Hannah Tucker
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

Muscularly challenged and relentlessly self-critical Matthew Polly leaves Princeton to become an ”enlightened badass” in his memoir American Shaolin. His tutors of choice: the monks of China’s Shaolin Temple, ”birthplace of both Zen Buddhism and the martial arts.” In his action-packed quest to immerse himself in Shaolin’s insular culture as thoroughly as any Coke-drinking guy from Kansas can, Polly transforms from a gangly wannabe into a formidable kickboxer. Since he never loses his sense of humor when describing his grueling training, the shortcomings of Communist medicine, or the specifics of ”iron crotch kungfu,” Polly is an easy amateur to root for. B+

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