Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Inaugural book review

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So…you guys are my captive audience, right? You love me and will therefore read the blog forever, no matter how far it deviates from its original aim, which was to document our experiences in Zürich?

Good, because I’m thinking of introducing a new, non Zürich-related feature on the blog — specifically, a book review. In case you don’t know, I read a lot of books. A lot. If you ask the guy who hauled my 9 boxes of books up the stairs of this liftless building, I probably read too many books. But reading — like writing — is and has long been a passion of mine. At some stage in my childhood, I took to sleeping with treasured books arranged at my sides like comforting parentheses. Though they made decidedly less cuddly bedmates than stuffed animals, books were dear friends that I didn’t want to part from at night. In fact, I’d probably still sleep with my favourite ones, if I didn’t have to share my bed with some animals (oh, and Stelian).

So I spend all this time reading. But the sad thing is that I don’t have many people to talk to about the things I read — even other writers that I’ve been in touch with here don’t seem to read the same kind of things that I do. What is it that I read? Contemporary fiction, and lots of it. I occasionally try to read classics, but reading classics for me is often like eating certain vegetables: you choke them down more because they’re healthy/good for you (or in this case, instructive/important), than because they’re enjoyable. And my reading dabbles into non-fiction too — I especially love memoir, but sometimes I’ll just read about something wacky, like decision-making or what would happen to the world if the human race were to suddenly die off.

I’m trying to keep this introduction short, but do let me know if you like this new feature, or if it bores you to death. I’m not doing this in order to wow you with my literary criticism skills (in fact, I likely don’t have any). I won’t be posting about books that I didn’t like, but ones that I enjoyed or at least found interesting, and that I think you will like or find interesting, too. So I guess I may retitle the series “Book recommendations.” And I would love it if you would recommend books to me in turn, and I could end up discussing them here. But enough digression. Without further ado…

The first book is one that I finished last night: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman. This falls into the memoir/nonfiction category. Full disclosure: the reason it came onto my radar is because Susan will be one of the instructors at the Zürich Writers’ Workshop which I’m going to be attending in May, and I wanted to familiarize myself with her work. But I’m not sharing it with you for this reason, but instead because it’s a genuinely enjoyable read. This book appeared in my mailbox on Thursday afternoon, and I promptly tore open the envelope it was in and began reading. From that point until the time that I finished the book last night (Monday), I really didn’t want to put it down, but I had to several times, in the name of things like “responsibilities” and “obligations” and “sleep.” Sheesh.

Seriously, though, this is a book that demands to be read in big gulps. This memoir opens with Gilman seated in an IHOP restaurant, deciding to undertake a trip around the world with a friend shortly after their graduation from college in 1986. They begin in the People’s Republic of China, which, as Gilman puts it, “had been open to independent backpackers for about all of ten minutes.” The book recounts their struggles with culture shock, a massive language barrier, squat toilets, and being stared at mercilessly everywhere they go. It also documents encounters with China’s military police, doctors and nurses in a backcountry hospital, and the People of the Republic themselves — people who are for the most part thrilled to meet “big-noses,” which is how Gilman imagines that Caucasians travelling through Asia are perceived.

However, as interesting and worthwhile as the book is for its captivating descriptions of the physical land they travelled through, and of what China was like at the time that it was just ceasing to be a highly closed society, the real hook is that the author and her friend are just so young and green. The reader continually catches whiffs of foreshadowed danger on the page as they are swept across the country with a motley, eccentric group of fellow backpackers and newly-made Chinese contacts, as well as total determination to “Stay off the beaten path entirely. Stay only in local places, eat local food. Be totally hard core and authentic.” Of course, this kind of travel — so at variance with their previously cushy American lives — quickly wears them down, and the girls begin to unravel physically and mentally. I can’t give away the book’s juicy parts, but suffice it to say that there are highly dramatic, unnerving and even  life-threatening events that ensue.

If I haven’t already convinced you that the book is worth a read, let me mention that Gilman (who now resides in Geneva, Switzerland) is a very funny writer. I rarely laugh out loud when reading a book, even a funny one — I usually just sit there smiling moronically at the page. But Gilman had me LOLing — almost ROFLing, to tell the truth — with her recounting of how, after she and her friend vowed to “be Odysseus…Byron, Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one” they landed in Hong Kong, and in the throes of their “oh-my-god-we-made-it-to-Asia” excitement, “We each gave a trilling, girlish squeal — no doubt exactly as Odysseus would’ve done — and sashayed through passport control.”

So, if you’re into travel lit/memoir, vicarious pain, pervasive humour and an opportunity to count your blessings, pick this one up. You can of course borrow it from me, if you want to make the trip across the ocean.

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4 thoughts on “Inaugural book review

  1. Hear, hear on the idea of book reviews/recommendations! Art is personal, but I find more than half the time when someone recommends a book (if it’s in the genre I like) then I’ll end up liking it too. Not that I can read while school is in session… but like most teachers we long for the breaks when we can roar through those books we’ve promised ourselves we would get to. So from my point of view, carry on!

  2. That one is going on my reading list too! I like adventures, not the mishaps and if someone can write about that and keep you smiling and not wanting to put it down, that’s got my attention.

    I hope the writer’s studio in May sparks lots of things for you! Recently, I’ve been reading schoolbooks and the Atkins Diet books. Ho hum …

    love you, Mom

  3. What a great idea to share special books we have enjoyed! I’m going to put yours on my to-do list. In exchange, Boppy and I recommend John Furlong’s “Patriot Hearts”, his account of the Vancouver Olympics from the bid in 2003 through 2010. We found it fascinating.
    The Clarke Jr.s gave it to me for my birthday last month and I may lose my happy position of favourite Mum/Joan/Nana if I forget to take it to Ucuelet during spring break, when we are all gathering for 5 days at Terrace Beach Resort! Maybe a reminder will wing its way across the little pond :-).

  4. I love the idea of book reviews in your blog. (Do we say “in” a blog or “on” a blog?) Reading about reading is the next best thing! I’ve added Gilman’s book to my reading list. I should have time to read again…let’s see…when I’m waiting for my flight to Berlin! I bet by the time I get to Switzerland I will have worked my way through at least a couple of books.

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