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Romping, fast-paced memoir honors belittled sport

Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins: Ping Pong and the Art of Staying Alive
by Jerome Charyn
(Four Walls Eight Windows: New York) $24/hardcover

Multi-tasking, speed and accuracy seem to define modern-age needs. We want to remain fit, vital and alert so that, while driving the SUV, deals can be sealed on the cell phone, faxes received in the back seat and stock portfolios checked on our PDAs. Jerome Charyn, author of more than 30 books of fiction, memoir and cultural studies, convinces us that table tennis (ping-pong to the basement hacker) is the perfect sport for developing skills for today's Type A as well as tomorrow's feisty gray-panther. In the romping, fast-paced memoir Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins: Ping Pong and the Art of Staying Alive, Charyn replicates the thrill of the game he has enjoyed since boyhood so that this reader was fairly perspiring with each turn of the page.

Charyn takes us into the highly organized clubs and leagues of his part-time home, Paris, where expert "pongistes" (French for "players") are highly respected, to the sleazy salons of sweaty hustlers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, his other home.

His anecdotal matches feature Arthur Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Man Ray, Anais Nin, Bobby Fischer and numerous musicians and artists who have loved this game. Primarily, however, this book is a paean to his heroes, the U.S. and European World Champions of the 1930s, '40s and '50s who thrilled and dazzled audiences with their athleticism, speed, devilry and cunning in ballrooms of swank hotels in London and New York. To those outside the sport, the names mean nothing, but devotees worship at the shrine of Dick Miles, Marty Reisman, Richard Bergmann, Ruth Aarons, Leah Neuberger, Lou Pagliaro, Victor Barna, Laslo Bellak. He documents the longest point played in history -- 2 hours and 12 minutes! Charyn reports on the game's finest hours -- epic duels where the ball crossed the net more than 12,000 times and players returning smash shots with "sizzling chops" from 20 feet beyond the table's edge. He writes with adoration and envy. His own talent can't equal his passion for the sport.

Yet this book is also a mourning of the sad state of the game in the United States. Currently, a billboard above the California highways, advertising a Health Maintenance Organization, shows four stages in a woman's life. Above each photo we read: "Tennis Lessons -- Tennis League -- Tennis Elbow -- Table Tennis" -- as if this is a game you graduate to at the nursing home with a bedpan in one hand and paddle in the other. As Charyn shows us, this is the most misunderstood and underappreciated sport in America today. While The New York Times annual list of record holders and champions in hundreds of sports includes marbles and lawn bowling there is no mention of the current champions of table tennis.

The author/pongiste interviews medical authorities for their view of the sport as exercise. One cardiologist fan of the game reports that table tennis is a sport that embraces "a complete spectrum of aerobics" where "the body races ahead of the mind. It trains that interesting and complex computer of mind and body," he says, "in a manner that is so much more subtle than a health club." Two Japanese neurologists have tried "table tennis therapy" on 44 patients suffering from brain tumors and head injuries. Almost all of them showed improvement after two and a half months. Others claim it increases "hand/eye coordination, muscular activity, keeps the skin healthy, joints active and fights arthritis." Wow! Why aren't there clubs on every street corner?

Charyn reports on the one moment in recent history that the sport had its chance to soar -- "Ping Pong Diplomacy" when, in 1971, the U.S. team that attended the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan was suddenly invited to China where they were joined by President Richard Nixon, and reporters from every media agency in the Western hemisphere. This was big, really big. But, says Charyn, it took the sport nowhere. Nevertheless, Sizzling Chops inspires, delights and provokes. It's a lightweight workout that raises the heartbeat and is a fascinating and fun read. For hacker, tournament player or novice, this book, as well as the sport, is good for the soul.

-- Irene Ogus

Irene Ogus was the No. 1-ranked women's table-tennis player in 1971. She lives in San Francisco and enjoys multi-tasking.

Prize Winner author comes to Chinook

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less
by Terry Ryan
(Simon & Schuster: New York)
$13/paperback

San Francisco cartoonist and wonderfully deadpan memoirist Terry Ryan will be in town this Friday promoting the paperback release of her 2001 book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, the story of her mother Evelyn Ryans remarkable gift for prize winning in the 1950s and 60s. Married to a lush who spent $35 of his weekly $90 paycheck on booze, Evelyn Ryan had to find a way to house and feed her ten kids. So she vigorously pursued every jingle and limerick contest advertised on boxtops and entered every sweepstakes she could find. Her way with words won the family a free-for-all timed shopping spree at the supermarket, $5,000 used for the down payment on a house and countless other treasures and surprises. Terry Ryans book celebrates the messy complexity of family and the ingenuity of her very cool mom.

--Kathryn Eastburn

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