Title: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
Author: Susan Jane Gilman
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
They were young, brilliant, and bold. They set out to conquer the world. But the world had other plans for them.
Bestselling author Susan Jane Gilman’s new memoir is a hilarious and harrowing journey, a modern heart of darkness filled with Communist operatives, backpackers, and pancakes.
In 1986, fresh out of college, Gilman and her friend Claire yearned to do something daring and original that did not involve getting a job. Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they decided to embark on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People’s Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes.
Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, an astrological love guide, and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads. As they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they were stripped of everything familiar and forced to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance. What began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment grew increasingly sinister-becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a flat-out page-turner, an astonishing true story of hubris and redemption told with Gilman’s trademark compassion, lyricism, and wit.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was definitely not what I was expecting. I thought it would be a memoir filled with the wonders of China, newly opened to the West. Instead, it was a vivid description of a communist country; it’s exactly what you might picture when you think “Communist,” versus what you think when you hear “China.”
Don’t get me wrong, in many ways this book is full of wonder and merriment, but that takes a backseat to Susie and Claire’s personal troubles. At the beginning of the book, Ms. Gilman takes the time to explain that she has disguised the name and identity of Claire and her family as thoroughly as possible. I was curious as to why she made it a point to make that clear, but after having read the book I can understand why. More than once, I asked myself in an exasperated voice, “Why doesn’t she just leave Claire and forge ahead on her own?” But then I remind myself that this is a memoir, not a fiction book and traveling with someone else in a foreign, communist country would be scary enough. I couldn’t imagine traveling on my own in China during this time period.
The degree of culture shock that they experienced is amazing in some ways. I love how Gilman points out that most of what she knew about China before embarking on her trip was stereotypes. It really made me wonder how much we really know about other countries before we travel to them, and how much of that is just stereotyping as well. For example, Gilman said that she didn’t know that in China, rice was a luxury and usually served for dessert. I consider myself well-traveled and knowledgeable about other countries, but I didn’t know that either. Granted, the internet has made such information much easier to come by, but it still makes you wonder.
In some ways, I wish the book had focused more on Gilman’s travels rather than her difficulties with Claire. However, in the end, her experiences added an entirely new dimension to Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, making it different than the typical travel memoir. I was thoroughly impressed by Gilman’s bravery and courage in facing entirely foreign situations – I’m not sure I could have handled what she went through! This is a fun memoir that is easy to read, I definitely recommend it if you are interested in travelogues or in China!
A huge thank you to the publisher for sending me this book to review!