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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
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Amazon Best of the Month, March 2009: While this latest memoir from Susan Jane Gilman (former Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress) appears to be a saucy account of international sexcapades, it quickly reveals its whip-smarts, sucking you into a story that brilliantly captures the "ecstatic terror" of gleefully leaping from your comfort zone--and finding yourself in freefall. It's 1986, and newly minted ivy league grads Susy and her friend Claire have never left the U.S. when (inspired by a "Pancakes of Many Nations" promotion during a drunken night at IHOP) they hatch a plan to circle the world, starting in China, which has just opened to tourists. From the moment of arrival, they're out of their depth, perpetually hungry, foolish, and paranoid from relentless observation. Claire, who carries the complete works of Nietzsche "like a Gideon Bible," seems more capable than Susy until encounters with military police, hallucinatory fevers, and a frantic escape from a squalid hospital expose cracks in her psyche that utterly derail their plans. Rich with insight, dead-on dialogue, and canny characterization, Gilman's personal tale nails that cataclysmic collision of idealism and reality that so often characterizes young adulthood. Be prepared to wolf down the final hundred pages in one sitting. --Mari Malcolm

They were young, brilliant, and bold. They set out to conquer the world. But the world had other plans for them.

Bestselling author Susan Jane Gilman's new memoir is a hilarious and harrowing journey, a modern heart of darkness filled with Communist operatives, backpackers, and pancakes.

In 1986, fresh out of college, Gilman and her friend Claire yearned to do something daring and original that did not involve getting a job. Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they decided to embark on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes.

Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, an astrological love guide, and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads. As they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they were stripped of everything familiar and forced to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance. What began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment grew increasingly sinister-becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a flat-out page-turner, an astonishing true story of hubris and redemption told with Gilman's trademark compassion, lyricism, and wit.

Customer Reviews:

  • totaly liked this book
    This true story of a couple of very young and naive girls who set out on an adventure to back pac around the world. This account is of their experiences in China. Since I traveled to these same places in China in the same general time period, I found the descriptions very accurate, portraying the China of the period. I could relate to every frustration and experience they encountered. The cultural shock one experienced is detailed and real. Read it to appreciate our country and way of life!...more info
  • You had me at "Undress"
    Susan Jane Gilman wrote a memoir with what I consider to be the best title ever! And the memoir gives the title a real run for its money. I know it sounds clich¨¦, but this was the proverbial page-turner that keeps one up all night regardless of 8:00am deadlines. . .
    I'm someone who grew up engaging in some wildly dangerous activities. Ms. Gilman's exceptional way with words struck such a familiar chord it gave me chills. As a parent of young adult daughters, it made me clutch at my heart and pray. Her story is wildly improbable, terribly exasperating, and unfortunately true. The fact that two young women went off so totally unprepared to a country with virtually no history of prolonged positive back and forth with the U.S. surprised me not in the least. How many dozens have I known just like them? The fact they made it out of China after the events which transpired though seems almost a miracle. I was surprised at how long it took for Gilman to actually figure out something was very much wrong with her friend, though maybe I shouldn't have been. After all, they were really more acquaintances than friends when they left the U.S. to travel the world. My only disappointment (and a fairly small one) with this story was in the lack of closure with Claire.
    This would be a fun book for a reading group, and a great gift for your best girlfriend (oh, oops, unless she's a paranoid schizophrenic). . ....more info
  • Don't miss this book!
    I was a big fan of Gilman's last book, so this was a no brainer for me. Her writing style is very easy to read, yet descriptive and 'real'.

    I found myself staying up way too late several nights in a row to finish this book. At first I was concerned that this would be another 20 something travelogue about meeting sexy international men who take advantage of the innocent female backpackers. Boy, did I get more than that!

    I totally identified with Gilman, her ideas of the adventures traveling abroad, with none of the reality of other cultures. The gaping differences between Gilman and Claire, the spoiled little rich girl with underlying problems kept hidden until the tough travel brings it all to the front.

    Scary stuff, I tell you. ...more info
  • Riveting memoir....
    I'm a big fan of Susan Jane Gilman. Her first memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress had me laughing out loud. I was pretty excited to read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

    In 1986, Gilman and Claire make a momentous, drunken, four a.m. decision in their local IHOP (International House of Pancakes). Their place mats feature "Pancakes of Many Nations. So - " Staring at it , we'd had a jolt of inspiration. Why not eat pancakes of many nations in many nations? Why not travel the world? Oddly, barreling headlong into developing countries with a backpack somehow seemed far easier to us than simply getting a job."

    Claire is from a privileged background. Gilman has grown up in subsidized housing and attended university on financial aid. They don't know each other that well, but go forward with their plan to travel the world. The first stop is Hong Kong and from there to China. China in 1986 has just opened it's doors to foreign travel.

    What starts as an carefree adventure soon develops problems. At first Susan is able to explain away and ignore Claire's small idiosyncrasies. But when Claire mentions to other backpackers that she has heard voices and that may be a terrorist cell after them, it takes a frightening turn. Stuck deep in a country where they don't speak the language, sick and dependant on the goodwill of others, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is almost unbelievable. Yet as Gilman says; " All these events happened, and the people are real. God knows, I couldn't make this up."

    An absolutely riveting read. Gilman writes with both humour and pathos - you won't be able to put it down until you turn the last page.

    ...more info
  • Absolutely riveting!
    In 1986, two college grads decide to spend a year backpacking around the world starting in China, which had just begun to open its borders to tourists. While the girls were shocked at the primitive conditions they found, they were joyfully surprised at the kindnesses they experienced from locals and fellow travelers. The trip took a different path, however, when one of the girls began showing frightening signs of mental illness.

    Told with the boundless enthusiasm and naivet¨¦ of youth and the wisdom of hindsight, Gilman has created an exciting and witty book that is much more than a travelogue; it reads like excellent fiction. The people she encountered are so real and fascinating, from the humble Jonnie who wanted to defect to the West to selfless Sandy who was a life-saver. There is nail-biting tension when dealing with the rigid authorities and the frustrating language and culture differences. I was so caught up in the story that I was twice brought to tears and was sorry when the book ended. Highly recommended, especially to those who have traveled to China. ...more info
  • Not a Travel Memoir
    I did not find this novel to be much of a travel memoir. It is a memoir about the relationship between two girls and the paranoia of a competitive friendship that just so happens to take place in China. The isolation is pivotal in the story, but Susan Jane Gilman's hindsight is not nice and it's not pretty. The descriptions for everyone and everything -- including the author herself -- are sometimes cruel and often demeaning. Claire is often described as constantly "twirling" and "singing to herself" in a way that makes her seem infantile (which makes sense later, but I can't get into that here), and Suzy seems pathetic and clingy. The narrative voice describes China as medieval and dirty and the backpackers were often reduced to the stereotypical hippie-earthmothers and drunken Australians. The story itself was a good insight into the difference between self-obsession and mental illness and there are some wonderful moments in the book. I just found it tiring and aggressive to read. There were many, many moments when I nearly stopped reading the book because I found the characters too marginalized and petty to stand. There are not enough redeemable moments for me to recommend this book to anyone....more info
  • Travelogue with a twist
    Prior to reading this book, Susan Gilman was known to me most as a reviewer of books on NPR's All Things Considered, where she does an admirable job of encapsulating the essence of books within a relatively brief segment of time. I will attempt to do a similar job with the book at hand, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.
    Synopsis: A fresh-out-of-college Susan teams up with gal pal Claire who she doesn't apparently know as well as she thought, given that exposure to each other's personalities was limited to typical surface-level ivy-obscured bonding; the two adventuresome girls decide that a trip to China (the mysterious Orient, you know) is just the ticket to encounter the "real world" straight out of college. Well, as might be expected, things don't go well pretty much from the start. The author describes, in fairly intimate detail, the encounters with others along the way, including odd characters with somewhat questionable origins, and well-meaning fellow-travelers who appear and disappear.
    Ultimately, it is the author's relationship with her former college roommate, Claire, that provides the most interesting opportunities for readers to scavenge for between-the-lines analysis. We are left pondering the sanity of the friend, but at the same time the reader must question the honesty and ulterior subconsciously-derived motivations of the author: Is she what the roommate actually believes her to be (minus the drama) - a sexually-driven competitor for attention? Or is the roommate truly a delusional paranoid as depicted by the author? Without giving away the ending, all this reviewer will say is that it is a fascinating, if sometimes disturbing, read, and probably a great travel companion as a book - as long as you are traveling alone......more info
  • NYC princesses, throw another fit (in China).
    NYC princesses, go wild in China (1983) and throw a fit.
    Leave someone else to clean up their mess.
    Just go to her website and save yourself twenty dollars and wasting your time....more info
  • Changes all perception of the world
    I first picked this book up on a whim. I like books about history and like books about travel, but judging by the title and cover, I was not expecting too much from this book when I first picked it up. Instead of a wild and witty travel story, you get an up close and personal face to face with hospitals, hotels, and villages of 1980's China and what their ordinary citizens endured on a daily basis and you get the chance to meet some of these citizens and hear their feedback about everything from Western Civilization to common table manners. You get a chance to experience everything from the minor inconveniences that can effect a traveller to the terror of falling ill in an out of the way type of place. This whole tale will change your whole perception about people, travel, friendship and everything that comes in between. When you put this book down, prepare to look at the world in a different way. Highly recommended from someone that begun the book with such a skeptical attitude. ...more info
  • The "Ugly American" Times Two
    Bashing China and Chinese culture have apparently become de riguer, at least judging by the recent publication of Maarten Troost's LOST ON PLANET CHINA and now Susan Gilman's UNDRESS ME IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN. Troost's book trashes post-millennial China, while Gilman's (very) long but oddly delayed memory reaches back to 1986 and a China that, for the most part, no longer exists.

    It is difficult to recap the book's story line without spoilers. Suffice to say that Ms. Gilman and her pseudonymous fellow Brown University graduate, Claire van Houten, decide one evening at an IHOP to create their own "excellent adventure." They fantasize an around-the-world trip where they will rough it, declining nice hotels and comfortable air travel in order to experience the real people and places. Naturally, the two young and immensely privileged women are beyond clueless despite their expensive Ivy League educations - Claire (Philosophy major) the pampered, nannied daughter of a wealthy Fairfield County (CT) family, Susan (Literature major) the self-judged, Upper West Side of NYC tough whose unrecognized parochiality is as bad as Claire's money-coated buffer from the world's travails.

    The two young women initiate their journey in Hong Kong and head almost immediately for Deng Xiaoping's China, just then awakening to the twentieth century only figurative minutes before its temporal closure. They travel from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then Shanghai, Qinghai, Beijing, and Guilin, and finally back to Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Along the way, they meet a variety of Westerners. A few are honest travelers, including a mom who has turned China into a home schooling experience for the two youngsters she's brought with her. Others are backpacker slackers, guided as much by their Freudian ids as by their desire to understand and appreciate the culture they've recklessly invaded. As Susan and Claire's trip unfolds, complications arise that reach a level of near desparation, perhaps even threatening one of their lives.

    What could have been an interesting coming-of-age story devolves into little more than a literary version of Leonardo DeCaprio's cinematic bomb, "The Beach." From the moment they arrive in Hong Kong, the message of "it's all about me" is unmistakable (although in the end, judging by Claire's father's response to crisis, it's not hard to see where she, at least, acquired her self-centeredness). Ms. Gilman's own egocentricity manifests as a disturbing penchant for strutting her sexual proclivities along with an unseemly pride in her chest measurements (a physical feature that many of the Chinese who saw her doubtless found disgusting -- but who cares what they think?).

    China is naturally the unstated third main character in this book. Yet for Susan and Claire, China is not a people or history or culture. It's merely a product, to be judged through the metric of American culture and living standards. Food, transportation, lodging, sex - all just products, consumable in attempted immediate gratification of a gaping pair of ids. The two young heroines are so consumed by their own neediness, they fail to recognize what's going on around them (as in Jonnie's sudden appearance hundreds of miles from where they had last seen him weeks earlier - Susan immediately assumes he's there to help her, as if he had no other purpose in life) or in each other. The Chinese people themselves barely exist except insofar as they serve Susan's and Claire's needs. The rest are just atmosphere, nameless and faceless extras filling the backdrop in the movie that is the two young women's far more important lives. Even the book's suggestive cover, with the title's further suggestion of cultural defilement, continues the insult to Chinese sensibilities and their diminishment as a people.

    China in 1986, as presented through Ms. Gilman's first person lens, is an unremitting hellhole of dirt, crowds, offensive smells, squat toilets, cold showers, cockroaches, pollution, peasants, and unintelligibility (imagine those people, not even being civilized enough to speak English!). Having lived in China for up to five months at a time in a style not far from what Susan and Claire had imagined for themselves, I can attest to some of the same negative experiences, but also to many amazingly positive ones. With the exception of Susan's interaction with Lisa, this upside is what Ms. Gilman's story lacks, yielding for me an almost unbearable picture of an ugly China, drawn by a pair of ugly Americans. UNDRESS ME IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN begs to be read as a happy-go-lucky, post-graduation adventure gradually turned harrowing travel experience, but it only read for me as two supremely na?ve, egocentric cultural imperialists getting their just desserts.

    Ms. Gilman is an accomplished storyteller and a first-rate writer, capable of calling up a strong sense of character and place with telling details and apt imagery. For those alone, I give her book three stars. Had I been able to muster a little sympathy for Ms. Gilman's youthful persona, or that of her friend Claire, I might have rated the book more highly. Unfortunately, too much of the book left me with the depressing image of the stereotypical American tourist the rest of the world has for so many years despised personally but tolerated commercially. So what if they suffered because the China they experienced wasn't sufficiently like the America to which they would be returning?
    ...more info
  • Time Capsule of mid-80's China
    The author and her friend Clara head to China for the beginning of a round-the-world backpacking adventure after graduation in 1986. And that's where things begin to go both horribly wrong and on occasion fantastically right. This engaging and griping memoir was written recently, yet the author very ably describes the experience as if it were fresh, while using a light-handed perspective that puts some of the events in the context of China 20 years later. Having done the post-college trip to Europe at that time, I cannot imagine the difficulties of travel in China. Indeed, the author and her friend, were ill-prepared, which adds much to the highs and lows of their experiences. Layered on top of it all, is Clara's degenerating mental condition. This book illuminates a recent time, when China was just beginning to emerge as a modern country, before the modern investment and development that has culminated in the Olympics. However, what has not changed, and what is at the heart of this story is the interpersonal relationships, and the kindness that travelers often experience while in foreign lands and cultures. I was drawn into the book from the beginning and could barely put it down until the end....more info
  • Travel perils
    Susan Gilman had some real adventures in the newly opened Communist China of 1986. This is a riotously funny and sometimes sad story of two semi-crazy American naifs. They managed to learn almost nothing about the world for twenty-one years, but that changes when they hit the road together. Once they are on the Chinese mainland, their real education advances with alacrity.

    Gilman is a skilled writer. She can create atmosphere and realism in a few words. Her characters are well described. The troubled relationship between herself and her friend is the heart of the story, and Gilman tells this tale with truthfulness and sensitivity. The story moves quickly, and although I skimmed over a few descriptions of tears and tantrums, the whole effect was pleasing. I was glad I read this, because it brought back so many memories of my own youthful travels. I was reminded that there are some things you will do only once in your life. You can go to the same places again, but you have changed, and so has the neighborhood. This is a winning and engaging account of Ms Gilman's experience.
    ...more info
  • A page turner!
    I've enjoyed many memoirs, including Gilman's POUFFY DRESS, but never have I found one as much of a page-turner as UNDRESS ME. Not only is the author a gifted observer of the human condition, she is utterly hilarious and deeply compassionate in her insights. I adored this book and am recommending it to my friends.

    As some have noted, this book really isn't a travel memoir. Frankly, it's better. It is a beautifully drawn piece of a young woman's life after graduating from college and traveling thru China with a friend.

    There was one point when Susan and her travel companion "Claire" were less than kind to a Chinese man who had been very generous to them. After reading this cringe-worthy section, I wondered how I would ever get past this event and continue to care about these girls in their travels. But I did, and rather quickly, because of Gilman's handling of the material.

    I loved this book and look forward to her next. ...more info
  • Very engaging, gripping tale
    This was the first book I've read by Susan Jane Gilman, and it certainly will not be the last. I started with the idea that this would be a somewhat amusing saga of two college-age women traveling the world with the expected pratfalls. While portions can be described as such, the book was far more engaging - you get sucked in very early, and don't want to put it down!

    The story revolves around the author and her friend Claire who take a spur of the moment plunge into world travel, starting with China. An ambitious undertaking given that China was just opening to Westerners, and travel of any type was arduous, especially for two somewhat naive young women who were hell-bent on traveling sans "tourist-grade" accommodations. Couple this with significant problems that surface with Claire takes the story from an "innocents abroad" theme to a truly gripping tale.

    Very well written - Gilman paints an engaging, descriptive picture of her experience that keeps the story line moving but ensures the reader can grasp the sights, sounds and smells of her experiences.

    Excellent read - highly recommend....more info
  • A Memoir Fueled by Humor, Naivete...and Terror
    The second memoir by author/reader Susan Jane Gilman is full of the expansive arrogance and innocence of youth, along with a naivete that is ultimately cloaked in humor and terror.

    Gilman and her friend, Claire, travel to China in 1986 on what they suppose will be a grand adventure. But the frolic quickly degenerates into a nightmare as Gilman fears being boxed in - and perhaps being locked up - with no way out in a nation that is not receptive or understanding to their growing problems.

    An "audible" in perspective near the end makes for a bumpy finish in the audio book that clocks in at eight hours over seven CDs. But Gilman's intimate understanding of the nuances of the printed word makes her a credible - and entertaining - storyteller for those who never read the book. ...more info
  • Loved it.....
    I have been to HK and China from 1998 till Present many times and have seen exactly the type of stories that I read and loved reading every page... all so true.... but its so amazing how China is changing every few months that I am there.....more info
  • Intense and Interesting Read
    Having traveled a lot myself, I was drawn to this book and was not disappointed. The author was courageous given the circumstances she found herself and her friend very fortunate to have been in her company. The encounters in China some 25 yrs ago were scary to say the least. It was surprising to read the afterword as to the author's friend. I would definitely recommend this book....more info