Monday, 28 November 2011

Courtesans in kimonos

Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1999) was a New York Times bestseller for over two years. While I bought the book at the time, there was such hype surrounding it that I chose not to read it until many years later when I grabbed it off my shelf. Geisha’s popularity is immediately apparent: a rags to riches tale set in an exotic locale, steeped in mystery of an ancient Japanese custom.

Told in the first person, the story is narrated by Sayuri, a retired geisha reflecting on her life. Born in a poor fishing village, Chiyo (as Sayuri was known as a child) and her sister Satsu are sold to an okiya, a boarding house for geisha. The girls are separated and Chiyo is sent to an okiya run by a trio of unpleasant women: Granny, Mother and Auntie. It also houses the cruel Hatsumomo, a popular geisha who brings funds into the okiya. 

Despite continually plotting her escape, Chiyo trains to be a geishas alongside Pumpkin. Later Chiyo is taken in as a protégé to another geisha named Mameha. Over many years she struggles to learn the art of being a geisha, has her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder, and tries to find love with a man known as the Chairman.

Golden creates a fascinating world of ritual, art and culture that I found absolutely engrossing. I understand he interviewed real geisha to inform the novel. I don’t know or care whether it is factually accurate, because it was an engrossing and entertaining book from start to finish.

In Sayuri Golden has an interesting protagonist who experiences such broad emotions, from grief to jealousy, love to bitterness, and the reader follows her journey desperate to know her fate. I also loved the delicious bitchiness of Hatsumomo. The Chairman was the only character I felt was a little two-dimensional and in need of more depth.

In 2005 a film was made of Memoirs of a Geisha starring Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Michlle Yeoh, and Ken Watanabe. Filled with beautiful costumes and stunning cinematography, the incredible cast (particularly Gong Li) makes this an enjoyable film. Despite its visually stunning appearance, the film is unable to bring out the richness of Golden’s story and as such I would recommend the book over the film. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Making amends

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) begins at a stately home in the English countryside in 1935. Young Briony Tallis witnesses an interaction, between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son Robbie, which she misinterprets. Briony accuses Robbie of a crime, tearing the family apart. A few years later, the older Briony realises that she blamed the wrong man and begins a lifelong quest for atonement.

McEwan deftly creates Briony and understands her worldview at age 13, on the cusp of adulthood, where her overactive imagination brings about her misunderstanding. He perfectly captures her immaturity and naiveté. As she ages, McEwan allows us to share Briony’s thoughts while she comes to terms with the consequences of her actions.

Throughout the book McEwan directly references a number of other authors and his storytelling is reminiscent of EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. Like Adela Quested falsely accusing Dr Aziz of impropriety at the Marabar Caves, Briony’s actions have ruined many lives. While she seeks forgiveness, how can she ever compensate for her wrongdoing?

Complex themes are explored in Atonement: love and desire, childhood, imagination, family loyalty, war, guilt and shame. McEwan’s descriptive writing draws the reader in and allows full immersion in the summer heat wave, Dunkirk and wartime London. Long after turning the last page I found myself thinking about Atonement.

In 2007 Joe Wright directed the film version of Atonement starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai. It won the BAFTA for best film and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. The cinematography is beautiful and there are excellent performances by the young cast. I would recommend reading the book first to experience McEwan’s brilliant writing and the depth of Briony’s character. 

Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam (1998). I would also strongly recommend his other work, including Enduring Love (1997) and The Child in Time (1987).

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Just go with it

Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in an activity that you haven’t realized how much time has passed? You are so completely immersed in what you are experiencing – be it a conversation, creating artwork, a complicated business transaction, or reading a really good book – that you experience the energized focus of flow.

Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the founder of flow theory and has written a number of books on the subject. His 1998 book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life is an interesting exploration of his theory applied to work, leisure and relationships.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that “we haven’t learned how to spend our free time in a meaningful way” and that we need to use our leisure time effectively. Flow is present when we engage in a hobby or sport (active leisure) but not when we watch TV (passive leisure). Passive leisure is problematic when it takes up all of our free time. He writes “to make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as one would to one’s job.”

While Csikszentmihalyi’s book is interesting, I did not experience flow while reading it. I picked it up and put it down over many weeks. I had expected the book to provide practical advice to readers about how to “reclaim ownership of our lives”, but I found that it was more an explanation of flow than of how to increase the flow in our lives. Ultimately, the message I got was watch less TV and take up a meaningful hobby.

For those interested in learning more, Csikszentmihalyi gave a talk at TED which is available online.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The River's Edge

In 1992 a 14-year-old Dublin girl told her parents that she had been raped by a friend of her father and became pregnant. The girl and her parents planned to travel to England secure an abortion for their child, as abortion was not available in Ireland. The parents informed the Garda of their intentions and inquired about the best way to collect DNA evidence that could be used in the prosecution of the rapist. The Director of Public Prosecutions became involved and the Attorney General obtained an injunction preventing the girl, now known as Miss X, from leaving the country to have an abortion. The public outrage on both sides of the abortion debate was intense resulting in a media frenzy and political commentary. Eventually, the case of Attorney General v X established the right to obtain an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk. Because Miss X was suicidal, she was permitted to travel to England for the abortion, but miscarried before this eventuated.

This case serves as the inspiration for Edna O’Brien’s 1996 novel Down by the River, challenging the church, the state and the people to confront the abortion debate. Young Mary McNamara lives in rural Ireland with her parents. Her mother dies leaving her unprotected from the advances of her father. She becomes pregnant and, ashamed of the incest and concerned that the child will be a ‘freak’, Mary attempts to take her own life by drowning in a river. A neighbour, Betty, prevents the suicide and arranges to take the girl to England to have an abortion but they are forced to return to Ireland where Mary is taken into the custody of the State. Mary then becomes public property with everyone having an opinion on what should happen to her.

O’Brien writes in a beautifully poetic way and I enjoyed her descriptive prose (e.g. ‘a filigree of ash’). But the novel left me cold and at times I was ready to give up on it. Then I would push on, only to find myself engrossed for the next few pages.

It wasn’t the subject matter that put me off this book, but rather O’Brien’s storytelling. Too much is implied rather than described. Perhaps it was the lack of character development – we never really get to know Mary although I imagine O’Brien’s intention was to portray Mary as a girl without her own voice. I would have liked to understand Mary better, but there was a distance between her and the reader. There were many odd scenes where new characters were introduced only to be forgotten three pages later. The ending also seemed rushed and was unsatisfying. All in all, there was much to admire in Down by the River and while I would recommend it for its thought-provoking subject matter, ultimately I felt let down by the storytelling. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

In Da Club

Club Dead (2003) is the third book in the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, on which the television series True Blood is based.

In this novel, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend Bill leaves their hometown of Bon Temps, on a secret assignment for the Queen of Louisiana. Bill tells Sookie to seek protection from Eric Northman if he does not return in eight weeks. Bill does not return so Sookie decides to track him down. With the assistance of Eric, an Elvis impersonator vampire named Bubba, and Alcide Herveaux, a gorgeous werewolf, Sookie heads to Jackson, Mississippi.

Once in Jackson Sookie goes undercover at the underworld club Josephine’s, nicknamed Club Dead – where werewolves, vampires, shifters, goblins and other supernaturals hang out. Here Sookie meets Russell Edgington, the vampire King of Mississippi. Although she is putting herself in danger, Sookie uses her detective skills and quick wit to locate Bill.

Club Dead provides the outline for the third season of True Blood but it is not a direct adaptation. As the TV show is notably different, I was able to enjoy the novel without spoilers. However I cannot read the books without imagining the characters as distinct from the actors who portray them (but they are so brilliantly cast that this is not a problem).

The book is a frivolous confection - not a deep, literary read by any means. But Charlaine Harris engages the reader with her humour. For me these novels are a delightful diversion.  

I look forward to returning to Bon Temps in the fourth novel, Dead to the World (2004). My review of the first two novels is available on this blog: Dead Until Dark (2001) and Living Dead in Dallas (2002)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Dreams of Manderley

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca (1938) begins with the famous line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Each time I read this sentence I am instantly swept away into the tension, drama, suspense and gloom that Du Maurier has created. 

In many ways Rebecca is a modern Jane Eyre. The story involves a young woman who meets a wealthy English widower, Maximilian de Winter, (known as Maxim) in the south of France. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and move to Manderley, Maxim’s mansion on the Cornwall coast where the young bride learns she is not the first Mrs De Winter. Her predecessor, Rebecca, looms large over Manderley and the whole home is infused with her spirit. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, uses the new wife’s insecurities against her by openly comparing her to the beloved Rebecca. 

Desperate and lacking self-confidence, she feels she will never live up to Rebecca and is concerned that Maxim married her hastily. She makes several errors of judgement in a misguided effort to please her husband. Eventually the truth about Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim is revealed in a series of intriguing plot twists.

Narrated in the first person by the young wife, who is never named, Rebecca is told a flash back to the events that took place at Manderley. Not naming the narrator was a clever way to lessen the importance of the bride while elevating the dominant Rebecca. The young girl is naïve, sensitive and vulnerable - a complete contrast to Maxim’s first wife.

Rebecca is a delight that I return to every few years, only to become enraptured over and over again. It is beautifully written and the characters are brilliantly portrayed. Mrs Danvers is creepily evil, Maxim channels Mr Rochester, and Manderley is a character itself. Du Maurier is so descriptive that she allows the reader to be transported to this world.

The story has been filmed many times including a BBC television adaptation in 1980 and again for PBS in 1997. But my favourite remains Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller from 1940. His Rebecca, the Best Picture oscar winner, starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as his new wife, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers.