Memoirs of a Geisha – By Arthur Golden

Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

You may have watched the film, as I had, but forget your judgements – the book is so much more powerful: sad, beautiful, persisting. As I sometimes feel after I’ve finished a treasured book, my life seems altered in a small way forever. This is the story of a young girl’s struggle through life, the goals that she strives for, and her unfaltering – yet unglorified – kindness to the people around her.

Memoirs of a Geisha holds the life-story of Chiyo (who later becomes Sayuri), from her birthplace in the fishing village of Yoroido to her new existence in the Geisha district of Gion. The girl, with her pale blue-grey eyes, is said to have a water-based personality, impotent as she flows towards her destiny. It is true that she holds a strong, unwavering destiny, but she is nonetheless stubborn and utterly determined, staying true to her vows and desires until she eventually achieves them. The protagonist is likeable, thoughtful, kindhearted, but some feel jealousy and resentment towards her, and impede her. When a man, the Chairman, shows her unexpected and unprescribed kindness, she vows to give her life to him in the hopes of one day winning his favour as a renowned geisha. Despite eventually becoming a distinguished geisha, however, her mission proves far more difficult than she imagined. For women, and especially geisha, do not chase after their own destinies or desires; they are expected to accept and appreciate the favour of whomever. It would be forbidden, unheard of, for Chiyo, now Sayuri, to seek out the Chairman’s favour. She continues with her life as a geisha, experiencing great hardships many turns of fate, but never forgetting her love for the Chairman.

I couldn’t stop talking about this book while I was reading it, enthralled as I was by the fascinating Japanese culture, vibrant characters and, most of all, the heart-wrenching love story. Golden writes beautifully and yet not overly elaborately. I can’t recommend this book enough, especially to people who are interested in learning about Japanese culture and modern history, or simply enjoy life-stories of interesting people.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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A break from the stresses of life: Not Working – by Lisa Owens

Fictional Memoir, Romance

It’s three weeks into the term and I’m itching to read something other than a textbook or assigned reading. Usually it’s the tv show de jour that gets in the way of my reading, but for the first time ever, it’s sleep – or rather, school work – that’s stopping me. I need to escape, to be whisked away to another world, another life. But every time I pick up a book, my eyes glaze over as I struggle to stay focused. Even when reading, I can’t escape. I know these are just the tell-tale signs of a book rut, but I don’t see a way out!

That is, until I spot the cheery, bright blue cover in the library practically screaming out for me to pick it up. The title, too, draws me in: ‘Not Working’. Sounds perfect for me – almost eerily so. I turn to the blurb and find that, whilst it seems targeted to a slightly older demographic, I’m nonetheless intrigued and eager to at least give it a go – what do I have to lose, right? The other book I picked up was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wasn’t about to start on that any time soon (or at least not during term time).

I soon discovered Not Working was the kind of book I could pick up, enjoy, put down and not feel especially drawn to pick it up later. It was, as I’d hoped for, an easy read, a welcome escape, but I didn’t feel invested in the story. As suggested by the blurb, I struggled to relate to the protagonist: Claire, a woman in her late twenties, early thirties who’s just left her job to search for her true calling – whatever that may be. It turns out she really has no idea, and considers careers as offbeat as authoring blue plaques and screenwriting – despite having never previously shown an interest in either. Meanwhile, her neurosurgeon boyfriend continues to work hard; although he supports her completely in her ‘journey’, she nonetheless resents being in his shadow – always ‘Luke’s girlfriend’, she longs to be a person in her own right, someone making a real difference in the world.

Whilst I found it hard to empathise with Claire’s problems, I loved reading about her nonetheless. I increasingly found her voice soothing, like chatting with an old friend: she’s honest, funny, self-deprecating. Unlike so many ‘finding yourself’ books, Not Working features absolutely no meditation, yoga or travel to exotic lands. Claire doesn’t take herself too seriously and it makes for an easy, enjoyable read. She’s an average person – average looks, average intelligence, average character. But whilst that may sound unappealing, that’s exactly what makes her so endearing – she represents so many women who’ve felt inadequate or lacking in purpose. Suffering a quarter-life crisis she searches hopelessly for a job that may not exist: the perfect job for her, tailor-fitted for her talents and desires.

Although incredibly easy to read, especially as the chapters themselves are split up into short sections, Not Working is long and slow up until the last quarter. The writing can be monotonous and uninteresting which, although perhaps accurately depicts Claire’s life, is not especially entertaining to read. And whilst the end is riveting, it leaves much frustratingly unresolved! I have so many questions that I won’t delineate for fear of spoiling, but I can confidently say I was left unsatisfied by this book.

Still, I enjoyed this book immensely; it was exactly what I needed. If you’re looking for the next literary canon book, perhaps this isn’t for you. However, if you love books like Bridget Jones’ Diary you’ll definitely enjoy Not Working.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Not-too-distant Dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale – by Margaret Atwood

Classic Literature, Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance

Security and liberty. One is often sacrificed for the other. What measures, what infringements on our liberty would we accept to ensure our security – from terrorist attacks, poverty, unemployment, ideas that we disagree with – is sustained?

The Handmaid’s Tale is an answer. Gilead, the envisaged future of America, initially seems alien from our society; as the book progresses, however, disturbing similarities emerge.

Women are property, kept in the home as either elite wives, ‘Martha’s’ who do the household chores, or handmaids who must produce offspring. Offred is the handmaid in the book’s title, and the book is her story. She vividly describes her life before, during and after becoming a handmaid: her daughter and husband whom she loves and misses painfully; her traumatic yet nostalgic time in the ‘Red Center’ where the ‘Aunts’ (pious women who uphold the regime) labored to inculcate her with the virtues of being a handmaid; her hyper-controlled, mundane life serving her assigned family.

I developed a morbid fascination with Offred’s miserable life (Atwood’s writing is captivating and vivid). Often as Offred speaks to the reader, her narrative devolves into random trains of thought, revealing her mental instability and loneliness. Initially, for the cause of safety from terrorism, people sacrificed their liberties; in time, the authorities expropriated them and became a greater threat than the official fear of terrorism. The repression took two forms: against society as a whole, and much more so against women in society. Atwood unfolds the profound links between Gilead and our world gradually, until the Tale’s glaring warning can no longer be ignored.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

In fact, the similarity is more poignant than even Atwood suggests, as Egyptian-American activist and author Mona Eltahawy describes in her NYT Op-Ed (here). In it she comments on the similarity between Saudi women’s lives and the lives of women in Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale remains ever-relevant, thanks not only to its presence in modern-day patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia’s but also to the popular Hulu series based off the book.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

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Unfiltered Coming of Age: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Rommely as she grows up, living in an immigrant community in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Her family are poor, eating a limited diet and keeping to a frugal lifestyle. Like so many in their neighbourhood, Francie’s father takes his Sunday suit to the pawnbroker’s every week, and Francie dreams of someday buying a book for herself rather than borrowing one from the library. A Tree, however, does not urge you to pity the poor or feel guilty about your affluence, nor does it romanticise poverty. Francie’s mother, Katie, exemplifies that dignity and hard work are far more precious to many than free hand-outs or sympathy; the strong woman is driven by the desire to better herself and her family, and would never accept charity. This book is about growing up, facing challenges and hardships, and coming to your own conclusions about life and the world. Francie, in all of her flawed, human self, is intelligent, honest and thoughtful; I dream to be half the person she is and becomes.

When I started A Tree, I was distracted, and was not hooked; I forced myself to read it when I had nothing else to do. The book became more engaging once Francie began to experience difficulties – her mother’s evident favouritism for Francie’s brother, Neeley; the death of her beloved father; the teacher who told her to write about beauty rather than her complex life in poverty. (These mentions do not spoil the book, either, as it’s no thriller – A Tree moves at the natural pace of life and memories, and there are few plot surprises.) I found myself moved by Francie’s realisations about how life is passed on and enriched through inheritance of traits and looks, and was inspired by her experience with her teacher and consequent discarding of all things deemed ‘beautiful’ and quaint. These, coupled with her profound and honest insights about life, make Francie wise, insightful and rounded.

For the most part, she lives an ordinary life. But her experiences are richly depicted so they seem real yet fascinating, reminding me of Francie’s comments on story-writing and ’embellishing’ the truth (although I don’t believe that this is what the author did, especially as the story is semi-autobiographical). Some ideas are naive and idealistic, but they’re also heart-warming, hearkening to the nostalgia and familiarity of the American Dream; I don’t believe there is any real harm in believing in the unlikely, especially as Francie herself (and the author) grows up to be successful.

In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.

If you’re looking for a captivating book, do not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the power of this book is in its authentic characters and the universal experiences they share. This book is equally suitable for a child as for an adult – enjoy!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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The lives of Ugandan women: Crossroads – By christopher Conte

Non-Fiction

I don’t usually read books like this, and when it was sent to me, I was wary about what it would be like. However, despite my reservations, I decided to read it, and I’m glad I did.

Crossroads is a collection of autobiographical essays written by Ugandan women, describing their lives and the difficulties they have encountered. The selection of topics discussed is broad, relating to both ‘Ugandan’ issues and universal ones – from sex, sexuality and gender roles to NGOs, torture and corporal punishment. The women, living in modern Uganda, insightfully describe Western influences versus traditional customs, exploring their benefits and drawbacks.

The authors of Crossroads, writing passionately yet with measure and control, explore the nuanced reality of living as modern, Ugandan women.  The book’s brevity is powerful, because none of the stories are boring or drawn-out; the purpose of the collection is to highlight impactful parts of the women’s lives, relating to a theme. This focus ensures that the reader is not overwhelmed by an excess of information, and can freely come to their own conclusion about the importance of western values in traditional societies like Uganda.

My favourite of the stories is ‘No time for pain’, which is written in the second person; it describes a woman’s isolation as she struggles to live a normal life with the memory of her war-torn childhood. Her account of grief and detachment is well-written and easy to relate to, and is complimented by her well-considered commentary on the long-term effects of war and refugee camps on the society she lives in.

I urge you to read Crossroads if you are interested in Ugandan life and stories about women’s coming-of-age. This collection of essays is readable and fairly short; it is appropriate for mid-teenagers and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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Thanks to Christopher Conte for providing me with a digital copy of this fascinating collection of essays for review.