Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha 2

oOnce again, this was a book that should have stopped a little earlier, and not persisted in tying up all the ends, leaving a little mystery to wonder about, perhaps to add our own mental image of Sayuri after she was rescued by the Chairman. Did she really want a sexual relationship with him? He was probably the first person who had been really kind to her and a lot older. This makes him more of an idealised father figure and I would love to think that that was the relationship rather than him using her for sexual gratification like all the other clients. Sex must have been greatly devalued in her eyes. (Perhaps a female author would have written it differently.)
I saw the film the day I finished the book, so I was very aware of the differences in the film. Most of the story was present although telescoped and the atmosphere and sets of old Kyoto were very well done. The biggest problem was the delivery of the dialogue in English. I would have preferred it to be in Japanese with subtitles, as the accents made it tortured with strange emphases. The acting was rather hammy except for Sayuri, who was very good. The subtlety of the attraction between the Chairman and Sayuri in the book was quite lost and became heavy handed. Several parts of the story were changed which removed the slow-burning tension and added drama that wasn’t needed and scenes were set outside rather than inside and an awful lot of rain came down. And Nobu had two arms!

I think the book was far better than the film, but I hope to see it again when on DVD to appreciate the good points when a little time has passed and my memory has faded. (Won't take long.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Good time girls

Valerie, as usual, has the mot juste for me: slow-burning suspense in Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the plot, subject and characters, and it lingered in my mind more than many better-written but hollow books I've read. I don't mean to sound half-hearted, but it's quite a novelty for me to recommending a book which wasn't written in exquisite prose! The style, for me, was rather self-conscious or faux naive, but it was a slow-burner because it definitely got me hooked and has, as I say, lingered.

Spoiler follows: I suppose we're going to have to have a disagreement about the ending, you bleak-ending fanatics? I agree it was hardly likely, but it was at least (I felt) possible, and that was enough for me. I saw enough of the casualties of the system (Hatsumomo, Mameha after the war, Pumpkin) to be educated about its dark side.

What did you think about the male author? How convincing was he as a woman? Myself, I found the culture and mindset sufficiently alien that I couldn't tell if my niggles about the self-conscious style were deliberate or down to gender or what. The style also seemed, to me, to be rather more romantic than I'd expect. Would Sayuri really have been so fixated on pursuing a romantic dream, to her own danger, when she had such a sterling admirer as Nobu and came from such a repressive culture and in which she'd had no exposure to the romantic ideals of love we in the West take for granted? Help, please!

That was one of the reasons I was unworried about seeing the film. Much as I'd enjoyed the book, it wasn't for its nuances but for its atmosphere, if that makes any sense, and I thought that could be conveyed well in film. I also felt the romantic tendencies were rather (too?) Hollywood anyway, and that therefore the film wasn't likely to be a traversty. Valerie may be poised to disagree, but I did indeed find the two versions somewhat akin. Certainly, some of the plot and character subtlety was lost in the film, which was a real shame, but Hatsumomo came across as a glittering force (appropriately more attractive than anyone else!) and Pumpkin came to life and Mameha was, courageously, cast as both old and stunning enough. But what I did really get from the film was what the thing looked like - in all its alien pagentry and beauty.

But back to the book... I really did enjoy it. Somehow I seem to be able to express my criticisms better than my praise, but I shall continue to re-read it and recommend it. But I want to hear what you others think!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Time apart

Yes, I think Val's suggestion of deferring Memoirs of a Geisha to March and We need to talk about Kevin to April is sensible - we don't want this to be a chore! I'd only suggested March for the latter since Helen S had pointed out the Radio 4 link-up in March, but the listen-again facility (hooray!) finesses that anyway. And having been to some lengths to get hold of the Shriver, I can advise 1. It's no short novel and 2. Libraries aren't useful at present, since every reading group in the county seems to be reading it and 3. Therefore I only have my own copy, which I won't be able to lend out for awhile.

If anyone is wanting a book in between and/or is waiting to get hold of We need to talk, I've recently read A month in the country by J L Carr, which is super-short and I enjoyed very much. Do I have a volunteer to read it and tell me what the ending means, please?

While dryly amusing, it's not "a comic novel", so I wouldn't suggest it for our "funny" book... Although since Helen S helped edge me into agreeing to We need to talk, I refuse to be held responsible for it being bleak, and required to provide light relief! Any more humourous choices welcome - best to email me direct - but I agree with Val that I find humour rather like compulsory family fun on Bank Holidays - best avoided and rather more enjoyable when it comes upon you subtly, and unawares. Which fits with Helen S's point about irony, that most oblique form of humour...

I do, I'm afraid, have to disagree with Val on inadvertent humour. I cannot, offhand, think of a single occasion where it's the writer's unintentional humour which amused me. (Do, please, give me examples from what I've read if you can.) I think Helen's right about irony being superb comedy - it's usually the writer who knows exactly what the disparity is between reality and appearance, and the character/s who don't. Someone like Alan Bennett, for all his protestations about being a low-key observer, is frighteningly bright and deliberate, and I don't think there's a single effect in his writing which he didn't mean. He's just too talented. Authors who don't realise that/why people are laughing, for instance Jeffrey Archer, don't mean to be funny and would be cross if you laughed, and have made people laugh precisely by being so ham-fisted.

But I utterly applaud Val's point about not being forced to laugh - I like my humour done with a light touch, and being allowed to find it funny by myself (ie treated as an adult capable of working things out) and that's why I avoid reading blurbs on the back of books, since they tell me what to think (and they're almost always wrong). If the writer has the confidence to make their point and leave me to appreciate it as I wish, they're almost invariably very skilled and are likely to be able to amuse me, even if their style isn't laugh-out-loud. What do you lot think?

By the way, Helen - try chapter 4 of Three men in a boat - one of the only things which still makes me laugh uncontrollably every time I read it. Men and a dog packing - priceless. Not comedy but gritty documentary drama, as the American comic Greg Proops commented on Fawlty Towers, having tried to get lunch in a British hotel after 2pm and realised the veracity of the show...

Will post on Memoirs of a Geisha shortly.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

funnily enough

I agree absolutely with Helen’s blog on humour in novels. Everyone I’ve asked nominates Scoop, but I found the humour there mostly tedious and overworked. (I say mostly, because there are some better bits.) Like Helen, I think Trollope (A) and also Galsworthy are writers who can be very funny, but I think that’s because humour that appeals to me is often inadvertent: often the writer doesn’t mean it to be funny, or leaves you with sufficient doubt about his/her motives that you don’t feel you are being required to laugh. It also means that it is almost impossible to convey to anyone else what exactly you have found so funny. Perhaps my response to humour has been significantly influenced by AA Milne: I laughed at the Pooh books as a child and still do as an adult. They say we all misquote Hamlet everyday, many times a day, but in our family it is Milne (as well). Maybe I haven’t move on? So I don’t have a suggestion to cheer us up after Kevin, and really really hope no-one else does either, because if I’m told it’s funny, it won’t be.
As I for one am falling rather behind, could Geisha be March and Kevin April?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

I really enjoyed this book. It combined a very good tale of slow-burning suspense with the interest of the geisha of Kyoto. The female jealousy in the fight for survival by girls using their charms to pull themselves out of poverty was powerfully handled. They learnt very quickly how much their future depended on being attractive to the rich men able to support a geisha and only the best would be successful. Although basically prostitutes, the complex dress code and musical,dance and social skills the girls have to learn raised their status.
The information seemed well researched and it was fascinating to learn about something that has always been quite mysterious and exotic, even though the reality of the girls’ situation was vulnerable and sordid. In spite of being forced to leave her family at too early an age Sayuri was bright enough to grab her opportunities and eventually was able to mix and converse with the higher echelons of society.
The story was long and detailed, but gradually increased in suspense, which made the book quite a page-turner. The characters were vibrant and well described. Sayuri’s story is told by herself to the ‘author’ in later life, so we have an idea of how she survives her ordeal, but that does not seem to detract from the power of the story. Jolly good book.

Then I went to see the film.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Funny, Isn’t It?

Just an interlude musing...

Whilst waiting for you all to post on Memoirs (I read it a while ago and am keen to see what you all thought) I read The Shipping News by E.Annie Proulx as a number of you had said how good it was. I did enjoy it as it evoked a wonderful sense of place (had no idea where Newfoundland was, let alone what it was like) and some very real characters. Proulx’s very staccato writing style was very interesting and took me a while to get used to but proved very effective in the end. She also used capitalisation in a much less irritating way than Rosoff.

However, the book was not what I was expecting as the reviews on the back talked about it being ‘funny’ and ‘comic’ and, although there were parts I found quirky and amusing, I certainly did not find it laugh-out-loud funny. All of which got me thinking about humour in books. I have yet to find a novel which has really made me laugh. Books that people have recommended to me as funny I have not ‘got’ and often find the characters or plotline tragic or banal instead! I suppose that having an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter enables one to be better able to laugh at it (which is why I probably struggled with Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, but chuckled at Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope). I also wondered whether it was because my favourite vehicle for humour is irony and that is often difficult to communicate using the written word as so much is dependent on tone of voice and facial expression (although I think Jane Austen manages to do it pretty well with Mr Bennett in P & P).

Is it only me who has this difficulty? What books have made others laugh out loud? Perhaps, Emily, if we're going 'bleak' in March perhaps we ought to explore 'comic' in April?