Book Club: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

A little girl’s life stolen and contrived for the illusion of a perfect Eastern beauty

Book Club: <i>Memoirs of a Geisha</i> by Arthur Golden

The only novel I’ve ever wanted to read twice in my life, Memoirs of a Geisha is considered by many to be a historical fairy tale that paints a breathtakingly exotic and beautiful world. Written by an evocative author, it tells the story of a character whom we learn to both love and hate.

Taking place in Japan, the novel spans from the early 1900s, when nine-year-old Sayuri is taken away from her family at the age of nine, to the 1950s, when World War II has left the country in shambles. Sayuri is forced to become a geisha: a female Japanese entertainer specialized in the performance arts. Not to be confused with prostitution, the geisha business is dignified and requires years of rigorous and expensive training.

For background, in the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geishas in Japan. Many of them started training at a very young age in a kaburenjo, a school that teaches girls how to sing, dance, play instruments, and perform tea ceremonies. In addition to becoming a skillful artist, the girls must learn how to carry themselves with grace and allure.

A geisha will spend hours getting ready for work. From lavish kimonos to extensive hairdressing routines, a geisha’s main purpose is to please and entertain men, to gain their liking. This is also so that they can earn a danna: a wealthy man who will pay for and take care of them in exchange for a more intimate relationship. The world of geishas is where the gender dichotomy manifests to its fullest, where women are presented as nothing more than an object of desire.

Through her struggles, young Sayuri takes us into a geisha’s world — one where she’s trained to enchant the most powerful men, yet bear no power in choosing whom she can love. Sayuri lives a life like water flowing down a hill, until she splashes into something that forces her to find a new course. Although she leads a glamorous life in the public eye, Sayuri is helpless to her own fate.

Arthur Golden wrote the entire story in the gentle and innocent voice of Sayuri. To create a narrative as historical and as niche as Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden conducted a lot of firsthand research. Golden interviewed Mineko Iwasaki, who became the biggest inspiration for the creation of Sayuri. Iwasaki was a geisha hersel­f — one of the most well-known in Kyoto in her time.

Iwasaki provided Golden with many rich details and insights about her life as a geisha. However, following the book’s publication and success, Iwasaki was enraged. She felt betrayed at the book’s open publicity of her most private matter — namely, her mizuage, which is a ceremony that auctions a girl’s virginity. In addition, there were details in the book that Iwasaki felt were not properly represented. They acted as nothing more than sprinkled glamour that Golden used to write a bestseller.

Whether the alleged mistakes were intended or accidental, it is undeniable that Golden cannot be a perfect writer of Japanese culture. Golden is a man born in America. He never grew up in an okiya or faced the desolation of losing his entire family to poverty. However, what he lacks in experience, he makes up for with imagination and craftsmanship.

If you’re looking for a precise historical account of geisha culture, this book will not be it. But if you’re looking to escape into a world both lyrical and sensual, a world that captivates and evocates, then this is your book.

Opinion: How useful are business self-help books?

Despite extravagant claims, business guides can be a source of inspiration to consumers

Opinion: How useful are business self-help books?

The business world can be a difficult place to navigate — while some people are lucky to have their destination mapped out, others face a slow burn to find the right path to a business goal. In particular, we tend to seek guidance when various paths may be viable but each is laced with different degrees of uncertainty.

When friends and mentors fall short, a world of experience awaits on bookshelves — both physical and digital — with self-help books. The self-help industry was valued in the US at almost $10 billion USD in 2016.

While the focus for self-help titles cover almost every minutiae of daily life, considering how important a successful career is viewed in society, helping people navigate their way through their professional lives comprises a significant genre within self-help books.

Empty promises

The goal of the self-help guru, or the self-help books they write, is to be applicable and approachable to as many readers as possible. This increases the likelihood of the book being a financial success. The need to stand out from the competition and be noticed by the consumer is a reason why these works may reach to make claims and use hopeful language to attract buyers.

Among Amazon’s best-selling business titles are works such as The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure, The 48 Laws of Power, The Laws of Human Nature, and Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence-and How You Can, Too.

These are enticing titles that confidently proclaim the secrets their pages hold, with promises of wealth and power. These false hopes and unrealized promises are what the business self-help industry is notorious for.

Self-help books can be analogous to, and as ubiquitous as, dietary fads. New information is quickly seized upon as the ‘next big thing’ with little evidence to support the claims made. Often, anecdotal tales are used to support certain behaviours and prescribed as the right methods that should be followed to achieve certain outcomes. Furthermore, each reader is likely to judge the relevance of information differently, interpret advice differently, or weigh the same sets of rules differently, based on personal factors.

A guidebook, not a bible

The issue with business self-help books is that there is no follow-up on the effectiveness of the particular methods preached. The people who succeed might retroactively misattribute the reasons for their success to a particular self-help method, while the blame for failure is burdened onto the individual.

Yet proponents of self-help books argue that keeping an open mind and applying the lessons described can be useful. After all, the literature in this category is not meant to be a sure-fire method to the top but rather a mixture of learned processes and opinions from ostensibly successful individuals. Rather than follow the advice to the word, consumers should use the available information to better educate themselves.

Not perfect, but valuable nonetheless

If you are interested in self-improvement through reading, billionaire and business magnate Warren Buffett recommends titles such as The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success and The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns.

Business self-help books can come in the form of a guide for self-improvement, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. They can also be well-researched works that try to explain the causation of success and question common misconceptions, such as Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by ‎Steven D. Levitt‎ and ‎Stephen J. Dubner.

Business self-help books can be great sources of foundational information and potential sources of advice, but the application of said advice should be at the reader’s careful discretion.

Page-turners for year-long learners

Your summer reading list for science books has arrived

Page-turners for year-long learners

Summer is the time to read all the books you didn’t get to during the school year because you were too busy ‘reading’ all those chapters your professor assigned. The following science books will quench your thirst for knowledge even during the hottest of summer days.

Whether you study plants or politics, check them out — these titles can be found at University of Toronto Libraries or your local Toronto Public Library branch.

Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge by Edward Struzik

Read this book to arm yourself against the next climate change denier who tries to tell you that global warming is #fakenews. In Future Arctic, Canadian author Edward Struzik spares no details about the dire state of the Great White North. While some passages about environmental change are more chilling than the Arctic temperature itself, Struzik does not end the book without leaving readers with a hopeful solution on how to mitigate harm to this delicate ecosystem.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Do you ever get so overwhelmed with Earthly affairs that a one-way ticket on a SpaceX ship seems like the best option for escape? If your answer is yes, you may want to read Mary Roach’s hilarious but educational Packing for Mars first. Roach investigates deep into the world of space travel prep and shows readers how the life of an astronaut is not always as glamorous as it seems. Roach explores everything from the psychology of isolation and confinement to the physical limitations of zero-gravity copulation.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

This one is for all you current or future medical students. Toronto doctor Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for this collection of stories about a group of young doctors as they work through med school at U of T and join the fast-paced world of being a Toronto doctor. Read passages about how personal ethics cloud judgment during a cadaver dissection and what it was like to be on the front lines of the SARS crisis.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

Journey on fishing trips around the world with author Paul Greenberg as he outlines society’s relationship with four major commercial fish species: salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna. These trips are no family fishing excursion at the cottage — instead they are a peek into the fragility and bleak future of commercially harvested fish populations. If you eat seafood, take reading Four Fish as your duty to understanding how complex and problem-ridden the fishing industry is.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah

The next time you curse the swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around your head this summer, remember
that an itchy bite is a whole lot better than what you might get from a mosquito if you lived where malaria has yet to be eradicated. Sonia Shah, a science journalist, outlines the history and impact of malaria in The Fever without overwhelming data. According to Bill Gates, if you read one book about malaria, let this be the one.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

A book that is equal parts about the science of cognition and a personal memoir, The Soul of an Octopus details the relationship between a woman and several octopuses at Boston’s New England Aquarium. This humbling story will make you rethink whether these intelligent invertebrates ever belonged in tanks in the first place.

Treating Health Care: How the Canadian System Works and How It Could Work Better by Raisa B. Deber

Written by U of T professor Raisa Deber, this book examines the Canadian healthcare system from different lenses such as economics and ethics. In an interview with the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Deber explains that she wrote Treating Health Care as a toolkit for understanding our current system and how to make it better. With talks of universal healthcare on the horizon and a new Ontario premier in office, you may want to read this book to prepare yourself for the certain changes to our healthcare system ahead.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

The book that inspired the documentary of the same name, Merchants of Doubt remains as relevant as ever in today’s global political climate. The book outlines several historical scandals between science and politics ranging from cigarette smoke to acid rain to global warming. Citizens and scientists alike should read this book to understand why it is important to be both informed and critical of issues that mix science, politics, and money.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Transport yourself to the edges of the galaxy with Douglas Adams’ ever-popular and side-splitting novel. The book centres on a man named Arthur Dent who is saved from the demolition of planet Earth by his alien friend Ford Prefect. The two hitchhike throughout the galaxy, meeting friends and foes alike. Wherever you go this summer, don’t forget to bring your towel!

The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario by Janice M. Hughes

Whether you are an experienced birder or can’t tell a sparrow from a swallow, check out the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) field guide to the birds of Ontario — you may just find a rare species in your own backyard. Birds not your thing? The ROM also puts out field guides for fish; reptiles and amphibians;  butterflies; and wildflowers.

Seven books of transformation

These powerful reads will inspire you to change

Seven books of transformation

Halloween is a time of transformation, as our everyday surroundings become darker and more sinister. In this spirit, I offer you this reading list as a spell for resurrection, more powerful than simply washing your sheets or changing your hair colour. Good luck.

The Trouble With Being Born by Emil M. Cioran

Validation for the unmotivated, this book offers an answer to the mysteries of life. Read it on the floor of your teenage bedroom, listening to Jimmy Eat World.

How To Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

Glittering and striking, with prose that feels like an Adderall high, this book offers comfort to everyone who knows that escape routes can sometimes become prisons. A manifesto for the lonely party girls, this book teaches you to look for the beauty in small moments.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

For anyone who has ever contemplated murdering an ex: read this under a blanket to protect your exposed nerves. This book will destroy you in a good way.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

A dystopian novel that feels painfully real. Read this and understand the urgency of change. Give a copy to everyone you’ve ever loved.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Bewitching and at times horrifying, this book feels like a fever dream. Dedicate yourself to this reading after you’ve swiped on scarlet lipstick and smudged your mascara. This book offers a strange rebirth to make you want to try again.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Required reading if you’re haunted by jealousy, and recommended for anyone looking to be seen. For the madwomen in the attic, those who’ve worked hard to be loved, and everyone who occupies the space between good and evil. Read this in a gothic mansion, with nails painted black.

My Ariel by Sina Queyras

A prayer of resurgence for all the angry girls, reading this is a good thing to do if you feel stuck. This is the kind of book you steal from your best friend’s shelf and never give back.

Rest, relax, and read

From Greek myths to Moby Dick, here are our downtime picks

Rest, relax, and read

Summer is a time for taking it easy, spending time with the people you love, and recovering from the trauma of exam season. It’s also a time for catching up on the things you love. For all of the bibliophiles out there, here are our required reading picks for this summer.

Fifteen Dogs

One book that I recently read and loved was André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, which was recommended to me by my chiropractor. The plot starts with two Gods, Apollo and Hermes, who make a wager on whether or not animals, if given human intelligence, die happily. They decide to play out their bet by granting human consciousness to fifteen dogs in Toronto. The story follows the lives of these dogs, examining their emotions, decisions, and thoughts as they navigate their new reality. The book is described as an apologue – an allegorical story meant to convey a moral or lesson. Released last year, it won both the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The story was fairly short in length, but very engrossing.

—Linh Nguyen

Fates and Furies

Good summertime reads are often fluid, intense, and expertly crafted. If there is one book that embodies all of these qualities, it is Lauren Groff’s 2015 release and National Book Award finalist, Fates and Furies.

Lotto and Mathilde are young, daring, and complicated characters who fall deeply in love – fast. Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto’s rise and fall as an aspiring actor and playwright, with Mathilde standing fastidiously by his side at all times, doting on the genius of her husband. The first half of the book, told from Lotto’s point of view and entitled “Fates,” is intense, sensual, and moves at a rapid pace. Years pass, and Lotto and Mathilde weather their storm of a marriage.

The true power of the novel, however, lies in the second half, told from Mathilde’s perspective and entitled “Furies.” Suddenly, what appeared to be a rather wholesome marriage fraught with few cracks is split wide open, complicated by secrets and dramatic pasts. We are forced to question what is real and what is not, the nature of the personas we craft for ourselves, and whether or not an embodiment of such a personality is true.

Groff’s writing is elegant and intense; every scene she crafts is heavily laden with intent, and while at times she pushes the reader too forcefully towards a certain conclusion — especially when Groff writes with Mathilde as narrator — the novel is overall a seamless piece of art and well worth a read this summer.

—Hannah Lank

The Travises Series

It’s undeniable that romance as a genre leans heavily on the prospect of marriage at the end of the story. This doesn’t mean that romance novels can’t be page turners, but it does mean that a reader has a basic expectation of a happy ending. It’s precisely because of this that romance is a perfect addition to anyone’s summer reading list, so here’s a recommendation that I myself have returned to again and again.

Lisa Kleypas is a prolific romance writer who has written several book series, but my personal favourite will always be the one with the simple name: The Travises. Comprised of four books — Sugar Daddy, Blue-Eyed Devil, Smooth Talking Stranger, and Brown-Eyed Girl — the novels follow the four siblings of a powerful Texan family in search of love.

Against the backdrop of larger-than-life Houston, Kleypas makes subtle efforts to explore complex issues, such as race and class, through charming characters that she deftly steers towards the finish line. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself letting out more than one contented sigh, or flipping back to the beginning immediately after finishing a book. In the end, the journey is the destination, or something like that.

—Reut Cohen

Bonjour Tristesse

Lovers of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and other rich people shenanigans are sure to appreciate this book. François Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse revolves around a character named Cécile, who attempts to thwart the newly announced wedding of her womanizing father. It might just be the shallowest book of the twentieth century, with the most unlikeable character I have ever encountered in my literary career, but there is something in its ambience that attracts me to it.

Toward the end of the novel, I found myself even relating to Cécile. She is a teenager who is full of solipsistic nonsense and is obsessed with her relationships with the people around her. She is always striving for an ideal love that is only available to those who exist in the universe of romantic comedies, which is why she finds herself doomed to fail. Cécile is the dissolute anti-hero that we can all relate to, even though the novel was written in 1954.

You’ll feel three things at once upon finishing this book: shame, because you identify with the shallowest character of the twentieth century; guilt, because you secretly want to watch all these rich characters meet their end; and unaccomplished, because François Sagan was only eighteen when she published this classic.

—Alif Shahed

Moby Dick

“Call me Ishmael” — the first words in Herman Melville’s 1851 adventure-epic Moby Dick are regarded by many as one of the most memorable opening lines in classic literature.

Told from the perspective of a young sailor known as Ishmael, this American Renaissance novel centres on the exploits of the whaling ship Pequod and its captain’s relentless quest to seek and destroy Moby Dick, the great white whale. Hot at its heels, captain Ahab and his crew are led on a daring chase through the great oceans of the world. But, all that glitters isn’t gold, and soon enough, Starbuck, the good-natured chief mate begins to question Ahab’s state of mind. Is the captain’s extreme infatuation with the whale the characteristic of an experienced killer, or rather the sign of a tormented soul, pushed to the brink of self-destruction?

The story of Moby Dick is culturally significant because it epitomizes what was largely missing from the industrial societies of the nineteenth century: meaning in life and respect for nature. Staying true to the writing style of the times, Melville develops a rich, comprehensive account of the whaling industry that brilliantly complements the extraordinary adventures of the Pequod. Truly, Melville’s genius lies in his ability of giving the story an intimate feel despite its grand scale. Emerging from a tumultuous period in history, Moby Dick triumphs as one of the great novels of its time.

—Hugo Vieira