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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


How Authentic Is Modern Yoga?

My decision to embark on The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, began with a question.

I'd been practicing yoga since my mid-20s, when I spent six months in India. Returning to New York, I launched a career as a political journalist, regularly covering the depredations of the American right. I was spending much of my life immersed in a world of paranoia and rage, and yoga became my refuge. But as much as I loved it, I strongly suspected that some of what I was hearing in yoga classes was bullshit. Despite rhetoric about yoga's ancient pedigree and spiritual authenticity, I knew that the sweaty, fast-paced style I was practicing in Brooklyn is hard to find in India, at least outside of tourist zones and rich, Westernized urban enclaves. The yogis I saw in India were gaunt, dreadlocked male mendicants performing torturous austerities — lying on beds of nails, standing on one leg for days on end — meant to obliterate their links to ordinary life. How had their techniques morphed into a method for ...

The End of Apocalypse

My plan here is to write about how New York City disappears out from under your feet.

So I wanted to include a picture of Apocalypse Lounge, a bar in Alphabet City I began to frequent right after college. It's long since closed now, probably in 2006 or 2007, though I can't even remember exactly when.

A nice, clear picture of the front window, just to give you a sense of the place. That's all I wanted.

Google Images let me down. I couldn't find anything other than tight shots of musicians screaming into microphones or mashing guitars. I tracked down some people who used to hang out there, but they didn't have anything handy. Our time at Apocalypse was before the era of the selfie.

Given the topic, I shouldn't be surprised, but still, it's depressing. Here's another victim of New York City's vicious real estate market, and there's not even anything left to memorialize it.

There were a lot of things that made Apocalypse special. It was a dive. Not dive-chic, but a real dive. The sign hung over the door like the blade of a guillotine. ...

Powell’s Q&A: Owen Sheers

Describe your latest book.
I Saw a Man is a contemporary novel set between London, New York, Nevada, and Wales. The book opens with Michael Turner, a young widower, entering the house of his neighbors, the Nelsons, by the back door. Michael believes there is no one at home, but he is wrong. What happens in the next few minutes changes his, and the lives of the Nelsons, forever.

Michael's journey through the Nelsons' house forms the spine for the first half of I Saw a Man, from which the narrative looks back to his brief marriage to TV reporter Caroline, his grief in the wake of her death, and his moving from their cottage in Wales to a flat in London. Following his move, despite (or perhaps because?) the Nelsons appearing to represent everything Michael has lost, he quickly forms a close bond with Josh and Samantha and their two daughters. This bond promises to be the mainstay of his emotional healing, until, one day, thinking their house is empty, he enters their back door.

From the moment of the event inside the Nelsons' house, the novel gains ...

Powell’s Q&A: Chip Kidd

Describe your latest book.
Judge This is a book that evolved out of discussions with the TED Books team, chiefly my editor Michelle Quint. It is a meditation on first impressions in design and life, and when design should be clear and when it should be mysterious. And then what can happen when the two get mixed up. All using visual examples of things I encounter in my daily life and how I apply them to my work. Confused yet? You won't be after you see my new accompanying TED Talk, set to go live later this summer.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
"How to Satisfy Your Lover Every Time: The Abraham Lincoln Way"

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Selling hoagies door to door in Lincoln Park, Pennsylvania.

If you were trapped in an elevator, what fictional character would you want with you?
The Escapist.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?

My job puts great books into my hands regularly, definitely a perk.

What scares you the most as a writer?
My lack of skill.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"Talent? You wouldn't know talent if it sat in your lap and painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the roof of your mouth." — David Sedaris

Long Live the Queen of the Bowery

Previous to Saint Mazie, I've only ever written about characters I've made up from scratch before. Then I read an essay by Joseph Mitchell in his wonderful collection Up in the Old Hotel, and I became entranced by the idea of writing about a real person: Mazie Phillips, aka The Queen of the Bowery. She ran a movie theater on the Lower East Side for decades and was the heart of her community, befriending eccentrics, children, and all the bums on Skid Row. She was a real knockout of a human being, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

But she died in 1964, seven years before I was born. I would never know her, and it would be difficult for me to find someone still alive who had known her. I had a finite amount of information: the original essay, an obituary, and another article written when she retired. How could I write accurately about a person I had never met? What kind of responsibility did I have to her personal truth? How does one fictionalize a real person and still make it a "true" story?

First, ...

The Altruism Revolution

With the famous phrase "Nature, red in tooth and claw," the Victorian poet Tennyson expressed the challenge that the emerging science of evolution posed to his faith in a universe ruled by love and compassion. Yet in today's science, all the in-depth studies show that violence has diminished continually over the past few centuries (as discussed by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined). Thus, despite the violence and conflict constantly emphasized by the media, our everyday existence is usually filled with cooperation, friendship, affection, and care.

Scientific investigation over the last 30 years has increasingly corrected the deformed view of human nature as motivated wholly by selfishness, a belief that long dominated Western psychology and theories of evolution and economics.

In the words of psychologist Daniel Batson, "The results of these experiments support the empathy-altruism hypothesis. None of the egoistic explanations proposed have received more than scattered support." Batson defines altruism as "a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another's welfare."

I myself am deeply convinced that love and compassion — the two faces of altruism — are the ...

Vendela Vida: The Interview

Vendela Vida is a force to be reckoned with. She's written four novels and one book of nonfiction; she's a founding editor of the Believer and a cofounder of 826 Valencia, plus she's done some screenwriting. Her newest novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, is her strongest work yet. In this moving, darkly funny, beautifully written story, an unnamed narrator who has traveled alone to Morocco finds her life and identity beginning to alter and unravel in sudden, surprising ways. Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins, raves, "You will tear through Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, this wry, edgy, philosophical thriller, this love child of Albert Camus and Patricia Highsmith, this sly satire of Hollywood, this entertaining journey through the vast desert of identity and regret." We agree, and we're proud to choose it for Volume 53 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: In an interview with us several years ago after your first novel, you talked about how finding the starting point is often the hardest part of the writing process, and once you have that, everything falls into place. I was wondering if that's still ...

New Cookbooks: Better on Toast, Food52 Genius Recipes, The Picnic

Spring is a heady time for cookbook releases. There are so many new cookbooks that it feels like Christmas; we even had an early spring mini potluck lunch for a taste testing. We have so much love for many of these new cookbooks. Missing from these reviews are a number of dessert cookbooks; there were just too many books to include here. The dessert books are piled on my desk waiting to be covered in the next On the Table post, so stay tuned. (Let me tell you, it's a little distracting to work with the words: "ice cream," "truffles," "cookies," and "sugar" staring at you all day long.)

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A Modern Way to Eat
Are we ever cooking from this cookbook! Author Anna Jones presents a fine, fat cookbook (352 pages) of creative vegetarian recipes. I've already made the Gentle Brown Rice — twice. Filled with nuts and loaded with aromatic spices, I've served this to guests and family alike. The second time I made the Gentle Brown Rice, I bought pork sausage to go into it, but then I thought better of it and left it out as the dish was perfect as presented. Also made by coworkers: Blueberry Pie Oatmeal, Cherry Poppy Seed Waffles, and Spiced Carrot and Cashew Salad. The salad was amazing; the roasted carrots with coconut cream were a delight for our whole office. We keep coming back to this book over and over again. It is awesome! A Modern Way to Eat is destined to be a vegetarian classic.

Better on Toast
A few things trending up in the food world: ethnic food, toast, bugs. Let's just ignore that last one. There is nothing as satisfying as a really good sandwich. Better on Toast celebrates the sandwich cousin, the open-faced sandwich. Author Jill Donenfeld ALWAYS starts with really good bread. (This isn't a baking book; it's all about the topping. Nevertheless, she includes one bread recipe — and a gluten-free recipe at that.) Step two in her sammie magic is pan grilling, or oven toasting the bread. The bread can be toaster-toasted as well, but you'll lose the delicious fatty seasoning. Step three: the star of the meal, the topping. Turning to a random page, we get: Fig Bagna Cauda and Watercress. Figs mixed with garlic and anchovies? What the...? Donenfeld states it's her favorite recipe in the book, and upon reading it, I can see how blending sweet figs with fishy anchovies could turn into a favorite. I love when a cook can see beyond expected flavors to make something fresh and new. Another random page brings a recipe for a demi-baguette topped with baked grapes and a cheese spread made of goat cheese and blue cheese. She suggests Humboldt Fog for the blue cheese. (Humboldt Fog is one of the keys to my heart.) Better on Toast has charmed the Powell's new book buying department, and I will not be surprised if one of its recipes shows up soon as a break-time snack.

Why the Story of Jackson and the Cherokees Is More Relevant Than Ever

People have been asking why I wanted to write about Andrew Jackson and the Cherokees.

To be more precise, they ask: Why did you want to write about that?

My day job is to write not history but "the first draft of history," which is what people sometimes call the news. I work for NPR, and sometimes other news organizations. I write a lot about politics, campaigns, foreign affairs, and America's place in the world.

It's not like there's a shortage of things to do. Early this year I visited Iran, then on the verge of a nuclear deal with the West. Weeks later I visited Israel, which was on the verge of a momentous election. This spring, within days of each other, I interviewed President Obama as well as Marco Rubio, one of the Republicans aiming to replace him. Between such occasions you might find me interviewing the drummer for the Grateful Dead or the novelist Attica Locke or anchoring live coverage of a disaster.

Why, then, turn my attention to a series of events that took place between 1814 and 1838?

It had a lot to do ...

Powell’s Q&A: Michael Perry

Describe your latest book.

On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

"Well," said Harley, "that's trouble."

Turns out he was right.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Writing. It's taken me to the top of Mt. Rainier with veterans of the Iraq War, across America with truckers, on tour with country music stars, and generally on new adventures, in which I — a flat-footed farm kid from rural Wisconsin armed with a nursing degree — have been allowed to do things I'm not qualified to do, go places I couldn't reach on my own, and hang out with people who normally wouldn't hang out with me. Once, for the sake of a story, I stood in the same room as the frozen head of Ted Williams.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
In 2003 I attended a reading at which the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers read her poem "On Listening to the Two-Headed ...

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