Book: American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

Good fun

Matthew Polly
American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China
Gotham, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-592-40337-0
366 pages

In the genre of books in which a young American goes to Asia to find himself, American Shaolin is considerably better than average. That's partly because the author, Matthew Polly, is better than average at learning about and interacting with his host culture and it's also because the adventure he goes on is more interesting than average. Mr Polly interrupts his college education and leaves for China, against his parents' wishes, to study kung fu at the Shaolin temple. That temple has a very reasonable claim to being directly descended from the place where both kung fu and Zen Buddhism (Chan in Chinese) were invented. Mr Polly says that when he left to go there, he didn't even know where in China the temple was.

Two years practicing and competing in martial arts in a remote, mountainous corner of rural China would be pretty much bound to give someone enough interesting and funny stories to fill a book. Mr Polly has the stories and he tells them well. He is a good writer, but he's not a very experienced one. For example, he uses the device of starting the book with the beginning of something exciting: "It had been a calm night at the Shaolin Temple before the fight started" (p. 3). And then, before that's resolved, he goes back to set the situation up. The problem is that the setup begins with his motivation for going to China to study kung fu in the first place and the rest of that particular story begins on page 275.

Still, if Mr Polly's writing is not always especially elegant, there's nothing else I would call a mistake in the narrative and what he has to say is consistently interesting and entertaining. If you have any suspicion that you'd enjoy reading the book, you almost certainly will.

There's a tiny editing error in that there's "affect" where "effect" is wanted on page 268.

Posted: Fri - November 7, 2008 at 05:09 PM   Main   Category: