Friday, February 26, 2010

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

It's 1986 and Gilman has just graduated from college. Instead of getting a job right away, she and a casual friend from college decide to embark on an around the world backpacking trip starting in China, which had been newly opened to Western travelers. In addition to having a rosy, glorified idea of what a year spent backpacking in foreign cultures would be like, the girls didn't even know each other nearly as well as one might have expected, nor did they consider how traveling together would be in actuality. The eureka moment that led them to their trip went from being inspired and spontaneous to be being scary and unplanned.

Gilman faces homesickness almost as soon as she and Claire touch ground in Hong Kong, wanting nothing more than to cash in her return ticket and head home immediately. But Claire talks her out of it and they fall in with a fellow backpacker, Gunter, as they apply for visas and tickets into China. Once on board ship, they meet an assortment of other Westerners and a Chinese man, Jonnie, who makes it his priority to introduce them to Shanghai and his own hometown in hopes that they will help him with the American Embassy in Beijing. Even with the kindness of strangers, Susan and Claire soon find out that they have romanticized China and that they are in fact, uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. The crowds and being stared at highly distresses Claire, a child of the suburbs while Susan is a bit more blase about the experience, even while she still wants to go home.

The experiences these two young women experience as they move around China are surreal, being interrogated by the military police, wandering without a map through a city not officially open to Westerners, escaping from a hospital and a doctor waving a rusty syringe, and so on. Their experiences are clearly not usual, not even for backpackers who like to hold "one-upmanship" conversations. But they also met some wonderful people as they moved around. The fellow backpacking community came off as generally charming and freewheeling. But ultimately the culture shock was too much for the girls and while one deteriorated physically, the other deteriorated mentally so that it became imperative that they get out of China.

As the saying goes, Truth is stranger than fiction, and that is certainly proved by this book. In the beginning, this seems like a simple travel narrative about two girls post college who intend to sightsee and meet boys around the world. But then the surreal starts to creep into the narrative and tension starts to build as the journey descends into waking nightmare. Gilman deftly handles both her own and Claire's experiences, never whitewashing the interactions of either of them. She has to imagine many of Claire's feelings towards her but recognizes that her antagonism and annoyance with Claire is probably equally felt towards her by Claire. The personal, friendship and relationship, is clearly a large portion of the book but there are also interesting insights into how we react to other cultures and to being "the other" in them. There are hints of the political, especially knowing that Tiananmen Square was still to come and September 11 was far in the distance but as befits a memoir of backpackers in 1986, Gilman doesn't delve too deeply in the political situation of which both she and Claire can't have been overly cognizant. This is, though, more than just a travel narrative. Yes, there is humor and new experiences. But it is also a look into the challenge of travel and surviving another culture and of a descent into instability that colored everything. I do enjoy this type of book and think fans of travel narratives that haven't been prettied up to be guide books will enjoy this was well.

The author's bio from her website:

Writer, journalist, inadvertent humorist.

Background: Made, born, raised in New York City

Career: Author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara (see bookshelf). Have contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine among others. Won New York Press Association Award for features written on assignment in Poland.

Areas of specialty: politics, women’s issues, cultural criticism, arts, satire.

Television: Appeared twice on “The Today Show” for promotion of books as well as ABC World News; WGN-America; WCAU-TV "The 10!" in Philadelphia; "AM Northwest" on ABC in Portland, OR; NBC affiliates in New Haven & Seattle; “Connie Martinson Talks Books";“The Iyanla Show"; “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

Radio: Review books for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Co-host "Bookmark," a monthly book show on World Radio Switzerland. Have done commentary for World News Radio in Washington, D.C. Guest on dozens of radio shows across U.S. and Australia, including WNYC's “Leonard Lopate Show,” WGN in Chicago, Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, the Buzz in Portland, the Kim Wilde Show, ABC Radio Australia "Breakfast Club," ABC Radio National "Life Matters," ABC Canberra "Sunday Brunch."

Fiction writing: Short stories published in Ploughshares, Story, Beloit Fiction Journal, Greensboro Review, Virginia Quarterly Review; awarded VQR's 1999 Literary Award for short fiction.

Sordid past: Worked as Washington D.C. speech writer and as staff writer for Member of U.S. Congress.

Not-so-sordid past: Columnist for now-defunct HUES magazine and NYPerspectives newspaper. Taught writing and literature at University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Also: cocktail waitress, legal aid, food service worker, inept receptionist.

Education: University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Brown University (BA in Literature), Stuyvesant High School.

Writing teachers: Nicholas Delbanco, Charles Baxter, Al Young, Rosellen Brown, and last, but most pivotally, beloved Frank McCourt (RIP). I learned volumes from all of these great writers and bow before them. I bow before all teachers, in fact. (Don't get me started on how under-appreciated and underpaid they are...)

Fun facts: As said child, I was forced to learn Transcendental Meditation (see “Love and the Maharishi” in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.) Afraid of clowns and puppets. Kicked out of Betty Owen Secretarial School.

First literary influences: The three Johns: Steinbeck, Updike, and Cheever. Also Dorothy Parker, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger -- the usual 20th century local suspects.

Funny, but... I never set out to write books that made people laugh. My main love has always been literary fiction, and the first book I completed (which has yet to be published) was a collection of serious short stories. However, even with my darkest work, people would always tell me that parts of it were funny. This annoyed me because I aspired to be an American Dostoevsky with Breasts. But in 1999, I took a writers' workshop at the Bethesda Writers' Center. The first story I submitted was a heartbreaking tale of a man's addiction, which impressed the class. The second was an absurd story about mistaken identity full of Jews, Rastafarians, and dental hygienists. To my great irritation, the class liked this one infinitely more. After class, a man pulled me aside. "I have to tell you," he said. "My wife has been battling breast cancer. I read her your story last night, and it was the first time in two years she really laughed. You've got a gift. Please don't ignore it. Not everyone can make a sick woman laugh in her hospital bed." That's when I finally saw the merit in my own, lurking smart-ass and stopped fighting it.

Advice for aspiring writers: Don't do it. If you're good at anything else besides writing -- and you have a modicum of passion for it -- spare yourself. The majority of any writer's life is spent in complete isolation, staring catatonically at a blinking cursor, then rewriting each sentence fifteen thousand times in what is essentially a codified form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Perversely, if you do this often enough and are successful at it, people will tell you that your writing "is so simple -- it sounds just like you talking" and that they, too, now are thinking off "taking a few months off" to write a book. Better to become a process-server, a bartender, or a taxidermist if you're that masochistic.

Visit Susan Jane Gilman's website and blog. (She's really quite funny.) And make sure to read her other books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara.

Thank you to Miriam at Hachette Books for sending me a review copy of the book.


  1. I really enjoyed this book too and I agree that Gilman is quite funny. I have picked up her first two books and plan to dig into them soon!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm so craving for this particular book. Thanks for the info on the author. I mooched one of her older books from Bookmooch after I read your review!

  4. Wow. Thank you so much for the glowing review -- and for urging readers to visit me at

    I, too, love to hear what readers think and want to know that I'm "not just whistling into the wind here at my computer." So please, once you've read "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven," drop me a note! Let me know if the book ended the way you thought it would. Since it's a true story, I'm always interested to know if people nonetheless find it suspenseful.

    Thanks for everything, Susan

  5. Wow! Love this review! Definitely adding this book to my shelf!

  6. I just saw this at the library, and I really wanted to pick it up, but didn't because my current library explosion. I hope it is still there when I get my list under 50...

  7. I keep seeing good reviews of this, so despite the fact that I found Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress a little baby boomerish for my taste, I think I'm going to have to read it.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts