Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachI finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.

Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.

Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.

In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.

And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.

Advertisements

Reader’s Journal: Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by NightAt the age of 82, Sheldon Horowitz has been transplanted from Manhattan to Oslo, Norway. Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea brings Sheldon to Oslo to live with her and her husband Lars after the death of her grandmother, Mabel. Rhea believes, as did the late Mabel, that Sheldon is suffering from dementia that started when his son Saul (Rhea’s father) was killed in Vietnam in in 1975 and has slowly continued to worsen over the years. Sheldon insists, for example, that he was a Marine sniper during the Korean War, rather than the file clerk they believed him to be, and he continues to see the enemy everywhere—around corners, behind trees. He thinks they are always watching, waiting to get revenge.

But the truth is more complicated than that. And that sentence, in fact, could sum up this entirely wonderful, perfectly paced thriller, Norwegian by Night. Sheldon is hapless and guilty. He believes he owes American his allegiance for helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis. As a young Jewish American, he was too young to join the war against the Nazis, so instead he volunteered during the Korean War, joining the Marines. When Saul joins the Navy and heads off to Vietnam, Sheldon is proud of his patriotism, but when Saul returns from his first tour of duty physically unharmed but mentally distressed and wanting to talk about the horrors he experienced, Sheldon tells him to set it behind him and move on with his life. Saul signs on for a second tour and is killed shortly after returning to Vietnam, and Sheldon believes he is responsible for his own son’s death.

But the truth is more complicated than that. One afternoon when Rhea and Lars are out of the apartment and Sheldon is home alone, he hears a violent altercation between a man and a woman in an upstairs apartment. The argument escalates, and he hears the woman leave the apartment. Peering out the peephole in the front door, he sees the woman stop. In his mind, he faces a test: will he refuse entry for someone who has nowhere else to go? Will he sit silently behind the door the way so many Europeans did when they knew their Jewish neighbors and friends needed a place to hide? Sheldon’s actions will send him on a tour of Norway with a small boy in tow.

But the truth is more complicated than that. The man, Enver, who was involved in the altercation is the boy’s father. He’s a refugee from Kosovo, where he fought bravely and brutally against the Serbs for independence. With the war ended and the Kosovo freed, he wants to take his son and return to his home. He’ll stop at nothing. As he pursues Sheldon and the boy, Enver is pursued by Sigrid, a Police Chief Inspector for her district in Oslo.

But the truth is…Okay, I’ll stop doing that. But. The truth is this story is humorous and sweet, melancholy and tragic, fast-paced and thrilling. Derek B. Miller masterfully navigates this third-person narrative told from alternating points of view, presenting at one time a novel that’s both personal and political. The weight of history—family history, national history, religious history—weighs on every character, informs every action. The pride and loneliness of people who are forced to wander, the way they carry their stories and the stories of the people they love, are at the center of this beautiful novel. I long to tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Miller has done such a terrific job at revealing details that move the story forward at just the right moments that to know too much could spoil the pleasure in turning the page. I had a tough time putting it down, and I hope that you will, too.

A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!

 

 

Hey, You, Get off of My Shelf

Get it? “Hey, you, get off of my shelf…” You know, like “Hey, you, get off of my cloud…” The Rolling Stones? Anyone?

Okay.

So last week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) topic was something that makes us instantly want to read a book, so let’s see if you can guess this week’s topic. YES! You in the back row with the yellow shirt (totally your color, by the way), that’s right. Today’s topic is what instantly makes us NOT want to read a book.

Right off the bat, let’s just go ahead and break rule number one (I’m sure I am not the only one doing this): Its cover is stupid/cheesy/just not compelling in any way. That’s right. I judge a book by its cover. For example, if I happen to come across these:

Product DetailsProduct Details

(Hm. These were listed on Amazon under “Best Amish Romance,” like that’s a thing. By the way, my search history is so wrecked now. And no, I wouldn’t read these even if they had a better cover, so maybe not the best example.) Put a woman in a bonnet on the cover of your novel, and I’m probably going to walk on by. I also avoid clowns, most wizards, and evil cat eyes. And while we’re at it, I seriously hate movie tie-in covers, and I’ll go out of my way to find a copy without one if the book has been turned into a movie/TV show. One thing that seriously annoys me about Kindle books is that Amazon now automatically updates covers to the movie/TV-show tie-in. STAHP.

Its title is too dumb to say out loud. Okay, that’s a little over the top. Maybe. Except my Mom tried for years to get me to read a book called Fair and Tender Ladies (by Lee Smith), and I resisted with every fiber of my being because ugh. That title. And then there are titles like Where White Horses Gallop and Butterflies Dance in the Dark. Please! (And, of course, the above-pictured The Healing Heart of an Amish Girl.) If any of these are your favorite books, I am sorry (on so many levels).

Except you know what? Fair and Tender Ladies is a really wonderful book. I’m not kidding.

It’s been blurbed by Jonathan Franzen. I read The Corrections and it was good. Not the best novel of a generation, not the Best American Novel, but good. I’ll probably read Freedom and Purity at some point. All that to say, nothing about an endorsement from Franzen will make me hurry to pick up a book. And apparently I’m not in a hurry to pick up his books, either.

It’s been compared to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This is the book that broke Dave Eggers for me. I like McSweeney’s and The Believer and he does a lot of good for literacy with his 826 Valencia project. Any comparison to that book makes me think, “Hm, so navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, SO POSTMODERN Tristram Shandy ripoff” is not going to have me reaching for my wallet.

It’s written by Dave Eggers. See above. I don’t know why, I just haven’t been able to do it. Lots of people whose opinions I trust think he’s a great writer. On the other hand, I have several titles by Vendela Vida on my TBR. She’s his wife. So that’s something, yes? Come on, someone talk me out of this one and convince me to read one of his books. This is a cry for help.

It’s the first book in a series. So many good series exist out there, but I don’t have that kind of time. I have too many books on my TBR list as it is. So while I am really, really curious about, say, Donna Leon, I probably won’t be rushing to pick up one of her books any time soon. I still have to get through all of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series and Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books first. Bah.

It’s self-published. I know. The Martian was self-published, and look what happened there! You can now buy the book with the movie tie-in cover! It has Matt Damon on it! Look, getting published is not easy. Some self-published works out there might be really good. And you do hear about some breakout authors (Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking) who make a lot of money or get book deals. It seems, though, that a lot of self-publishing happens in genres that don’t interest me all that much (fantasy, romance). I also imagine I would spend more time editing (in my mind, anyway) these titles than reading them.

Its description includes the words “magical realism.” I’m not saying I don’t like magical realism. I’m just saying I won’t rush to pick it up.

It’s titled Fifty Shades of [You Name It]. Do I need to explain this one?

It features a precocious child or an animal as the narrator. Children’s voices are hard to get right, and most adults can’t do it. There are some exceptions. (Don’t come at me with Room because I didn’t make it past page five on that one, and don’t think the movie tie-in cover with Brie Larson will help because I didn’t see the movie.) And I like dogs, but I’m not really interested in any novel narrated by one. Plus, if a dog is narrating, you know the ending will be sad. It’s a given. Don’t pretend it’s not.

Your turn*…what keeps you from instantly picking up a book (or from picking it up at all)? 

*I love connecting with other readers, and I enjoy hearing from you if you have something fun to share. If you are just here to leave a lame comment so you can post your own link (“Great list! Here’s mine!” or “Me, too! Here’s mine!” ), please don’t waste your time.

Reader’s Journal: The Seas

The SeasSometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:

A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.

It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.

Here’s how it begins:

The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:

People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.

Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.

She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.

Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.

When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

I think I have a new favorite author for my list.

Those Books I Cannot Deny

Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) this week asks us to list the top ten things that will make us instantly want to read a book. This is a tough one—I think next week’s topic about what makes us NOT want to pick up a book is easier—but I’ll give it a shot.

RunawayIt’s by a favorite author. Okay, that’s such a no-brainer, right? Obviously, we all look forward to books from favorite authors, but maybe we get to some a bit faster than others. As much as I love Lorrie Moore—and even though I had preordered a copy—it took me almost a year to read her most recent story collection. And I love Mary Gaitskill but haven’t read The Mare yet. But a new Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, or Marisha Pessl? I want that book in my hands on pub day, if not before.

It’s a campus novel. I’m a huge sucker for any book set at a boarding school or a university. I blame The Official Preppy Handbook, which was published when I was in seventh grade. It’s the source of all my fantasies about wearing blue blazers and knee socks and carrying a beat-up leather messenger bag and driving an old Volvo station wagon and attending classes in grey-stone buildings covered with ivy. What? Oh, right, like you don’t have a dream. The Secret History, Prep, The Headmaster’s Wife, Skippy Dies

It’s set west of the Mississippi. Hello, Larry McMurtry. Hello, Kent Haruf. Hello, Wallace Stegner. Wait…those were all men. Hello, Louise Erdrich. Hello, Molly Gloss. Hello, Willa Cather.

LandfallsIt involves any sort of seafaring. I’m fascinated by the Dutch East India Trading Company, the age of exploration, the migration of people….as long as it’s happening on a ship. For someone who’s terrified of the ocean, I have enough books about sailing the wide open seas on my TBR list that you’d never guess. Landfalls, Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, Master and Commander

It involves cowboys/pioneers/people settling the Western US. Technically this could be considered a subset of number three, I guess, but it’s a particular one that always draws me. The Jump-Off Creek, The Son, Lonesome Dove, The News of the West

It features a WASPy New York family. You can keep your navel-gazing Brooklyn hipsters who all want to write books about being writers. I’m way more interested in the Upper East Side, particularly if the book is set before, say, 1970. The Rules of Civility, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Catcher in the Rye, The Nest

It’s compared favorably (by someone I trust) to a book/writer I love. No, not looking at you, Gone Girl. You’re over your limit. But if a book is compared to, say, The Secret History, The Goldfinch, Commonwealth, Empire Falls, The Likeness…Somebody stop me before I list all my favorite books. You get the picture. Although sometimes these comparisons make me leary (still not looking at you, Gone Girl). I’m sorry, but if I saw a book that said, “For readers who love Alice Munro,” I might be afraid I was going to get a cheap imitation, because honestly, who can compare?

Seating ArrangementsIt’s set anywhere from coastal New England up to Newfoundland. I’m talking rocky coast, sea spray, the Atlantic, whales, fishermen, creaky old cottages with worn shingles, lighthouses—the whole shebang. So anything from Seating Arrangements to Olive Kitteridge to Sweetland to The Shipping News. The gamut of the northern US/Canadian East Coast, if you will.

It involves a clever twist. I’ve gotten a bit more wary about this one. (Okay, Gone Girl, I’m looking at you now.) Still, I do like a good twist. I really thought Gone Girl was masterfully done. And Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (who’s twisting who?). John Fowles’s The Magus (twisty involving teacher at secluded Greek boarding school). E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (twisty/New England combo).

So, where do we line up? Any recommendations? Where do we differ? (I’d love to hear from you if you have a real comment! If you are just here to spam your own link, move on.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Yoga

Bear with me. This is a long one.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about yoga since a few people expressed interest in it when I wrote this post…last year. Oops. People may not be so interested now, but maybe? What if I promise this post contains no yoga selfies? I swear. Not that kind of post. I also promise not to take myself too seriously and refer to myself as a yogi. (I do own two Manduka mats, so obviously I am practically an expert…) You’re welcome.

Honestly, for a long time I was not interested in yoga. About 15 years ago I went to a few classes, but they were a sort of gentle stretching thing. Nothing wrong with that kind of yoga (I went with a friend who was still recovering from surgery resulting from breast cancer), but at the time I didn’t know of any other option besides Bikram, where you hold the same sequence of 26 static postures over several hours in a room heated somewhere between 95 and 108 degrees. I grew up in that kind of heat, so you might think I have a high tolerance for it. No. That kind of heat makes me feel claustrophobic, and I’m perfectly okay with being too mentally weak to shore myself up and deal with it.

When I started running in 2009, I found a bunch of running bloggers to follow. Almost all of them used yoga as recovery. (I still follow one, Peanut Butter Runner, who teaches yoga—although not Ashtanga—and now owns a yoga studio. She’s been through a lot, and I find her posts inspiring.) My interest was piqued, but aside from trying a few Yoga Download videos, I stuck to my weights and running routine. Eventually I got lazier and lazier…I stopped the weights, and then the running, and in 2015 when I wanted to get back shape I went to a trainer who suggested I supplement my workouts with yoga. The gym I go to offers lots of yoga classes, so many I wasn’t sure where to start, so I picked a class listed on the schedule as “Yoga Basics” that was at a good time for my schedule.

I came out of that first class completely impressed and totally hooked. It was like going for a run, if going for a run meant moving yourself around on a mat and breathing deeply for an hour. I went back the following week and the week after that. I was so lost in class most of the time that it took me a while to realize we were basically doing the same postures over and over again, with a few variations toward the end of class. And then one day my instructor sat up at the front and said the style of yoga we were doing was called Ashtanga, and it was founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He explained the deep breathing with sound that he asked us to do during the class. He explained why the room should never be heated (so you build your own inner heat, which helps you to heal).

Overall, Ashtanga is much more than a series of postures. If you’re interested in the history and background, you can read more about it here. You may be familiar with the term power yoga; Ashtanga was the basis for that, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not really here to give you a lesson on Ashtanga, but here are the bare-bones basics: In Ashtanga, there are six series (or levels). You begin with Primary Series (duh), which is called Yoga Therapy or Yoga Chikitsa (how cute is that?) and is intended to help your body heal itself internally. The Second, or Intermediate, Series is called Nadi Shodhana, or the nerve-cleansing series. After that, students move into more deeply complicated postures in the next four Advanced Series, or the Strength Series (this refers to both mental and physical strength). Forget about Advanced Series for now. It’s amazing, but it looks like some serious Cirque du Soleil action. I’m not trying to scare you.

Back to Primary Series. It’s a 90-minute series, and it follows the same sequence every time. We hold each pose for five breaths. Between postures (asanas), you do a vinyasa (chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog); in the seated part of the series, you do a vinyasa between each side. There are also transitions in and out of asanas and into vinyasa. This creates the flow and ensures you keep the heart rate at a certain level. You breathe deeply through your nose, making a sort of Darth Vader sound, and on each pose you focus your gaze on a specific point (called a drishti). You practice in relative silence, with only the instructor’s voice and the sound of breathing to fill the room. (If you’re curious, you can watch the first half of Primary Series here. This is where beginners generally start.)

I tried a few Vinyasa Flow classes, just to compare. Generally in these classes, the room is heated, and the instructor tells you what comes next in the flow. It’s never the same twice, and sometimes the instructor just…uh, lets you do you. These classes also tend to have music, either all through or at various points in class. At least, that’s how it happened in the classes I took. I felt too hot and mostly lost. I had no idea what to do when the teacher said, “Do what you feel is right for your body,” and everyone started doing completely different things. I didn’t like that there seemed to be no order, and I found the music distracting (by contrast, I love music when I run).

I prefer Ashtanga. I like the silence. I like knowing the sequence. Each posture builds on the last one, preparing you for what’s next (and also for what’s to come in Second Series). You might think doing the same thing over and over is boring or easy. I assure you, it isn’t. Tuning into what you’re doing and releasing attention on everything else is not easy, but that’s the reason for doing the postures in the same order each time and focusing the gaze on a specific point. Primary series starts with Sun Salutations and then moves through a series of standing postures that include forward folds and balancing postures. After that you move into a seated series that contains a lot of forward folds and binds. Yes, it helps to be flexible, but so much of what it also requires is strength. Or at least, it requires you to work on developing these things equally. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere that says we aren’t supposed to favor one pose over all the others, but my favorite is utthita hasta padangushtasana:

Some days my balance is awesome and other days I teeter right over. If I ever went back to a Vinyasa Flow class and was told to do my own thing, I’d probably just stand around holding my toe until the instructor told me to stop.

Truth: a very flexible person could walk into class and probably do almost every posture. Some, like garbha pindasana, where you thread our hands through your legs in lotus and then rock and then balance on your hands in kukkutasana (that’s what Sharath Jois is doing on the cover of that book in the picture, by the way), may take even a very flexible person some practice, especially if he or she is weak. But even the most flexible people tend to struggle with the flow and the transitions, and they find it hard to concentrate and keep up, and most importantly, many of them struggle with the strength required…and a lot of the time, they don’t come back. What’s interesting is who shows up week after week: men and women of all ages, of all sizes, some of us not very flexible or graceful, but we all continue to come to class and put in the work. 

Truth: Ashtanga is not supposed to be competitive. In fact, the most traditional style is Mysore, after the place in India where Pattabhi Jois lived and where his son Sharath Jois lives now and runs the school his father founded, where all Ashtanga teachers go to get authorized/certified to teach. There are only 80 certified teachers in the world, and maybe three times that are authorized. In Mysore style, you practice alone, moving through the full series. You are supposed to focus on your mat, yourself, your breathing, your drishti. But doing Ashtanga in the real world, at a gym, it feels competitive. Let’s face it: it’s a yoga class at a gym, and many people are at the gym because they want to look a certain way. It can be very difficult not to compare yourself to other people in the class. People believe they should not sit at the front until they reach a certain level. (I sit at the front, but in a far corner, because I like not being able to see anyone else.) It can be tough when you see someone getting into a bind like marichyasana D after a few months, when you know that posture is still probably a year or more away for you. It can feel disheartening when it feels like the instructor gives the most attention to a very specific clique of people (and easy to forget there are 40-50 people in class, so it’s probably not personal).

But for me, the transformation has been amazing. I started practicing four or five times a week in February 2016. When I say “transformation,” I don’t mean how I look. As far as flexibility goes, I’m somewhere in the middle. As strength goes, on the weaker side of middle. I naturally have a lot of anxiety. In the classes I take, I am firmly in the middle of the pack. My forward folds are awesome, but I struggle with anything that requires open shoulders, and I cannot do a headstand very well on my own. In fact, I was just about to get there last summer when I fell out of one and broke my three little toes (oh, that makes it sound like I have three feet; three little toes on my right foot). A couple of remarkable things happened: one was that I fell and immediately went to class and practiced, not realizing the severity of my injury. I promise you if that had happened the year before and I hadn’t even really been injured, I probably wouldn’t have even gone to class, instead declaring I needed to take it easy. The second thing was that I was back on my mat two months to the day after my injury, and I swear my foot healed faster because of it. And I also attempted the headstand. For me, this is a huge mental transition. Before, I would have given up. I’m not a very disciplined person. I’ll almost always choose what’s comfortable.

Don’t think I don’t cry. And sometimes I consider quitting. Running never made me cry. (I probably will start running again; it’s the only thing I love as much.) Lifting weights didn’t either. But there have been times I’ve been so frustrated during class, when a posture that was easy the week before is suddenly gone, or when I fall over (happens all the time), or when I feel like I don’t belong because I’m not young or thin or flexible enough. But those days are far and few between (except for the falling over part), and they also mean I am showing up and facing those things every time. The truth is, I am somewhat less anxious. I am more confident, not in how I look but how I feel. I’ve been in much better shape in the past and I’m a little overweight, but every time class brings me something new, I feel strong and capable, and I carry that out into the world with me. That’s the thing that keeps me going back, more than anything. A few weeks ago I had one of those days where nothing was right in class, and I felt foolish, like I should just give up. But I told myself, my practice is my practice. Whatever it is today is all it is. What I did yesterday doesn’t matter, and what’s to come is irrelevant. And I went back to class the next day, and did a 15-breath-count headstand. (No joke…and then haven’t done it since!) My practice is my practice. And there you have it.