Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl in Japan who is both blessed and cursed with beautiful blue-gray eyes. When her mother dies, her father, who is very old, sells her and her older sister, Satsu, to an okiya (a house where geisha live). Satsu isn't as pretty as Chiyo, so she is resold to a house of prostitution, while Chiyo stays on in the okiya. Chiyo's natural beauty makes her the focus for the jealousy of Hatsumomo, the one successful geisha living in the okiya. As the plot moves along Chiyo, who is renamed Sayuri, deals with jealousy and betrayal, but also finds friendship and kindness. The research that went into writing this novel has produced a fascinating and educational portrayal of the lives of geisha during the mid twentieth century, but Arthur Golden has also produced a work with strong characters who captivate his readers.

At one point in the book, prostitutes and geisha are called something to the effect of “distant cousins.” I suppose that description is accurate, because they both make money by entertaining men. But the geisha portrayed in Memoirs of a Geisha are careful about their reputations and instead of offering sexual favors to a number of men, look for wealthy patrons to become their “dannas.” In this way they are more like mistresses than prostitutes. Yet they seem to be so much more. They study their art in special schools where they learn dance, singing, storytelling and how to play a musical instrument called the shamisen. They are artists and celebrities.

One of the aspects of this novel I found fascinating was the fact that it was set in Japan before and after World War II. The impact of the war on the life of the geisha was primarily economic. There was very little discussion about the war other than how it affected other geisha. And after the war was over the geisha began to entertain the Americans. They seemed amazingly apolitical.

Memoirs of a Geisha does what good novels do best, it takes its readers to a different place and time and lets us into the lives of the people living there. I would recommend it to most anyone who enjoys good fiction and if you read it years ago, it would be worth picking up again.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret FanSnow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a few books recently that show the problems faced by women who lived in different times and locations. The Blood of Flowers takes place in 17th century Persia and Memoirs of a Geisha takes place in mid 20th century Japan. In both those books women were placed in difficult situations just because they were women. But I believe the wealthy women of 19th century China as portrayed in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, had the hardest lives. The poor Chinese women of that period also had hard lives, but their troubles were based more on their economic situations than on their gender. They spent most of their lives working their small farms. The wealthy women were taught from birth that their only value would come from giving birth to sons, hopefully the sons of a rich man.

To have a chance at a good marriage to a man in a wealthy family, women had to be attractive. They achieved this level of beauty by having their feet bound at a young age, generally six or seven. This process killed one in ten girls and left the survivors crippled to various degrees. The women who had the most successful binding experience still could not run or even walk fast. The less fortunate women were sometimes unable to walk without using canes.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan spends a great deal of time on the subject of foot binding, but that isn't the only problem those women suffered. When they were young girls they were allowed to play outside, but after they reached the foot binding age they spent most of their lives in an “upstairs women's rooms” with the other women in their family. They spent their days weaving, sewing, and telling stories to each other. They were constantly reminded by their mothers that they were worthless. And, of course, the mothers were the ones who bound their feet, complicating that important relationship in ways that are unimaginable.

The women of that period were not allowed to learn men's writing, so they developed their own written language called nu shu. Men knew about this language but considered it too insignificant to acknowledge. The two main characters of this book, Snow Flower and Lilly used nu shu to write to each other on the folds of a fan.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan felt like two books to me. The first part was interesting because of what it taught me about Chinese society, but I didn't get into the characters until the second part. After that the relationship between Snow Flower and Lilly was fascinating. Their friendship had problems that could apply to people in any place and time. There was lying, jealousy, competing and misunderstanding, but there was also hope, loyalty and love. It seems that the relationships between women in that society was made stronger by the difficulties and isolation they had to bear. Although the women went to their husbands for “bed business,” they slept with other women and sometimes their relationships were sexual.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a great book for people interested in learning about living in different places and times.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

The Red GardenThe Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Red Garden is a collection of loosely connected short stories. The connections come primarily through the setting, Blackwell, which is a small town in rural Massachusetts once known as Bearsville. A few characters show up in multiple stories, but for the most part each story moves years forward so the characters from one are now either dead, missing, or old enough to be living through their memories. I love Alice Hoffman's writing style. This book, like the others I've read (The Third Angel and The River King) is best described as magic realism. That's a term that has been used in many ways, but in Hoffman's case I intend it to mean a set of circumstances that begin with a realistic feel but sometimes branch off in interesting ways. The Red Garden has a garden where everything planted in it turns red. It also has a number of bears who have unusual relationships with some of the humans. It has a young, female spirit known as the Apparition. And of course it has characters who know things others don't. These are just some of the examples where Hoffman steps away from the world's definition of reality and into her own.

I prefer Hoffman's books, such as The River King, where characters remain in the story longer. With this collect I felt as if I was starting over again with each new tale. I didn't realize that would be the case when I began reading the book. I enjoyed the latter stories more than the earlier ones because by that time I understood where Hoffman was going.

The Monster of Blackwell was one of my favorites in the collection. It's Hoffman's version of the Beauty and the Beast story. In this case an ugly, misfit young man comes to the woods outside Blackwell. Children in the town catch glimpses of this man and label him a monster. But when Kate Partridge, a teenaged camp counselor, has a group of children in the woods this monster saves one of them from a bear. (Bears are constantly appearing in all the stories.) Kate falls in love with this man despite their different backgrounds.

The stories are a mix of heartbreak and happiness. This is my third Alice Hoffman book and I intend to read more.

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