Memoirs


This novel is Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs of her life as one of Japan’s finest and most popular geisha of her time.

Author :  Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown

Publised:  2003

Publisher :  Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd.)

ISBN: 0-7434-6900-3

No. of  pages :  334

Her Story :

Madam Oima, the proprietress of the Iwasaki okiya, a highly successful geisha house in Gion Kobu,  was happy to find her successor in the pretty, captivating face of five-year-old Mineko.  She petitioned little Mineko from her parents and thus started the career of one of the most foremost geishas in Japan.

At a very early age, Mineko Iwasaki was trained in Japanese dance, music and the arts  in preparation for an illustrous career as a geiko (geisha) and as an honored successor to Madam Oima.  As Japanese art is obsessed with perfection,  Mineko embraced this cultural virtue as her personal creed so that her beauty and relentless mastery of the arts brought great honor and fortune to the house of Iwasaki.

Although Mineko was always surrounded by beauty and privilege,  her life was a life of  self-imposed hard work to be the best — constant training, rigid self-discipline, and grueling schedules.

Mineko Iwasaki

In her memoirs, the author takes care to point out that real geishas are artists, exceptional in the art of traditional Japanese entertainment, which include the highly ritualistic tea ceremony,  traditional dance forms, and the art of conversation, to name a few.  Perceptions of geishas as stylized prostitutes are Western misconceptions which are rooted in the confusion between courtesans (an entirely different group) and geishas.  Being a geisha is to embody the Japanese art form–bringing Japanese artistic perfection to life.   So a geisha is an artistic entertainer par excellance, nothing more.

Mineko’s memoirs chronicles her years as a geisha until her shocking retirement from the business at age 29.

At present, the author is in her fifties and lives with her husband and daughter in Kyoto,  Japan.

The Review :

Through one geisha’s story, we get to take a good look at the mesmerizing and quite secretive “flower and willow” world.  This is a wonderfully descriptive account of the geiko community that upholds and celebrates the perfect feminine.  This is quite an eye-opener, actually, and casts huge doubts on the credibility of works that portray geishas as women of ill-repute.

Overall, it really isn’t a very compelling read but the author has many little stories that keep one’s  interest up — like the time when Prince Charles autographed her favorite fan, uninvited or when she decided to subtly flirt with the Duke of Edinburgh in full view of Queen Elizabeth II, as a little revenge for the Queen’s refusal to eat even a little of a meal which was meticulously planned for the royal visit (Mineko saw this as an unforgivable breach of etiquette).

As informative and interesting these accounts are, one is left with a feeling, though, that the author never allowed the reader to know her very well.  Perhaps, the author is a naturally private person; and also perhaps Ms. Iwasaki  does not possess the expressive skills of a writer.   Rande Brown, who is named as co-author must simply be a translator and not a real writer as well.  This is quite evident in the way the book is written—simple, sometimes bland and amateurish; but, its simplicity is what makes the book very readable and friendly to those who usually shun memoirs.

On The Side :

A little research into Mineko Iwasaki reveals that the author was the major inspiration for Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“.  However,  she sued Mr. Golden for libel and defamation of character in 2001.  Mineko claims that Golden’s book twisted her accounts, betrayed her confidentiality and that his acknowledgement of her being his primary source, has earned her the contempt of the present geisha community.  It is Golden’s depiction of the geisha as a highly cultured prostitute that has earned Mineko a lot of flack, even to the point of receiving several death threats for violating the traditional code of silence.  The suit was settled out of court in 2003.

The New York Times and The Independent have better accounts of this dispute.    An interview granted to The Boston Phoenix talks about Mineko Iwasaki’s decision to publish her memoirs, her corrections on the common misconceptions of geishas,  and her early retirement.

In A Nutshell :

Geisha of Gion” has given me the impetus to select  “Memoirs of a Geisha” as my next read.   Despite having been disparaged by Ms. Iwasaki as an inaccurate depiction of geishas, it nevertheless must have been a result of research into geisha culture and interviews of other geisha.

From the pen of a genuine geisha, and not just any geisha but from the best there was, Geisha of Gion“, though, is the work to take seriously.  I consider myself privileged to have learned about this secretive world from someone who had lived in it and is actually in its roster of  legendary characters.

My Mark  :   Very  Good

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Author : Mitch Albom

Release Date : July 24, 2003

Publisher: Time Warner Paperbacks

Paperback: 212 pages

ISBN-10: 0751529818

ISBN-13: 978-0751529814

“Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back…

The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study…The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience.”

Mitch Albom writes his true story of his last lessons with his old college professor.

Morrie Schwartz was Albom’s favorite mentor who influenced him and guided him in his younger years. After a graduation promise to keep in touch, Mitch loses contact with him through the intervening years following college in which he worked to become a successful sports writer. One day, he learns that his old professor is dying from ALS, and grabs this second chance to see Morrie again. For this, Mitch gets the privilege of being Morrie’s student once more, a sole participant in the last classes for a course on the meaning of life. Every Tuesday, Mitch visits with Morrie who shares his views about our existence. He tackles death, fear, aging, greed, marriage, family, society, forgiveness, and purpose in life.

In one instance, Morrie says,

“Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to envy the young but the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that…You have to find what’s good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive, and age is not a competitive issue. The truth is, part of me is every age. I am a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old, I’m a thirty-seven-year-old, I’m a fifty-year-old. I’ve been through all of them and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate in being a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it’s appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age, up to my own…

How can I be envious of where you are when I’ve been there myself?”

Albom’s books are short reads but heavy with insights. Morrie’s lessons shift our paradigms so we get to look at things with new attitudes. The lessons are universal so I think people of different faiths may be able to relate to the truths Morrie was very clear about.

Indeed, this book is another inspirational gem by Albom. I laughed and cried with the professor’s lessons that really pare life down to its essentials. Another treasured addition to my bookshelf.

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Deborah Rodriguez

Release Date : Dec. 17, 2007

This novel is a true-to-life adventure of a certified hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez who “in 2002,  helped form the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty school and training salon in Afghanistan” (About the Author page __The Kabul Beauty School).  In a country that has mixed feelings on the moralities of beauty salons (unbelievable but true), Deborah’s achievement is all about overcoming cultural barriers and giving hope.

With a germ of an idea and a “can-do” attitude, she raises sponsorships from U.S. cosmetic companies, sometimes personally funding her classes, and practically doing everything she could think of to get the school up and running___even marrying an Afghan so she could stay protected in a country so hostile to women.

Deborah is one person I would like to meet.  Through her book, she strikes me as a bohemian character, energetic, gutsy, quirky, self confident, uninhibited and above all, a woman with a big heart.  I think I will like her if only for the fact that like me, she enjoys a good book with a margarita or two. 

The Kabul Beauty School is an easy, enjoyable read with a down-to-earth writing style and lots of humor to balance genuine, heart-breaking accounts of the women the author has gotten to know.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a whiff of condescension; just sadness at the fact that women in Afghanistan are going through unbelievable oppression.  But the author’s natural optimism still sees hope through the indomitable spirit of Afghan women.  Amidst the pain of cultural subjugation , these women could still find something to laugh about and to hope for , enough to fight for their own personal betterment. In the author’s unique way, she saw their salvation in perms, hair color, and make-up!

I started reading this book in a cafe where I spent two hours sipping my glasses of soda and giggling my way through the pages.  One of the many hilarious paragraphs that gave me the giggles:

“Then I pointed my scissors at Daud.  He had a haircut that was pretty typical of the Afghan men I had seen so far–a sort of pompadour trimmed short in the back with a wad of hair puffed up on top.  It was like the hairdo Elvis had sported in his most hideous days, when he was wearing those tight leather pants and awful capes made by the Ice Capades people.  I hated it. …..”

“…We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband.  Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows.  There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face or privates…We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room–the only one in Afghanistan, I might add…Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their pubic hair removed by others, so they do it at home–they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum.  Either way, the process is brutally painful.  Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian–every pubic hair plucked, front and back–when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.”

You will find this book, funny, sad, outrageous, and candid all at the same time.  It may pique your curiosity to learn more about Afghan culture after this book.  It most certainly did for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute reading it.

I pray Deborah will be able to return to Kabul in the years to come, without fear of reprisals for her book or for simply empowering some women to learn a trade.   Her commitment to open opportunities to Afghan women for making a decent living should be an inspiration to all those who wish to make a difference in this world.

My Mark : Excellent