Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden
3.5 stars.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully written book, with intricate detail that shows that Arthur Golden has done his research. However, the story is shadowed with sexism and ultimately becomes a “fairy-tale” written by a man.

When Chiyo’s father sells her into a life of slavery at the age of nine, Chiyo is thrust into a world of cruelty, where every woman does what she can to survive. To become a successful Geisha, Chiyo must forsake her friendships and delve into a world of mind games to defeat her rival, the beautiful and cruel Hatsumomo. As the intrigue deepens, Chiyo, now the popular Geisha Sayuri, comes closer to achieving success, but it may come at the cost of the man she loves.

I was surprised by two things when I began reading this book. 1. How engaging it was from the very beginning. 2. That it wasn’t nearly as depressing as I’d thought it would be.

The first shows why this book was so revered when it hit the shelves in the late ’90s. It’s engaging, romantic, exciting. Chiyo is a like-able character with spunk, a heroine to root for. Yet, as the book winds on, this initial excitement became disappointment. Golden goes out of his way to tell his audience how selfless Chiyo is, insisting that while she is employing the same intrigue as Hatsumomo, Chiyo’s reasons are noble. Yet, by the end of the book, Chiyo’s actions not only ruin lives, but her reasons are selfish. Despite all the kindness Nobu has shown her over the span of fifteen years, she throws him over because of her obsession with the Chairman . . . and it somehow works out for her.

The second–that the book wasn’t nearly as depressing as I’d thought it would be–is rooted in Golden’s inability to understand the suffering of a woman alone in this time period. Many of his scenes were so clearly written by a man, to me. Golden glamorizes and sexualizes teenage Geisha. He romanticizes young girls fawning over old men. He downplays the sexual exploitation of women that is rampant throughout the book. What bothered me the most, however, is that Chiyo has no identity outside of her relationship with men, and especially the Chairman. Her entire focus in life is to be close to the Chairman. Without him, her life is meaningless, and she is willing to risk her reputation and give up everything she has worked for to be with him.

Chiyo has no moment of self-actualization. She has no moment of becoming a woman who is not defined by her relationship with men. To me, the ending was the saddest part of all. Though Golden tries to paint Chiyo’s story as a fairy-tale triumph, that a girl from the seaside can rise up to become rich and loved by a man, Chiyo ultimately ends up as alone as she was as a nine-year-old girl sold into slavery.

Golden’s story, while engaging, could not fully immerse me. His deep misunderstanding of women destabilizes the foundation on which this book rests, as well as his perpetuation of the lie that a woman’s identity can only be found in a man. So, while I understand the praise this book has received over the years, I also think it is far from the perfect work of fiction it has been ascribed to be.

I think the reality of Chiyo’s place in the world is driven home by a line spoken by her mentor, Mameha, mid-way through the book, and exposes the bitter powerlessness of what it is to be a Geisha:

“We don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.”

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Top Ten Tuesday: Book Recommendations for History and Fantasy Lovers

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If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you will know that fantasy and historical fiction are my two favorite genres. Books that combine both elements, however, make me absolutely giddy. Well done historical fantasy, as I’ve dubbed this genre, is much more difficult to find than you might expect (with the industry riddled with time-traveling romances like Outlander), so today I’ve drawn up a list of my top ten books for lovers of well done historical fantasy. Continue reading

Top 5 Wednesday: Non-Western Inspired Fantasy Books

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This week’s topic is books that were inspired by non-western locations, or else set in a non-western location. I decided to narrow it down to Fantasy books inspired by non-western settings as those are pretty few and far between (in English at least). But first, I have a number of thoughts on this topic.

Have you ever wondered why English literature is dominated by western thought? The answer is simple. Because English is a language of the west. So it really isn’t surprising, nor, I think, necessarily a negative thing. However, because the US is a melting pot of cultures and with how our world has expanded into a global community rather than just a national one, it is important to learn about cultures beyond what we know in the west. So, I am happy that authors of non-Western background have been gaining recognition in recent years. Continue reading

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale retelling
3.5 stars.

I’ve been on a bit of a Neil Gaiman streak since reading Neverwhere, and I’m still bummed at myself for never reading him before. But I guess that gives me time to thoroughly enjoy his books now.

Tristran Thorn has never felt like he belongs in the village of Wall. When Victoria, the girl he loves, says she will give him whatever he desires if he fetches her the falling star they saw drop to the other side of the stone wall that separates their world from the strange and magical land of Stormhold, Tristran doesn’t hesitate to agree. In order to prove his love, Tristran sets out on the journey of a lifetime, encountering hungry witches, bloodthirsty princes, and air pirates along the way, only to discover that his heritage is not as he thought it was and that maybe Victoria is not who he truly desires at all. Continue reading

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
4.5 stars.

“Richard was sitting in the dark, on a ledge, on the side of a storm drain, wondering what to do, wondering how much further out of his depth he could possibly get. His life so far, he decided, had prepared him perfectly for a job in securities, for shopping at the supermarket, for watching football on the telly on the weekends, for turning on a heater if he got cold. It had magnificently failed to prepare him for a life as an un-person on the roofs and in the sewers of London, for a life in the cold and the wet and the dark.”

This is my first time reading a Neil Gaiman book and all I can say is . . . WHAT IS MY PROBLEM? WHY HAVE I WAITED SO LONG? Continue reading

Hunted by Megan Spooner

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Hunted by Megan Spooner
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale retelling, YA
4 stars.

I have not read as genuinely delightful of a fairy tale retelling in years. Hunted follows in the hallowed tradition of Robin McKinley and Juliet Marillier, and I was immediately swept into the nostalgia of Spooner’s enchanted world.

Yeva, the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant, longs for the solitude and magic of the forest, where she is free from the confines of society and can hunt as she pleases. When her father falls into financial ruin and then madness, disappearing into the forest in search of a mysterious “cunning beast,” Yeva has no choice but to follow him. When she finds a beast of nightmares looming over her father’s body in the snow, she swears vengeance on the creature who killed her father and that has now taken her captive to complete some mysterious test. Continue reading

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: Historical Fantasy
5 stars.

“The circus arrives without warning.”

I have never read nor will ever read anything like this book. Morgenstern orchestrates a masterful mixing of genres whose wheres and the whys, much like the circus itself, are deliciously difficult to pin down. The deeply human longing for magic and wonder are piqued within the dream-like realm of Morgernstern’s prose, and I couldn’t help but be enchanted by it. Continue reading