Friday, August 6, 2010

What I've Been Reading

This is frustrating. I just wrote a long post, and it seems that I have accidentally erased it with the slip of a finger, and cannot get it back.. Let's try this again.
A couple of weeks ago, I read A.S. Byatt's fat novel, The Children's Book. I like Byatt, and admire the way she weaves in her knowledge of the Victorian era in England and elsewhere with sharp and perceptive portrayals of characters. But I found this book frustrating because she tries both to create a history of the period from the mid-nineteenth to post WWI Britain, while also doing the business of a novel and exploring the psyches and lives of a number of diverse and interesting characters. There is the poor child of the coalfields who wants so much to be a master potter that he runs away and hides in a museum, living in the tunnels underneath the collection so he can study the pots, the writer who produces fantasy works for children while her relationship with her own rather large brood remains somewhat troubled, her various children, each of whom goes in his or her own direction, the better to allow Byatt to explore nuances of the period's political, social, literary, and artistic movements.
Yet the work as a whole is not satisfying. Just when one settles in to learn more about the individual characters, drawn so clearly and sharply, Byatt shifts away again until we lose the sense of the individuals and end up not caring about them at all.
Tolstoi managed to bring us history via the lives of characters, but Byatt was ambitious here, and wanted more. I guess I can admire that desire, while finding the work less satisfying on the whole than it could have been.
For the last week or so, I have been reading a nonfiction work, The Great Oom, an amazing story about a man history has forgotten who was responsible for bringing Hatha yoga to the U.S. . Although he had to hide what he was doing, disguising it in various ways from a public suspicious of yoga's foreignness, its alien metaphysics, for a while there, the man ran a yoga empire from his compound in Nyack NY, involving not just yoga, but baseball, dog racing, a circus--complete with amazing trained elephants--and enough high society love triangles to keep yellow journalists all over the States in business. Of course, Nyack itself is interesting, being a place that has been the home to much that is strange and occult in the past.
The book made me realize that even today, the same element that found yoga scandalous is still alive and well. In fact, I was remembering that a year or so ago, in the studio where I practice yoga, someone called up the manager and told her that if the studio did not get rid of the statue of the Hindu goddess that graced the basement studio, she would tell everyone she knew that the studio was against Christianity. Her pastor had apparently warned the congregation against accepting Hinduism via the practice of yoga, and started his own "Christian yoga" practice. Concerned for the bottom line, the studio got rid of the statue, though there are still similar statues in its other branches. So it wasn't too surprising to read of people's past suspicions about the foreignness of yoga and its alien metaphysics.
But this guy, Pierre Bernard (a pseudonym that was, like much about the man, his invention), created something that infiltrated the culture, even if he himself was forgotten.
The man who wrote the book, Robert Love, got interested in the subject because he was living in one of the buildings that was once part of the Nyack compound. He wondered about the strange markings and Sanskrit words written on the walls, and began to research the place. This work is the result. I recommend it. A fascinating read, probably even if you do not do yoga.

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