Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Guest Post by Martha Ivester: On Youth, Innocence, and Travel Abroad

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IMG_7568 2O Canada – I’m so sorry for your loss!  We’ve stolen one of your finest!  She’s thriving in Nashville now: Martha Ivester blooms where she grows.

At Creative Artists Agency, Martha helps create pop culture platforms and music partnerships for some of the world’s leading brands, working with talented artists on a daily basis, “constantly humbled by the creativity around me.”  Martha is on the move: you might also find her running in the Country Music Marathon or volunteering at Super Saturday (she and husband Gavin have three youngish children).  Martha is doing it all with a smile on her face, looking fabulous, and I’m wondering what they’ve got in the water north of the border.

She’ll happily join you for a run in the rain or a board game, if you’d rather.  She’s crazy for games. “I look forward with great anticipation to the two weeks every summer my family travels to Canada to a cabin on an island with no electricity. Every night we play games (Cribbage, Ticket to Ride, Banangrams, Settlers of Catan, Hearts and the all-time best card game, Euchre).”  Don’t ask her to join you for a game of Candyland, though, which she abhors.

IMG_4674Martha was hooked on Narnia as a kid – and remains enchanted by it even now – but these days you might find her reading The Digital Age, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, a gift from her employer. “As a parent of kids who are just beginning to discover social media, I admit I am terrified about what lies in store.” She is fascinated by one of the premises in the book – that the internet “is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.”

If she had a bit of free time on her hands, she might take a few more ballroom dancing lessons.  For now, family, work, exercise, serving on the board of Nashville Ballet, and several other volunteer commitments fill her dance card.  Gavin, too – “the first man I met for whom I didn’t automatically start creating a mental pros and cons list” – which seems to me a pretty fine endorsement for a husband.  She struggles with “living in the moment – being present and thankful for the small things.” Don’t we all.

I’m glad she found a moment to share her thoughts on a recent great read, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman.

Unknown-6From Martha:  During grad school, I dated a guy who escaped to Singapore for a semester.  While his journey signaled the beginning of the end of us, it planted a bug in my head and I too got the itch to cross the Pacific.  Hong Kong seemed like as good a place as any… there was a massive brain drain of talented Chinese in advance of the 1998 handover to China.

That began my five-year adventure of living, working and traveling in Asia.

When I read the synopsis of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman, I figured it would at the very least provide a trip down memory lane.

While it certainly achieved that, it also affected me deeply by taking me back to my own 20-something self and what I thought the world held in store for me.

The true story centers on two not-so-very-good friends who graduate from an Ivy league college and hatch a plan on the back of an IHOP placemat to explore the world, with a focus on the roads way less traveled.  Armed with the collected works of Nietzsche and a few “essentials,” WASP-y Claire and author Susan set off for Shanghai.  China was only just opening up to foreign tourists, and promised the perfect blend of exotic and bravado.  Despite their agenda of roughing it and living with the locals, they soon find them selves adrift, relying on the kindness of a motley assortment of fellow travelers and more than a few generous Chinese.

I devoured this book, not only for its semi-parallels to my own youthful “take on the world” spirit, but also for Gilman’s witty writing and her ability to capture the innocence and naivete of her 21 year old self.  I was frequently annoyed at the girls and their xenophobia, but also sympathetic to the fact that at that age, I may have been just as foolish and self-absorbed.

There is a wonderful scene early on in their adventure when they compare notes with a group of other travelers:

“Soon we were all vying to establish our backpackers’ street cred, to prove how intrepidly we’d been traveling, how much discomfort we’d incurred at how little expense.  The irony of this was wholly lost on us.  We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience.  We thought that by wearing burlap pajamas, contracting intestinal parasites, and opting to ride in third class with ‘the people,’ we were somehow being less Western and more Asian.”

It is not long before they realize how ill-prepared they are to handle the journey ahead, and all too soon things spiral into sickness, mental illness and a run-in with the Communist police.

I loved the moment that Susan gets her first reality check:

“For perhaps the first time in my life, it became viscerally clear to me just how little I mattered, just how much I was not the center of the universe. It was like a swift kick to the gut.”

 Reading the book was bittersweet.  It took me back to that amazing time in my life, when my days were not yet tempered by the responsibilities of career, marriage and motherhood.  At the time, I certainly did not comprehend the incredible freedom that being responsible for only yourself affords you.

It made me embarrassed by Western imperialism and insensitivity I was no doubt also guilty of.  Early on in their travels the girls befriend a young Chinese man who is eager to show them his home city.  Jonny pulls out all the stops, not only as a way to show “face,” but also in hopes that the girls will somehow find a way to help him get to the US.  Both Claire and Susan are aware of his ulterior motives, but gladly let him take charge.  They turn their noses up at a meal his family prepares, likely costing him an entire month’s budget.  The girls ultimately board a train and leave Jonny on the platform, with surprisingly little remorse.

Later on, they journey to the isolated and picturesque Yangshuo valley.  Claire and Susan find an international café with an English menu, and descend on it like two lost souls.  They take pity on the waitress, who they assume is in a loveless marriage and spends her days toiling away serving banana pancakes to boorish backpackers.  In the last chapter we find out that the quaint town gets built up with high-rises, and our waitress becomes a real estate baron.  While we are happy for her success, we are wistful for the picture Gilman painted of the town’s pre “development” days.  And nostalgic for the pieces of our own youth that will never be as simple and sweet as we remember.

Ultimately the story takes a suspenseful turn when Claire goes off the deep end, and it is up to Susan to extricate them from the country before things get much much worse.

You needn’t have traveled to Asia to enjoy this book.  If you were once young and naïve and thought the world was your oyster you will find plenty to reflect upon.  Things like discarded dreams and the realization that sometimes, settling for normal is pretty great.

15 Comments

  1. You leave me a pang for my own Asia days….and your quote up in the intro about choosing Gavin is AWESOME. Great intro Jennifer. Great review Martha.

  2. I just love this blog. It is my go to place for book recommendations. Thanks to my daughter, Dallas Wilt, for putting me on to it and thanks to you, Jennifer and Martha, for your wit and wisdom.

    • You’ve made my day, Libbey! I am so happy to know you are enjoying the blog! I am so grateful for all of the amazing guest posts – including Martha’s and Dallas’s! Thank you so much for your kind comment. xo

  3. I’m with Dallas’s mom – I love your book suggestions, intros, and reviews. As to Martha! I had no idea you lived in Asia! You are one energetic, brave, creative, and smart woman. This website is like a coffeehouse for readers!

  4. Beautiful job Martha! Putting this book on my list.

  5. Wow….brilliant review. Martha Benson pls right a book too!!! Your writing is exceptional.

    • Ha!!! It’s been a while since anyone’s called me Martha Benson. That’s now 2 trips down memory lane Crowe. Perhaps our HK reunion needs to include a book club night… in a pub.

  6. So wonderful Martha! Two Christmas’s ago we went to Monkey Island (Chupak’s suggestion!) only to realize that the bungalows were like the ones we stayed in 20 years ago, with the pot smokin’ Peace Corp volunteers and banana pancakes. “Are you trying to teach the kids what it is like to have nothing?” asks Shep, “Mom, can we go to the hotel that has toilet paper please?” asks Maya. Oops…Chups hadn’t been here and only heard…I was laughing, sweating in the ratcheted hut with a sputtering fan. After a day of acclimatizing, we had a great time in the blue unspoilt waters and surf. Though I should have read the Tripadvisor comment of a traveler finding stray dogs in their rooms and cum stains on the sheet ahead of time!!

  7. This review just made me put the book on hold at the library. Can’t wait to read it.

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