Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fighting words

Elif Batuman is now officially my favorite up-and-coming writer to watch in 2006, she's got a fantastic essay on Muay Thai champion Bunkerd Faphimai and the charms of kick-boxing in this week's New Yorker (not online). Put this in the next Best American Essays! It's great, informative and interesting and full of appealingly wry asides; it's very funny and likeable, do read it if you haven't already.

Batuman's great essay about Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (published in the third issue of n+1) is currently up at the n+1 website (not a permanent link, but it may be subsequently available on the sidebar). I read Moretti's book the other night and pretty much loved it, with some reservations--I'm going to contribute something slightly-more-essay-like-than-a-blog-entry to the Moretti discussion organized by Jonathan Goodwin at the Valve, and will link when it's there. (Which means I have to write it first. BTW that link includes PDFs of the articles that make up Moretti's book; I particularly recommend Trees, which seems to me the most interesting from a literary-critical as opposed to literary-historical point of view--some great stuff about free indirect discourse, about which more anon....)

I don't know what it is about kick-boxing but the idea of it exerts an irresistible appeal (Batuman starts spending all her free time at the gym, "drawn by the universal pleasure of kicking and punching one's fellow-man," and that phrase pretty much nails it). Actually I am determined that I really am going to learn how to do this stuff in 2006, it's my resolution--I have been on a for-me-extreme-though-for-the-athletically-inclined-fairly-moderate fitness regimen (in truth my neck and shoulders now seem sort of scarily muscley, not sure what I think about this) and when I move back to NY in May I am going to do something better than the probably lame (tell me otherwise if you know better) cardio kickboxing class at the Columbia gym. E-mail me/leave a note in the comments if you can recommend some good option conveniently accessible from Morningside Heights (i.e. either walking distance or near 1/9 train). Kickboxing seems the most appealing but I would be open to the possibility of some other kicking-and-punching-type martial art. I seem to know a lot of people who do yoga but I think I am peaceful enough in my daily life, I would like to take up something more argumentative and aggressive.

I do love the New Yorker, it must be the best value-for-money reading material in America; I almost always race through the whole issue as soon as I get it, though this has been disrupted by Cambridge mailing delays (and also I'm afraid I rarely read the fiction, though I make an exception for Haruki Murakami, George Saunders and a few others). There's a bunch of other especially good stuff in this issue, including a good piece by Steven Shapin about William Leith's food-addiction memoir and an incredibly depressing but gripping article by Eric Konigsberg about the death of a gifted child. The reporter remains tactfully non-judgmental except at one point when he's visiting with a gifted-child therapist and her husband in Colorado and the husband ("a psychic and a healer," as his wife describes him, plus the descendant of a grandfather who was a kabbalist rabbi and a father who used to heal sick babies with kosher salt) describes the fourteen-year-old boy who killed himself--and whose parents now think it may have been meant to be so that his organs could be donated to help others--as "an angel who came down to experience the physical realm for a short period of time":

I asked Hilton how he knew this. He paused, and for a moment I wondered if he was pulling my leg and trying to think up something even more outlandish to say next. 'I'm talking him right now,' he said. 'He's become a teacher. He says right now he's actually being taught how to help these people who experience suicides for much messier reasons. Before Brandenn was born, this was planned. And he did it the way he did so that others would have use for his body. Everything worked out in the end.'

Don't get me wrong, I am completely in favor of organ donation and there is no doubt that if someone you loves dies violently the thought of their organs having saved other people's lives is possibly the greatest consolation imaginable. But seriously....


  1. Have you considered capoeira as another form of exercise?

  2. No, is it good? I sort of hate group exercise but it must be done...

  3. I don't know about the (probably lame) kickboxing class at the gym, but I took my third graders to the boxing club's practice a few years ago, and it was amazing! Not a lot of kicking, but plenty of aggression being released!

  4. Capoeira seems like a good option because it demands flexibility and also offers a cardiovascular workout. I keep thinking I will start taking classes and then forget about it, but I've been trying to will myself into something a bit more active than yoga at home. A couple years ago (while teaching at an afterschool program) I took a really basic class with seven year olds and adults. It was enjoyable and it didn't demand mastery from day one. The moves definitely build upon one another.

  5. Basic class with seven-year-olds sounds about my speed. I took a look online & was daunted to see, you know, things like CARTWHEELS. I definitely couldn't even do a cartwheel when I was a little kid, let alone now....

  6. You've been in Boston too long Jenny ... the 9 train no longer exists.

  7. The New Yorker article about the suicide of a gifted child was gripping as you said, but maybe the reporter got carried away: "While those children are often misdiagnosed as having attention-deficit or hyperactivity disorder, they may actually be old souls reincarnated." I wonder what the dear old souls Ross and Shawn think of that.

  8. Don't you think, though, that the line you quote is the reporter being lightly ironic? My suspicion is that earlier drafts might have had a lot more irony but that if you're writing about a delicate topic like this you have to really keep it decorous in tone.

    (And of course you are right about the 1 train, I really did know that already but have spent so many years thinking of it as the 1/9 that I can't change now . . . )

  9. There's an aikido dojo at 18th between 6th and 7th, I think -- I have no personal experience whatsoever, but my sister and a good friend have both enjoyed it a lot.

    Haven't commented here before, but I've enjoyed reading for quite a while!

  10. Hi Jenny,

    It's Emily Wilkinson, one of your students from your satire seminar your first year at Columbia, now at Stanford. Elif and Bunkerd of New Yorker article fame are both friends of mine--Elif because she's a Stanford friend (destined for great things) and Bunkerd becuase I trained at his gym. I highly recommend Muay Thai--it did wonders for me at Stanford and I think that for restrained individuals who behave themselves on a regular basis, there is a wonderful liberation in this kind of controlled violence. You get to know a part of yourself that is unknown most of the time--a strong, agressive, physically calculating, instinctual part. It's one of the best things I ever did. And there's a good muay thai gym in Brooklyn called Strike Zone, or there was a few years ago--great trainer named Bakary. There are some in Manhattan too, I think, as I've seen some ass-kicking female fighters from Manhattan at Vegas muay thai fights.

    Hope all is well with you, Emily

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  12. I go to Ultimate Gym Muay Thai in NYC, It's on the corner of 28th and 5th, pretty close to the 1 stop on 28th and 7th. There's two other gyms in Manhattan that I know of. Both are down by Canal St. The Wat,, and Five Points, Don't know much about these two gyms, but they do offer a larger range of activities if you want to do something other than Muay Thai.

    I really like Ultimate Gym. It can be a bit intimidating at first as everyone's quite focused and into training, but you'll find people helpful and nice if you have genuine interest. I suggest you stop by and sit in on a class. They run 90 mins to 120 mins.

    - Mike (mkim98 at gmail dot com)