Book Review: Vroom vroom!

Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars by Paul Ingrassia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m sure the subtitle has you curious, so here are some clues about the fifteen vehicles explored in this great book. Yes, there are only thirteen items listed below, but that’s because a few chapters overlap and include more than one exact make or model of vehicle.

The Big Bang

Bolsheviks, Nazis, and High-Performance Racers

Fins

Hitler to Hippies

Explosions

Iacocca

DeLorean, but not that DeLorean

Globalisation and Quality

Iacocca II

Yuppies

Iacocca III

Red(neck) Dawn

Full Gosling

Now to the review. The only downside to this book is that it ends. I would readily read Pulitzer-winner Pual Ingrassia’s take on any era of American pop culture or automobile. Even at 350+ pages, this hefty volume is still a quick read because it’s so entertaining. Not as quick as a GTO or Bimmer, perhaps. But still quick. Ingrassia deftly weaves history, pop culture, odd bits of trivia, and twinkle-in-the-eye humour into what could’ve been a dry subject.

To be clear, I’m not a petrolhead. I do daydream about taking a motorcycle adventure a la Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Up, but I drive an old Toyota Camry. I’m not exactly racing for papers on the weekends. So, even if you aren’t a car person so much as a trivia or history person, I think there’s something here for you. However, it’s probably more fun if you do have at least some interest in car culture (or you are close with someone in that world). In fact, if you are stumped on what to get your dad this Christmas, you could do worse than this book! Just be prepared to gather around a phone screen as your loved one regales you with pictures and stories of their favorite hooptie.

4.5/5

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Book Review: “The practice of yoga teaches us to live fully.”

 

Light on LifeLight on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The practice of yoga teaches us to live fully.”

Iyengar is something of an ambassador of yoga. Even though he has died, he continues to educate and influence those curious about yoga’s practice and precepts. Personally, I first started reading Iyengar because he was on a href=”the”>https://yogawithadriene.com/adrienes-… reading list of Yoga with Adriene’s Adriene Mishler. The Tree of Yoga is the short and nourishing title on Adriene’s list, and that was the first one I read. This book is longer (around 300 pages) and still dense. However, while other books may be better introductions to yogic philosophy, don’t let that scare you. This is dense the way a sacred text or poetry or a textbook is dense. It’s not meant to be grasped all at once. If you’re a religious type, it’s almost like each little section is food for contemplation in a daily devotion. Photo of Iyengar

Whereas the Tree of Yoga uses the illustration of a…tree…of yoga…this book primarily uses flower petals of yoga as its through-line for its non-fictional narrative:

“There are eight petals of yoga that reveal themselves progressively to the practitioner. These are external, ethical disciplines (yama), internal ethical observances (niyama), poses (asana), breath control (pranayama), sensory control and withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and blissful absorption (samadhi). We call these the petals of yoga as they join together.”

The book essentially zooms in on each petal from the external to the internal. That in itself is a nice example of yogic philosophy. The outward practices can lead to inward change, cleanliness, strength, and right action.

If you’re interested in reading more on yoga, I would say start with Adriene’s list first, including The Tree of Yoga. Next I’m going to read some Patanjali or Paramahansa Yogananda.

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Book Review: Dracula Sucks!

 

DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dracula sucks but the book doesn’t.

I go through phases of reading classics or otherwise tackling books with reputations of being difficult. Sometimes it’s easy to see why books are classics – they’re timeless and engrossing. A Tale of Two Cities is that way for me. So is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Other times the classics feel like archaeological work. The reader is excavating and extrapolating. Dracula felt like work to me, but the reader can definitely appreciate the book’s influence on future work. In particular, the book contains real stakes (STAKES!) and real horror, in the sense that things we would never want to happen…happen. It’s great at dread. Two or three scenes in particular stuck with me. One involves a cemetery and one involves a ghost ship. If you like cemeteries and ghost ships, maybe this book is for you!

I will admit that most of what I know about Dracula comes from the movie starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder (my two spirit animals). In the movie, Mr Harker (Keanu) is a young attorney sent on assignment to Transylvania where he is to meet an enigmatic Count Dracula, ostensibly about purchasing some land in England. It turns into an Airbnb trip for hell, though, as poor Keanu has to deal with all kinds of antisocial behavior from his host and the host’s trio of lady friends. Also, there are wolves!

The book starts in the same fashion. It’s a collection of journal entries and letters to and from Mr Harker as he journeys from England to spend time at the Count’s house. The Count knows nothing of England and is willing to pay a pretty pence to have a young solicitor visit him and advise him on acquiring property in England. Where should he buy? How can he make sure to get a good deal? What’s the culture like? It all makes sense on the sruface. The old man is friendly enough, even charming, but something is…terribly off. Locals won’t interact with him, except for occasional nomads. Why?

Eventually Mr Harker leaves Transylvania and heads home to England. He is unsure of what, exactly, happened with Count Dracula, but he knows he is glad to be home with Mina, his fiancé. Unfortunately, trouble finds the young couple and their friends, and Hugh Jackman (Professor Van Helsing) has to visit England to figure out why the friend group is acting so weird and why people keep getting beheaded. What a buzzkill!

That’s pretty much the plot, but the main attraction is the atmosphere. There’s a lot of sensational, creepy goings on. A lot of it is spiritual and religious in nature, and in this area I think the Mina of the book is the real hero. If you’ve watched Penny Dreadful, she’s very similar to Eva Green’s character of Vanessa Ives – haunted but resolute in fighting off the darkness in favor of the light. I don’t recall Winona Ryder’s character being so central in the movie, but it’s been a few years.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to casual readers, but you completionist nerds out there should consider giving it a go.

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Book Review: Mexican Gothic

Mexican GothicMexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Counter-intuitively, this Gothic horror novel was an absolute joy to read. Mexican Gothic cover

My attention span in 2020 is limited at best, but I could not put down Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. Her main character, the impetuous and steel-spited Mexico City socialite Noemí Taboada, is truly alive. The rural Mexican setting is a delight, and the creepiness level is appropriate for those of us less versed in horror.

Noemí Taboada is a Mexico City mover and shaker. She lives in the 1940s-50s era, and has expansive ideas for her future. Maybe she’ll be a pianist, an anthropologist, or something else entirely. Who knows? Maybe all of it. She tries on boyfriends like clothes, and this annoys her father to no end. He runs a successful paint company and is hoping his daughter will act as smart as he know she is. In fact, he sends her on a mission to check on Catalina, Noemí’s sick cousin. The two women grew up together, but Catalina has recently gotten married and moved outside of the small town of El Triunfo. Catalina’s new family lives at High Place, an old mansion owned by an English family famous for its silver mining operation. Catalina has sent a letter to Mr Taboada explaining she is sick and needs help. Hence, the mission.

Noemí hops on a train to El Triunfo, despite minor protestations about missing some social events in Mexico City. As soon as she arrives in the town and meets Catalina’s new family at High Place, she knows something isn’t right. Gothicness ensues!

It seems that people either love or hate this book. I think it helps to manage expectations going in. As the name signals – this is a gothic book. There’s a Romantic, building dread. It’s all about atmosphere and mood and weird magnetic pulls to people and places. Don’t expect it to run hot and loud like Fury Road or some other action blockbuster. Just sit by the fire, sip a libation of your choice, and enjoy the glorious weirdness.

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A Charge to Participate in Life

In our small group at church we recently read together Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 (English Standard Version):

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

In our little small group, we discussed what the passage means to us. 

For me, this passage is a charge to participate fully in life, even in the face of absurdity and death. This has been a useful message for me in 2020. Frankly, I got out of the habit of showering and shaving regularly. I stopped exercising. What was the point? I couldn’t go anywhere. I saw no one. 

But – there’s always a point. As the passage above explains – this is what we’re here to do. To live

Living well in the face of uncertainty, absurdity and death is unusual and therefore can stand out. If I truly believe in the Kingdom of God, I must participate fully in life.

My Favourite Albums of All Time (At the Moment) – Part I

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about Rolling Stone updating their top 500 albums canon. I haven’t scrolled through the whole list, but two of my podcast friends* recently suggested that instead of worrying about these kinds of group-created list, it might be more interesting and useful for people to sit down and think about their own lists. Makes sense to me – we can learn more about music and one another that way. So, without further ado, here is my list of all-time favourite albums! Get your wishlists ready.

Axis: Bold as Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967) – JHE’s first album, Are You Experienced?, has more hits. But as an album I love Bold as Love the best.  It’s quieter, less-straight-forward bluesy rock, heavier on sounding like some kind of psychdelic fantasy-genre dream. “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, and “Bold as Love” are these beautiful, virtuoso performances with big ideas. Hendrix talked about the Electric Church a lot, which means something different from what I mean when I talk about Church, but also something very much the same as when I talk about Church. This album is just peak Hendrix to m.

Beggars by Thrice (2009) – While I was aware of Thrice since The Artist in the Ambulance and had even seen them in their tour supporting that album, I didn’t really take notice of the band until hearing “In Exile” on this album. The whole album is moody and complex, much quieter than their previous work. Dustin Kensrue is a Christian, and he is also one of the most thoughtful songwriters I know. In this album he explores various allegories for Christ, what marriage really means, and the wandering nature of a certain breed of believers. Bonus – Amazing frenetic cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”.

Conspiracy No. 5 by Third Day (1997)I was on the fence about Christianity in middle school. I was pretty sure that God was there, but I was not sure that God was good. I knew that Christians weren’t good. They were elitist and hypocritical. Buddhism seemed like a better plan for me. However, one night the parents of some acquaintances took a group of us middle schoolers to this Christian rock concert. Growing up in Austin I was already High-Fidelity-level music fan, and I despised popular Christian music for its awful musicianship as much as for its surface-level lyrics. BUT, Third Day was an awesome band. I couldn’t believe how good they sounded live. The sweaty Southern alt-rock vibe was awesome. After the concert I told one of the guitar players that I didn’t know Christians could be cool. I think he was amused by that. But it was one of the truest things I ever said to someone, and I went and bought their album and listened to it on repeat. And I learned that Christians could be cool and real musicians and therefore that I could live an integrated life. I still listen to this one several times a year.

Euphoria Morning by Chris Cornell (1999) – Soundgarden was never been my band, but when the band’s frontman released this solo project in 1999 I was immediately intrigued. The big single was “Can’t Change Me”, a song about being in a relationship with an amazing girl but knowing you are too much of a piece of garbage to stick around. (That’s how I took it.) I didn’t “get” this album in high school but as an adult it’s remained one of my favorites. Cornell’s bluesy, vulnerable + powerful voice pairs so well with his lyrics about navigating relationships, the death of his friend Jeff Buckley, and more. It’s stayed in regular rotation since probably 2007, and Cornell remains one of my all-time favourite songwriters.

Fantastic Playroom by New Young Pony Club (2007) – Part of my “law school trilogy” of party records. I’m not sure whether this band was ever very popular beyond hipster indie dance folks, but to me it’s just perfect dance music. It’s cool, it instantly sets a mood, every song is good. Even though I wouldn’t call it my the “best” album on this list, I bet I’ve listened to it the most as an entire album. It’s like if Blondie’s song “I Know But I Don’t Know” birthed an entire genre. 

Fever to Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003) – Part of my “law school trilogy” of party records. It would disingenuous to say that I knew about this band before they were popular. I did get to hang out in Williamsburg in 2005-2006, though, and so I think I “got” the band a little from being there. OR, maybe I just have an affection for them because I associate them with that great trip. Besides all that, though, the music stands for itself. Karen O is just…living on another planet onstage. This album captures the few-beers-into-a-long-night-with-strangers vibe so well. I have to confess that I didn’t realize the wild band that made “Date With The Night” was the same group that made “Maps” from the Rock Band video game.

*Podcast friends are people I don’t know but whom I haven’t a lot of time with via recorded conversations.

Lessons Learned from Chess

 

  • You have to make sacrifices to win.
  • Protect your queen and she’ll protect you.
  • Your tribe works best when each member is put in position to do what they do best.
  • Collaboration is more powerful than unilateral action.
  • Weaker individuals can work together to bring down more powerful ones.
  • All the ability in the world doesn’t matter if you’re in the wrong place.
  • Power is situational and dynamic.
  • Not every person is right for every task.
  • Your tribe works best when you actualize.
  • A situation cannot be fully grasped with only one perspective.
  • Consider the future implications of an action to make better decisions.
  • Understanding rules and boundaries provides creativity and freedom with the system.
  • There is joy in learning.
  • There is joy in playing.
  • Winning and losing can both be fun or frustrating.
  • Appreciate the abilities and limitations of others.
  • Expecting something other than what a person can contribute hurts everyone involved.
  • There are myriad ways of doing things, including winning and losing.
  • Someone else creates the structure and the rules of the game. Your freedom and individuality and power from how you choose to operate within the game.