Thursday, June 24, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman *Review*

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 Nietsche, 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.

Backpacking is something I have always been interested in- although a world traveler I am not. I would rather live vicariously through someone elses exploits. This book allowed me to do that.

Traveling through China with Susie and Claire was thrilling, exciting, and at times very scary. Culture shock was something I experienced right along with them as the author described eastern hotels infested with cockroaches, hospitals with chickens running rampant amongst the patients, and public toilets consisting of only a trough to squat over.

Although I feel a couple of pictures would have added to the overall experience- as they do in any memoir- the duo's camera broke at the beginning of the trip, so I had no photos to relate to people's faces or famous Chinese locales, but Susan Jane Gilman's memory and powerful storyteller's "voice" helped flesh it out for me.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is an incredible memoir of her harrowing ordeal in a country light years away. 4/5 stars