Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Ugh, I wish this book had been better. It was right at the edge of annoying with placing himself at the heart of the story, gallivanting to Brazil to meet with a famous yoga dude who was hurrying to the airport to get back to his NYC yoga studio (read: Nestor wanted to write off a trip to Brazil instead of simply meeting this guy in New York) and dismissing the people he encountered in the lobby as “giggling in Portuguese”. While Nestor thankfully didn’t veer into bloviating misogyny his presence in the tale was a bit too pitch perfect, it’s like you’re watching a character have a flashback with wavy images as he perches on a doctor’s table and then takes you to a related part of his research.

Anyway, there didn’t seem to be much “new science” in his discovering this lost art. He’s simply pointing a spotlight on science that’s been around for a while, like the research that points out our mouths started shrinking from disuse after humans started eating softer foods 300 years ago (more processed, not as much chewing required). This collapse of the mouth cavity causes breathing issues and we’re all breathing wrong, all the time. Chewing gum for a few hours a day can build bones in the jaw (Falim Sugarless Mint).

Breathe through your nose. Right nostril breathing increases heat & blood pressure, left nostril breathing relaxes & shifts blood to the part of your brain that assists with creative thinking.

Wim Hof method/Tummo (inner fire): lie on back with pillow, relax chest/shoulders, legs. Deep breath thru nose into pit of stomach, let out quickly, breathe like this for 30 cycles. Inhale inflates stomach then chest, exhale out stomach then chest. After 30 breaths, exhale & leave 1/4 of air in lungs and hold for as long as possible, then big inhale and hold for another 15 seconds. Move this fresh breath around thee chest and to the shoulders, exhale & start heavy breathing again. Repeat 3 rounds and add cold exposure a few times a week. The flip-flop forces the body into stress then relaxation, making the body more adaptable.

Resonant/Coherent Breathing: sit up straight, relax stomach & shoulders, exhale; inhale 5.5 seconds, expanding belly; no pause then exhale for 5.5 seconds, bring belly in. Each breath is a circle. Repeat at least 10 times.

Sudarshan Kriya: om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing (4 sec inhale, 4 sec hold, 6 sec exhale, 2 sec hold), then 40 minutes of very heavy breathing.

4-7-8 breathing into deep relaxation: exhale through mouth, inhale thru nose for 4, hold for 7, exhale thru mouth for 8, inhale 4, hold 7, exhale 8, (4 cycles).

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf

Alongside all the letters, diaries, essays, biographies, novels, and plays, I was also reading Woolf’s shorter fiction squeezed appropriately in chronologically. This excellent resource included all the stories collected in Monday or Tuesday and Mrs Dalloway’s Party plus many more. She frequently turned to short stories as a way of relieving her brain, to amuse herself, to give voice to the burst of words bubbling up inside as she worked on larger, more intense projects.

Her evolution as a writer is on display in this collection spanning 1906-1941. I was particularly struck by the sound design she evokes in In the Orchard, dated 1922, describing a woman sleepily reading beneath an apple tree. The sound of schoolchildren reciting the multiplication table is described as a “shrill clamour as if they were gongs of cracked brass beaten violently, irregularly, and brutally.” The sound of the church organ “floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of fieldfares flying at an enormous speed.” Then bells “thudded, intermittent, sullen, didactic…” And the weather vane squeaks as it turns, and the reader realizes she’ll be late for tea.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 6, 1936-1941

Reading the volumes of letters in tandem with the diaries is absolutely essential. I finished the diary yesterday, which means I finished the letters yesterday, too, only the volume included an Appendix of dozens of letters that had been discovered too late for inclusion in the earlier volumes. And so I lingered a bit with Woolf’s ghost, reading snippets from 1903 onward, after I had already read up to the point of her death. (Like this lovely 1923 ululation during a trip to Spain that “I am reading Proust, I am reading Rimbaud. I am longing to write.”)

The letters are always chatty and entertaining, light, meandering, poetic. As Nigel Nicolson notes in the introduction, a letter “was a wine-glass to hold her delights, or a sump for her despair.”

This volume contains many examples of the unease with the coming of war, like this 1936 to Victoria Ocampo, “Here we live under the shadow of disaster. I’ve never known such a time of foreboding. Even the artists mope and pine and cant get on with their pictures.” And in Jan 1938: “Lord what a year of incessant catastrophe–but that years over, so lets hope the best for this one.” Aug 1938: “As for politics, I feel as if we were all sitting downstairs while someone slowly dies.” Feb 1941: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget…”

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1936-1941

It seems appropriate that it’s a grey drizzly morning when I finally close the pages of this last volume. I’ve gently sipped at this diary for the past four months, admittedly dragging my feet for the last few weeks not wanting to get to March 1941.

I am prepared for it as I head to the end, we all know what’s coming. And this project of reading everything she wrote chronologically has prepared me better than anything I could have comprehended. I’ve been with her all these years, and with the onset of the second world war, the nightly bombing raids which destroyed their London flat and sent all their possessions scavenged from the wreckage (thankfully including all volumes of the diary) stowed in barns across the village, it makes sense. Her deteriorating mental condition is completely understandable when there is no future to look forward to. But up to the last entry, what a romp, what a delight it has been! Thank god Leonard disobeyed her injunction to destroy all her papers. This five-volume series of diaries is one of the most magnificent documents in the history of literature.

I have dozens of markers glittering along the pages noting things I wanted to remember here, but I’ll start at the end and work backwards:

24 December 1940: “By shutting down the fire curtain, though, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry? Why indeed?”

She envisions what death by German bombing would feel like (Oct 2, 1940): “I shall think—oh I wanted another 10 years—not this—& shant, for once, be able to describe it. It—I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light,—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so—Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—& then, dot dot dot”

Relieved to have the servant gone and cooking for herself: “Domestically, a great relief & peace, & expansion, it’ll be tomorrow, into merry kitchen harum scarum ways.”

Thinking again of what death by German bombing would be like (Aug 28, 1940): “It wd have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

In July: “So, the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

General feeling of unease during the war: (June 1940) “I mean, there is no “autumn”, no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice … and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.”

22 June 1940: “I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk…. The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work. And now dinner to cook. A role. Nightly raids in the east and south coast. 6, 3, 22 people killed nightly.”

May 30, 1940: “And was very happy—the moment can be that: only theres no support in the fabric—if you see what I mean, as Charlie Sanger used to say—theres no healthy tissue round the moment. It’s blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., ones certainly happy.”

August 7 1939: “Oh & I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, & the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; & to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, & not as unconscious at least in its approaches, as birth is.”

July 30, 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it will books, as a sponge with water.”

Jan 18, 1939: “I am going walking & adventuring going to see pictures of an afternoon; & often come face to face, after tea, at odd moments, with the idea of death & age. Why not change the idea of death into an exciting experience?—as one did marriage in youth?”

Watching the world march into war (Sept 22, 1938): “The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss. All Europe in Hitler’s keeping. What’ll he gobble next?”

Sept 17, 1938: “Just as in violent personal anxiety, the public lapses, into complete indifference. One can feel no more at the moment.”

June 23, 1937: “Its ill writing after reading Love for Love—a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. This superb hard English! Yes, always keep the Classics at hand to prevent flop.”

The radio after the King died only allowed official pronouncements, and so “if you turn it on you only hear the ticking of a vast clock” (Jan 1936).

actual air

There was such a rush to get this book after Berman’s death that the library ended up removing it from their listings, leaving the lucky 30 or so of us who had made it onto the list as part of a secret group and slowly the book made its way to me, then of course the pandemic stopped everything and books froze in people’s apartments from March – August and one patron got to spend quarantine with this beautiful book, but it wasn’t me, I eventually got hold of it a few weeks ago and each sip from these poems made me dizzy so I was careful not to gulp and here I am at last, closing the final page and immediately looking to see where I can buy a copy.  The phrases are so perfect, “Hedges formed the long limousine a Tampa sky could die behind” (and hundreds others). This is a book of poems everyone should have access to.

(From Self Portrait at 28: ) “All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two.”

 

What Are You Going Through

It’s hard to declare that this may be the best book I read all year with 11 months left to go, but the gorgeousness of her writing is coursing through me right now and I feel exuberant. I love this style of writing, is it Rachel Cusk-ian? The voice of a detached narrator describing, well, what she’s going through. She visits a friend dying of cancer, stays at a local airbnb, sees that her ex is lecturing about the end of civilization due to climate change. She ends up deepening her friendship with her dying friend, agreeing to be there to help her in her final days as the cancer-riddled friend has obtained drugs which will end her life.

Such beautiful writing. And always always breadcrumbs of films and books, little signposts that point me to recommendations. (I watched Jesus, Du Weisst [Jesus, You Know], a 2003 documentary featuring six Catholics praying to Jesus out loud for the camera, based on her mention.)

The narrator is a writer and plans to keep a journal of her friend’s final days, but quickly abandons that plan. Language would falsify the experience. “Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about—these are the only writers I want to read anymore…”

The meaning of life? That it stops (Kafka). Camus says the literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself. And then that old graffiti “God is dead — Nietzsche, Nietzsche is dead —God.”

The Mars Room: A Novel

I discovered Rachel Kushner by way of The Hard Crowd and fell in love with her prose, the way she conjured old San Francisco like a native, reminding me of Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies. In the New Yorker piece, Kushner mentioned The Mars Room as a place where she further explored the scenes and people from her childhood and teenage years in SF so I jumped on getting it from the library. The novel has pockets of exactly the kind of detail I was hoping for, but the pressure of a novel made her flesh out too many pages devoted to characters I couldn’t care less about, Doc and the lady who’s on death row, Betty LeFrance. Otherwise it was a great story, the narrator locked up for life in prison for killing a man who stalked her when he became infatuated by her at a strip club. Lots of reminiscing about sights, smells, events in SF.  The guy who teaches literature at the prison who brings her wire cutters she eventually uses to escape; you gotta love a guy who wonders “Why was Thoreau Thoreau, while Ted Kaczynski was Ted?… It was more familiar to be angry and bad. Maybe that was why.”

What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing, and Why

The inimitable David Sibley has another bird book out? Yes, please. This oversized guide is packed full of odds and ends, tidbits of fascinating facts, gorgeous illustrations. Grebes are more closely related to flamingos via DNA analysis than any other bird?! And the entire North American population of eared grebes gather in two places (Mono Lake, Great Salt Lake) in early fall before flying to their wintering location along the Pacific Ocean?! Waxwings are named for the patch of red on their wing that looked to people like sealing wax. Small birds lose 10% of their body weight each night as they sleep. Birds have two balance sensors: inner ear (like humans) and in their pelvis; this is how they’re constantly balancing on one leg. The introductory chapter alone took me a week to get through, brimming with interesting things. Good for birders & non-birders alike.

Daddy: Stories

Emma Cline has got the goods. Her precise, sharp writing encapsuled in these tight stories (all involving a father, natch) was exactly what my pandemic brain needed. The fathers are sometimes shadowy figures on the edge of the story and sometimes the main blundering character. Across these ten stories she manages to capture people at various points in their lives, stabbed on a pin and put onto a bulletin board to examine. I wonder if I tried and bailed on reading The Girls, her other book? Perhaps time for another look.

Roger Fry: A Biography

Very much enjoyed slowly working my way through Woolf’s biography of her friend Roger Fry. I think the second read much better than my first read 4 years ago. It helps to fit the book exactly in her chronology as I work my way through her diaries, letters, books and essays. This project was one that she had simmering on the back burner while she finished off The Years and Three Guineas, and my appreciation deepened as a result of knowing what a struggle it was for her to sift through masses of letters and walk the tightrope of what was socially acceptable to put into print. I somewhat agree with Leonard’s assessment that she relied perhaps too heavily on quoting Roger, especially when she re-iterated by reusing the same quote multiple times. But just a brief glimpse, a cursory search for “Roger” in the ebook I have of her diaries shows that she was “absorbed in Roger” as she worked those many years on the biography:  “brew more Roger”, “heap of Roger’s papers”, “I’m strung into a ball with Roger”, “rubbed against Roger”, “weight of Roger”, “distressed by Roger”, “been titivating Roger”, “hold the Roger fort”, “work on Roger”, “grind of Roger”, “Roger seems hopeless”, “Dreamt of Roger last night”.  He came to life again under her craftsmanship, paying back the debt she owed him to the encouragement he gave and conversations they had.

True Grit

Charles Portis’s 1968 novel was a treat to whip through on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Told through the perspective of a woman reflecting back on her early life when as a 14-year-old she sets out to avenge her father’s murder. She picks out a federal marshal to help her track down the killer and after haggling with an auctioneer to sell back a pack of ponies that her father had bought, pays the marshal a quarter of the agreed fee. A Texas Ranger is also on the lookout for this same killer and joins the group. Lots of shootouts and campfires and a pit with snakes, but all ends well.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused

Starting the year off with a bang! This was an extremely interesting deep dive into Linklater’s early film career, detailing how things went into the production of Slacker as well as Dazed and Confused. Maerz did a great job wrangling hundreds of interviews with cast, crew, and fans (like the brothers Duplass) about the making of these films. One of the best books I’ve encountered in the film genre and it sent me scurrying to the library to see if anything else came close (so far, no).  Everything about this film seemed blessed, the amazing cast of actors before they were known stars, the chemistry, the script, McConaughey’s performance, the music. And yet the studio tried everything in their power to sink it, to Linklater’s dismay. Don Phillips the extraordinary casting director (who w/r/t Jared Leto’s audition said “I love Jared, but Jared’s a real piece of work.”) allegedly threatened to expose himself if a certain movie weren’t submitted to the awards circuit. The final chapter points out how hard we fell for this supposedly anti-nostalgia film because of how much life/society has changed the past few decades. This was real livin’ and we love this movie because we miss it.

Top Picks of 2020

The pandemic ravaged my attention span and choked off my main source of books (the library) for months. I turned to a project I’ve wanted to tackle for years, reading everything Virginia Woolf wrote (including essays, letters, diaries, novels, non-fiction) in chronological order. That project gave this weird amorphous year a backbone for me to fling myself onto and limp toward the finish line. I’m currently up to October 1938.

Another project I took up and made progress with was something I’ve always wanted to do: read the goddamn Bible, the book of Books. Holy shit, it’s a bananas ride. I got through the Book of Job and took a break in August, never took it back up. The Old Testament is hilarious and fierce. I need to get back in there next year.

And I finally read Montaigne’s complete essays!

Read 140 books; 62% women writers; 38% men. Non-fiction (61%) edged out fiction (39%) for the fifth year in a row, pretty surprising since I thought I went hard for escapist fiction this year. Guess not! The overall book count was down 45% from last year but I feel like I read deeper, ruthlessly discarding books that were wastes of time.

Some worth mentioning:

Non-fiction

Fiction

On Writing

Memoir/Essays

Poetry/Plays

Books I’m too lazy to write about that I read in 2020

I’m not investing any effort into writing about books that I don’t want to, but I do still want to keep a list of what I’ve read so I know not to dip into them again.

January

  • The hard tomorrow by Eleanor Davis;
  • Tony Greene Era by Kevin Killian;
  • sharks in the rivers by Ada Limón;
  • Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation by Gabriele Oettingen (WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan);
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana;
  • Calling a wolf a wolf: poems by Kaveh Akbar;
  • Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Whitman;
  • I lost my girlish laughter by Jane Allen (Silvia Schulman and Jane Shore)

February

  • Tin man by Sarah Winman;
  • The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy;
  • How we fight for our lives : a memoir by Saeed Jones (that last line killed me, “Our mothers are why we are here.”);
  • Topics of conversation by Miranda Popkey;
  • The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives by Diane Johnson;
  • A life discarded : 148 diaries found in the trash by Alexander Masters (“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”);
  • All this could be yours by Jami Attenberg;
  • Drinking : a love story  by Caroline Knapp;
  • Astronomy : a self-teaching guide by Dinah L. Moché;
  • A first year in Canterbury Settlement by Samuel Butler

March

  • Sanditon by Jane Austen

April

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (re-read);
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (re-read)

May

  • The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge;
  • The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World

June

  • Hidden San Francisco by Chris Carlsson;
  • Harry Potter Book 1;
  • Harry Potter Book 2;
  • The Sherwoood Anderson Reader (sections 1-5)

July

  • Harry Potter Book 3;
  • Harry Potter Book 4;
  • My Fault: Poems by Leora Fridman;
  • The Roar of Silence by Don Campbell

August

  • Harry Potter Book 5;
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine

September

  • The office : the untold story of the greatest sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene;
  • Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney;
  • Harry Potter Book 6;
  • Alta California : from San Diego to San Francisco, a journey on foot to rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely;
  • The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

October

  • Labor of love : the invention of dating by Moira Weigel (I loved her on The Feminist Present podcast);
  • Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen (I liked his Kafka preface but not this fiction);
  • Harry Potter Book 7 (finally finished this horrendous series);
  • How we keep spinning: selected writings from SF Chronicle columns by Kevin Fisher-Paulson;
  • So far, so good by Charles Towne (pub: 1945);
  • 101 essays that will change the way you think by Brianna Wiest;
  • Americana by Luke Healy;
  • Julia, a portrait of Julia Strachey by herself & Frances Partridge;
  • This brilliant darkness : a book of strangers by Jeff Sharlet.

November

  • Shapes that pass: memories of old days by Julian Hawthorne;
  • Autobiography of a Chinese woman, Buwei Yang Chao put into English by her husband Yuenren Chao;
  • Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey;
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell;
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell;
  • One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry;
  • Journey around my room : the autobiography of Louise Bogan : a mosaic by Ruth Limmer.

December

    • A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki;
    • Alice James, a biography by Jean Strouse;
    • William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism, a biography by Robert D. Richardson;
    • The craving mind by Judson Brewer;
    • I knew a phoenix : sketches for an autobiography by May Sarton (includes recollection of meeting Woolf in 1937);
    • Females by Andrea Long Chu (homage to Valerie Solanas);
    • A libertarian walks into a bear : the utopian plot to liberate an American town (and some bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (this was a terrible book);
    • Sontag : her life and work by Benjamin Moser;
    • Essays of the 1960s and 70s by Susan Sontag (the Uncollected Essays where she focused on feminist issues);
    • Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel about the Brontës);
    • The 99% invisible city : a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (ugh, incredibly boring execution of what could have been great, had to force myself to skim through);
    • The movie brats : how the film generation took over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles;
    • Reeling by Pauline Kael (I took another romp through this book since I’ve watched several of these 1970s films since last I peeked into it; love her spicy take on the major films of the decade).

F: 35; M: 28; Fict: 25; Non: 40

Three Guineas

I have to agree with Leonard that this was not her best work. I gushed over this six years ago when I read it for the first time, so not much more to add except how interesting it was to read in the chronology, having read the drumbeats of war leading up to it, including their drive through Nazi Germany in 1935.

Her take down of religion’s keeping women out of paying positions was particularly delicious and she backs up her arguments with Biblical quotes. I agree with her assessment that “those who have not been forced from childhood to hear it thus dismembered weekly assert that the Bible is a work of the greatest interest, much beauty, and deep meaning.”