Saturday, November 12, 2011

12 Books in 12 Months: A Book You Really Don't Want to Read but Everyone Keeps Raving About It

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden

Image via live through books...

The two years I spent teaching English in Japan encompass the life-defining experience of my young adulthood. Elements of that experience are so vital to my sense of self that I have difficulty discussing them with people, even with those I trust completely. Thinking back to my life before Japan is to recall a time before I was fully awake to my surroundings. As such, I am very protective of what I selfishly consider my Japan.

Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997, a year which I spent almost entirely in Japan. While I poured through many novels about the Land of the Rising Sun, I've avoided this one for a long time. It's a book that comes up frequently when I mention my time in Japan - not too surprising considering that it's the most widely-read book about the country since Shogun. But I can't help bristling as I know that for too many Westerners, their concept of Japan - and perhaps of Asia in general - is limited to samurai, ninja and geisha. My own Japan, the ultra-modern Yokohama and Tokyo of the late '90s, is so far removed from that romanticized past that I can't imagine anyone appreciating why it's so important to me. The film Lost in Translation is much closer to my own memories.

It's silly of me, really. Why should my Japan be like Arthur Golden's any more than my concept of New York could be like J.D. Salinger's or my concept of New Jersey could be like Bruce Springsteen's? But while I've lived in those places as well, I don't feel the same way about them - not even close. Thus, I don't feel as threatened by the differences.

I have to admit that I got swept up in the story anyway, which is not to say that the book is without troubling elements. I don't know Mr. Golden personally so I won't make any assumptions about his sexual attitudes. But I met a lot of men with the Japanese woman fetish. (It didn't happen for me. I dated while I was there but almost exclusively Western women.) Apart from the physical attributes, I know that the appeal for a lot of men is the prevailing ideal of demure, subservient Asian women. Geisha are the ultimate embodiment of that ideal. To his credit, Golden does not overly glamorize the geisha world. Sayuri had a rough life and her lot was probably better than most. But very little of her story is self-determined. While that may, indeed, be an accurate reflection of the life of not just geisha but of most Japanese women, she makes for an uninspiring protagonist.

Despite all of that, I enjoyed the book. Only one more to go!


I hope that you, too, will join the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge. Details are here. My own list and books read by others shall be maintained on the pages list on my sidebar. Other blogs currently participating:

My Wife - Wikes! Hikes on the Long Trail
Mrs. Mock - Exclamation Point (!)

Two friends of My Wife are also participating: TonTon via Facebook and The Hermitess via Goodreads.

If you'd care to join the challenge, please let me know by commenting below or e-mailing me at Also, please tell me how and where I can follow your posts. Don't be shy about suggesting other categories, either. It is my intention to compile a new list of 12 once this one is completed. My only parameter is that no one should have to buy anything in order to complete the challenge - nothing beyond a library card required.

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