I had long avoided Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. The title and and cover blurbs gave me the impression it was a 20-something’s privileged romp. I was sick of stories where half-formed adults use other cultures as their personal playgrounds. I had Susan pegged as one of those. I was wrong.
The book explores one of the real dangers of traveling off the grid in an unfamiliar culture. Pickpockets? Exploitive locals? Terrorists? Kidnappers? Price gouging? Nothing like that. The real danger is within ourselves. The stress, disorientation, and culture shock of sudden immersion.
In Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Clare and Susie are bright, well educated, and off to see the world. Starting in Hong Kong, they immediately discover they might be in over their heads and take turns comforting one another having bouts of homesickness and culture shock.
They seem to find their footing and befriend locals and other travelers but then things begin to seem strange. How do you know if strangers are telling you the truth? How do you interpret events when you don’t have any cultural reference or means to communicate? There is something very strange going on here!
The book has a classic “turn of the screw” pacing. A predictable opening, a slow but unavoidable escalation to a creshendo of crisis and free-fall. Yeah, it takes the reader unexpectedly into can’t-put-it-down territory.
Wander-readers who have experienced the shock of sudden emersion into an unfamiliar culture will relate to both Clare and Susie’s feelings and understand the physical, social, and psychological stress involved. Those like me, who wade into other cultures gently after long research may view this as a cautionary tale. Which got me thinking – how would I react to an emersion experience? I never considered how shallow I have really waded in the sea of humanity. I think of my self as “well traveled” among my friends, but as I make new friends in the travel world, I begin to questions this part of my self-image.
Now I’m not saying I want to go jump off the deep end of the ocean to test my cultural swimming skills. But maybe it’s time to wade in a little deeper. Maybe even lift my feet off the sand and see how good I am at keeping my head above water. Yeah… just a little deeper…
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by Nancy Goldstone
Women were chattel and the marriages were arranged. Somehow, the four French sisters found themselves married to princes who all became kings. In a couple of cases, their husbands became (or remained) kings in no small part due to the influence, action, and interaction of the sisters. Who could resist a story like that? Not me!
Though the book is about the four intermingled lives and relations of these sisters, there are more strong women in the cast and in the back story. Blanche of Castile and Eleanor of Aquitaine had paved the way for the sisters with their example of feminine political power and wit. Not to say that they all got along.
Four Queens tries to be both historically accurate and personally engaging. Sometimes it succeeds other times, not so much. History buffs will find distracting geographical errors and miscalculated dates. Nancy is also somewhat inconsistent in her chosen spelling for some names resulting in mild confusion. (Is this a new character – no? Oh – I see!) So if you are looking for strict biography, you have been warned.
For lovers of historical fiction, who are comfortable with the author taking certain artistic liberties, there is nothing here that violates any major historical events or times. Historical fiction often projects the author’s interpretation and interest in the subject and gives the historical figure a life of her own. This makes her engaging and personal to a reader. Alas, historical fiction lovers may find the recitation of events a bit flat in places. For long sections, Nancy seems to be writing a high school history report.
The book fails to be the best of both worlds consistently. Still, it is good, fascinating history in many places and good engaging narrative in others. I found myself wishing the book would make up it’s mind. I wonder what Phillipa Gregory would do with this subject…
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When I was in the 7th grade, the public library was right on my way home from school. Being an avid reader and nerd, it was a regular stop for me. I lived in a small town so the librarians knew me and knew my family.
Being a precocious reader, I started exploring the adult section at an early age. This drew compliments and approval from the librarians until the day I wanted to check out a book that the head librarian thought was inappropriate for my age. Margaret Mitchell’s famous classic, Gone with the Wind. I selected it to be my first book over 1,000 pages.
She refused to check it out to me!
Embarrassed and shocked, I went home. Now, at the age of 13, I was starting to distance myself from my mother. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her about my humiliating library confrontation. But the librarian had called her. She was a good woman who had gotten to know me and she enjoyed encouraging my reading habits. I’m sure she called out of a genuine concern for my impressionable and voracious mind. But my mother’s response changed my life.
I mean that – CHANGED MY LIFE!
My mother felt her influence over me weakening. She worried about me. She felt the pain of a daughter fighting for increasing distance and independence. Here was a tool to fence me in. The librarian was happy to help her monitor my literary choices. She could gain control over my mind simply by authorizing my access to books and the librarian would help her!
Instead, my mother advised the librarian that I had her full permission and encouragement to read anything I wanted. My mother instructed her not to deny me access to any materials available to the general public. She didn’t just defend my right to read. She defended my right to read freely and independently without sanction or sensor. And she did it at a time in the lives of mothers and daughters when trust is a challenge and too much freedom can be a danger. It was a courageous act of heroic parenting.
I felt like I had been given a ticket to the world. I had been given a ticket to the world. I have heard many people say “My mother is my rock.” but I don’t feel that way at all. My mother is my sky!
Thank you, Mom. I love you!