the US too but I read that it was actually first invented in Ancient Greece. However, I think cheesecake recipes have changed just a bit in the 2500 years since Ancient Greece! If you want to read more about the invention and history of cheesecake, this page at What’s Cooking America is very informative.

New York cheesecake is a classic US specialty and it is my favorite type of cheesecake. Deliciously creamy with a hint of vanilla is how I like mine. I also love brownies. A good chocolate brownie should have a fudgy texture, firm yet scrumptiously gooey inside. Combining brownies and cheesecake in one recipe sounds too good to be true. But you can never have too much of a good thing, right?

Cheesecake Swirled Brownies
(recipe source: this page at Frugal Feeding. All credit for this recipe belongs to Frugal Feeding)

Makes 10-16

Ingredients:

• 100g salted butter

• 40g cocoa powder, as dark as possible

• 50g dark chocolate

• 2 medium eggs

• 225g light muscovado sugar

• 50g self-raising flour

• 200g cream cheese

• 1 egg yolk

Method:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease a suitable baking tray. Melt the butter gently in a pan on the stove, to this whisk in the cocoa powder. Once added, combine this with the chocolate in small chunks until it has all melted together. In a mixing bowl, while the chocolate is melting, whisk together the eggs and sugar using a hand mixer.

2. Add the egg mixture to the chocolate in the saucepan and mix thoroughly. Gently fold in the flour and pour the brownie batter into the lined baking tray.

3. Beat together the cream cheese and egg yolk. Dot this mixture around the brownie mixture and swirl in with a thin knife. Bake for 25 minutes and not a moment longer, they need to have a hard shell on the outside and be very gooey on the inside.

Swirly brownie mixture

4. Leave the brownies to cool a little before turning them out. Pop them in the freezer for a little while before chopping.

The finished goods! Delicious, velvety and very, very moreish.