BOOK REVIEW: Houdini: The Ultimate Spellbinderby Tom Lalicki

Houdini: The Ultimate SpellbinderHoudini: The Ultimate Spellbinder by Tom Lalicki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a biographical sketch of the life—mostly the professional life–of Harry Houdini. I call it a sketch rather than a biography because it’s a short work (less than 100 pages) and it’s not the case that Erik Weisz (a.k.a. Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. / stage-name: Harry Houdini) led a life too dull to merit full-length biography. There are several biographies available. I present this not as a criticism, but to make the reader aware that one will be reading the condensed version of Houdini’s story. If what you seek is a short and sweet description of the highlights of Houdini’s life, this is the book for you. If you are a huge fan and want to know as much as you possibly can including the intimate nitty-gritty, you might start with one of the full biographies and / or even the books written by Houdini [Full-disclosure: most of them were ghost-written as I understand it.]

Houdini was a fascinating person in many ways. Parallels have been drawn between Houdini and fictional heroes, notably Bruce Wayne / Batman. At first this seems like an inappropriate comparison because Houdini was a showman to the core—not one to hide his light under a bushel. However, what such comparisons get to is that Houdini was preternaturally fit for his time and his approach to illusions relied not only on his smarts but on his conditioning. He developed some tricks that other magicians couldn’t repeat even if they knew the trick in great detail. The average man just wasn’t physically capable of pulling them off. Today there are artists such as David Blaine who follow in Houdini’s footsteps, but Houdini blazed a trail in this regard.

There’s another way in which the Batman comparison may be more apropos than it first seems. While Houdini didn’t fight violent criminals like the Joker or Bane, he did take on the con artists—most notably mediums who preyed on grieving family members. Like most magicians today—notably Penn & Teller and James Randi—Houdini was adamant that his tricks were products of skill and involved no supernatural powers whatsoever. As I say, today magic is heavily populated by science nerds who love that magic is the exploitation of the limitations of our sensory and nervous system organs, and who reject the supernatural, but in Houdini’s day there were still many frauds and charlatans in the industry. (It should be noted that Houdini invariably discovered these medium’s tricks or the restrictions that he insisted upon to study the act were unacceptable and the mediums and they backed out, but when he put out a challenge that he could figure out any magic trick he was shown three times he was stumped. However, the magician who stumped him, Dai Vernon, made no claims of supernatural abilities. He was just a supremely skilled close-up magician and—to be fair—showed Houdini multiple versions of the same trick, making it virtually impossible for Houdini to pin down the trick. Note: this story isn’t in Lalicki’s book, but is something I read in another book, I think in “Fooling Houdini“.)

The book has quite a few graphics, notably photos and old posters. There is also a brief chronology and a biography at the book’s end.

I enjoyed this book. While it’s concise, it’s not colorless. It reads well. If you are looking to get a quick look at the life of this fascinating person, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens

Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from “Zen in the Art of Archery” by John Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Awa Kenzo is variously known as an archer without compare, a Zen master, or as the teacher of Eugene Herrigel. Herrigel was a German philosopher who wrote a thin book entitled, “Zen in the Art of Archery” that gained a global following. Herrigel’s book was about his time as a student of Kenzo and the insight that he gained into both Zen and Kyūdō—Japanese style archery—through his studies. Kenzo lived from 1880 to 1939, a period during which arts like kyūdō were used more for development of character than as fighting arts, and Kenzo was important figure in this transformation.

Stevens’ book is a thin volume (< 100 pages) consisting of three parts. The first is a short biography of Awa Kenzo. One shouldn’t expect a thorough treatment, but that may be for the best (i.e. Kenzo’s life is of interest because of his mastery of archery, but probably only his most ardent fans would want to read a 400 page biography on his life.)

 

The second part is a set of lessons and aphorisms attributed to the master archer. This section includes a few pages by the author to put Kenzo’s brief statements in context. The lessons themselves are sometimes in prose, sometimes in poetry, and occasionally in the form of lists. These lessons offer insight into archery, mindset, and life in general. Archery is portrayed as a lifestyle.

The third section consists of three short (very short) stories in which archery as a means to develop one’s character is at the forefront.

In addition to the three sections, the book includes front matter, annotations, a bibliography, and a few photos.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for those seeking insight into the nexus between Zen and the martial arts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Imi Lichtenfeld: The Grandmaster of Krav Maga by Gaetano Lo Presti

Imi Lichtenfeld - The Grand Master of Krav MagaImi Lichtenfeld – The Grand Master of Krav Maga by Gaetano Lo Presti
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I bought this book because it’s the only English language biography of Imi Lichtenfeld (a.k.a. Imrich Sde-Or) that I could find, and by all accounts the man led a fascinating life. Lichtenfeld is most famous for founding the Israeli martial art known as Krav Maga. For those unfamiliar, Krav Maga is a self-defense system that prides itself on using as much of the human body’s natural instinct as possible in defense. It eschews the fancy and unrealistic techniques widely found in martial arts in favor of simple and direct tactics. However, it’s not the founding of Krav Maga that makes Lichtenfeld’s life so intriguing. (Believe me, there are plenty of founders of martial arts whose lives would less than engrossing reads.) Lichtenfeld was also a Holocaust survivor / resistance fighter, a circus performer, and a skilled athlete.

The good news for biographers is that there is still plenty of room for a bestselling biography of this man. There are two major problems with this book. I should point out that both problems result from the fact that this book is written by an apparently dedicated student of Krav Maga, and not by a professional writer, a biographer, or a master of creative nonfiction. I suspect the author did as good a job as he could, given that a proper primary source-based biography would take over a person’s life, is an art and science that must be learned, and—unfortunately—a lot of sources are now deceased / destroyed.

Anyway, back to the problems: First, it’s a translation that seems to have been done without the help of a translator or editor with native English competency. In fact, some of it reads like it was put through Babel Fish or Google Translate. As far as I know, the original Italian edition maybe a brilliantly written, if brief, biographical outline of Lictenfeld’s life. Second, the book is an outline of Lichtenfeld’s life, and it doesn’t offer enough detail to give the reader the visceral reading experience that learning about this man’s life should have been. There’s no in-depth research of the dramatic events in which Lichtenfeld was involved. Contrary to popular advice on writing, the author tells–not shows.

The book is actually a short biographical sketch of Lichtenfeld, followed by what might be considered a “biography” of Krav Maga, and that is followed by bio-blurbs of some of the more well-regarded students of Lichtenfeld.

On the positive side, the book is a cheap and quick read. It will give one some insight into Lichtenfeld, but—I fear—will leave many readers with a craving to know more. I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who wants a biography of Lichtenfeld, but, if you’re looking for a biographical sketch or are interested in the lives of prominent martial artists, it will probably serve your purpose.

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BOOK REVIEW: Budō by Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshōmaru Ueshiba

Budo: Teachings of the Founder of AikidoBudo: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido by Morihei Ueshiba
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is really three separate booklets bound into one. In this case, I believe the three parts work together quite well, and it doesn’t feel like a trick of padding to make a pamphlet into a salable book. I only mention this to point out that the three sections are quite different on several levels (i.e. authorship, subject, and content), and to put the reader on notice of it.

The first part is an “Introduction” by Kisshōmaru Ueshiba. The reason I put introduction in quotes is that it’s really a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba (often called Ōsensei by practitioners of his art.) At 16 pages, it would be somewhat long for an introduction to the (130pg) book, but it introduces the martial arts master who founded the martial art of aikidō and who wrote the second part of the book nicely. The bio is a good use of space. Morihei Ueshiba wasn’t only an accomplished martial arts master, but he led an interesting life as well. I found this biography to be intriguing, and it made me want to read a full biography of the man. I must point out that there are a couple spots that will trigger the BS-meter of any rational skeptic (i.e. comments about Ueshiba being bulletproof or invincible.) Even though I don’t believe for a minute that the man was either bullet-proof or invincible, I think that most of this biography is true, and even that which isn’t gives one insight into the man as a combat veteran (and it certainly says something that some of his students literally deified him.) In addition to biographical text, this part includes various photos from both inside and outside the dōjō.

The second part is the beating heart of the book. This is a manual on martial arts written by Morihei Ueshiba, himself. It features prose, photos, technique descriptions, and even poems. While the bulk of the section consists of descriptions of techniques along with illustrative photos, there’s some philosophy of martial arts in both the early text and poems at the beginning and ending of the section. This section is almost 50 pages long, and the translator provides explanatory end-notes that help to make sense of the text for non-specialists.

The last section is technically the longest. However, it contains almost no text other than a translator’s introduction and technique names. It’s a series of technique sequence photos. The photos were taken in 1936 and were taken at the behest of the president of Kodansha Ltd. at the time, Seiji Noma—hence, they’re referred to as the “Noma Dōjō Techniques.” The shots of the sequences are tight enough that one can follow the flow of Ueshiba’s movement. For me, this section wasn’t particularly valuable. However, for practitioners of Aikidō, I can imagine how it could be invaluable. In other words, if one is familiar with the techniques, one might spot something that would give one a new insight. For the rest of us, this section just gives a crude taste of the nature of Aikidō.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’d recommend it not only for aikidō practitioners, but for those interested in the martial arts more generally. There is certainly insight to be gained from this phenomenal martial arts master.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New WorldThe Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you had no idea who Alexander von Humboldt was prior to this surprisingly well-received book. So why read a book about him? Well, you’ve surely heard of the people he influenced: e.g. Darwin, Thoreau, Jefferson, Bolivar, Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Muir—to name a few.

Humboldt was one of the top scientists of his time, but his influence extended far beyond that aspect of his life. Much of the thrill of this book comes from Humboldt’s expeditions to Latin America and Russia. He faced alligators, electric eels, a capsized ship, and natural disasters. He also made Herculean efforts to arrange a Himalayan expedition, but politics and personalities intervened to delay him until he was too old to make the trip. (It should be noted that when Humboldt summited Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador in the early 1800’s, it was believed to be the highest peak in the world [at 6268m, or 20,600ft.] Needless to say there was a lot unknown about the Himalaya at the time—e.g. Everest is 8848m, or over 29,000ft.) While Humboldt produced specific breakthroughs and discoveries (e.g. inventing isotherms and discovering the magnetic equator), much of the inspiration he provided was in showing the interconnectedness of nature and the potential for unintended consequences.

As a Prussian aristocrat, Humboldt was born into a position to have influence but it was his ideas and his personality that made him so sought after. He could be arrogant, but was humbled in the face of nature. He was charismatic, but did not suffer fools kindly. He was adamantly anti-slavery and strongly opposed efforts of religion to stymie science in order to delay the toppling of their sacred cows.

The book is arranged into 23 chapters, divided among five parts. Part I describes his youth and the time leading up to the American expedition that would make him a legend. Part II describes his experiences gathering specimens and observations in Latin America, with a chapter about his meeting with Thomas Jefferson on his way back to Europe. Part III covers the period he spent in Europe after his expedition to the Americas. It was during this time that he wrote up his observations and hypotheses about nature. It was a productive time, but Humboldt missed nature. Part IV covers two important topics: the expedition through Russia and some of the more important ideas and people Humboldt influenced—e.g. Darwin. By this time he was well-known, and the books that had thus far come out were much in demand. Part V continues the theme of Humboldt’s influence on great thinkers, but with a focus on ideas that were a bit slower to develop.

I enjoyed this book. Interestingly, it follows a chronological format. That may seem a less than profound observation for a biography, but it’s less common to begin with the earlier years of life because those are typically the boring bits and there’s a desire to get into the meat of the story. (To some degree the author does this with a prologue that describes the Chimborazo trek.)

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in science, ecology, and nature, as well as those interested in what it was like to make a scientific expedition in those days, well before Darwin.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Road by Jack London

The RoadThe Road by Jack London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a freight-hopping hobo, you need look no further than Jack London’s autobiographical account of the hobo life. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t know London had been a hobo, or anything about the man other than that he wrote a book called “The Call of the Wild” that you read in high school. When you read “The Road” you’ll learn skills like how to avoid getting kicked off a train, how to survive being jailed for vagrancy, and how to tell a story that will get one a free meal. The events of this book took place in the 1890’s, during the worst economic depression prior to the Great Depression, and London—like scads of others—was out of work. (However, London does admit that the appeal of this adventurous lifestyle was a major factor in his own movement in these circles.)

The early part of the book deals with London’s life as a free-wheeling hobo riding the rails, and the latter part delves into his time in Kelley’s Army—a.k.a. Coxey’s Army. This was a confederacy of out-of-work men who engaged in protests and lived off the charity of compassionate folk.

It’s a short book, only about 200 pages. In nine chapters it tells London’s story over this phase of his life. Sometimes it reads like a memoir, and sometimes it reads like a manual.

I’d highly recommend this book. It was readably written and fascinating. While it was written and published during first decade of the 20th century, it’s about the late 19th century—and, let’s face it, the 19th century got short shrift in our education because—except for the Civil War—it just wasn’t sexy. But London will intrigue you with stories of America’s dark underbelly.

[Oh yeah, and you can get it for free on Kindle. And, it’s one of the most interesting and readable public domain free reads that I’ve gotten.]
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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba and John Stevens

The Art of PeaceThe Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The edition of The Art of Peace that I read is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba, who was known as Ō-sensei to Aikidō practitioners and other admirers. Part II contrasts the art of war to Ueshiba’s art of peace. Part III is a collection of aphorisms and brief statements outlining the art of peace.

Ueshiba is the founder of Aikidō, a martial art that was derived in part from Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but which is distinct from that art in many ways. (e.g. the lack of set forms and emphasis on randori.) Along with Jigorō Kanō, Gichin Funakoshi, and a few others, Ueshiba is one of the pioneers of gendai budō, modern Japanese martial arts that take as their primary aim non-bellicose objectives like sport and self-defense. This is in contrast to the koryū budō (kobudō) which evolved primarily for war fighting. In contrast to Kanō’s Judō, which was first and foremost a competitive sport, Ueshiba’s Aikidō offered a particular approach to self-defense that was purely defensive and in which movement was harmonized to the opponent’s actions so as to perpetrate the least violence possible.

The biographic portion of the book is intriguing, but on a few occasions drifts from biography to hagiography. I feel that the suggestion of supernatural abilities does a disservice in the telling of Ueshiba’s story. By all accounts, Ueshiba was an accomplished and highly skilled martial artist, and I would like to read a full biography of his life (a biography exists, but I can’t comment on how well written it is yet.) Given Ueshiba’s pacifistic views, it would be easy to dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist who had no idea of the realities of the world. I don’t believe that is the case. However, when the biography tells stories of god-like superpowers, it makes it hard to take the man seriously as a martial artist. Either Ueshiba was skilled as an illusionist / mentalist (a distinct possibility) or some of the stories were embellished to deify the man. The story that comes to mind is one in which Ueshiba voluntarily faced a firing squad and emerged unharmed due to either ninja-like or Hollywood vampire movie style actions. This story is attributed to one of his students, Gozo Shioda, who passed away in the 1990’s.

We may get an indication of the roots of this appeal to the supernatural in an early statement about Ueshiba’s childhood fascination with individuals like En no Gyoja and Kukai who are themselves attributed supernatural abilities in stories. Ueshiba is clearly a man of faith. He suggests life should be lived on basis of 70 percent faith and 30 percent science. Full disclosure: I’m more skeptical than Descartes, and obviously favor an outlook more firmly rooted in science and rationality.

Part two includes extensive quotes from Ueshiba himself. It contrasts the arts of war with Aikidō in mental and physical aspects. A core theme of the book is that the martial arts shouldn’t be about learning to die, but rather learning to live. Ueshiba criticizes the past Shoguns who used the art of war to control people. Ueshiba’s views on the purpose of martial arts are stated in this part. From a physical point of view, Ueshiba emphasizes the lack of forms in Aikidō (Bruce Lee echoed similar sentiments on this subject.) There is an interesting comparison of Ueshiba to swordsman and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka (about whom John Stevens also wrote a biography.)

Part three reads like the work of an ancient yogi in places, and, in other places, offers the stern admonitions to train hard that one would expect from a martial arts teacher. A recurring theme is that the martial artist should purge himself of pettiness, be it in the form of being judgmental, materialistic, fearful, selfish, or malicious. He goes as far as to say, “Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people.”

Another theme is that one should strive to be natural and to make one’s movement natural. Ueshiba’s advice in this book is about virtue and the mind, and rarely strays into the subject of physical tactics. It does offer a little advice about types of distancing, where one should place one’s gaze, the power of circular movement, as well as discussing technique in the abstract. This is not a criticism. There are other books to learn more about physical technique. However, one should be aware that if one would like to know what Aikidō looks like, this isn’t the book for you.

This thin book provided me with a great deal to think about. I’d recommend it for martial artists, as well as for those interested in the life of this extraordinary man.

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BOOK REVIEW: Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock

Inside the Lion's Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken ShamrockInside the Lion’s Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken Shamrock by Ken Shamrock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inside the Lion’s Den is two (thin) books in one. The first, and longer, part is an autobiography of MMA fighter Ken Shamrock, and the latter part is a guide to his approach to submission fighting.

The first fifteen chapters form the biographical portion of the book. As is common in the modern biography, it doesn’t follow a chronological format. It begins at the height of Shamrock’s UFC career in the mid-1990s and introduces Shamrock and the Lion’s Den (his dōjō in California.) The book does, however, go back in chapter 3 and pick up with Shamrock’s childhood, beginning in 1969 in Savannah, Georgia. Shamrock had a suitably turbulent childhood to merit inclusion in the book. He lived with an abusive father and then a step-father unprepared for such a handful as Shamrock, before he ended up at the ranch of Bob Shamrock who would eventually become his adoptive parent and an important member of his entourage. Ken Shamrock had a raucous and—as is constantly repeated—rage-filled youth.

As might be expected of the biography of a fighter, one trained to psych himself up and psyche opponents out, the book can read a bit narcissistic in spots. Having said that, a fair amount of space in the biographical portion is devoted to topics beyond Shamrock’s fight career. There’s some space devoted to the development of UFC, but even more devoted to Shamrock’s fighters. There’s a chapter that follows a day of tryouts to get a slot as a Lion’s Den fighter. It’s entitled “500 Squats,” reflecting the fact that individuals must first do an insane number of squats as the first round of elimination during the tryouts. Later they’ll have to engage in sparring/rolling with legs burned out as an indicator of how the individual can gut it out. The book offers insight into how an individual goes about breaking into a career in Mixed Martial Arts.

An important theme of the biographical portion of the book is how Shamrock becomes less rage-prone and grows into an adult. This is both the result of the practice of martial arts and his familial relationships–most notably his spousal relationship. This is the human interest part of the story that centers around the man’s most prominent UFC accomplishments.

Perhaps the most important question one can ask about an autobiographical account is whether it’s accurate or not. There’s obviously an incentive to paint oneself in a more favorable light than an objective account might. There’s a professional co-writer of this book, Richard Hanner. One might expect that a professional journalist co-author would lend credulity to the work as that individual has a professional interest–based on reputation–in making sure the details are accurate. Whether Hanner’s presence lends credibility is hard for me to judge (he’s not a national name), but the work does read authentically. Shamrock, unlike politicians, admits many mistakes over the course of his life, and lets the reader know what his takeaway lessons were. Of course, as a public personality, there’s a lot that he couldn’t be duplicitous about if he wanted to, e.g. his fight record and details in the ring.

The last nine chapters are Shamrock’s guide to his submission fighting method. He covers a lot of ground from nutrition to advice for the day of a professional fight. Martial artists will not find a lot of groundbreaking information in this section, but rather will have to dig for nuggets of wisdom in the details. The submission techniques will be well-known to practitioners of judō, jujutsu, and submission fighting. The “crucifix” was the only technique I hadn’t seen before, and for all I know that one may be well-known to Greco-Roman / Pankration wrestlers. The photographs in this section are helpful in communicating Shamrock’s message, but are relatively sparse and small-format compared to the typical martial arts manual.

I enjoyed this book. Shamrock came across as an intriguing multi-dimensional character, and the manual offers a good overview and some important tips on subjects including nutrition, fitness, striking, grappling, and submissions.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ip-Man Portrait of a Kung Fu Master by Ip Ching, et. al.

IP Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu MasterIP Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master by Ip Ching

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Ip Man led an interesting life. The master of Wing Chun Kung Fu lived through tumultuous times that included the Boxer Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War, and China’s Communist revolution. After the Japanese occupation he served for a time as a police chief. Coming from a wealthy family, he experienced a riches to rags fall when the Communists took over. He had to move from his home in Foshan to Hong Kong. His use of kung fu was not restricted to the training hall, but, rather, included a few real world altercations. A couple of films have been made(loosely) about his life.

All that being said, this book doesn’t do a great job of capturing the life of this intriguing man. To be fair, the book isn’t really a biography proper–though the title might lead one to believe it was. However, it’s not entirely clear what the book is. Its fifteen chapters are each built around a principle and use vignettes from Ip Man’s life to illustrate how the Grandmaster lived virtuously. This makes the book seem more like treatise on martial arts philosophy and/or strategy. However, some chapters do a better job of making clear what the actual principle is and how the events of Ip Man’s life exemplify them than do others. In some parts it does a great job but in others it’s only lackluster.

There are some fascinating stories about the man’s life in the book, but they are generally told in a lifeless manner. In part this may be done on purpose as we are told that Ip Man eschewed embellishment and favored humility, but it makes the reading experience less than gripping. It’s also probably that some of the details were lost when Ip Man died in 1972. This lack of detail leaves one at times wondering. Throughout most of the book we get a picture of Ip Man as a virtuous warrior. However, there is one vignette in which we read about the Grandmaster picking a fight with a man by taunting him with humiliating insults about the man’s appearance. Ip Man does this to teach his student a lesson in courage. His lesson notwithstanding, this behavior paints Ip Man as anything but virtuous–rather than a humble martial arts master he becomes a pathetic bully. The author, Ip Man’s son Ip Ching, suggests that this might have been a setup for the student’s benefit, but with the prior assent of the bullied man. At any rate, there was no fight because the bullied man backed down–whether because it was staged or out of genuine fear remains unknown.

For some readers the most surprising omission will involve a lack of any mention of the man who was far and away Ip Man’s most famous student, namely Bruce Lee. There may be a number of reasons for this omission, including a desire to prevent the teacher’s story from being overshadowed by his student’s fame. However, most readers would probably like some inkling of how the ill-fated superstar came to train with Ip Man and what he learned from him. In fact, the only reference to the entertainment aspect of kung fu is a picture caption that shows Shek Kin, the villain “Mr. Han” from Enter the Dragon, at Ip Man’s funeral.

I would recommend this book only for those that have a particular interest in martial arts. It does offer tidbits of interesting events from Ip Man’s life as well as a few great life lessons. It benefits from being a concise book, and thus is not a major time investment to read. However, I don’t know that–short as it is–it would hold the interest of the general reader. Hopefully, someone will take on a more extensive English-language biography of this fascinating man’s life while there are some key people still alive to be interviewed about his life story.

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