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9th June
2010
written by Steph

Lately Tony and I have been bitten by the travel bug, and been bitten hard. It’s probably for the best that our Puerto Rican vacation is under a month away (!!!), because these days my productivity has been shot as I spend most of my time daydreaming about hitting the road (or the skies, as the case may be) for far off foreign lands. However, since I still have this thing called grad school to finish up before I can conquer the world, for now travel books and memoirs will have to slake my thirst. One book I’ve been really excited to read for months now has been Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which has garnered rave reviews all across the book blogging world. Pretty much everything I’d read about this book suggested it was “unputdownable” not to mention shocking and thrilling. The basis of the book is that shortly after graduating from college back in the mid 1980s, Gilman and a friend from Brown decide to travel around the world (something Tony & I dream of doing). The first stop on their trip is China, which had just opened its borders at the time to foreign tourists. Both girls experience extreme and intense culture shock, but unfortunately the plethora of communal toilets and the utter absence of English soon become the least of their problems when Gilman’s travel buddy, Chloe, becomes increasingly paranoid and erratic in her behavior. Soon Gilman finds herself living in a nightmare that would forever change both of these young womens’ lives. My impression reading other’s reflections on this book is that the conflict between Gilman and Chloe was the central interest for most readers. Figuring out what was going on with Chloe and watching her behavior spiral wildly out of control was a terrifying trainwreck most people couldn’t look away from.  While I can’t deny that the notion of traveling halfway around the world and having a friend completely flip out like Chloe does would be completely insane and horrific, for me that part of the book felt almost too surreal and out there to connect with. I had to keep reminding myself that Gilman wasn’t making any of this up, that it really happened, that, yes, truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. In a way, the storyline of Chloe’s downward spiral was so extreme that I had a hard time connecting with it. For me, the parts of the book that I found most fascinating were simply the insights into China in the 1980s. To me, it was really eye-opening to get such a candid look into the country, even if much of what Gilman relates was hardly complimentary. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the often frustrating and bleak picture she painted of China, for a few reasons. First, I think that a good deal of what she says is a reflection of the time; China has evolved at a lightning pace since the 1980s, and so I accept that much of what she says may no longer be the case. That said, I don’t think it’s inappropriate or wrong to honestly discuss ways in which other countries differ from our own and the ways in which their social conventions and behaviors may be unsettling or shocking when they are extremely different from our own. I never felt that Gilman was offering her observations in an accusatory or overly judgmental fashion (I never felt she was saying that China was a bad country because people spit all over the place, for instance, just that it was disturbing for a Westerner where that is far from the accepted practice), just that she was explaining what she saw and how it made her feel. Finally, I was always reminding myself as a I read that the Gilman of this novel was a very young woman, fresh out of university, and one who had not really traveled beforehand. Sometimes this Gilman is portrayed as whiny and insensitive, but I thought it was important to remember that it is the rare 21-year old who is not self-involved. Moreover, it wouldn’t be fair to judge 2010 Gilman based solely on the actions and motivations of her 21-year old self. I can’t say that I was never annoyed by her, but I did try to keep things in perspective. Some reviews that I read said that they felt Gilman was really insensitive and callous towards Chloe, and perhaps rather flippant regarding the deeper problems she may have been struggling with. All I can say is that I didn’t feel this way at all, in that I think Gilman makes it clear that she had no idea what was going on (as I think few of us would), and I do honestly believe she made the best of a bad situation. I can only imagine that if my friend L’Ell had flipped out when we were traveling around Europe in 2005 that I wouldn’t have handled it much better than Gilman did [Aside to L’Ell: You were the best travel buddy ever, and I’m so glad neither of us went crazy!]. All in all, I agree that this is a really engrossing and eye-opening read that will leave you reeling. My only disappointment is that so much time was spent on China and the conflict with Chloe, when Gilman later recounts that she wound up going to many other places in South East Asia and having a blast there. I would have really enjoyed reading about her experiences there, because I ultimately didn’t feel like the book needed the “crazy friend” storyline in order to be informative and interesting. I realize that Gilman is only recounting what happened, that she didn’t just make up that element in order to make her story more diverting, and yet I still felt it was somewhat unnecessary.  I can see how this “strange but true” story would be more appealing to publishers and give the memoir added shock value, but I still felt like the pure travel experiences were sufficiently odd and compelling on their own. I’m probably the only person who read this book and then thought, “Man, I can’t wait to visit China one day!”, but there you have it. I just hope that Tony manages to keep his cool and that neither of us jumps naked into a river… Rating: 4 out of 5

11 Comments

  1. I have been interested in this book for a while – especially since I have been travelling round China. I highly recommend going to China – it is one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever visited. The only problem is that all the sites are a long way apart so it takes a lot of time to get through them. I recommend Japan as a country to visit first as it is far easier to get around, the sites are closer together and is more used to tourism. I hope you get your trip and that Tony doesn’t jump into a river!

  2. 06/09/2010

    I have to say that this review has piqued my interest. I’m going to add it to my ever-growing To Read list (which is currently dominated by David Sedaris).

  3. 06/09/2010

    Gilman needs to write a sequel about the rest of the trip! That little aside at the end of the book was such a tease.

    And you and Tony need to take off on the trip around the world and blog about it so I can live vicariously through you. 😀

  4. I’m glad you liked this book. I listened to it on audio last year and thought it was an awesome, yell at the radio kind of book. And I agree — I’d love to read a second book about the end of the trip!

  5. 06/10/2010

    I agree with you that writing about culture shocks and how what you see in another country unsettles you is not necessarily insensitive or inappropriate. It all depends on whether or not the author uses a tone of moral righteousness, and it sounds like Gilman doesn’t.

  6. 06/10/2010

    @ Jackie: I could see you really enjoying this book as it certainly doesn’t lack for action! Also, I think it would be really interesting to get your perspective on it as you’ve actually been to China!
    And I have indeed been to Japan, though it was about 15 years ago, but it certainly made an impression. It’s absolutely a place I’d like to re-visit one day!
     
    @ Simona: I always forget that you enjoy quirky non-fiction! I take it you’re enjoying David Sedaris?
     
    @ softdrink: I agree! I would love to hear about the rest of her trip!
    Re: Tony and me going around the world… check back here in about 10 months and see what’s cooking… 😉
     
    @ Kim: I remember you really enjoyed the audio of this book – this is definitely one of those books I could see translating well to audio. It definitely came across as someone sitting down and telling you her crazy “you won’t believe what happened to me!” story!
     
    @ Nymeth: I really didn’t feel like Gilman was being superior in any way. She definitely gets a whiny tone about her at time, but again, I think that was meant to reflect her insularity at 21 and not necessarily who she is now.

  7. 06/10/2010

    I also have been following the reviews of this book. It does sound interesting, and I am particularly intrigued that you mention that the book is very surreal in the story it tells. I am also a bit of am armchair traveler, so this book has multiple points of appeal for me. I think it would be really neat to get a birds-eye view of China during the 80’s as well as seeing how the author dealt with her friends burgeoning mental illness. You have so made me want to go out and get this book! Fabulous review! I am going to be looking forward to this one!!

  8. I was just trying to remember the name of this book!! I read it, but couldn’t remember the title. Knew it had to do with a temple or something.

    Anyway–I agree with your review. I thought that the whole 80’s vibe was interesting. Things are SO different now, even for young college grads as they travel. They wouldn’t have felt so isolated.

  9. kay
    06/11/2010

    What a great review! I got my copy a short while ago and I cannot wait to read it. I have been reading more and more Chinese fiction in the last couple of years, but I think this will present a very different outlook on China since it’s not fiction, and it’s written from an external point of view. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too.

  10. 06/12/2010

    This sounds like an interesting perspective. And I, too, am glad that my friend didn’t go crazy when we traveled Europe together!

  11. 06/13/2010

    @ zibilee: I couldn’t resist this one after I read so many great reviews about it, and I’m really glad I got to read it. It was every bit as thrilling as I had hoped, and I really loved the chance to “travel” to China through it! I hope you can find yourself a copy soon!
     
    @ Jennifer: I’m sure you’re right that travel in Asia is MUCH easier now. Plus, I think the abundance of hostels (and their quality) would have made things a bit less stressful for them too!
     
    @ kay: It was definitely an interesting perspective and I’m really glad I got the chance to read this book. As I said in my post, not everything Gilman says is positive, but I thought it was all honest and interesting nonetheless.
     
    @ Rebecca: It sounds like such a lackluster compliment to say thanks to a friend for not freaking out on a big trip like that, but honestly I’m so glad I had such a supportive and likeminded travel buddy!

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