Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven [NOOK Book]


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, ...
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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

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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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Youthfully upbeat, Gilman (Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress) delivers an entertaining memoir of her ill-starred attempt to circumnavigate the globe after college graduation in 1986. Eager to embark on life but unsure exactly how to do it, the author, a New Yorker, and her fair-haired Connecticut trust-fund friend, Claire, both graduates from Brown, resolved to backpack around the world for a year and become heroines in their own epic stories. Starting in Hong Kong, the two naïve 21-year-olds, armed with Linda Goodman's Love Signs, volumes of Nietzsche and a year's supply of tampons, ran into shoals fairly immediately, freaked out by fleabag hotels, vermin, importunate fellow travelers and the debilitating effects of illness, homesickness and the sole company of each other. As they roughed it through Communist China, Claire grew increasingly paranoid and delusional, eventually bolting on a bizarre bus trip that got her picked up by the police. Gilman's amusing journey focuses tightly on these first shaky seven weeks, offering the full wallop of disorienting, in-the-moment, transformative travel adventures. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Part travelog, part mystery, Gilman's latest memoir-after the best-selling Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress-begins in 1986 with the author and a friend studying a placemat at IHOP titled "Pancakes of Many Nations." With more hubris than travel experience, these freshly minted Brown graduates decided to embark on a yearlong, around-the-world backpacking trip, beginning in China. Though they had wonderful experiences, a painful secret led to their undoing. Gilman's work will appeal to those who went in search of an "authentic travel experience" and got more than they bargained for. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/15/08.]
—Elizabeth Brinkley

Kirkus Reviews
Bestselling memoirist Gilman (Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, 2005, etc.) recalls ill-fated post-collegiate travels. The author's around-the-world backpacking trip began in September 1986 with a perilous nosedive into Hong Kong's international airport that prompted Gilman to reflect on her motives. After growing up poor in inner-city New York, she entered Brown University on a scholarship. When she and her friend Claire Van Houten (a pseudonym) set off to circle the globe following graduation, her motivation was more desire to emulate confident, well-heeled Claire than any personal sense of adventure. The two were eager to undertake rugged exploration in the footsteps of their admired predecessors from Odysseus to Jack Kerouac, "except with lip gloss." They vowed to travel like locals rather than tourists, and the bulk of the book humorously describes their encounters with both squalor and beauty. They ventured headlong into the People's Republic of China, about which they, and the pre-Internet world at large, had little knowledge. Hindsight allows the author to draw comparisons between her journey into adulthood and the growing pains of the newly opened communist nation. Fans of her previous work will enjoy Gilman's latest, but there's little in the way of a story until the final hundred pages, during which the author switches to present tense and her account becomes plot-driven. The tense shift is abrupt, but nothing about the plot trigger-Claire falls ill and has to return home-will come as a surprise, given the heavy-handed clues that have been dropped in advance. A flawed but ambitious and intimate coming-of-age memoir. Author tour to New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, SanFrancisco, Portland, Ore., Seattle
"[A] standout travel memoir...Gilman's descriptions of their trials and tribulations crackle with wit."
Alexandra Fuller
"With her trademark intelligent, irreverent voice Gilman takes us on a journey that feels terrifyingly real, immediate and life-threatening. The woman is no less than a godsend to a reading world that has become too used to lies, half-truth and spin."
From the Publisher
"[A] standout travel memoir...Gilman's descriptions of their trials and tribulations crackle with wit."—Booklist

"Youthfully upbeat, Gilman delivers an entertaining memoir...offering the full wallop of disorienting, in-the-moment, transformative travel adventures."—Publishers Weekly

"[An] ambitious and intimate coming-of-age memoir."—Kirkus

"With her trademark intelligent, irreverent voice Gilman takes us on a journey that feels terrifyingly real, immediate and life-threatening. The woman is no less than a godsend to a reading world that has become too used to lies, half-truth and spin."—Alexandra Fuller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446544689
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/24/2009
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 143,150
  • File size: 454 KB

Meet the Author

Susan Jane Gilman
Susan Jane Gilman is the author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dressand Kiss My Tiara. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and has written commentary for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Ms. magazine, among others. Her fiction and essays have received several literary awards. Though she lives in Geneva, Switzerland, she remains, eternally, a child of New York.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 61 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 61 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Susan Gilman does it again...

    If you've read and enjoyed either "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress" or "Kiss My Tiara", you will love this bout of travel writing from Gilman. Her writing is so completely honest because she writes straight from her life, which is thoroughly entertaining. This book is great for anyone who has gone abroad, is going abroad soon, or would like to at any point in the future. It serves as motivation and advice, and also gives an excellent narrative of the condition of the world in the '80s. Her travels and experiences are worthy of sharing, and she does it in the most entertaining manner in her unique way with words. The minute I was done reading this book I could've turned right back to the beginning to start it again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2014

    The great temple

    A very narrow hole barely big enough for a small cat stretches, sloping downward, for a very long distance. Mountains billow up high around it. The tunnel gets darker and darker, until you start to see a light. You are dazzled when you step out into the sunlight after an hour of climbing, and you realize you are in a crater. A pathway carved by many generations of pawsteps leads to the center, where a giant mound of gold pokes out of the earth. A hole is carved in the mound and on the inside is a pile of bones, drenched red in blood. Some of the bones are red, others black, some white. At the very top of the pile a red crystal pokes out, catching sunlight from a barely visible hole and making the whole room look blood-drenched. A platform made of flowers and wood and skins lay at the entrance, where you must place a gift. It also seems cats must sleep there.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book is so whip-smart funny, adventurous, insightful and re

    This book is so whip-smart funny, adventurous, insightful and readable, I'm shocked it didn't ride the best-seller lists for weeks. I'm on my second read and know what's going to happen, but I'm still riding the thrill.

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  • Posted June 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Women's Travelogue

    In 1986, fresh out of college, Susan Jane Gilman and a college friend, Claire, decided to embark on a grand adventure. Before they took up a life of jobs and marriage, why not take the chance to travel the world and see lands and sights they had never seen before? They bought world-wide air tickets, and decided to start their journey in China.

    Naive and armed only with academic knowledge, they were knocked aback by the reality of traveling in a primitive country like China. The trip occurred in the early years of China being opened for travel to Westerners, and there were still multiple governmental restrictions. The stark reality of waking up in a place where you knew absolutely no one, and where even the street signs were in a foreign language unknown to you, overwhelmed the girls. They didn't even know each other that well, and quickly discovered that they were not good traveling mates. They were totally unprepared for the lonliness and isolation they encountered.

    There were also great times. They were stunned at the friendliness of the Chinese people. There were other backpackers around, and the backpacking world was one of instant camaraderie. There was gorgeous scenery, and ancient wonders that they could hardly believe they were seeing in person.

    This book is recommended for travel writing lovers and for any readers looking for an interesting read. Gilman has opened a world of the other side of travel; not just gorgeous sights and new experiences but lonliness and fear. It is a fascinating story and recommended for anyone anticipating such a trip.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Xie Xie Ne

    My review was for the audio book version. I won this audio book from a book reviewer's blog.

    Initially, I was mildly not interested when I heard the author's voice, and this I assume is just because I have grown accustomed to actors reading audio books. I would say that roughly ten minutes into the book, this became a non-issue.

    I was taken in fairly quickly by the possibilities that this story gave me. Two young women embarking a year-long journey into the world. What could be more exciting than a year of adventure in many different countries. Oooooh, my jealousy and interest were equally piqued. It was something that I would have loved to do when I was younger.

    The journey that Susan and her college friend go on, is a journey that most people do not envision when planning a year of back packing their way across the globe. Adventure does not equal comfort or ease. There are times when the girls are at eachother's throats. They have strict guidelines to follow when embarking on their first leg of their journey through China.

    My favorite part of the story was the characters that the women met. I am reminded of the comradery that you develop with fellow travelers. Susan also doesn't shy away from showing the girls as they were. Which means their good sides as well as their flawed sides. I appreciated the honesty of their portrayal. As far as their journey goes, there are times that seem definitely dangerous, but it seems someone is on the girl's side. I truly felt things could have ended up a lot worse. I believe in God, and I think that people were definitely in the right place and the right time for these women. It is an adventure story and a cautionary tale.

    I would give the audio book version of Undress me in the Temple of Heaven 3.5 stars. I enjoyed Susan's work, and look forward to reading some more of it. :)

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  • Posted December 31, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    An unusual approach to a travel story

    An unusual approach to a travel story.

    I thought this would be an easy read chronicling the adventures of two novice travelers through China; at the time a country newly opened to outside travel.

    Instead I got that AND a story of one traveler's descent into mental illness. Now this would be trouble for an experienced traveler, let alone a newbie. Then add to it the language difficulty, the new openness of China to westerners (and the Chinese peoples fascination with these 'odd' characters), and the mysterious workings of the Chinese government.

    Two young women, recent Brown graduates, meet at an IHOP and plan to forestall the inevitable: jobs, marriage and family, in short the entrance to the 'real world'. The plan is to spend a year traveling around the world, to see the places few travelers (and fewer women travelers) have ever been. No four star hotels or western comforts allowed.

    First to Hong Kong, they almost immediately find themselves truly alone in the world, and almost totally unprepared for the challenges ahead. They depend on friends they meet and realize how truly pampered they lives have been compared to what lies ahead.

    All they can depend on is each other (through homesickness, illness, and the myriad daily problems of travel in a strange land). The closeness they feel is replaced by the knowledge of how very little they know about each other. When one member begins to show signs of the pressure; physical illness (and a trip to the Chinese hospital), moodiness and sudden need to 'be alone' seem to be part of the simple ups and downs of life. Or are they?

    With a great sense of humor, and a quirky narrative style Susan Gilman invites us along on this amazing journey of self discovery. There are no 'heroes'. There are no 'villains'. Just two young people starting on life's journey. I'm glad I was able to take the trip! (

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  • Posted August 30, 2009

    Must read this fascinating adventure story!!

    In her magnificently-written travel memoir, Susan Jane Gilman affords us a wonderfully vivid image of the scenic beauty, as well as the poverty and squalor of Communist China. Rich with insight, her enthralling account is filled with adventure, intrigue and humor. The year is 1986, when recent college graduates Susie and Claire embark on a backpacking journey to see the world. Following a stop in Hong Kong, they bravely begin their trek in China, only recently opened to tourists. Determined to experience what life is like for the Chinese people, they forgo comfortable tourist amenities and obtain the cheapest and most primitive accommodations. Suffering from culture shock and thwarted by the language barrier, the girls find themselves in harrowing and frightening situations. As Claire's paranoia escalates, chaos ensues. But it is the heartfelt kindness and generosity of the common people and fellow travelers, along with Susie's admirable courage and extraordinary perseverance, that save Claire. Ms. Gilman provides a compelling perspective that gave me a true sense of the difficulties and conditions the Chinese people had to face. Her observations of China, its culture and its people are vividly described. The Great Wall description is breathtaking. This book appeals in so many ways...as an adventure, a coming of age story and a juxtaposition of western and eastern cultures at that point in history. Abounding with life's lessons, I highly recommend this captivating memoir!!

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  • Posted August 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Enlightening look at China

    I don't know what I was expecting when I saw the title, or what I was going to find between the covers, but I was pleasantly surprised. What college student doesn't want to just pack up and go? I sure did, but I wasn't so brave. I know that Susan has grown up and isn't possibly so "free" as she was back then, but the breath of it is truly youthful. It was an honest commentary of life in a world that we Americans, for the most part, are not used to. Life without a fridge, microwave, tv, hot water and air conditioning? Is there such a thing? I don't think I want to go to this extreme when traveling... now... but when I was younger. This gave me a taste of what life is like in rural China and the way the people "are". The book is easy to read, a real page turner, and enlightening all in one fell swoop. Terrifying? Part of it, yes. Messy too! It also made me reevaluate how I live my life and what I expect. I don't think I want to change...much. What an honest read.

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  • Posted August 10, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Wow - glad I didn't go on this trip!

    Talk about a backpacking trip from hell...I could not put this book down and read it in one sitting (and was completely sleep-deprived the next day). As someone who spent the exact same time period at the exact same age living abroad as the author did, I could completely relate to the whole backpacking experience. But I sure am glad I never had these kinds of difficulties and crises. I'd love to ask the author if "Claire" or her family have initiated any kind of contact with her since the book's release. So glad I read this. It was scary, satisfying, educational, and very worthwhile.

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  • Posted July 31, 2009

    I Also Recommend:


    This book was a great read! The author and her friend truely went on a daring adventure, one that made you say "oh my, I can not believe that happened to them." Traveling does have it's ups and downs, although the travels detailed in this book were down right scarey. The author not only had to deal with complete culture shock, but also a nutty travel mate. I do not know how travel through China has changed since the author's first trip, but the sight of the Chinese military checking my bags would definately terrify me. I loved this book! It was well written, and you can feel the fear and confusion as you read. Take it for what it is, which is down right entertaining. It made me want to check out China, but maybe not as rusticly as she did.

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  • Posted July 6, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Armchair Travel Writing

    Early in Susan Jane Gilman's memoir of her ill-fated 1986 trip to China, standing in a filthy Shanghai toilet, Gilman declares to her traveling companion, "We are two young, brilliant Ivy League graduates. If we can't use a public bathroom in the People's Republic of China, who the hell can?" Sadly, this episode is all too typical of Gilman's experiences in China.

    To be fair, Gilman recounts her story through the eyes of herself as a young, naive college graduate. But I've certainly met more perceptive and sympathetic twenty-year-olds. I groaned at the younger Gilman's cultural observations of life in China, the limits of her worldview defined, apparently, by the boundaries of New York City-all this from an aspiring young writer and an honors graduate of Brown University. (And Gilman is positively eager to discuss her education and ascension from an upbringing she unselfconsciously describes as 'underprivileged'.)

    I picked up this book after reading some positive reviews-there's a glowing blurb from Alexandra Fuller on the back cover-but I can only assume that the reviewers were reading an entirely different book. In the introduction, Gilman attests to the authenticity of her story, but what follows is an endless series of thin, clichéd characterizations and petty melodramas, saccharine denouements. And, thoughtfully, Gilman provides all of her non-American characters with ridiculous accents. Germans include "yah" in every sentence, Australians "oi", and the Chinese never seem to get those R's or L's right.

    Gilman wrote this book over twenty years after the events it portrays, but is this really the best she could come up with? Is it possible to travel 8000 miles around the world and experience nothing much more unique or authentic than could be had from an armchair perusal of Lonely Planet's guide to China?

    Postscript: If you're looking for a thoughtful and beautifully written travel memoir, also authored by a young college grad in China, please instead consider Peter Hessler's "River Town". For your hard-earned $20, I guarantee this book is a more worthy selection.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I wish I had been that daring...

    When these two best friends decided to back pack the world, they chose Asia instead of Europe like many a Brown graduate would have done. Given that their first leg of their trip was to begin in China prior to the Belin Wall's collapse this was quite daring. Neither of them spoke Mandarin and they really didn't have a solid plan except to go in to China and experience life as much as they could. They meet many Chinese who treat them more familial than they expected. They have expereinces with both Chinese Police and the even more dreaded Chinese hospitals. I found this to be an EXCELLENT read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2009

    Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

    Having traveled to many of the same regions of China as the author (but much more recently) I found her story very believable and realistic. While it's not as difficult to travel in parts of China now, there still are portions of the country where it is unusual to see Western tourists. Her encounters with the locals; both the "officials" and the tour guides was interesting. It certainly showed the potential misunderstandings and the perils of traveling with someone who is a "casual" aquaintance.

    I'd highly recommend this book.

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  • Posted June 13, 2009

    The title is curiously provocative and, as it turns out, whimsically appropriate.

    This travel adventure of two young women becomes a life changing event for both of them. The author shares her memories 20 years later with the added insight of maturity and good humor. It reads like a novel and is an eye opener... without being discouraging... for young adults eager to strap on a backpack and see the world. I feel like it gave me a better understanding of the Chinese culture and amazing progress of the Peoples' Republic of China over the past two decades.

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  • Posted May 13, 2009

    Couldn't put it down!

    This is one case where truth is stranger than fiction! I could not put this book down, finished it in one day. I am really looking forward to reading her other books...she is an awesome writer!

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  • Posted April 24, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    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.

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  • Posted March 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    Susan Jane Gilman
    Grand Central Publishing
    $23.99 - Hardcover
    306 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-446-57892-9
    Reviewer: Annie Slessman

    I don't care what anyone else's opinion is.UNDRESS ME IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN is a GREAT title. Susan Jane Gilman, author of the this work has withheld nothing in her goal to relate her experiences during a trip she took with an acquaintance she met in her last year at Brown University.

    Ready for just about anything (they thought), they head out on a trip around the world starting with Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China. Claire, Susie's newfound friend, is from a rich family and has no trouble with the funding this trip. However, Susie's family is an average American household financially. She works the summer prior to their departure to earn the cash she will need to take this once-in-a-lifetime journey.

    During is trip they meet a variety of people who will inspire them and one Canadian will eventually become their savior. Claire takes on a new personality during their travels and Susie finds herself in a situation that boggles the mind. Without a visa allowing them to leave the country, Susie must get Claire home. With the help of her Canadian friend, they manage to put Claire back in the hands of her family.

    While the subject matter of this book is the many experiences Susie and Claire have during this trip, there are many underlying issues at work as well. A variety of class distinctions takes the lead in this listing. Secondary, are the cultural differences with personality studies taking a third.

    This book is worth the read. It should be required reading for anyone considering "backpacking" around the world. It might just change your mind about the entire venture.

    Susan Jane Gilman is the bestselling author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. She currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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