Sunday, April 5, 2009

#61 - "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" by Susan Jane Gilman

I've been keeping an alphabatized list of all the books I've read in this contest in order to more easily keep track of the books I've been reading. Scanning over this list recently, I realized that I had titles starting with most of the letters of the alphabet. And that's when I came up with the brilliant idea of finishing up the alphabet. Surely, this is a manifestation of some of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies (I like lists and I certainly like finishing lists), but I've realized that it can also encourage me to pick up and search out books that I might otherwise miss. And so that is how I ended up with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (2009) by Susan Jane Gilman. Wandering by the books on display at the library, I noticed the bright red cover with the title starting with the relatively unusual letter 'U' and thought it looked interesting.

I wasn't super excited about reading the true story of a recent college graduate's backpacking experience around the world. It seemed like something too many of us had done to be particularly interesting, but one of the blurbs on the back cover anxiously declared, "'[w]hat befalls her and her traveling companion is so unexpected and frightening, I read the entire second half of the book in one sitting. Thank goodness she survived. Thank goodness she can tell a story so well." The blurbs made me curious about just what kind of backpacking misadventure had occurred. So, I picked up the book, thinking drugs and jail and torture might be involved.

And once again, I found the blurbs on the book cover completely misleading. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is the story of the author, Susan Jane Gilman, and her friend "Claire," two recent Brown University graduates who decide to conquer the world and postpone the inevitable trek into adulthood and responsibility by backpacking around the world. It is 1986 and they decide to start with China, a country which has only recently been opened for American tourists. The book only covers the girls' trek through China, which lasts about seven weeks. Susan and Claire do not speak the language, Susan has never been out of the country before, and they have to face the challenges of two relatively spoiled Americans traveling in a less-developed, communist country. Without going into too much detail, something goes wrong in China, making the trip even more tense and frightening than usual. However, although I was sometimes concerned for them, I never worried that they were going to die or be stuck in China forever. That blurb was a bit more than an exaggeration.

Despite my disappointment in the blurbs, I really enjoyed reading the book. Gilman is an honest and entertaining story teller and I think it helps that she's looking back on this trip from over twenty years of reflection and experience. Gilman was also great at creating the mood of feeling alone and alienated in a foreign country, as well as foreshadowing the negative events to come. A couple of times earlier on in the book I was so creeped out it was as if I were reading a horror story. Gilman's story is also utterly relatable for me: graduating from a great American college; completely optimistic and a little nervous about the unknown future; thinking the world revolves around you and your minor struggles when you haven't even seen the really bad things that can happen; the struggle and wonder of traveling in a completely foreign place; and the annoyances of a traveling partner when you've spent too much time with them. I don't want to belittle Susan and Claire's experiences because what happened to them was unexpected, scary, and sometimes exciting, but the reason I enjoyed reading this book was the storytelling and not because I wondered if they would make it out alive.

No comments: