I hate the subtitle--let me just get that out of the way. I find it sexist, demeaning, unnecessary, and misleading. Can you imagine referring to Hilary Clinton as a "lady lawyer" or to Danica Patrick as a "woman driver?" But even without the offensive gender distinction, I'm not sure I see this as a book about martial arts. The title holds its own. The way of the river is expansive, fluid, powerful, evocative, and provocative--like this lovely collection of essays. The opening quote nabbed me:
The gums are soft and remain.
The teeth are hard and fall out.
These essays are about finding the sublime in the ordinary. In an exotic setting unfamiliar to most of us--those ancient disciplines known collectively as martial arts--Loren shows us our own strength and resilience. She weaves stories with bright threads of common longing and communal victory, touching and surprising us along the way. Her prose takes us beyond the mats, into our own real lives. On one level, Loren seems to target women, hoping to show us that we don't need to be afraid physically, that our "softness" can "remain," even against the "hardness" of men's more showy muscles. But on a deeper, more lingering level, the softness and hardness aren't about bodies or self defense or hours of training. Loren shows us a way to approach life flexibly, courageously, head-on, like the river of the title.
There is much to love in the words of this slender work. "Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain" is the title for one of the essays, and an apt metaphor for the purpose of this book. Loren's voice is predominantly earnest, sincere, heartbreakingly honest; but occasionally she hits your humerus (I do love a pun): "In my life I have had little opportunity to snap spears with the tender part of my throat, and if ten people tried to push me off balance, I'd likely walk away and let them push each other" (p. 7). And then there are the characters, people you aren't likely to forget anytime soon. Jack, the talented but terrifying teacher in whose studio you could lose a toe or sever a tendon; Sifu, the venerable Chinese master who never quite mastered English; Laura, the survivor; Mickey, the resourceful mother; Natasha, the Zen priest.
At first glance, some of the stories seem implausible, especially taken alone, out of the context of the others. Come on, a skinny broad takes on a gang of swastika-tattooed Skinheads? A gawky 13 year old girl lays out three guys? A high school kid intimidates an abusive father? Only in the movies.
Or in this book, where rigorous training meets vigorous prose, lending credibility to the incredible. Loren confronts cruelty, poverty, and assorted other control issues of the inexorable sort. Yet I ended this book with a feeling of calm, squinting at the glint of the sun on the river.