My fascination with martial arts and kungfu (as it's spelled in the book) in particular started with Kung Fu Theater, a late 70's matinée broadcast on WWOR Channel 9 Sunday afternoons featuring 2 hours of vibrantly colored and poorly dubbed chopsocky mayhem. My sister and I feverishly waited for each film to begin while my father watched the football game from the den. My favorites were always the Shaolin films from the Shaw Brothers, especially Gordon Liu's insane run of kung fu movies. From then on I was addicted, and wanted nothing more as a kid than to be a great martial artist, deadly in the ancient Praying Mantis and Tiger styles.
Never did anything about it, though, other than continue watching the flicks and playing video games where I could practice my roundhouses and leg sweeps in the comfort of a living room.
Not so Matthew Polly, who in 1992 took a leave of absence from Princeton to live for two years among the monks at the famous Shaolin temple, overcoming his perceived failings and in the process becoming a Master of Ass Kicking. American Shaolin is fresh and exciting - Polly, current a writer for Slate Magazine is gifted not just at telling his own story, but allowing the reader to experience an entire culture that is at once both alarming and hysterical. In between rigorous and painful wushu (the "traditional" kungfu you often see in Shaw Brothers movies) and sanda (Chinese kickboxing) Polly manages learn the intricacies of Chinese drinking games, the problem with getting a woman to come to your room after midnight, and how someone can become a master of "iron crotch" (very painfully, it turns out).
As a narrator/protagonist Polly is continuously engaging: you spend the entire book laughing and wincing as he attempts to overcome his ever-changing list of "Things Wrong With Matt" and reveals the minutia of rural Chinese culture. Although it takes place in a foreign land, the trials and tribulations are common to everyone, and Polly serves as a very humble guide throughout the book.
All that, plus great kungfu action, pictures, and a unlikely but glowing blurb from none other than Dan Rather make American Shaolin a great recommendation for anyone interested in kungfu, China, or how to play the Hand Game.