International book review digest: yoga, immortality, Dubai

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America by Stefanie Syman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2010).

Yoga is both an ancient Indian discipline and a modern moneymaker, earning $6 billion in the United States per year. In her new book, journalist Stefanie Syman examines how, “a centuries-old spiritual discipline, associated with meditative practices in Buddhism and Hinduism, became a fitness routine subscribed to by professional athletes, C.E.O.’s, Hollywood stars and suburban soccer moms.” Michiko Kakutani points to certain missed opportunities in Syman’s text, which could have been a more convincing “cultural history” had it more tightly woven together the history of yoga and the recent plethora of writing on the discipline’s modern expansion. But Syman’s success comes with her tracing the roots of American ideology, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Alan Ginsberg, that laid the foundation for yoga to proliferate as widely as it has. Her book is enhanced with entertaining anecdotes and characters, and told with “plenty of energy and verve.”

The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture by Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant (Counterpoint. 2010) and Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind by Christian Salmon (Translated from the French by David Macey) (Verso. 2010).

Two new books on advertising come at a unique time when, as reviewer James P. Othmer writes, “never has the combination of narrative and branding been as pronounced, exciting or dangerous.” The first takes a reader inside the knowledgeable minds of O’Reilly and Tennant, Canadian advertising veterans, and is a collection of “smart and breezy tales told from an insider’s perspective,” starting in 1904 and working its way into our Inernet age. The account excels at filling out the past with anecdotes, but fails to delve into the present with any real insight, writes Othmer. Salmon’s attempt is “more analytical and intellectually satisfying,” even though the translation, coming three years after the book’s original publication in France, can make some of its contents seem a little dated. Salmon, a French writer and researcher, ties our contemporary advertising culture to our fascination with storytelling, an act he traces back to Cro-Magnun campfires. From Disney to Enron to politics, Salmon “tends to write with an overly conspiratorial flair, and his examples are almost exclusively used to prove a negative point about the dangers of storytelling gone wild, but his argument is nonetheless fascinating.”

Layover in Dubai by Dan Fesperman (Knopf. 2010).

For most people the appeal of Dubai is its glamor and wealth, but for novelist Fesperman (the author of The Prisoner of Guantanamo) it’s what lies beneath the glitz. What is, according to reviewer, Peter Earnest, a “fast-paced tour of the seamier side” takes us to the Emirate with American pharmaceutical auditor Sam Keller, whose unintentional witnessing of a murder by the newly-arrived Russian mafia leads him to detainment with a local family, the Sharafs. Keller falls in love with the 24-yr-old Laleh, and is otherwise wide-eyed; the ensuing “cross-cultural misunderstandings make for a delightful touch in this exciting thriller.” Dubai according to Fesperman is exotic not for its escalating wealth, but for the tensions between cultures this growth makes poignant. It’s also a good place for a fast chase.

Long For This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner (Ecco/HarperCollins 2010).

Immorality, whether desirable or not, has long been obsessed over by humans, perhaps never more so, or with more vigor, than by the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. De Grey features heavily in Weiner’s new book, and comes across as brilliant if a little tiresome (as one who plans to live forever should probably avoid being); Weiner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his The Beak of the Finch, elaborates on de Grey’s theories, and, according to reviewer Abraham Verghese (a professor of medicine) Weiner’s “strength as a writer is his ability to flesh out these complex theories without losing the reader.” This is good because the “fractured, fuzzy science and pseudoscience of immortality” is as irresistible to readers as it is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps the most challenging thing is not accepting the inevitability of death, but accepting that death is preferable, as long as the life is well-lived. It seems ironically shortsighted that scientists like de Grey focus on extending life when geriatric care is so insufficient. “What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal. Partial success in extending life might simply extend the years of infirmity and suffering — something that to some degree is already happening in the West.”

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