Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (2009); Susan Jane Gilman

The year is 1986 and before they are about to graduate from Brown University, two friends hatch a plan one night at The International House of Pancakes to embark on a backpacking journey around the world. Susan Gilman and Claire Van Houten are idealistic and well read, naive to the rigors of world travel in a time before the Internet. Susan states, “In the scheme of human history, 1986 is not long ago. And yet as we made our lists, the foreign countries we were naming seemed a lot farther away than they do now" (11). The first country on the list is the People's Republic of China, newly opened to foreign travel after decades of Communist rule. As readers, we become deeply immersed in the dichotomous relationship between the tall, willowy Connecticut WASP, Claire, and the practical, occasional hypochondriac and Brooklyn bred, Susie. The girls embark enthusiastically but are unprepared for the primitive conditions as well as the language and cultural barriers they encounter. As the journey continues, they begin to experience real physical and mental difficulties as well as problematic interactions with Chinese officials as they venture into areas that are considered off limits. Susie relates these experiences in witty and humorous prose. "Claire and I trudged on, seething in silence. We were in the middle of a Chinese wonderland of geology, botany, and agriculture, but all I could focus on was a catalogue of personal grievances" (196). Highlights of the memoir for this reader were the colorful characters who assisted them along the way: Jonnie, a well spoken Chinese native; Eckhardt Grimm, a handsome German traveler; and Sandy Fenton, the Canadian nurse who becomes a real super hero to the girls. This book reminded me of another favorite, Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. In comparison, Susie and Claire are young American college graduates attempting to conquer the world and unfortunate events unfold. Yet in this memoir, Susie's practical, dark humor carries the reader through as the journey ubruptly ends. I intend to read the rest of Gilman's work because she has such a unique method of writing, that you ultimately become lost in her story.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Orange is the New Black (2010); Piper Kerman

One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption and perhaps that explains my fascination with prison tales. Orange is the New Black is an introspective memoir by first time author, Piper Kerman, chronicling her 13 month experience with the United States prison system. Can you remember some of the mistakes you made in your early 20’s? Kerman paid dearly for hers. As a recent graduate of Smith College, an all girl’s school, Kerman dabbled in a lesbian relationship with Nina, a woman with ties to a drug smuggling operation. She traveled the world in high class fashion and eventually ended up smuggling money to Paris as a payback to Nina. Completetely shell shocked by the endeavor and against her Connecticut WASP upbringing, Piper Kerman fled to a new life in San Francisco, fell in love with a wonderful man, Larry, and invested her time in a traditional marketing career. Fast forward ten years later and Piper is named in a lawsuit with the drug cartel purportedly being called out by Nina. The rest of the novel explores Piper's incarceration in a Danbury, Connecticut prison for women and the cast of characters she meets. The plot unfolds in a unique way as the protagonist is surprised at the generosity and kindness in the women she meets. Darker moments occur as she perceives how utterly defenseless she is to the extreme power of the prison guards and her terrifying trip on Con Air (the prison airline system). Piper comes full circle and is imprisoned with Nina as one of her only allies while waiting to testify about someone she has never even met. Kerman could be a sister or friend and her writing provides a cautionary tale for young women who wish to rebel and defy the straight path in life. Some major themes I discovered in the memoir included revisiting your past and paying penance, unlikely places to find true friendship and love, and how powerless one can feel inside the prison system. I hope you will read this wonderful nonfiction work over the summer and ultimately analyze the current prison system in the United States.