Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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

For most of the first 50 pages I was thinking, "two spoiled, western, bitches decide to inflict their ignorance on fellow travelers and hapless Chinese as they plunge clumsily through China and then decide to write an exploitive book", but by page 69 the author began to win me over with her self-deprecating statement: "I suddenly felt despicably na├»ve."  The final chapter brought me to tears, and now I happily eat my words above—this is a fantastic book.

OK, I admit I'm a "hard sell" when it comes to books on China.  I'm painfully aware of my own scholarly shortcomings, but I have a few credentials upon which to base opinions—I have an undergraduate major in Chinese, studied in Beijing in the summer of 1979 and in Taiwan for a year, and have been reading about China for more than 30 years.  When I saw this memoir with "Nonfiction" emblazoned on the back cover and "A godsend to a reading world" (praise by Alexandra Fuller) on the front cover, I fell for the titillating title, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: A Memoir, shelled out my 1568 yen, and felt a little warning voice whisper "sucker, you'll regret this"….but the little voice was WRONG!

Rarely have I found a book that lives up to its dust jacket promises, but this one does, so it's fair to quote part of the synopsis here:

"In 1986, fresh out of college, Susan Jane Gilman and a friend yearned to do something daring and original.  Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they embarked on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People's Republic of China.  At the point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes.  Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, and astrological love guide and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai.  But as they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they found that what began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment soon grew increasingly sinister—becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever.

     A modern heart of darkness filled with Communist operatives, backpacker, and pancakes, Susan Jane Gilman's new memoir is an astonishing true story of hubris and redemption told with her trademark compassion, lyricism, and wit."

Unfortunately, I simply can't reveal the ways this author endeared her story to me, for fear of ruining the suspense and the deeply-felt emotions of this book.  I can say that it became a genuine page-turner with a bittersweet ending.  All the while I kept wondering why Ms. Gilman waited so many years to tell this story, but I finally got a satisfying answer to that question as well (and I can't write it here without jeopardizing your enjoyment of this fabulous book).

So, what are you waiting for?  Get over to your local bookseller—when you get your copy, you'll thank me for not giving the story away.



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