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02-06-09 : Sarah Powers' 'Insight Yoga' : Mind, Body, Spirit

Now, I tend to the showing, not telling mentality, so I'm going to suggest that readers actually skip the first paragraph of the otherwise able Foreword by Yoga master Paul Grilley. Let's just say readers informed by the book in the yogic tradition can make the evaluation he makes more competently after reading the book than before. That said, the book offers straightforward synthesis of yoga exercise, meditation and traditional medicinal philosophies. By bringing all aspects of the Mind, Body and Spirit under the aegis of her carefully crafted yogic exercises, Powers makes a compelling case for spending a portion of Your Valuable Time following her suggestions for a healthier, well — Mind, Body, and Spirit.

After Grilley's forward, Sarah Powers answered my first question; "What is Yoga?" at least, per her synthetic model. She explains her journey, and background philosophies that inform the rest of the work. The trick is that she manages to walk the tightwire between today's forensic visions of the body and the ancient five humors / yin yang version in such a manner as to sound neither clinical nor namby-pamby. Look, if a Yogi Bear fan can get through the 35 pages that set up the exercises, then you probably can as well.

There's a lot of information here about the way the body works and the way the mind works, and most importantly, lots of photos of the stuff Powers says makes them work better. 'Insight Yoga' is a big book that lays open nicely and offers crisp, clear directions for doing things that might at first glance seem a) impossible, b) incredibly painful, c) utterly unnecessary. But by virtue of her setup, and the on-going dialogue in the book about how each exercise benefits sets of complimentary organ pairs, the poses are made to seem both reasonable and do-able ... though some are clearly not to be attempted the first time around. The book itself if big and lays flat easily. There's lots of white space to write notes, and Powers is adamant that books are not the final answer, that you needs must seek direct instruction from someone "ahead of you on the path." The emphasis on live teaching makes the book-learnin' a good deal more palatable. 'Insight Yoga' is not like lots of other books; it's not an end-all or be-all. But by the time you reach the end, you'll be able to return to the beginning and see if, for you, at least, Powers lives up to her introduction. And that seems like a perfectly appropriate path to pursue, remembering that it is as ever, the journey and not the destination that matters.

02-05-09 : Franz Kafka's 'Amerika: The Missing Person' : Reading a Novel You Can Never Finish

That cliff, up ahead — step over it. Begin to fall and never reach the ground.

I'm a compulsive sort, which can be a problem. It makes me finish books that I'm not enjoying, which in turn makes me incredibly careful about the books I choose to read. I let them marinate in my brain for a while, pick up a book and browse through it, read here and there, try to get a sense of what I'm getting into. If it looks to live up to whatever promise it makes to this individual reader, then I start on page one and read to the end.

This can be a problem when the book has no end. It's why I generally wait till book two of a series is out before I start book one. But there are some books that you can't finish reading because the author never finished writing them. 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' by Charles Dickens, for example or 'Amerika: The Missing Person' (Schocken / Random House ; Noivember 18, 2008 ; $25) by Franz Kafka. Reading these books calls for a swan dive into a prose world that can never end.

Kafka is known for many things, but humor — not so much. However, the man found hilarious his own stories that today strike us as relentlessly depressing. And once you wrap your brain around it, there is a grim humor to be found in all of his writings. But more than that, there is actual, up-front humor in Kafka' work, probably nowhere more evident than his unfinished novel, 'Amerika: The Missing Person.'

Like many readers, I first encountered this novel as simply 'Amerika,' in its original translation by Edwin and Willa Muir, a mass-market paperback that became a dog-eared mess as I hauled it from one apartment to another. I'm pretty sure it's still with me, out in the garage in a box. An unfinished novel, which the author intended to be destroyed by his literary executor, Max Brod. "Everything I leave behind me," Kafka wrote, " the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned, unread .... "

Of course, the first translations and assembles of Kafka's novel were subject to editorial intervention on the part of Brod and others. This time around, for a lovely hardcover edition, all that's been stripped away, and translator Mark Harman has gone out of his way to preserve the sensibility of Kafka's language, to offer us an unvarnished as well as unfinished work, and it's all for the better.

The book begins with an excellent though unaccredited "Publisher's Note," that takes readers through the history of translations, and the fascinating story of Shocken itself, now beamed up as a cog in the Random House machine. It's followed by a Translator's note from Mark Harman, also witty and informative. Next, the manuscript of the novel, then a chronology of Kafka's life and a Bibliography, with pointers to filmed version of the novel. A nice package in a nice hardcover, to be sure — but the main act is the unfinished novel itself.

Kafka's novel begins as Karl Rossman, a young man is sent to Amerika by his parents after an imbroglio with a servant girl. Once he gets here, well, he has Kafka-esque goofy adventures as he makes his way to ... Oklahama (he consistently misspelled it), where he looks towards a career in musical theater. The joy of reading this translation — and the humor — stem largely from Harman's crisp translation. Kafka is funny, but he doesn't tell jokes so much as offer deadpan assessments of our absurd nation and the absurdity of our concept of ... success. In a sense, Kafka's sense of humor works with the unfinished nature of language itself, the ability of words to go so far and yet suggest so much that is not written. Each paragraph is unfinished ... but complete. It is a daunting task to be begin reading this book, because you know in advance that you will never finish; you will yearn for something that you can never, ever have.

02-04-09 : Recently Read : Kate Atkinson, Wendy Roberts, & Carrie Vaughn

By Claire Kleffel

In case you think we don’t have enough throughput, we're going to try and catch up with the incredible backlog by offering some capsule reviews of books we've recently read. It's amazing and heartening just how many books there are worth reading that come out on a weekly basis. Not every book is a once-in-a-lifetime literary experience. In fact, I'd not like to read a steady diet of once-in-a-lifetime literary experiences. I like to mix in some fluff, to read things that prevent rational thought with the more thoughtful books. Here are some capsule reviews for today. Please note that in books that are part of a series, some spoilers for previous entries in the series may be revealed in the reviews.

'One Good Turn' (Back Bay Books / Little, Brown / Hachette ; September 11, 2007 ; $13.99) by Kate Atkinson, is a follow-up to her novel 'Case Histories.' It takes a retired Jackson Brodie to Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival with his girlfriend, an actress in a play, who leaves him at loose ends. In a chance encounter, Jackson performs a good deed, and as one might expect, it does not go unpunished. Atkinson creates a vividly drawn world with complicated characters who understand the pitfalls of life. She writes with understated humor and continues to weave interesting crime fiction that allows the reader to put together a picture bigger than any of the characters can see. She also offers a continuing story arc from the first novel and leaves plenty of openings for the follow-up, already out in hardcover, 'When Will There Be Good News?' (Little, Brown / Hachette ; September 24, 2008 ; $24.99) Atkinson writes smart, entertaining mysteries that offer the pleasures of literature in the guise of genre fiction.

Readers looking for a lighter touch with more genre content should consider '
Devil May Ride' (Signet ; December 2, 2008 ; $6.99), by Wendy Roberts, the second "Ghost Dusters" mystery. Thoroughly modern Sadie owns her own business, cleaning up crime scenes, meth labs, and all the gruesome aftermath of death. It's an unsuitable job for a woman, and it's not made any easier for Sadie by virtue of the inconvenient fact that she can see and hear the dead. 'Devil May Ride' puts Sadie in the path of satanic cult bent on revenge after Sadie disrupts their rituals. Roberts holds your attention with a good plot, while Sadie's family ties wrestle with her independent spirit.

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand' (Grand Central Publishing / Hachette Book Group ; February 2009 ; $6.99) by Carrie Vaughn is the fifth book in the Kitty Norville series. 'Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand' is chock-a-block with werewolves, vampires and yes — another cult intent on harming a female protagonist. Vaughn has a lot of fun creating a supernatural now in which the existence of vampires and werewolves have become the stuff of daytime TV shows. Kitty decides to head out to Vegas for a quickie wedding to Ben, and a shot at taking her radio show to the tube. Before she can down the fru-fru drink by the pool, she's hip deep in were-cats, magicians, vampires and gun-toting werewolf hunters with silver bullets. It's all frothy enough to blank your mental screen and let you enjoy a matinee-style thriller with lots of special effects.

02-03-09 : Jedediah Berry Opens 'The Manual of Detection' : Writing Towards the Dream

If only there were a book, a single book, we could consult to look up the answers to our questions, to aid us in deciding what to do and when. Such a volume seems like and is indeed a dream, though there are plenty who would describe a variety of disparate tomes in such a manner. "Herein," they will say, "lay all the answers you need to the problems that life presents." For most of us, these books do not hold all the answers. But what if one book did, what if there were a book waiting for you, written for you? 'The Manual of Detection' (The Penguin Press / Penguin Putnam ; February 23, 2009 ; $25.95) by Jedediah Berry is not that book — but it's about such a book.

'The Manual of Detection' is Jedediah Berry's first novel, shuttles readers gently into a world that is built from the stuff of dreams — and not necessarily happy dreams. Charles Unwin works for the Agency, where he's a clerk who has served some twenty years. His expectations are so grounded that they've become statues, that is until he's promoted to the rank of detective, and asked to find a detective. His assistant is Emily Doppel, whom he finds sitting at a desk typing the phrase, "Don't fall asleep." He's also given a copy of the The Manual of Detection. His assignment is to find ├╝ber-detective Travis Sivart; his hope is that upon finding Sivart, he can return to his old job.

Berry takes a peculiar and highly-appealing course in this novel, painting a world that is drenched in anonymity and absurdity. He grounds his writing in the kinds of details that bring the world to life while simultaneously creating a surreal air of mystery. 'The Manual of Detection' is written with a hard-boiled crispness married to a magical sensibility, so that it seems perfectly logical that cases might be solved by entering the dreams of others. After all, it's in the manual; but alas, not in Unwin's copy.

It is, however in this copy of the book; that is, each chapter is titled in an instructive manner, such as "On Evidence" or "On Surveillance." Berry's sensibility is eclectic and experimental, but his style is straightforward and accessible. 'The Manual of Detection' is a perfect slipstream novel, and it shouldn't surprise readers that Berry is an assistant editor for Small Beer Press, putting him in the general vicinity of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Credit The Penguin Press with a wonderful sans-DJ presentation that's really eye-catching in a manner that compliments the novel's off-kilter combination of mystery and magic realism.

'The Manual of Detection' may not answer all the questions that life presents; in fact, it's not even a manual of detection. But if you have questions about reality, and suspect (or hope) that books might be more real than the life you’re living, then while 'The Manual of Detection' may not have the answer, there's a good chance that it might be the answer.

02-02-09: Mardi Horowitz Offers 'A Course in Happiness' : Easier Read — Then Done

Science marches forth, and bastions that were once thought impenetrable to its advance crumble, in this case, happily. Happiness has never been the subject of serious discussion that I've noticed — until recently. First, I spoke with NPR's Eric Weiner about his book 'The Geography of Bliss'. Weiner addressed where people were happy and why, and even what seemed to constitute happiness. Now, Dr. Mardi Horowitz offers 'A Course in Happiness : Mastering the 3 Levels of Self-Understanding That Lead to True and Lasting Contentment.' (Tarcher / Penguin ; January 2009 ; $23.95).

Mardi Horowitz
is a guy who knows his way around happiness, probably because he's seen so much unhappiness. He's spent a lot of time dealing with stress and trauma, earning shelves-worth of awards, even creating descriptions for new disorders, to wit, "Complicated Grief." But Horowitz has managed more often than not to take his patients through their stress, through their grief, to a state approaching what most of us would identify as happiness. And having done so, he's written a book, 'A Course in Happiness : Mastering the 3 Levels of Self-Understanding That Lead to True and Lasting Contentment,' to help those of us who want to be happy find the tools to do so within the confines of our own lives — without psychotherapy.

I tend to approach books like this with a generous helping of skepticism. Sure, I'm one of those perverse folks who find a certain amount of joy in unhappiness. It keeps the wheels turning. That said, I know that my body loves to manufacture then inject chemicals into my blood that make me particularly and unproductively unhappy, so I'm interested — enough.

Horowitz will meet you inner skeptic and turn you not into a believer, but rather a lean, mean self-analyzing machine. 'A Course in Happiness' lives up to its title, offering concrete and to this reader, usable tools to deal with the many forms of unhappiness that can confront and de-motivate us. He intersperses his toolkits and instructions with entertaining and useful anecdotes, stories not just of patients but also from his own life. He makes reasonable assertions and falls on the analytic side of the self-help book divide. His writing is lively without offering the sort of false inspiration that brings up my skeptic filtration system. Even if you think you’re happy, you could probably be happier. Here's a book about happiness that won’t bring to mind visions of daytime TV. And that in itself is a happy thought.

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