Apr 15, 2009

Book Review: Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven

Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven

"Truth is stranger than fiction" - I've often heard that phrase.

And I found it applies to the travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the story told by Susan Jane Gilman of her trip to China with a university friend Claire, some 23 years after it happened. Trying to figure out what caused the series of events in the book - the two 21-year old girls, or China itself - is not quite easy. Maybe it was the interaction of the two that was the key, or maybe it was that China in the mid-1980s was just a catalyst that would change these two girls in such different and dramatic ways.

The author has no easy answers herself. As it was, it took her over 20 years to write about it. Changing the name and identity of her travel companion, Claire, made it easier, too.

The book is not all serious - there are amusing parts, and the travel sections on Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dailin, Beijin, Guilin, and other areas of China are informative. I had the impression that the author must have a prodigious and photographic memory. The small details of the inconveniences of travel, the events, people, environment, and the dialogue are all set down vividly as if the story happened just recently.

Somehow it seems as if only these two travelers, among the backpackers and other tourists they met, had such uncomfortable experiences. Chalk it up to youth or culture shock, it was obvious these bright young Ivy League graduates were not prepared to meet the privations of the Third World of the 1980s.The book ends with loose ends, threads that needed to be tied up, and problems that would have been better resolved. But in the real world, I guess it doesn't always happen that way.

I recommend the book for anyone who would like to travel to distant, foreign parts but who is unsure about how he or she could or would react to dramatic environmental and cultural differences. It makes a good learning lesson.

Book provided by the publisher, for my objective review.


Dave said...

Harvee, it sounds like an interesting book, and certainly is about a place I'd love to visit. When I saw the cover, my only hesitation was the "come hither" title and illustration. I wondered whether it was all a marketing tease to lure readers. But now that I've seen your review, I'm more likely to read it.

Nely said...

I recently won this book on a blog giveaway and to be honest knew nothing about it. Your review makes it sound like something I'd definitely want to read. Thanks for that. ~ Nely

Harvee said...

Dave and Nely: Glad I could offer a perspective on the book. Thanks for the comments.

Mark David said...

Interesting. This world really is full of diverse and intriguing cultures :)

Mark David said...

I wish I could get review copies, it sounds cool reviewing books that aren't out yet. But with me living in a far off country, I don't see how that'd be possible.

Mark David said...

Gee thanks. I'll do that one of these days. I'm still busy trying to write stories. As with reading, it's my first time on this so I'm taking my time :)

Sunday Salon: Japanese Authors and a Mystery

  Klara and the Sun   by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Klara and the Sun was easy to read for a literary novel of such magnitude and celebrity, I found...