{review} RBG is notorious, indeed

Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, a journalist and law student, respectively, came together to publish Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg which thus far is the best, funniest, and most educational text I've read in 2016. 

2016 is a big year for women's rights, and I don't mean that in a positive way. It's scary right now to be a woman. (And I say that as a straight, white, middle class woman—it is even worse for women who are minorities, transgender, gay, poor, etc.) It's terrifying that our autonomy is under constant attack when it comes to personal reproductive and health choices. And let's be real: these attacks are primarily from rich white men who have no business regulating the bodies that aren't theirs. 

(Soapbox alert: Oral arguments were heard in early March regarding restrictive abortion laws in Texas—and if you're like, wait, what is that all about? Google that shit and get yourself educated pronto because it is CRAZY terrible. If you can't tell by now, I'm strongly pro-choice which doesn't mean that I am pro-abortion. It means that I think every woman has the right to make choices for herself and her own body, and every woman deserves access to resources that help make all choices available to her—especially when it comes to bringing a new life into the world. I don't have to agree with another woman's decisions to recognize that they are hers to make, just as my own are mine to make. When you vote this fall, PLEASE consider the consequences of having a leader or government that regulates women's bodies. Don't let it happen.)

Okay, back to the book.

From a design perspective, this text is visually appealing and a perfect "coffee table" book—not that I own that many of those, but it's notable that I couldn't even compel myself to write in it because I wanted it to stay beautiful. Carmon and Knizhnik managed to get permission from the Notorious B.I.G. and Sony Music to use the rapper's lyrics as chapter titles illustrated by graffiti artist Maria "TooFly" Castillo aka a super cool chick. Family photos and correspondence is sprinkled in between the pages, alongside court depictions of RBG in action; you'll also find helpful timelines and breakdowns of her cases and briefs, including margin notes from various law professors to make it easy for the average reader to understand the arguments made, the history behind her phrasing and the importance of each win or loss. 

The first two chapters outline why Ginsberg recently caught the attention of millennials and the general public, though she's been on the Court for years and years, and provides the background on the RBG tumblr and popular memes all over social media; they also lay out a detailed timeline of her life thus far, next to key dates and moments in the women's and civil's rights movements. In the following sections, the reader basically follows along with Ruth's life and career, and gets schooled in her legal prowess, including her successes and failures.

Suffice it to say I learned a LOT from this book. I spent most of it exclaiming out loud and rereading sections to my husband with phrases like "Can you believe that . . ." and "Did you know . . ." Below are some highlights:

RBG's mother, Celia, died the day before her daughter's high school graduation and secretly left her $8,000 for education -- no small feat for a stay-at-home mother in 1950.

RBG met her husband, Marty, at Cornell, and after they married, they both went to Harvard Law School because Harvard Business School didn't accept women. At Harvard, some professors held "Ladies' Day," where they only called on women to answer questions. There were only 9 women in Ruth's graduating class as a whole. The women were also barred from certain reading rooms of the library (for reasons unknown) . . . which probably made getting their work done challenging.

Later in life, the school that her young son attended called her to say that he had gotten in trouble again. Her response: "This child has two parents." They started calling her husband, too. 

Best quote: "Anger, resentment, envy. These are emotions that just sap your energy. They're not productive and don't get you anyplace, so get over it. . . . Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you. Present facts; the truth is weapon enough."

Notorious RBG is well worth your hard-earned dollars. Buy it, keep it handy, read snippets often and let it inspire you to use your talents to make a tiny difference in the world. Those small efforts matter; they build up over time and can change people's lives slowly but surely. Ginsberg is a living example of that.

{review} updike's stories about trust

John Updike is a force of a writer to be reckoned with, in my opinion: he deftly navigates the domestic scene from both male and female perspectives. He writes simply with a heavy preference to dialogue and detail, and he makes you feel like you're standing right next to his characters listening to their every word, watching their every move. It feels like he could be telling you about your neighbor, your spouse, your friend, yourself.

I'm partial to his short stories over his novels, just because the former ones pack a real punch and are easier to digest (which doesn't actually make them easy to read by any means). One of my reading life goals is to make it through the entire Updike canon, which includes poetry and both literary and art criticism, too.

Updike has been long fascinated with themes of love, family, commitment, parenthood, identity, intimacy, fidelity, sex and marriage, and now, in Trust Me: Short Stories, he delves into sister subjects: trust and betrayal. Ironically, this collection was recommended to me by someone who I had great experience with on these topics -- funny how that works.

The 22 stories range in depth and length:

  • "Killing," about a daughter's frustration over her dying father in a nursing home.
  • "Still of Some Use," a metaphoric tale about how our homes and belongings mirror the completeness or brokenness of a shared life.
  • "Lovely Trouble Daughters," an exploration of the "spinster" label in one small town.
  • "A Constellation of Events" and "The Other Woman," odes to the beginnings and endings of affairs.
  • "Made in Heaven," about the ways in which couples subscribe to certain narratives through a marriage, whether true or false.
  • "The Wallet," a story on memory and loss and how both affect our sense of identity, power and control.

And the first story, aptly named "Trust Me," is one of the most powerful. Harold, the young protagonist, almost drowns when his father pushes him into a pool after promising to catch him -- but then doesn't. We follow Harold through a string of relationships in which he repeats this pattern of promising credibility and safety only to let the other person down; he is haunted by the fact that his own father did not take Harold's fears seriously, and yet, he does the exact same thing to the people in his life over and over again. Toward the end of the story, it comes full circle again when a terrified, high Harold is sharply abandoned through one small action.

As a reader, I found myself thinking: why do we repeat behaviors that hurt us, even when we know better? How do we know which small moments will be internalized and affect us long down the road? Does trust always mean follow-through by the other person? How is it possible to remain loyal to those we love while protecting our changing nature and path in life? What does it mean, and feel like, to trust someone?

Like most great short story collections, Trust Me is best devoured in small doses, a chapter at a time. The superb, deceivingly straightforward writing brings small-town characters to life amid quick portraits of their day-to-day interactions as well as the minute and major repercussions of their choices.

{review} debunking the science of yoga

William J. Broad offers up a detailed exploration of scientific inquiry combined with numerous anecdotes about the Western practice of yoga in The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.

Broad, a science journalist and senior writer at The New York Times, said that he took on the project because he felt the literature surrounding yoga was insufficient. He wanted to cut through the confusion of modern yoga and figure out through research "what's real and what's not, what helps and what hurts, and why."

The book is divided into a number of helpful chapters -- covering themes like health, fit perfection, moods, risk of injury, healing, sex and muse -- as well as illustrations, key "characters" and styles of yoga, and a basic chronology. These last couple of sections are great, whether you're brand new to yoga or not, because it's easy to get confused with all the names and terminology floating around; likewise, I often hear questions about where yoga "comes from" and such, so the timeline specifically provides a bit of history.

health, fit perfection and moods

Broad sorts through Indian texts and stories regarding the "miracle" of yoga in comparison to today's varied claims that yoga serves as a ideal type of activity from a sports lens. He dives into the details of many studies white papers, which all seem to claim that yoga does seem to improve balance, reduce fatigue, decrease anxiety, cut stress, lift moods, improve sleep, reduce pain, lower cholesterol and generally raise one's quality of life (73). But every scientist he came across noted that all of these wins also have limitations in terms of physical fitness; yoga is not necessarily "a path to physical superiority," even though it is frequently asserted as such.

Similarly, the "Moods" chapter identifies story after story about how yoga has improved the emotional well-being of people through the power of focused intention on breath, unwinding and presence. Broad takes a specific interest in the myth of how breathwork in yoga supposedly "get more oxygen" to your brain. He says,

Science over the decades has learned a lot about how yoga breathing affects a person’s mood and underlying metabolic state. Fast styles tend to excite and slow ones to calm.

And it has nothing to do with getting more or less oxygen into the practitioner’s body, contrary to innumerable yogis and gurus, video discs and yoga books, blogs and newsletters.

risk of injury and healing

Broad states that there are two extremes presented when it comes to asana, the physical postures of yoga: one, that yoga has always been presented as a safe, gentle, healing form of movement that renews -- despite its often contortionist, Instagram-worthy possibilities. And two, that some physicians have gone too far in lauding stories of injury as the common experience of a practitioner. Like anything else, yoga actually falls someplace in between, and Broad spends some time explaining how modern yoga has actually become more sensitive and responsive to the risk of injury in recent years. 

He also interviews a wide range of instructors who fall somewhere along this same gamut. Some claim that certain poses are unsafe for everyone, or unsafe based on physical structure and body alignment, or perfectly safe for everybody regardless of body type or past injuries. Broad notes a number of specific yoga postures known to be worrisome and controversial, such as headstand, full lotus, shoulder stand, side angle, triangle and plow pose -- and he spends some time breaking those poses down with concurrent studies that advocate for or against them. It's extremely educational, without bias. 

divine sex and muse

These two chapters are the shortest, and the former indicates the low number of scientific studies on how yoga relates to sexual pleasure. Broad mostly focuses on research around sexual misconduct and yoga instructors, though he notes that there's a popular commercial trend around the promise of yoga improving your sex life. He also expands on research being done by scientists on hormones, brain waves, skin conductivity and heavy breathing, and how all relate to elation, exhilaration, orgasm and a state of bliss known as samadhi. Broad ends the chapter discussing how old and modern accounts of kundalini, commonly known as a spiritual fire of sorts, are vague when it comes to any basis in physicality -- though personal accounts of reaching such spiritual heights are everywhere.

The muse section features stories and research related to links between yoga and creativity, yoga and finding a state of inner calm, and yoga as a means of inspiration. Broad doesn't point to any claim being correct, here; he just lays out everything he was able to find and asks the reader to consider it all, while noting that the scientific findings are modest at this point.

In the epilogue, Broad says that yoga is at a turning point: it is now more closely aligned with science, which may frustrate traditionalists, but the stakes for safety are high and the discipline hasn't reached its true potential. He writes,

Western science tends to view the body as a fixed thing with unchanging components and functions. But yoga starts from a different premise. It sees a lump of clay. The body in this view is awaiting the application of skilled hands.

He advocates for public funding of yoga research and concerned advocacy, and says in the same breath that getting those two things off the ground is unlikely. But he concludes:

As a society, we are learning that extended old age can mean extended pain and debilitation, with worn-out organs and crippling dementias turning the twilight years into tragedies. Yoga seems to hold out the promise of increasing not only our life spans but our health spans. It may be part of the answer to enhancing not just the quantity of life but its quality, to helping us remain healthy for a longer period of time, to making our last years more vital and productive. That promise seems like a wonderful topic for a serious program of research...

I treasure the scientific method . . . and the science of yoga may be demonstratively true, [but] yoga may see further. . . or maybe it’s all delusional nonsense.

The bottom line: transcendental bliss starts with the firing of neurons and neurotransmitters, with surges of hormones and brain waves.