Thursday, February 25, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Publisher's Summary. 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.

Back before the internet, cellphones, and 24 hour CNN made the world a much smaller place, two young women embarked on a grand world tour starting with post-Mao China. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman is the author’s memorable tale of an unforgettable adventure.

In 1986, when Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten” toured the People’s Republic of China little was known of the region in the western world. With little to sustain them apart from enthusiasm, the pair embark on a journey of a lifetime. As Gilman declares, “deciding to travel the world together didn’t strike either of us as unreasonable. We were at that age when we still believed that genius arrived in blots of lightening and shrieks of ‘Eureka!” We still believed in love at first sight, not just with people, but with ideas – that in a single instant, you could just know.”

Unfortunately, the pair’s sense of adventure is tested by physical and emotional adversity. And the dream turns into a nightmare. Still the pair soldier on. And at the end of the tunnel, Gilman confesses “I would not be living my life the way I am today if it wasn’t for her. Claire Van Houten unleashed something in me; she set me off on a path far beyond anything I ever imagined for myself or believed I was capable of doing. In this way, back in China in 1986, she saved my life, too.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven ranks as one of the best books I have read this year! I literally could not put it down and had to keep reading until the conclusion. I enjoyed this book on several levels: the relationship between Gilman and Van Houten; the pair’s interactions with their fellow backpackers and the local Chinese (including communist operatives); and the depictions of a newly post-Mao China.

Page after riveting page, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a story that will make you laugh and cry and sorry when the journey is over!

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (February 8, 2010), 320 pages.
Advance Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the Publisher.


  1. I really enjoyed this book too. I passed my copy on to my mom and she talked about it for days. Great review!

  2. Great praise, makes me wanna read it too

  3. Wow. What a stunning review. Thank you so much. I'm passing this link on to my dad...

    I used to live in Washington D.C. and read on the Metro, too, so to have such words of praise from a kindred spirit is doubly special.

    I really hope everyone enjoys the book. Please visit me at and let me know what you think.

    For those who are interested, this site also links to my blog, "A View from A Broad" about my continued adventures and misadventures overseas.

    Enjoy it all, and send my love to snowy D.C.

  4. I've been wanting to read this since I first heard about it. Thanks for the review.

  5. Ms. Gilman,

    Your honest memoir beautifully captured a time and a place without resorting to artificial sweeteners.

    On a personal note, during my college graduation ceremony several speakers spoke of the then ongoing Tienanmen Square crisis. China seemed so far off in those days, but thanks to Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven I have a little better understanding.

    Thank you for stopping by Metroreader. If you're ever in the area Georgetown cupcakes are on me!


  6. This book sounds very interesting. Your praise for it has made me want to read it. I love it when I hear a memoir is riveting. I'll be looking this one up! Thanks for sharing your great review!

  7. Thanks for your wonderful review, it made me crave this book even more, if that's possible!! I think I really have to go and order this now - it's sounds like something I would absolutely love!

  8. I am reading this book and I am loving it. I have two boys and I had to stop to get some things done, but I strongly believe that I will finish it today. I too traveled that year to Enland, Germany & France (6 weeks) and I understand feeling lost not knowing how to communicate.