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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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Genre: Historical fiction, magical realism
4 stars.

On a snowy winter day in 1910, Ursula is born and dies before she can take her first breath. What follows is a tale of life after life, as Ursula gets chances to live again and again and again, taking radically different paths with each choice as history marches before her and carries her story in its wake.

Well written and engaging, I thoroughly enjoyed Atkinson’s look into the way our choices can change the course of our lives. Atkinson weaves mysteries throughout the book, some of which are answered by later story lines, some that are only hinted at, some that are never answered at all. We watch as Ursula navigates and renavigates decisive moments in her life, waiting as she dodges a mistake she made in a previous life. The characters in Ursula’s life are fleshed out through glimpses of their stories, and I found myself caring about the directions their lives took. I also enjoyed Atkinson’s visceral look into the poignant history of early 20th century Britain–exploring the intense toll both World Wars had on a population.

I found Ursula difficult to relate to, however, and her overall personality to be a bit grating and difficult to understand. I cared a lot more for her mother and her sister than I did for her. I felt that she was a character to be projected upon rather than possessing a distinct personality of her own.

I also felt like there was no real ending to the book. Ursula lives so many lives which go in a number of fascinating directions, but the story just seemed to stop, suddenly and with no real conclusion. Was Ursula’s final life supposed to be her best life? Had she finally reached her full potential as a human being and so she stopped being reborn?

Despite those questions, I highly enjoyed Atkinson’s book, the way she wove history through the story, and left her audience rooting for Ursula and the choices she makes in life.

Top 5 Wednesday: Children’s Books

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There were SO many books I adored as a kid. My reading game was never higher than when I was aged 9-12, because back then I actually had the time to read and it was really only school that got in my way. But here are the top five children’s series/books that come to mind. I tried to stick to books that I don’t see often on these lists. Continue reading

Book Con 2017 Book Haul/TBR

Wow. I spent this past weekend at Book Con in NYC and as a first timer I was completely overwhelmed. But it was also SO MUCH FUN. I wasn’t expecting the sheer amount of people, of insanity, of waiting in line, or the plethora of FREE ARC’s I was privy too. Not only that, but the connections you make with other readers, with other aspiring authors, and, as a blogger, with publicists was beyond my wildest dreams. I drove down to NYC from Michigan with Sierra of Quest Reviews and Laura of Laura Luna Books and we had an absolute blast finding other people like us. So, there will be a more comprehensive post on Book Con sometime in the next week, but for now I wanted to focus on the incredible haul I acquired in the two days of Book Con.

 

books Continue reading