Monday, March 9, 2009

Living Yoga, by Christy Turlington

I’ll admit it: I didn’t expect this book to be very good. I picked it up off the shelf at the library on a whim, intending to read it in the sauna at the gym. But this book far, far surpassed my expectations. Perhaps because Christy Turlington is a famous supermodel who walked the catwalk in the 90’s, I didn’t expect her grasp of yoga to be very deep. I was pleasantly surprised when the whole first section of the book was about the history of yoga going back thousands of years, the importance of the Sanskrit language, and how the various yoga traditions and styles came to be today. Turlington also speaks very poetically about yogic topics, driving home points I never thought of before.

"The breath is more intimate than anything else could ever be because it reaches the innermost spaces inside our bodies. With the breath we are never alone."

On the topic of Sanskrit, she points out its ancient pedigree and the importance of the sacred sounds of the words themselves.

By far the best point of this book is Turlington’s own story of how she came to have a strong yoga practice. Far from the self-congratulatory tone that many experienced practitioners can take, Turlington successfully weaves her own story of personal growth and vulnerability, as well as her opinions about the way that her yoga practice interacts with her life as a practicing Catholic. For instance, in the chapter on breath, she uses the experience of her father’s dying process to explore the universality and intimacy of breathing.

The one detail I was disappointed with was the lack of instruction on actual asanas—the book features beautiful pictures throughout of Turlington in poses of varying difficulty, but little explanation of them. Turlington’s informative tone makes me want her to turn that attention towards the poses.

Overall, this book was a beautiful, informative, and relaxing read, and I’ve actually read it several times since checking it out. If you are already a yogi and are looking to deepen your practice, this book gets a strong recommendation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

I am a huge fan of the HBO television series "Rome", a dramatized look at the Roman Republic during the turbulent First Triumvirate (the sharing of power between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Marc Antony) and its aftermath. At the end of the series, we see Caesar's nephew Octavian assume the mantle of princeps ("head citizen") of Rome and take the title of Augustus ("revered").
Anthony Everett's Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor is the perfect complement to "Rome". It covers some of the same ground as the show in Augustus's boyhood, and then continues to the rest of his rule. Through the historical sources available, Everett examines how Augustus gained power--and how he managed to keep it, a task which had eluded his uncle.
The life of Augustus is a fascinating one because he presided over a period of great change in Rome--historically, his rule is recognized as the beginning of Rome as an empire. The revered Republic of the past was unwieldy for the task at hand and the Senate controlled by an oligarchic patrician class. Though a republic seems more democratic than a dictatorship, in practice the political class was small and wealthy. Julius Caesar gained his power, and passed it on to Augustus, through the populist channels of military victories, soldiers' loyalties, and reforms. During his rule, Augustus extended formal citizenship and voting rights to many Romans and Italians, such as provincials who had been thus far denied--siding with what he saw as the superior virtues of country residents compared to corrupt urban Romans.
While reading this book, it is impossible not to compare the historical events and figures to modern-day counterparts. The U.S. and Britain have been compared to Rome in terms of their imperial subjugation of client states, but by taking a closer look at the people involved, we get a more detailed picture. One instance of this detail is Everett's evidence of Augustus's obsession with sexual and family morality. He enacted draconian laws to ensure his nation's virtue, stipulating remarriage for divorcees and widows, and disallowing single people from inheritances. He put his own daughter under exile and house arrest for the rest of her life in a remote city when he heard rumor of her adultery. In his tyrannic laws and rhetoric, he appealed to the "good old days" of the early republic, when life was simpler--doesn't that sound exactly like something we would hear today?
Most strikingly, in one a concluding chapter, Everett states that Augustus was keenly aware that "in the long run, power was unsustainable without consent, and that consent could best be won by associating radical constitutional change with a traditional and moralizing ideology". This sounds exactly like the neoconservative agenda to me--except Augustus's dictatorship might actually have been more benevolent.
Everett's history is lifelike and fast-paced, full of the small details that allow us to feel a part of the action. I read almost all of this 300-something-page book in one sitting on a Friday night--I call that a recommendation.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Little Book

The Little Book, by Selden Edwards

I picked up Selden Edwards’ novel “The Little Book” as a respite from the bleak worlds I had entered in my last several reads. Wheeler Burden, our story’s center, is a rock star, an author, last in the line of a wealthy Boston family. Mysterious events transport him from San Francisco in 1988 to Vienna in the year 1897, where he finds himself in the midst of a cultural revolution every bit as big as the Woodstock generation he was a celebrated part of.

Once Wheeler arrives in Vienna, we learn more about his past, from his English-born mother who raises him on a California farm, to his upper-crust grandparents, his war-hero father, and the Austrian tutor who mentored him. And not only do we learn more about Wheeler’s past, we learn about these characters’ pasts—their stories center around Vienna in 1897, and intermingle with his own in complicated and emotional ways.

Learning the backstories of each character lends both suspense and depth to this novel. The interest of the plot and the characters is deepened by the detailed history of Europe at the turn of the century. The heady mix of cultural forces in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna is even weightier because of Wheeler’s knowledge of the coming events of the twentieth century. In 1897, Freud is starting his career and is only in process of formulating his seminal theories; Hitler is a child in a small German town; the seeds of World War I are being sown by Kasier Wilhelm; and the anti-Semitism that came to a head in World War II is starting to solidify.

I am big fan of books like these because they combine the best of two worlds—a compelling and enjoyable story set in a detailed historical setting. It lets me learn about things like European history without having to slog through an actual history book—I am doing this in my free time, after all.