Books: Memoirs of a Geisha

February 26, 2017

[I wrote this in January and just realized today I had never posted it.]

I’m sure I had heard of Memoirs of a Geisha, but it was never anything I had considered reading before it was announced as our book club’s selection for this month’s meeting. (I’m not sure what I had expected it to be like – true-life memoirs of a geisha, probably.) But that’s one reason I’m in a book club, to read books I wouldn’t be likely to read otherwise (and to have book-loving friends to talk about them with).

The (fake) translator’s note at the beginning notwithstanding, this is not anyone’s memoirs, just a novel written in that form. Apparently it is convincing enough that some people believe there is a real-life Suriya. If the book hadn’t said “a novel by Arthur Golden” on the front (not the name he used for the translator’s note), I might have thought so myself.

Golden does mention under Acknowledgements at the end that it is a work of fiction, but how many people read the Acknowledgements? Usually it is a list of people who are very important to the author but mostly unknown to the average reader. Golden acknowledges that he learned a great deal about the life of a geisha from a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement was a cause of grief rather than gratitude for her, as people blamed her for what Golden had written, even where it was not based on what she had told him. Mineko Iwasaki filed suit against Arthur Golden, claiming that he had agreed to keep her identity secret (he denied this), and that being named in the book had caused serious damage to her reputation in the geisha community (she is retired but has – or had – friendships there).

She later wrote her own book, Geisha: A Life, to tell the true story as a counter to Golden’s fictional version (perversion, in her opinion). While I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Geisha while I was reading it, once I was finished I was disappointed in the way Golden had concluded Suriya’s story. All that struggle and suffering, all the tension in her relationships with the man she wanted and the man who wanted her, and then abruptly it’s all wrapped up and over.

So I was very curious to learn more about the reality behind the novel, and I eagerly looked for Geisha: A Life at the library. There is certainly much that is the same in terms of the daily life and activities of a geisha, or of a girl preparing to become one. But at the end I felt I had a good deal more insight into a geisha’s life from the autobiography than from the novel.

I don’t know how much of that is because I knew it was an autobiography, and how much the difference between someone telling real experiences and someone making them up. You can make up circumstances that are far more dramatic in some cases, but it is hard for an imagined autobiography – especially a debut novel – to have the same psychological depth of a real one, especially in unless the author has similar experiences (which of course Golden has not).

There are heartbreak, cruelty, ambition, triumph, and disappointment in both books. Both tell the story of a girl’s struggle to become a geisha, her triumph, and then leaving that life behind. But on the whole, I found the autobiography to be the better story.

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Books about WWII

July 30, 2016

I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.

Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.

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Books: People of the Book

October 11, 2014

I looked at this audiobook on at least two other occasions before finally deciding to check it out from the library. I’m not sure what made me hesitate – perhaps the phrase “intimate emotional intensity” on the back of the case.

There different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of emotional intensity, some much more pleasant to read about than others. Some books get too intimate, and even with those that are a level – and kind – of intimacy that I would want to read about, sometimes I shy away from because I want to enjoy my commute, not find myself drawn into the wrenching emotional upheavals of someone else’s life.

But I enjoy historical fiction, and I enjoy books about books. I liked the idea of a mystery surrounding a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and the different places in Europe where the book had traveled during its long history. I decided People of the Book was worth checking out.

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Learning history from fiction

April 26, 2014

Like many young people, I had little interest in history when I was in school. It was only interesting when we did special projects, like trying to write a diary as though we were the people in the history we were studying, or “aging” a piece of paper so it looked a bit like old parchment and writing with an old-fashioned pen to imitate some old document.

I did learn the history we studied, though. Between my unusually good memory for all sorts of facts, and my desire to maintain a straight-A average, I picked up a fair amount of knowledge of the history of Western civilization from ancient times until sometime around WWII.

Once I was out of college, I found my interest in history increased. Partly, I suppose, it was the perspective gained from growing up, that the study of what had happened in the past became both more important and more interesting. And I was able to pick and choose what sort of history to learn.

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A bookworm’s holiday

January 1, 2013

Working for a college has the advantage of getting a week and a half off for the holidays, something I haven’t had for many years, unless I took vacation days. (The company I worked for previously did have a mandatory shutdown at the end of December at least two years, and I used vacation days in order to get my normal pay.) So I’ve had lots of time to read lately.

Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey series

I was first introduced to Diana Gabaldon’s writing by my mother-in-law, who gave me the first three (and at the time there were only the three) books of the Outlander series. I like time travel stories, and I like historical fiction, especially when set in the British Isles. I don’t know if my mother-in-law knew that (I had seen her twice, I think, since our wedding), or if she just liked them herself, but I enjoyed them very much.

I’ve found it hard to keep up with Gabaldon’s more recent additions to the series, because they are such long books. Once Jamie and Claire left the British Isles for the New World, I wasn’t sure I was interested enough to buy the novels. And they’re so long that when I borrow them from the library, I have trouble finishing them during the time allotted.

That is one reason I was happy to discover her Lord John series, because the books are much shorter. (When she wrote the second one, she thought of it as a short story, until her agents told her it was the size of a normal book.) I read Lord John and the Private Matter last summer, and Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade sometime this fall.

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Books: A Log Cabin Christmas

December 22, 2011

I don’t normally read any book identified as a romance. I read some romances when I was a teenager and decided that they were not only a waste of time and money, but probably also an unhealthy form of escapism. I have made a few exceptions, such as the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and enjoyed them. There are probably some other good romances out there, but there’s too much junk to be worth sorting through.

I learned about A Log Cabin Christmas from the writer of one of the novellas in this collection. I’ve never met Michelle Ule in person, but we’ve communicated by email, as well as interacting in the Community area at WORLD Magazine. I decided that if I could get the book from the library, I’d at least read Michelle’s “Dogtrot Christmas” even if I skipped the rest.

As it happened, I got the book from the library at about the same time as I was trying to find a book to give to a co-worker. A couple dozen of us at work were doing Secret Santas, and I was buying for someone who likes to read “any kind of book.” That should make it easy, but instead I was stumped. If someone reads just about anything, what are the chances I pick out a book she already has? And I couldn’t feel comfortable buying a book I wouldn’t want to read myself.

Then I noticed A Log Cabin Christmas at Walmart. It was unlikely she had read it. It’s Christmas, so that made it a good Christmas gift. And while I don’t know her well, my guess was that a book with a Christian perspective would go over well. But I still wasn’t going to buy the book without having read at least most of it myself.

I had just finished reading The Sparrow (see my post about it from yesterday). The contrast between the two books is striking. They are very different books, with different goals, but I’m afraid most of these romances seemed pretty shallow in comparison. I enjoyed some of the historical detail, and there were a few interesting characters, but not much to make me think.

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Books: The Curse of the Pharaohs

August 2, 2008

I had been familiar with the name Elizabeth Peters for a long time, because her mystery books are always shelved right before those of Ellis Peters, whose Brother Cadfael books with their mix of mystery and historical fiction are among my favorites. The only thing I had previously read by Elizabeth Peters, however, was a mystery included in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits.

“The Locked Tomb Mystery” was a good story, but not enough to make me pick up a novel by the same author. After all, I’ve never had a great deal of interest in ancient Egypt, as I have in medieval England. And Barbara Mertz (the real person who writes under the name Elizabeth Peters) loves to write about Egypt – not surprisingly, as she has a Ph.D. in Egyptology. (Mertz also writes, under the name Barbra Michaels, gothic and supernatural thrillers, which interest me even less.)

But I’m generally willing to try out a new author when it comes to listening to audiobooks in the car, and The Curse of the Pharaohs proved to be a wonderful introduction to the Amelia Peabody mysteries. This is a series of mystery novels set in Egypt, during the Victorian-era, and features amateur detective Amelia Peabody and her archeologist husband Radcliffe Emerson.

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