Alison Hood

In the introductory essay of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, Jessamyn Stanley relates the time a reader, who happened to be a freelance editor, found a mistake in the early pages of Stanley’s first book, Every Body Yoga. Stanley was attempting to define the Sanskrit word for yoga, which means “to yoke” or “to join together the light and dark of life, the good and the bad . . . to marry breath, thought, and movement, to connect the body, mind, and spirit.” Instead of writing the word yoke, however, Stanley had inadvertently written yolk. Oops.

Anger and shame ensued—a welter of feelings that propelled Stanley to her yoga mat for some calming breaths. Thus, Yoke was born, a collection of 13 autobiographical essays that are brash (with salty language aplenty), outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jessamyn Stanley shares how her guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined.


The essays in Yoke explore Stanley’s belief that “everything is yoga, every day,” and that fully entering yoga/yoke means integrating the light and dark of life with the hardscrabble work of everyday living. “My yoga has many intersections and edges,” she writes, “because like the universe, I’m always unfolding. My yoga is finding out what it means to be a Black queer woman in a world that doesn’t want me to be.” Her reflections on topics such as meditation, imposter syndrome, wealth inequality, racism, cannabis use, sexual abuse and the sacredness of music are heartfelt and often searing. She is strongly declarative, and this makes for a narrative that allows readers to really know this author, which is, after all, what many readers want: connection.

While the writing occasionally meanders or goes a bit off point, any discomfort readers might feel in response to Stanley’s blunt-edged anger can give rise to self-reflection and stir compassion for our collective human frailty and suffering. But this honest chronicle of a journey toward self-acceptance and purpose wraps on a bright note. As Stanley writes, “I’m enough. Exactly as I am right now. I don’t need to know more or do more or be different at all.”

The 13 autobiographical essays in Yoke are brash, outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.

“This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.”

So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don't be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse—generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace.

Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he's always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility.

Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry—an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged," Berg writes. "Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.”

From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving—and often frustrated—family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature—cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones.

Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I'll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age," Berg writes. "If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”

“This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don't be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse—generous gifts of poetic insight, close […]

“Recovering” Buddhist priest and “vegetable whisperer” Deborah Madison reveals the heart and mind of the chef behind an iconic San Francisco restaurant and numerous vegetarian cookbooks in her honest, beguiling memoir, An Onion in My Pocket. The title is derived from an opening anecdote: After spending the day making pizza with her ex, Madison attended a Spanish class and, searching her pockets for pen and paper, pulled out an onion leftover from pizza-making and plunked it on her desk. “People started to laugh. To me, it was utterly normal,” she writes.

Madison relays her life in a swingy style, moving from her childhood in Davis, California, to her college days, to her post-college migration to the San Francisco Zen Center amid that city’s counterculture heyday. She lived in the Zen community for 20 years and started her culinary path as their head cook. Later, she did a stint at Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse and eventually helped found (then helm) the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Greens. An Onion in My Pocket offers a layered, intimate look at Zen life, the making of a soulful, artful chef and the genesis and growth of a writer. It’s also an ode to nourishment, sustenance and gratitude for the earth’s bounty, vegetal and otherwise.

“Recovering” Buddhist priest and “vegetable whisperer” Deborah Madison reveals the heart and mind of the chef behind an iconic San Francisco restaurant and numerous vegetarian cookbooks in her honest, beguiling memoir, An Onion in My Pocket. The title is derived from an opening anecdote: After spending the day making pizza with her ex, Madison attended […]

Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to exploring the medieval origins of the much-revered cuisine. France, he writes, “was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life. . . . But I could never imagine how that might happen.”

Through a connection at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Buford comes to know many influential French chefs, among them Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud and the legendary Paul Bocuse. What follows is a familial move to Lyon, the terrors (or, shall we say, “terroir”) of parenting twin toddlers in a gritty French city, sadistic “stagiaires”—essentially apprentice chefs—in famed Lyonnaise restaurants (pot-throwing, anyone?) and food-sleuthing expeditions to remote areas in France, where Buford comes to appreciate the soil that grows the unique wheat responsible for the country’s finest bread. Dirt sometimes ventures into the weeds in its excavation of culinary history and lore, but this may be forgiven in light of Buford’s honest hunger for knowledge and personal evolution: “I wanted to re-examine my assumptions about the kitchen, to restart my education, to get as elemental and as primary as possible. Heat. Water. Labor. Place. And its dirt.”

This book doesn’t offer any recipes, per se, but if perused closely, readers can find instructions for assembling perhaps the grandest concoction of them all: a life well and fully lived, seasoned with curiosity, perseverance and humor—and a dash of adventure.

Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to […]

Breathing: Most of us don’t even think about it as we go about our daily doings. Every day, 24 hours a day (and every four seconds), each of us 7.5 billion humans on planet Earth takes a breath in and then expels it. But what exactly are we breathing in and where does our breath go when released? And who cares?

Science writer Sam Kean cares, and, with fizzy (sometimes irreverent) humor and an exuberant enthusiasm for scientific ephemera, he entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

Kean kicks off the expedition with the intriguing thought of an intimate human interconnection—that “the ghosts of breaths past continue to flit around you every second . . . confronting you with every single yesterday.” He asks, “Is it possible that your next breath—this one, right here—might include some of the same air [molecules] that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died?”

Not content to limit his dissection to stories about breathing, Kean moves beyond the mere tracing of how air molecules travel and transform to “tell the full story of all the gases we inhale.” In three sections, each packed with three chapters, interspersed with historical vignettes, the author explicates the nature of gases (and why we should care about them), our human relationship with gases (from the first air balloon flights to the use of gases in World War I), and how our relationship with air has evolved in the past 30 years (read: atomic warfare). For good measure, Kean appends voluminous, quirky end notes to each chapter, ensuring that we are fully briefed on the competitive science around steam power and, in a nothing-is-sacred tell-all, the story of French entertainer Joseph Pujol, the “fartomaniac,” who flabbergasted audiences with his Moulin Rouge nightclub act in the 1890s.

Caesar’s Last Breath is a rollicking, zigzag romp through the science of air—one that gives us pause to consider our immortality beyond an earthly existence: “Some tiny bit of you—molecules that danced inside your body . . . could live on in a distant world.”

Science writer Sam Kean entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

The New Year is here—it's time for a fresh start! How about a fitter, happier you in 2004? Several new fitness books, each brimming with the latest nutrition and exercise research, offer positive, powerful tools for achieving glowing good health.

Fitness consultant Dr. Gabe Mirkin pampers the body's hardest working muscle in The Healthy Heart Miracle. This handbook holds a dramatic newsflash: heart health can improve in just two weeks with simple changes in diet and exercise habits. Mirkin's DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Plus ("plus" equals exercise) program promotes the consumption of whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Mirkin says his plan, an eight-week journey toward permanent lifestyle change, can prevent heart attack, diabetes, stroke and premature aging. Chapters discuss the specifics of hypertension and show how to avoid or reverse it using DASH. Helpful sidebars offer tips on fitness, diet and supplements, exercise and disease prevention. Appendices give shopping lists, menu plans, uncomplicated recipes and worksheets for tracking progress. This easily navigable road map charts a steady path to a stronger, healthier heart.

Nutrient knockouts
Broccoli, blueberries and soy . . . oh my! Dr. Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews present their powerhouse prescription in SuperFoods Rx. Fourteen "super" foods each pack a hefty nutrient wallop that works synergistically to reduce heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Add regular exercise, sufficient rest and fluid intake, positive socializing and stress management, and the blueprint for health is complete. This compendium gives uncomplicated eating guidelines and devotes individual chapters to the eatables on the SuperFoods list. There is nutrition information on each specific food from salmon to spinach an explanation of its health benefits and suggestions for incorporating it into your daily diet. The book's bibliography is impressive; read a fraction of the material and you'll be nutrition-savvy in no time.

Don't sweat it
So, you're eating more veggies and fewer Krispy Kremes. But what's missing? Exercise, of course! To the rescue is Quick Fit: The Complete 15-Minute No-Sweat Workout by fitness consultant Richard Bradley. He solves the problem of squeezing a workout into your crowded day with an easy exercise plan for healthy but sedentary adults. This workout features a moderate 15-minute mix of aerobic activity, strength training and stretches that can be done anywhere in any attire. Quick Fit's friendly approach extols the benefits of physical fitness, demystifies our reluctance to exercise and offers inspiring motivational tips and testimonials. There's basic advice on hand weights and athletic shoes, creative suggestions to keep new exercisers enthused and ways to tailor the plan to time constraints or new fitness goals.

On top of the world
Joe Decker was overweight, addicted and totally out of shape. Now called "The World's Fittest Man," he presents his story and a four-week fitness plan in The World's Fittest You: Four Weeks to Total Fitness, written with Eric Neuhaus. Decker's upbeat attitude informs this positive, carefully calibrated diet and exercise program, adaptable for folks of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels. He believes that success lies in making small changes slowly, in self-knowledge and in goal-setting. Fittest You states that eating right not dieting is empowering, and touts the "FIT" technique, a workout based on the latest exercise research, that "shocks" your body into shape with varied cardio, strength training and flexibility routines. The book has a diet, fitness and medical self-inventory, FIT instruction and a 28-day exercise/eating plan. Illustrated appendices show cardio, strength and stretching moves that can be done in the gym or at home.

The wholistic approach
Complete fitness, believes trainer Steve Ilg, is flexing your muscles and your mind. "Don't just work out, work within," he instructs in Total Body Transformation: A 3-Month Personal Fitness Prescription for a Strong, Lean Body and a Calmer Mind. This unusual program, "Wholistic Fitness," combines yoga with cardio and strength training, and is aimed at regular exercisers, athletes and the super fit. But whatever your fitness level, this reflective approach can enrich the spirit, stimulating physical and emotional health.

 

Alison Hood writes from California, land of the super fit, where she sneaks chocolate and pretends to like tofu.

The New Year is here—it's time for a fresh start! How about a fitter, happier you in 2004? Several new fitness books, each brimming with the latest nutrition and exercise research, offer positive, powerful tools for achieving glowing good health.

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