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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review: American Shaolin

This review isn’t going to be easy for me, only because I’m still somewhat heartbroken that it’s over. And I don’t feel that way about many books, even in some regards Harry Potter, at least when I’m reading one of them for the first time. I can’t stop, I can’t wait to get to the end, to figure out all the secrets, the plot twists and the intrigues. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is basically my favorite book, and I cry whenever I read the very last line, and am sad that it’s over. And I cried towards the end of American Shaolin as well, even before the epilogue. And believe me, had there not even been an epilogue, I’d have cried harder.

American Shaolin is a memoir by Matthew Perry, and it documents the period of his life he spent at the Shaolin Temple in China, back in 1992. Oxen were still on the highways, women were automatically labeled prostitutes if they were in the company of a laowai, a foreigner, past midnight, and getting dysentery was only a matter of time, not luck. After attending Princeton, taking kung fu but still feeling lost, and then watching David Carradine in Kung Fu, Perry decided as a college student that the way to fix the things wrong with him (always listed, always hilarious), or at least a few of them, was to flee America in search of himself, of courage, of manhood and enlightenment. Or at the very least, some sort of spiritual stirring that would at least illuminate the divine aspects of our life.

This book is phenomenal. Hilariously written with eye-opening depth and clarity, you feel as if you are right there, eating bitter with Perry as the monks and coaches he befriends laugh good naturedly beside him. Dequing, Coach Cheng and the others are so richly described, you feel as if you know these men. There is a section, bless the author, of black and white photographs showing these people and I found myself, time and time again, looking at them, studying their faces, getting to know them. Also there are two pictures showing the mastery of iron crotch kung fu. Yes, you read that correctly. I will leave it up to you to get the book and find out for yourself just what miracles lay nestled within the particular sect of iron crotch kung fu.

I’ve been eagerly waiting to give my rave review of this book on here ever since I started it, because I knew it was going to be just one bad ass book. And it did not disappoint. Perry takes us from his 98lb. weakling status to 149lbs (still skinny on a 6’3” frame, but after studying martial arts for two years, it was bound to be muscle and not fat), he takes us to the wushu tournament, where he participated in sanda (kickboxing style) with the Chinese Champ. He tells us dirty jokes in Chinese and thanks to Little Tiger, the youngest monk, he learns the best of Chinese insults and curse words (poor Little Tiger could only get to “facka uha madafacka” but it was with valiant effort and, apparently, plenty of practice).

There's some digs on the conservatives in America but while it drives me crazy in other books (namely Julie and Julia where it was utterly pointless to the story), here I can understand. Perry goes into the political atmosphere of China and he uses his own political lens, so to speak, in order to view it. To see how China was, politically, economincally, emotionally even, back then, compared to how it is now, is sort of mind blowing. To see how life was for everyone in the rural areas of China back in the '90s is equally awing.

I can't talk enough about this book but if I keep going it will be pointless to read it, as I'll give all the good stuff away. And if I do that, you'll probably tell me to screw off, or at the very least point out that you fucked my 18 generations and that would suck.

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