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.


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