Blotter Rag Book Review: “Mightier than the Sword” by Nathan Ligo

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Here’s a review written by a local critic, named Martin K. Smith, for the Blotter Rag literary magazine printed in Durham. I’m a long way yet from a well-known author, so I was quite surprised to find that my book had been read and reviewed by this guy I’d never met. Funny how Karma works.

Mightier than the Sword, a coming of age memoir, is my first-time-out book. It’s packed with a controversial theme or two since I was a (little more than a) kid, coming through some difficult times during the period it describes, and I’ve chosen honesty above protection of self-image. It’s not a book for children. For this reason, too, it was great to have the affirmation offered by this literary critic. He didn’t completely object to the book, and, better still, he didn’t completely object to its author. Here’s the cover of that issue of Blotter Rag. It’s a monthly magazine. And here’s the link to the PDF version on their site. Book Review of Mightier than the Sword by Nathan Ligo. The Review starts on page nine. Thanks, Martin, for the kind words!

Paper Cuts: Books You Might Not Have Read by Martin K. Smith
Mightier Than the Sword: A Kyokushin Karate Coming of Age Story (Nathan Ligo, Ligo Ink, 2011)

Every once in a while you meet someone whose character is so superhumanly large that it leaves you plain dumbfounded.  These peoples’ all-around drive, discipline and accomplishments are so incredulous-making that, holding yourself to comparison, you want to just say well, screw it, I can’t ever match this.  I might as well have myself stuffed and mounted in the Natural History Museum, in a glass case with the Cro-Magnons and all the other hominids who got left in the dust by Evolution.  Nathan Ligo once carried a barbell on his shoulders all the way up Grandfather Mountain, to raise charity money.  He’d recently spent two years in one of the toughest karate schools on the planet.  “A first-year student’s morning training session [was] a fast six-kilometer run followed by three sets each of rope-jumping, jumping squats, knuckle push-ups and sit-ups…I knew thirty consecutive one-minute rounds of full-contact, bare-knuckle kumite” [practice fighting].  A photo in this book shows him at a karate demonstration:  he has leapt into the air and kicked his legs out, each one straight, a few degrees above horizontal.  There is at least six feet between him and the floor.  At the time, he wasn’t even drinking age yet.  If you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside the mind of one of these human supernovas, this book is a good guide.

He is the son of DavidsonCollege professors.  He went to a private preschool that they and several colleagues ran, where the focus enhanced his innate love to learn and to connect, intellectually and emotionally, with his elders.

“We were taught artistic creativity, freedom of expression and freedom of emotion…We were given no religious instruction, and we were not taught to see the world as anyone else told us it was meant to be seen.  Instead, our innocent assertions became objects of the greatest praise whenever it became clear that we were looking at the world with our own two eyes, and searching for our own understanding of why things were the way that they were…My instinct was to trust and become close to my teachers…I was naturally inclined to anticipate what my teachers wanted and give it to them before they asked for it, and I was innocent of any inhibitions against doing so.”

When he hit public school, though, that kind of behavior didn’t go over too well with the other kids (can you say “teacher’s pet?”)  Nor did the fact that he was a little guy, a late grower, with “a rosy-cheeked baby face and feminine deep brown eyes.”  Divorce, remarriage and re-remarriage added to the stress.  He alternated school years between the two towns where his parents now lived, so each fall he was always “the new guy” in class.  His father grew ever more absorbed by Wife #3 and their new set of kids, turning away from Ligo as if from evidence of an embarrassing past mistake (very possibly encouraged in this by Wife #3 / Stepmom #2, who seems to have treated Ligo the way salt treats a slug.)mtts1

In the meantime, he’d become interested in karate; and, looking for classes in his early teens, found the Chapel Hill dojo of Seong Soo Choi, who taught a form known as “Kyokushin.”  It is an intense and powerful style, meant for full-body-contact combat.  (When you see videos of people breaking boards and bricks with a single chop, that’s Kyokushin, or Kyokushin-inspired.)  The training is rigorous to beyond exhaustion.  The philosophy has a strong monastic bent, equal parts monk and warrior, demanding spiritual as well as physical discipline.  Ligo loved it.  He threw himself headlong into training under Choi, with the dream of someday becoming a student of Choi’s uncle Mas Oyama, the man who’d developed Kyokushin some decades earlier.

Mas Oyama was a first-rank celebrity in the martial-arts world, with an entire subgenre of books, movies and manga celebrating his career.  The ninjas in the Bond film You Only Live Twice were all trained by him; Dolph Lundgren had been one of his students.  To become one of his personally selected uchi deshi, or “live-in disciples;” to stay in the Young Lions Dormitory attached to his Tokyo dojo, and go through the 1000-day training program under his direct teaching, was a tough goal to attain.  (Surviving the full thousand days was even tougher.  Ligo relates many cases of bruised ribs, blacked eyes and knockout blows.  “I’d been punched by Yamakage, at least in the body, and it’s a none too pleasant experience.  He’s got a malformed fist from a previous injury so that his first knuckle protrudes an easy centimeter beyond the second one, and when you get punched by him, you get hit by just that one knuckle, and it smashes into you like a ball-peen hammer.”)  At nineteen, with six years of Master Choi’s training behind him, and a recommendation letter from Choi preceding him, he flew to Japan and started in on the program.

Ligo lets readers know up front that these memoirs’ structure is not linear.  He describes them as “a corkscrew tightening in on a series of revelations.”  I describe them as kaleidoscopic.  Each chapter touches down at a different point in time, causing everything that’s gone before to refract into a different pattern.  You’re reading along about Topic A; then in the next chapter you’re tossed back a year or so and learn that while A was going on, Affair B was also happening.  Then you land in the middle of A and B and start hearing about how Issue C was affecting both of them; and so on.  I’m a linear kind of guy, maybe from all the murder mysteries I read as a youth, and I found this act a little hard to follow.  I still kept reading though, because I kept wanting to find out what happened next, regardless of whatever odd spot that “next” might land.  He left the dojo 400 days short of the thousand, but retained Mas Oyama’s trust and respect – how did that happen?  The business with the barbell and Grandfather Mountain – how did that come to pass?  How would the magazine he dreamed of starting, Budo Karate Illustrated, turn out?  Would he graduate from Davidson; would his romance work; would things shake out between him and his dad (and nasty Stepmom #2?)  The personal honesty in his writing makes inquiring minds, and hearts, want to know.

He’s passionate about everything, not just Kyokushin, and his passion shimmers from the writing like heat mirages.  Poems of the Romantic era, Shelley and Wordsworth and Poe, resonate deeply for him, and get plenty of quote time.  He capitalizes phrases like Conscience and Convention in the 19th-century Romantic style, because for him they’re actual metaphysical entities and not mere concepts.  There are long passages of self-analysis, internal monologues of self-discovery (which personally I think could’ve been slimmed down some by a more assertive editor.)  Sometimes he repeats himself:  the phrase “power pooled like primordial soup” turns up twice.  He dreams dreams and sees visions:

“Under gray winter skies cut by the silhouettes of college buildings and the naked twigs of Davidson’s oaks, I ground my teeth as energy like white-hot lava rolled down my spine and off my fingertips and melt the soil behind me into smoldering trenches of volcanic glass…I was the only college student on campus to congratulate himself for his ability to walk across campus without drawing attention to himself even though on the inside he was staggering through the knee-deep sludge of the melted planet around him…The hundred steps of my vision were born in the fiery hot plasma that spilled outward to fill my world…”

Prose like this – and there’s plenty of it – may make ironic hipsters to snicker; but all the way through I got the sense he wasn’t blowing fancy smoke; that this was him speaking his truth.  (And irony grows wearisome with overuse, and anyway at age 52 I’m too old to pass as a hipster.)

There are interesting incidental details, like details of the dojo hierarchy, and the highly formal nature of Japanese conversation, more proprietous and deportmental even than the servants at Downton Abbey.  (Like that story of the Eskimos’ hundreds of words for snow, Japanese has, for instance, several varied phrases for “thank you,” each one calibrated to a different social situation.  He footnotes that English speakers who spend time in Japan miss this range of options when they return to English.)  There are plenty of Japanese terms, of course, almost too many for me to keep up with.  There are characters like Jacques Sandulescu, mentor to him and early student of Mas Oyama’s:  kidnapped by the Nazis from his native Romania as a teen, for slave labor in a coal mine, where a cave-in crushed his legs; rather than let them be amputated, he bound them up with wire and cloth from a stolen mattress and escaped aboard a coal car, then by incredible efforts made his way to safety behind Allied lines.  There are some pointed remarks on the state of American karate:

“I couldn’t understand how any self-respecting [karate] magazine could run pictures on its covers of out-of-shape-looking guys in blatantly staged action poses…A Japanese Kyokushin magazine might show a fighter getting knocked out, and it would be clear that the blow delivered was a real one, thanks to the sweat, and the blur, and that impossible-to-fake look on someone’s impact-distorted face at the moment the lights go out.  Black Belt was accustomed to showing fat guys posing in multicolored karate uniforms, one snarling with his fist touching the other guy’s face, and the other imitating the facial expression of someone getting punched.  For me, having been there in the heart of it all, Black Belt’s content was a laughable symptom of the fantasy-based American martial arts establishment.”

(Hmm – now why did I think of Steven Seagal all of a sudden?)

Ligo lives around here nowadays, with teaching dojos in Durham and Chapel Hill.  I see him sometimes at Bean Traders’ Coffeehouse on 9th Street, the one with the big blue awning.  He is huge.  “Broad-shouldered” in his case is an understatement:  he looks like he could easily moonlight as a railroad-bridge abutment. He carries himself with an ease of great power comfortably controlled, a bulldozer guided by velvet gloves; and his conversations, when I’ve overheard them, are always in a voice of calm and deference.  I don’t doubt he still has that drive, though.  He credits Kyokushin with saving his life as a youth; and he has a vision of how it might could even help repair our national spirit:  introducing other youngsters into its discipline of self-sacrifice and self-knowledge might raise up generations who’d get serious about protecting Mother Earth, respecting her peoples, and actively practicing the principles of Democracy (capital “D,” of course).

Reading Mightier, I don’t think he would ever mean to intimidate or belittle us sofa-spud types by his passion.  He’s a better man than that.  With people like him, their drive is first and foremost focused on themselves.  They’ll always be their own fiercest coaches, feeling that they have to work ten times as hard because they have ten times as much to overcome.  “I was fighting up from the bottom again, and I wondered if that wasn’t where I was at my best:  beaten to the ground, fighting to clamber to my feet, and refusing to be defeated.”  Other people can look for sharks to jump.  Nathan Ligo will always look for a new barbell and a new mountain to carry it up.

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