Review of The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown

The Oxygen Advantage

The Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques for a Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter You

by Patrick McKeown

William Morrow, 2015. 352 pages.
Review written August 21, 2020, from a library book

This book took me a long time to read. The author rambles and digresses. But a lot of those digressions are stories of lives who were changed because of these ideas. More are about the science behind the ideas.

The basic theme here is that people get into trouble from overbreathing. That deep breath they tell you to take to relax? The sighs you use to let off steam? Not a good idea.

This book made me wish I were still communicating with my ex-husband, a tuba player. He did some research on hyperventilation syndrome (which can happen to tuba players), and this book bears that out – and gives exercises to counteract it.

This author claims he can cure asthma and increase sports performance. For me, just dabbling in the exercises has cleared up what used to be an always stuffy nose.

An interesting and counterintuitive chapter at the beginning explains that we need to increase our tolerance for carbon dioxide in our blood. I won’t copy the long explanation, but here’s a bit of it:

Think of it this way: CO2 is the doorway that lets oxygen reach our muscles. If the door is only partially open, only some of the oxygen at our disposal passes through, and we find ourselves gasping during exercise, often with our limbs cramping. If, on the other hand, the door is wide open, oxygen flows through the doorway and we can sustain physical activity longer and at a higher intensity. But to understand how our breathing works we must dig a bit deeper into the crucial role carbon dioxide plays in making it as efficient as possible.

The book also talks about the importance of breathing through your nose and not your mouth and the benefits that brings. I’m glad I sleep alone – because I’ve been trying his suggestion of taping my mouth closed at night. I haven’t noticed a dramatic difference when I wake up, but it is true that combined with the breath-holding exercises from the book, I’ve got a lot less nasal stuffiness than before.

I’m not an athlete, so I’m not going to try the exercises that simulate high-altitude training. But I would like the health benefits. He’s got a simple Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) score you can use to measure your progress on this. If all he says is true, a higher BOLT score will help your overall physical health.

If any of this sounds at all helpful, the book is worth taking a look! The exercises are not difficult, and if the author is right, they can make a big difference.

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Review of Love for Imperfect Things, by Haemin Sunim

Love for Imperfect Things

How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection

by Haemin Sunim
translated by Deborah Smith and Haemin Sunim

Penguin Books, 2018. Originally published in Korean in 2016. 259 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 27, 2020, from a library book

This is a lovely and peace-inducing book written by a Zen Buddhist teacher. It worked well to read a chapter or half a chapter each day, as I had time, and I was uplifted when I did.

The book is illustrated with peaceful pictures. It’s a book about loving yourself and others, and about healing and going through the world with compassion – very general, nice things. The format is each chapter has a section or two of narrative and then several pages of shorter bits of wisdom.

The book didn’t give me any new, earth-shaking insights, but reading its wisdom helped me calm my thoughts and meditate on truth.

I’ll grab a few examples of the sort of sayings you’ll find here:

When someone does something to distress you
for no apparent reason,
or behaves completely unreasonably,
for your own sake, repeat to yourself:
“Big world, some weirdos!”

If you want to kindle firewood,
there needs to be space between the logs.
If you pack the wood too densely,
the fire will not take; the flames need room to breathe.
In the same way, if our lives have no breathing room,
we won’t be able to enjoy all the things we have,
no matter how great or precious they are.

If you point out someone’s faults,
don’t expect their behavior to change.
Often all that happens
is that they get hurt.
Instead, praise their strengths,
which will grow to overshadow their weaknesses.

There are many aspects of life that we cannot control.
When it comes to our children, spouse, relatives, and friends,
we can love them, pray for them, show them interest,
but we cannot control them,
even when we have good intentions,
since their happiness ultimately depends on themselves.
Let them take responsibility for their choices.
When we get through an illness, we develop immunity.
If we protect others from illness,
they may not develop proper immunity against life.

I found those quotations on pages I opened to at random – the quality of the observations is consistently good. You can see that they aren’t necessarily things you don’t already know – but they are things it’s good to be reminded about.

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Review of Subpar Parks, by Amber Share

Subpar Parks

America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors

by Amber Share

Plume (Penguin Random House), 2021. 206 pages.
Review written September 7, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I have several friends who have recently vacationed in National Parks, and I want all of them to read this book. I love it! It’s a travel book, it’s a book of beautiful artwork – and it’s hilarious as well.

Amber Share traveled to National Parks from every region of America and made an iconic painting of a scene from each one. Then she superimposed on each painting the words from a one-star review of that park she found on the internet, in the style of an old-fashioned travel poster. The result is wonderfully comical in the juxtaposition.

Here are some examples, though it’s not nearly as good without the artwork:

At Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska: “Mountains not nearly tall enough.”

At Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho: “Not really what I thought.”

At Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii: “Didn’t even get to touch lava.”

At Lassen Volcanic National Park in California: “No idea what people like about this.”

At Yosemite National Park in California: “Trees block view and there are too many gray rocks.”

At Arches National Park in Utah: “Looks nothing like the license plate.”

At Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah: “Too orange; too spiky.”

At Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado: “It’s just a big mountain of sand.”

At Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis: “No real point.”

At Assateague National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia: “Horse poop on the beach.”

I should stop! The gorgeous paintings (always in poster style) of these parks make the comments all the funnier.

Besides the silly commentary from disgruntled visitors, this book is packed with information about the various national parks and gives ideas of what to see and do when you visit, including insider tips from park rangers. I for one have revived a childhood desire to do a big road trip and visit national parks across America. If I ever do it, I will bring along a copy of this book.

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Two Trains Leave Paris, by Taylor Marie Frey and Mike Wesolowski

Two Trains Leave Paris

Number Problems for Word People

by Taylor Marie Frey
and Mike Wesolowski
illustrations by Patrick Torres

Abrams Image, 2019. 176 pages.
Review written August 5, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I think this book is hilarious and utterly delightful.

What we have here is a review of high school and early college mathematics – with stories told about the elusive characters who show up in the word problems.

The first problem in the book, after a review of Algebra, tells about two trains leaving Paris, heading in different directions, and where the two trains are at their first stop. Then we’re asked:

How much distance is between Natalya and Andy when they simultaneously look back toward the city of love, thinking, Every end is a new beginning, and breaking up was for the best. No turning back now, this train only goes one way.?

This gives you an idea of the tone of this wonderfully silly book. Some problems are solved on the following page (like that first one), while the rest have answers in the back.

Here’s the second problem:

When asked his age, your math teacher, Mr. Newman, responds, “If you multiply my age by 4, then subtract 2, the answer is 110.”

A) How old is he?
B) Why does Mr. Newman talk this way?

So this book brings you snappy and funny summaries of math concepts, and then opportunities to try out what you’ve learned, while finding out about the adventures of a cast of characters you’ll come to recognize and maybe even sympathize with. The final chapter, after a review of calculus and probability and statistics, brings you to a wedding where all the characters gather.

Here’s part of the explanation at the start of the Trigonometry chapter:

You see, dear friend, Trig offers you a powerful gift: the chance to gain information about things without directly engaging with them. The people who determine which ads you see on social media know lots of Trigonometry.

And okay, if you don’t think this all sounds hilarious, this may not be the right book for you. As someone who once taught college math, I adored this book. The authors are far more interesting teachers than I ever was.

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Review of Love Is the Way, by Bishop Michael Curry

Love Is the Way

Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times

by Bishop Michael Curry
with Sara Grace

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2020. 259 pages.
Review written May 24, 2021, from my own copy.
Starred Review

My church small group has been going through this book, at the rate of a chapter per week (with a 6-week break in the middle for a Lent study), and we’re finishing up this week. It’s been a wonderful book for discussion.

The tone is devotional, with personal stories from the bishop in every chapter. It starts out a little bit general about loving others, but does continue to specifics like loving LGBTQ people and loving people of different races and different political views.

He frames the book with each chapter having a subtitle that’s a question about love, a question he’s actually been asked. He begins with “What is love?” and “How do I find God’s love?” and continues through things like “Do I have to love even my enemy?” “How can love overcome what divides us and move us forward together?” and “Does love mean avoiding politics?”

I expected something with less depth than what I got. His willingness to delve into practical issues means the book challenges the reader, because we can all get better at loving.

And he’s also inspirational. I enjoyed the chapter “It’s Not Easy,” which had the question “I’m just a regular person – can my love have an impact?” No surprise, the answer is Yes, and that answer is proved by stories in the chapter. Here’s how that chapter ends:

It is impossible to know, in the moment, how a small act of goodness will reverberate through time. The notion is empowering and it is frightening – because it means that we’re all capable of changing the world, and responsible for finding those opportunities to protect, feed, grow, and guide love. We can all plant seeds, though only some of us may be so lucky as to sit in their shade. Since we can’t start twenty years ago, the best time to start is today.

And here’s how the book ends. (It’s not a Spoiler with Nonfiction! Here’s where this book will take you.)

When God, who is love, becomes our spiritual center of gravity, and love our moral compass, we live differently, regardless of what the world around us does. The world changes for the better, one life at a time.

So don’t give up on love.
Listen to it.
Trust it.
Give into it.
Obey it.

Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate when nothing else will. May God love you and bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.

You can think of this book as a compelling call to love.

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Review of Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, read by Robin Miles

Barracoon

The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

by Zora Neale Hurston
read by Robin Miles

HarperAudio, 2018. 4 hours, 25 minutes.
Review written August 22, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

A barracoon is an enclosure used to hold people who were abducted and then shipped to America to be enslaved. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the last ship that had brought captives from Africa. This book tells his story.

Cudjo Lewis was eighty-six years old in 1927 and had outlived his children and his wife, so his story is a tough one. I did enjoy listening to this rather than reading it, because the narrator Robin Miles did a wonderful job reading his dialect so I could listen to it smoothly, and I think that reading it might have made me stumble. As it was, she captured the character of this old man remembering an eventful life.

The Introduction at the beginning is dry, and I almost gave up, but the narrative once Cudjo starts his story is gripping. He was an older teen when his whole village was slaughtered or abducted in Africa. Then there was a secret voyage across the ocean, since shipping captives from Africa was then illegal. He was enslaved for five years. After they told him he was free, those who had come from Africa were looked down on by the American-born freed people, so they formed their own town and built their own church and school. He wanted to go back to Africa, but it was far too expensive, so he made the best of life in America.

A lot of the book is devoted to what his life was like in Africa. He was not yet considered a man when he was abducted, but he was old enough to remember experiencing his entire childhood in Africa.

The story of his children’s deaths is hard to listen to, though at least he had grandchildren left and one daughter-in-law. He was sexton of his church and clearly had a community looking out for him. I like the way he’d tell Zora Neale Hurston to stay away for a few days when he planned to work in his garden. She didn’t insert herself into the narrative much, but I did like hearing about them sharing peaches and watermelons together. He appreciated someone listening to his stories – and now you can hear them, too.

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Review of Intimate Conversations with the Divine, by Caroline Myss

Intimate Conversations with the Divine

Prayer, Guidance, and Grace

by Caroline Myss

Hay House, 2020. 271 pages.
Review written May 10, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

I wasn’t completely sure what to expect with this book. Knowing she’s a medical intuitive, I was expecting something New Age-y. But I’m going to list it in the “Christian” section of my review page, because these are prayers addressing God as “Lord,” and I’m completely comfortable with them as a Christian. She does have a note at the front that her current idea of God doesn’t look a lot like the God she was taught about in her Catholic upbringing. She believes that humans crave love and crave the sacred. Her note finishes this way:

If there is one thing I could communicate to you with this book, it’s that our holy channel of communication with the Divine has nothing to do with religion. Heaven is not the formal organization that religion is. Leave all the formalities in your rearview mirror. And don’t let the misdeeds human beings have perpetrated in the name of religion stand in the way of your nourishing yourself with the grace of the Divine. Choose an intimate way of addressing the Divine in your prayers, one that works for you, and pray. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that all prayers are heard and heaven always responds.

This is a book about prayer and a book of prayers. In the Introduction, she talks about the importance of prayer:

When we pray, we ask the Divine to show us how to see, how to speak, how to create. We ask God to reveal, to illuminate, the right path for us. God, show me how to see this. Reveal your wisdom to me, Lord. Show me the way. One word will do. One word is all I need. Then, suddenly, the word hope arises in you. Or patience. This word, this revelation, becomes the most holy word you have. You can hang on to it; you can use it to guide you. This is the true meaning of prayer: a request for help in how to see.

This is why I had to write this book, to urge you toward this new way to pray, one that is not about supplication and asking God to remove the consequences of your bad decisions. It’s not to explain why bad things happen to good people – that’s above my pay grade. It’s to share my way of prayer, which is a simple request for grace. “Help me out here, God. Don’t let me say something stupid. Give me the words. If I try to do this on my own, I’m going to do damage.

The bulk of the book consists of one hundred of the author’s prayers, written out, prayers asking for grace. Along with each prayer, she includes Guidance – teaching about the issues coming up in this prayer. She also includes a shorter petition asking for a certain kind of Grace.

The prayers are from actual situations and problems, when she needed different graces, such as acceptance, determination, endurance, healing, or hope. There’s an index at the back of which grace is requested in which prayer.

She has this to say at the front of the prayers:

The pages that follow contain 100 of my own personal prayers. Many of my students use them as they are, reading and contemplating them. But truly, my intention is to inspire you to engage in a prayer practice of your own. Contemporary prayer is a dialogue with the Divine and is the conduit for grace to enter your life and our world. Each of these prayers illustrates a different type of grace that feeds the human soul. As such, I have included words of guidance as well as a petition for grace with each prayer.

I already had a prayer practice before reading this book – but reading a prayer from this book each day has become part of it. Now that I’ve gone through the whole book, I’m starting over again immediately. They are that encouraging. These prayers make me think, but even more than that, they make me feel heard. They remind me that God is paying attention to my life, and I want to pay attention to God.

This is a lovely set of prayers whatever your religious or non-religious background.

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Review of Broken (in the best possible way), by Jenny Lawson

Broken

(in the best possible way)

by Jenny Lawson

Henry Holt and Company, 2021. 285 pages.
Review written May 15, 2021, from a library book

I love Jenny Lawson’s books. She blogs as The Bloggess, and is indeed the queen of humor. Her books are sure to make me laugh out loud in many spots, and this one is no exception.

I’ve found that her books are a mix of laugh-out-loud humor and poignancy – especially when they talk about her struggles with mental and physical illnesses. The chapter about her dealings with her insurance company, trying to get life-saving care paid for, was infuriating and horrible – and I’m glad she’s going public with that story.

But also in the mix are sections of, shall we say, coarse humor, with many, many mentions of gender-specific body parts. For me, personally, there were far more mentions of penises than I ever want to think about. A chapter toward the end with Shark Tank ideas went way overboard for me. When she suggested skipping the chapter if you’re under seventeen, I should have realized I wouldn’t find it particularly funny. Oh well! It made me feel like the balance of funny, poignant, and coarse elements was a little off in this book and heavy on coarse. But I am still glad I read it, and I still laughed out loud over and over again while reading it.

However, at the very end, there’s a section about the cover illustration, and it sums up what Jenny Lawson does so wonderfully well – helping us see that we are broken, but we are still beautiful. Here’s how that section and the book finishes up:

And yet, there is something wonderful in embracing the peculiar and extraordinary monsters that make us unique. There is joy in accepting the curious and erratic beasts that force us to see the world in new ways. And there is an uncanny sort of fellowship that comes when you recognize the beasties that other people carry with them and the battles we are all fighting even when they seem invisible to the rest of the world.

We all have these monsters, I suspect, although they come from different places and have different names and causes. But what we do with them makes a difference. And, whenever I can, I take mine out in the sun and try to appreciate that the flowers it rips up from the garden can sometimes be just as lovely when stuck in the teeth of its terrible mouth.

Embrace your beasties. Love your awkwardness. Enjoy yourself. Celebrate the bizarreness that is you because, I assure you, you are more wondrous than you can possibly imagine . . . monsters and all.

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Review of I Am Dance, by Hal Banfield

I Am Dance

Words and Images of the Black Dancer

by Hal Banfield

The Literary Revolutionary, 2019. 94 pages.
Review written August 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I Am Dance is a gorgeous art photography book featuring twenty black dancers. Here’s a paragraph from the creator’s introduction:

Much like the old proverb about children, it is believed that dancers should be seen and not heard since it is widely understood that dancers speak with their bodies. It was important to me that this I Am Dance project be a platform for the black dancer to express themselves beyond just using their bodies. I wanted this project to be a place for them to also have a voice. Finding a good cross section of talented and trained dancers with interesting and dynamic stories to share was the first order of business and proved to be quite a task. Through months of trial and error, I would eventually identify and assemble a core group of talented and disciplined dancers who latched onto the concept of this project and were willing to be photographed and share their personal stories. What started out as an idea for a photo gallery exhibition would eventually blossom into a collection of diverse stories and images that now fit into the pages of this book.

Each of the twenty dancers is featured in two spreads full of beautiful action photos. Looking at those photos alone gives plenty of opportunity for wonder. They are also given a short page of text each, in their own voices, talking about what dancing means to them.

After many “I Am…” statements, such as “I Am Powerful.”; “I Am Joyful.”; “I Am a Fighter.” and “I Am Connected,” the book ends with a page heading: “We. Are. Dance.”

Because we danced today, the voices of tomorrow will shout louder, every hip will sway wider and every finger will snap sharper in time. Like the roar and crash of the ocean waves, the next generation of dancers of color will hear the undulating taps and echoes of our toes urging them to pick up the beat and keep the rhythm.

I am not a dancer, and I am not black, but I was still inspired by reading and gazing at this beautiful book.

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Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

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