Monthly Archives: November 2013

America’s Wars – 2001 to the present

In 2009, I decided that I wanted to understand the wars that have dominated our foreign policy since September 11, 2001. My immediate sense of urgency arose from the death of one of my son’s schoolmates, age 19. Rest in peace, Brad.

I read unsystematically, choosing books that came to hand. Soon I realized how silly I was being – I could earn PhDs in field after field and still not “understand” the Middle East, terrorism and our responses. I would need to study history, religion, languages, political science and so much more. A dozen or so books into this “project”, I began to have war nightmares, and resumed my previous scattered and rather random reading habits.

By good fortune, I did read some excellent works, and I will share them here. Watch for posts with “America’s Wars” in the title.


“The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett

I hesitated to START reading this book because Patchett’s Bel Canto had me so entranced I was in danger of burning dinner. And I was right to worry – “The Magician’s Assistant” also completely held my attention. I read it in three days. Sorry, I can’t tell you how long it is. I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magician’s Assistant” has two settings, sunny Los Angeles and windswept, winter Nebraska. The protagonist, a bereaved woman in her 40s, travels to meet “relatives” by marriage whose existence had been unknown to her. Where another author might use flashbacks, Patchett uses dreams – lucid dreams of a magical quality. Not every author could make this work.

I thought this book might, like Bel Canto, end tragically, but it doesn’t. 

Patchett creates characters that surprise and interest me. The protagonist’s parents, for example, are almost too good to be true, so their daughter has to stretch to understand the dysfunctions and misfortunes of other peoples’ lives. Her ability to do so seems to be rooted in the great love she feels for her close companions.

I won’t get into plot here. Read and enjoy!


Great Novels – More Unscientific Criteria

Having read the opinion that first person novels are particularly compelling, I’ve pondered what else might get a novel into the “great” category. Fortunately, I just read one which is, if not “great”, at least really good. I’ll post about it shortly.

Try this on for size: a great novel may get into your dreams. Seriously, that happened to me two nights ago! I caught myself dreaming about the novel mentioned above, when I was about 25% into it! My dream had more to do with words than visual images. 

Has this happened before? The first time I read Tolkien, I powered through all four books (The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) in about a month. I was fifteen. It was summer, and there was nothing to stop me from reading as much as I wanted. I read outdoors. I read in the early hours of morning. I dreamed about all those adventures, and I fell in love with Aragorn.

I seldom dream about my own real life “dramas” – childbirth, for instance, or the deaths of loved ones. So if a book gets into my dreams, it must be exceptional.

Here’s another indicator of a really fine book, cribbed from Thomas Foster, who wrote How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor, (books well worth your attention.) Foster says the first sentence of a novel has to grab you. So now I read first sentences critically. (Apologies to T Foster if I got this wrong… possibly I read this somewhere else. Read his books anyway.)

And finally (I won’t attempt to attribute this) there’s the “start over” criterion. If, when you finish a book, you just want to turn it over and dive in again, then it is truly excellent. 

Can you add to this discussion? Comments welcome!

“Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” by Benjamin Lorr

Competitive yoga?? I had no idea… And plenty of other things turned up in this book about which I had no clue.

First of all, this book is funny. Lorr’s descriptions of yogis and their students are penetrating and often wry.

A major feature of this book is its critique of Bikram yoga, often known as “hot” yoga. Lorr practiced hot yoga and trained (to teach) with Bikram Choudhury, a yoga rock star who has gotten rich (and gotten sued) by franchising his style of yoga. Bikram, as he is called, is flamboyant, narcissistic and charismatic. His style of yoga, the repetition of 26 highly specific postures in a room heated to 110 degrees F, is popular with a sector of the American yoga community. Lorr’s discussion of Bikram’s history and personality is fascinating. How could a person be so crazy and so beloved simultaneously?

I recently learned that “hot yoga” is available near me. Will I try it? Hmm… I tried a sweat lodge once, out of curiosity. I was apprehensive. I cheated by putting as much skin as possible against the cool floor. I know that I became slightly dehydrated – I don’t like that headache-y sensation at all. Maybe I can find some “warm yoga”.

Lorr also discusses the physiology of yoga, with attention to its therapeutic value.

Yoga, India and Me

I will be posting about several books on the subject of yoga, and a few weeks ago I wrote about the book “Leaving India”. Here’s the disclosure statement to explain why yoga and India are important to me.

I was introduced to yoga in my early 20s, when someone showed me a version of the Sun Salutation and told me it was a cure for insomnia. Yoga was not mentioned. Maybe ten years later, I started attending the occasional yoga class – a few sessions in adult education, etc. I enjoyed it, but never managed to arrange for any continuity. So I didn’t make progress. Sometimes I wandered off in other directions, like tai chi, or got my exercise from an early morning TV show.

Maybe 15 years ago, a local Hindu group bought a large warehouse a few miles from my house and renovated it for use as their Temple. The first time I visited was a week or two after September 11, 2001. The Temple hosted an interfaith prayer service in it’s social hall, and passages about peace from several cultures were read. Candles were lighted. Afterwards, I wandered into the small sanctuary, the sacred part of the Temple. I removed my shoes and stepped into a room containing at least twenty statues of gods, of differing sizes, all elaborately dressed in bright costumes. Temple members wandered in an out, pausing to pray and, when leaving, sounding a bell to draw the attention of the gods.

Later I noticed that the Temple was offering yoga at $3 per class, four times a week. The weeknight teacher, K, was a member of the Temple. Her classes (almost the same every session) were strength oriented and fast paced. Initially I found them quite difficult. Attending twice a week, I gained strength slowly. After six months, I could “do” the whole class, with a few modifications. Since the group is large, little is offered by way of corrections or adjustments. I now consider this my “baseline” fitness activity, and I think I am strong and flexible for a woman over sixty.

The Saturday teacher, S, is an American woman with one of the standard American yoga teacher credentials. Her class is never the same twice! Sometimes it is far too difficult for me. (Downward facing dog to tripod? Are you kidding?) Sometimes S teaches “yin” yoga, which involves long times (3-5 minutes) in postures designed to encourage surrender to gravity. This is supposed to loosen ligaments and joints, rather than building strength in muscles.

Our yoga classes at the Temple are normally held in a medium sized room with no obvious assigned function. I think it is often used for birthday and anniversary parties. It’s smaller and better heated than the social hall. But once in a while we practice in the sanctuary, surrounded by the colorful, glittering gods. It’s a sensual treat, like having heavy cream in coffee! The gods get new attire frequently, probably five times each year. Their costumes are color coordinated, one time all red and white, another time all in shades of yellow and orange. Obviously someone dresses them with great devotion.

Once a year, more or less, the reassuring cycle of classes is interrupted. K goes to India, to see family and do pilgrimage. Volunteers take over her classes. Yoga potluck! Sometimes the substitute teachers are announced in advance, sometimes not. Some are familiar, others total strangers. One taught a system that involved the seasons – I think we made it through Spring and Summer and halfway through Fall. One yelled like a high school football coach. Ugg! One gave instructions in a chanting voice, very uplifting. Another spoke in a soft, affected drawl that grated on my nerves.

I love yoga potluck season (often February or March), and I love the return of K. I’m sure I need at least two teachers, and the K and S combo works very well for me. S has been the main influence in the development of my yoga philosophy. She asserts that the position at which you arrives matters very little, so long as you move into it mindfully and find a pose that suits you. She often refers to her classes as “ego free yoga”, in order to emphasize that comparisons between students should be avoided. (I think there’s a good deal of ego in some parts of the yoga world!) So I often practice with my eyes closed.

I’ve bought into the idea that modifications are good and that there are at least five “right” ways to perform any yoga position. I’ve got physical “issues” – messed up knees and wrists, a dodgy neck, etc. I’m not pushing my luck in a yoga class or elsewhere. Sometimes, I am subversive! I don’t do shoulder stands, and got tired of the alternative offered by K, which was endless leg lifts. Sometimes I just put my feet up against the wall and relax. It’s an inversion, and that’s the point. I’ve seen a few students copy my approach. And others have copied modifications I use to spare my now-delicate wrist joints.

Yoga is a big part of my life. A best friend took yoga teacher training locally last year. My sister is now doing the same near her home in Connecticut. We compare notes and classes and encourage each other.

Meanwhile, the Temple is more than “just” a place to take classes. It’s a window into another continent, and an observation post on the path that turns immigrants into neighbors and friends. I’ve shared the Temple meals during their holidays. The smell of their cooking could bring me in from miles away! Occasionally we yoga students are invited to a lecture or event. Sometimes, in a small way, I have the opportunity to act as a “culture broker”, explaining or facilitating something. Mostly, I can say to MY community “Hey, I know those people. They are OK.” In these troubled and somewhat xenophobic times, with immigration issues on the front burner, I think it helps. I hope so.

Stay tuned for discussion of books about yoga and India!