Four Books for Olympic Readers

Book Reviews
American Shaolin
Test your book-fu with American Shaolin and these other reads.

Armchair athletes the world over are glued to television/ computer/smartphone screens soaking up the quadrennial celebration of the Olympic Games in London.

They’re holding their breath as Michael Phelps parts the waters to win his umpteenth medal.

They’re getting dizzy watching the U.S. Gymnastics team tumble their way into our hearts and onto cereal boxes.

They’re staring at their feet and marveling at Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner,” as he proves one doesn’t need to be fleet of foot to run a relay, merely iron-willed.

But what about all those other non-Olympic sports? They can be just as suspenseful, competitive, dangerous, and epic as gold-medal competitions.

Just ask Jon Krakauer, the only survivor of his team to summit Mount Everest right before one of the deadliest storms descended on the Top of the World. He chronicles the harrowing adventure in his bestselling Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s tense and painful memoir of the most deadly season on Everest gives readers a you-are-there experience. Come for Krakauer’s solid storytelling, vivid characterization and detailed descriptions of the terrain. Stay for the raw emotion as Krakauer also exorcises his survivor guilt.

You can see it now. NASCAR as an Olympic sport. The winning driver zooms to the podium and drowns out the winning country’s national anthem as he spins the car in a cloud of dust and burning rubber. Liz Clarke’s snappy history of one of America’s most popular sports, One Helluva Ride, isn’t just for gearheads. Anyone who has ever been baffled by the appeal of going around the world to the left will enjoy the colorful bootlegger history, the brash young drivers, and the rise of a quintessential American sport.

Matthew Polly had absolutely no Olympic dreams. He had kung fu dreams. He wanted to be David Carradine in the old Kung Fu television series. He also wanted to stop feeling ignorant, cowardly, and spiritually confused. This Topeka, Kansas, native worked up the courage to do something completely out of character. He dropped out of Princeton and moved to China in search of spiritual enlightenment through the development of bone-crunching power like that of superheroes. Polley joined a Shaolin Monk monastery and recorded the experience in American Shaolin. In the two years Polly spent in the temple, he gained confidence, wisdom, skill, and inner peace. He also developed a killer kick move. (Watch some clips of Polly kicking it, Shaolin-style.)

If you’re still immersed in Olympic drama, then keep this book on hand for reading during the commercials, The Olympics 50 Craziest Stories by Les Woodland. It reads like an IOC happy hour conversation. Like the time Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged herself out of a gold medal, or the time the American socialites wandered onto the Olympic golf course and WON? How about the speed skater who listened to his coach—and lost the gold medal one lap away from winning? Woodland peppers his collection of the lighter side of the Olympics with unusual facts, trivia, and other tidbits about former Olympic athletes.

So even though we can’t compete in the pentathlon, we can all medal in reading.

About the Author

Kaite Stover

Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Readers Services Manager at the Kansas City Public Library. She is a regular guest on KCUR's Book Doctors segment and moderator of The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club. She can tap dance, read tarot cards, and doesn’t bite.

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