A Would-Be Hero's American Odyssey
Citadel Press/Kensington: 308 pp., $14.95 paper
This is how a quest should be done: You bundle up everything you know. You take stock of who you are and who you aren't. You head out armed with humility and outrageous playfulness. You look for meaning, laughing at your own self-consciousness.
A few years ago, Brad Herzog, half kidding, tried out for the show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and was accepted. With $64,000 under his belt and Regis breathing down his neck, he decided not to risk the next question. "Like Odysseus," he writes, "I chose conservatively — security over audacity. And I regret it, both fiscally and spiritually." Herzog took to the road, full of angst, a hero's journey in search of his lost soul. "I used to write from the heart — experimentally, enthusiastically. But in recent years my grand literary dreams have softened into moderate ambitions revolving around paying the mortgage."
Herzog is no stranger to the road trip as panacea: In 1999, he and his wife drove around the country in a Winnebago. They visited Pride, Ala.; Wisdom, Mont.; and Honor, Mich., in search of America — the result was the bestselling "States of Mind." In 2004, he wrote "Small World" after traveling to London, Wis.; Paris, Ky.; Moscow, Maine, and other small towns with big ambitions. In "Turn Left at the Trojan Horse," Herzog pokes under more American rocks on his Homeric Odyssey; in Athens, Ga., he thinks about leadership; in Troy, Ore., mortality; in Iliad, Mont., fear; Calypso, Mont., fate — and so on as he heads for a college reunion in Ithaca, N.Y.
Herzog's stitching is so good, so seamless — he follows Odysseus' story until it becomes his own. But "the myth does not make the man," he writes, "the man earns the myth." Near the end he visits the house he grew up in and the summer camp he went to as a boy. "It took me years to realize that comfort isn't necessarily complacence, and that my hunger to be somewhere else was really just a desire to explore, not an indictment of the place I was leaving." There's all this and so much more: Herzog looks, listens and gives us dozens of real characters and plenty of reasons to leave home.
The Subtle Body
The Story of Yoga in America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 390 pp., $28
It's too easy to be cynical about the evolution of yoga in its journey from India to America. Stefanie Syman reveals yoga's original roots and tendrils in New England: Taken on by the American literati, yoga was studied and practiced by the Transcendentalists, written about in our most august fledgling journals, like the Atlantic and the Dial, feared and reviled by many as a path to corruption and charlatanism.
In the post- World War I years, yoga spread through generations of teachers, branching out and growing away from its original forms in India. Syman gives a terrific overview of the teachers whose names are now so much a part of the history of yoga in this country: Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Prabhavananda, Indra Devi, Jois and Bikram. She writes about the centers and lay practitioners who started them: Green Acre in Maine, the Vedanta Society in the Hollywood Hills and many others. She shows how the various forms evolved here: Tantra, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga and others. As for charges of commercialism or elitism: "Yoga is both an indulgence and a penance," she writes. "It will tone your thighs, and it might crack open your reality."
Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 262 pp., $24
Pete Dunne lives in New Jersey, "the most maligned state in the union." But it's not the New Jersey we think of when we're cracking jokes about Trenton. It's the south bayshore part of the state, Cumberland County, where there are tidal wetlands, remarkable shorebirds (Dunne is the president of the New Jersey Audubon Society) and people who have made their living there like their fathers and mothers before them. Dunne hangs out with watermen on crabbing boats; he visits farmers, works alongside migrant workers picking famous Jersey tomatoes, eats oysters, writes about whaling in New Jersey, biting insects, red knots and the songs of indigo buntings and blackpoll warblers overheard in a convenience store parking lot. Dunne's a naturalist who's at home in New Jersey — full of enthusiasm for his state, warts and all. "Somewhere there were people sitting in traffic," he chortles, "knowing that they were going to be late for the barbecue. But it wasn't here."
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.