BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


View all my reviews

Mantis Kung Fu [Common Meter]

A mantis landed on the rail,
and it put up its dukes
as one might expect of madmen
or drunken Irish kooks.

Why would one seek out a fair fight
with someone much bigger,
I shook my head and started to
engage in a snigger.

But then it did occur to me
that he couldn't stand elsewise.
So, I tried to gauge his intent,
and looked him in the eyes...

and he stomped me in my nether bits -
much to my surprise.

BOOK REVIEW: Musashi’s Dokkodo ed. Lawrence Kane & Kris Wilder

Musashi's Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint's Last WordsMusashi’s Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint’s Last Words by Miyamoto Musashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.

However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]

If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.

Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.

This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]

There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.

My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.

P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.

View all my reviews

Sympathetic Flow [Common Meter]

The stone man flows; the snake creeps down -
arm becoming viper.
It's slow, but silently it flows,
stealthy as a sniper.

And though he's stone, I feel him go
via sympathetic flow.
Mirror neurons fire in my brain,
taking me high to low...

or so it feels.

BOOK REVIEW: Breathe by Rickson Gracie

Breathe: A Life in FlowBreathe: A Life in Flow by Rickson Gracie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: August 10, 2021

This autobiography of the phenomenal Brazilian Ju Jutsu practitioner, Rickson Gracie, begins with ancestral origins that include a Gracie who fought in the US Civil War through Rickson’s boyhood in Rio and his professional fights in Japan, and onward to how he reinvented himself after family tragedy and the end of his fight career. Along the way, he conveys lessons learned not only through personal experience and from his father and uncle, the founders of Gracie Ju Jutsu, but also through his studies with Olando Cani — a yogi and developer of bioginastica. While the book is overwhelmingly about a life in Ju Jutsu, Cani’s influence plays a crucial role as the yogi taught Rickson about breath control, and, among a huge pack of skilled Gracie fighters, that ability was pivotal in Rickson’s rise to the top. (The book’s title, “Breathe,” hints at the role breathwork played in Rickson Gracie’s legendary capacities for enduring, flowing, and keeping his head in seemingly unfavorable situations.)

The memoir is candid, offering insights into not only Rickson’s path to success, but also his failings (which, not unexpectedly given his single-minded obsession with Ju Jutsu and fitness, more often involved life as an impetuous youth, as a father, and as a person – generally – than it did his life on the mat.) The book also explores some of the fissures in the Gracie clan and how they grew under the pressure of the family’s mammoth success. With autobiographies, it’s always a challenge to know how true a picture one is getting, but Gracie’s willingness to self-critique makes this book feel truthful.

This book is fascinating and highly engaging. If you’re interested in martial arts, it’s a no-brainer for one’s reading list, but any reader who enjoys a memoir of a life intensely lived will find the book highly readable.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Breaker Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin

The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: July 13, 2021

This manga combines the motifs of traditional martial arts stories with a modern-day setting. A bullied high school student, Shiwoon Yi, discovers that his colorful (if abrasive) substitute teacher, Chunwoo Han, is a martial arts master, and employs numerous tactics to get the teacher to instruct him in the martial arts. However, Chunwoo Han is not interested, his priorities as a womanizing playboy caught up in a martial arts clan war are far removed from helping a student one iota more than he needs to in order to maintain his cover and employment.

Shiwoon Yi grows over the course of the book, learning to be more tenacious and to not give in to fear so readily. However, this growth does not come about from the teachings of Chunwoo Han, he remains unwilling to teach, even when he is begrudgingly coerced into agreeing to it. However, Chunwoo Han does assign the boy a task as a precursor to lessons, a task that – despite nearly killing the boy – forces him to be more disciplined. However, the most effective lesson results from Shiwoon Yi’s shame at almost betraying the only person who is nice to him, a girl in his class whom he is too beleaguered by bullies and low self-esteem to acknowledge.

Chunwoo Han doesn’t really grow throughout the course of the story (action heroes rarely do,) but he does soften his view towards Shiwoon Yi – presumably as a result of a new found respect. While Shiwoon Yi is quite a wimp, he does show a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of learning martial arts, and that earns him some begrudging regard.

Generally, I found the story to be entertaining. It uses a lot of the familiar martial arts story motifs (e.g. superpowered chi, elaborately named techniques, and the “you kill my master” motive.) These motifs ground it in a genre, even if it results in some trite elements. I wish Shiwoon Yi would have played a greater role in the story’s climax and conclusion. Shiwoon Yi is ostensibly the protagonist, though Chunwoo Han makes a more appealing action star. The ending felt a little gratuitous because it basically jettisoned Shiwoon Yi in favor of making a straightforward concluding battle scene.

The book is presented in manga style, including right-to-left read panels and monochrome art. The art is well drawn, though (oddly) everyone looks like a supermodel – except Chunwoo Han when he is having a meltdown of one kind or another.

It’s a straightforward story, rooted in familiar themes and plot mechanisms. If you enjoy martial arts manga and aren’t expecting complex twists and subversion of expectations, you’ll find it to be an entertaining action-centric story with a good sense of humor.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Kill a Man by Steve Orlando

Kill A ManKill A Man by Steve Orlando
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

James Bellyi is a closeted gay mixed martial arts fighter in contention for the middleweight belt. Amid the pre-fight smack talk, Bellyi is outed by his opponent, the man who current holds the title. The dropping of this bomb throws Bellyi’s career into disarray, his gym quietly drops him, the fight promoter overturns Bellyi’s previous fight, saying that he cheated under the referee’s nose, the organization – name “EFC” for legal reasons, I presume – fearing that much of its fanbase is not ready for a gay champion.

When the EFC finds itself in a bind because losing an injured headliner threatens to bleed the interest out of its upcoming event, they are forced to give Bellyi another shot to work back to a title-fight. With no one in his corner – literally — Bellyi manages a victory, but he knows he’ll need a coach to succeed in the title fight against the man who publicly outed him.

This is where things get interesting. Bellyi’s father, DJ Bellyi, had died due to fight-related injuries when James was still a boy. DJ Bellyi had been trying to stigmatize his opponent, Xavier Mayne, with anti-gay slurs, in part to get Mayne of his game and in part — we learn — because the senior Bellyi was genuinely a homophobic bigot. However, instead of knocking Mayne off his game, what DJ succeeded in doing was throwing a legendarily powerful striker into a seething rage.

While James Bellyi always despised Mayne for killing his father, when he finds himself facing a title fight without “a corner” and with all odds against him, Bellyi decides to pursue Mayne as a coach. Reluctantly, Mayne agrees. This creates overlapping stories between James and Mayne, and the core question is whether the younger generation can learn from what the previous generation went through. We learn that Mayne was traumatized by DJ Bellyi’s death. It’s also about whether and – if so – how the world has changed on a societal level in the intervening years.

I found this book to have an intriguing premise. It’s a simple story. It may seem like I gave it all away in the review, but reading the back-cover blurb gives a reader at least as much insight into the key story elements as did my description. There’s not a lot by way of extra layers. So, its more about whether the details of the story (e.g. the characters’ interactions) resonate with the reader than whether the reader will find some huge unexpected twist. The art is easy enough to follow. The artist uses different color palettes to differentiate different blocks of panels, I believe this is for the purpose of establishing emotional tone (but, perhaps, I misunderstood what was meant to be conveyed and it’s more about differentiating scenes.)

I enjoyed this book, and if you like fight stories you’ll likely enjoy it. It’s like “Rocky” but with the underdog status being less by way of being from down-and-out circumstance and more based in bigotry.

View all my reviews

5 Reasons to Practice Yang Style 24 Form

With slight variations, this taijiquan (tai chi chuan) sequence is alternatively called: Yang Style 24 Form, the Yang Style Short Form, Beijing Standard Form (occasionally Peking Standard Form), or Simplified 24 Form. Here are some reasons to give it a try.

 

5.) Widespread: It’s the single most popular taiji form in the world. This means, if you’re the gregarious type, you can join groups in parks all over the world.

4.) Balance: It’s good for your balance and you don’t want to fall and break a hip.

3.) Moving Meditation: It’s a great way for fidgety individuals to work up to meditation. All the meditation without having to stay perfectly still.

2.) Scalability: It’s scalable to fitness level. Because taiji is popular with older people, many modifications have been developed for those who aren’t ready for the classical expression of the form.

1.) Gentleness: There’s virtually nothing to go wrong — as long as you “know thyself.” i.e. There are no contraindications, at least for the simplified form.

POEM: Tai Chi

do you know the way it flows

the glide it rides from highs to lows

coiling left to unwind right

weight of water, strong or slight

twisting, turning, a fire burning

riding tides and then returning

do you feel the way it flows

sometimes it speeds, most times it’s slow