Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Tiny Dancer by Anthony Flacco

Genre: Biography
List Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0312343337
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin's Press (Sep 2005)


Author's website with pictures and videos

Dr. Peter Grossman's page on Zubaida Hassan

I was reading Amulya Malladi's blog recently and she was wondering why we as readers are so fascinated with pseudo survival stories. She wondered why it is when people like James Frey voluntarily go down a path of destruction, and then emerge victorious out of their self-made hell we shower them with accolades, congratulatory messages and make heroes out of them. I suppose the question she is asking is, in celebrating people like him are we short-changing the real survivors here? Well, there's atleast one little survivor I wanted to make sure gets her due and she is the subject of Anthony Flacco's book "Tiny Dancer".

In July of 2001, when Zubaida Hassan was only 9 years old, she had a horrific accident with a kerosene fire stove in her tiny desert village in Afghanistan. Her burns were so bad that most people, including the local doctors gave up on her believing she wouldn't have the strength to last more than a few days, but Zubaida had other plans and clung to life with all her might. In a serendipitious event Zubaida's father runs into an US marine who is so moved by the plight of this plucky little girl that he bends the rules to get Zubaida into the US clinic which is only meant for marines or Afghans accidently wounded by American soldiers. The doctors there soon realize that if this little girl is to be saved she would have to be sent to the US for treatment and then reconstructive surgery. (note: I would recommend going to Dr. Peter Grossman's photo album of Zubaida right now - there's a link provided at the top - to get an accurate idea of how horrific her burns were).

So begins the story of Zubaida's courageous journey from this little village of Afghanistan where even a car was a rarity, to the busy and bustling city of Los Angeles (imagine the huge culture shock!) where she spent two years undergoing a whole series of operations at the "Grossman Burn Center" under the care of Dr. Peter Grossman who also became her host parent when things with Zubaida and her host Afghan family went sour. You would have thought that placing Zubaida with people from her own culture would have been the most ideal decision, but, for Zubaida, the Afghan decor and heritage of her host home became a taunt: close enough to being familiar that it spoke to her, but reminding her, too, of her family left behind and the fact that she was all alone in America.

When she was not in hospital Zubaida was in school learning to read and write her native "dari" script and learning English. Zubaida realized that this opportunity to study was a privilege (in her native Afghanistan which was under the rule of the Taleban, girls were not allowed an education) and she worked very hard at her studies ...her father had left a large hole inside of her with his instructions for her to learn all she could and to bring the knowledge back home to her sisters, who might never see the inside of a classroom. Now, everytime she mastered another English phrase, she helped fill that hole back up with the very knowledge she'd been instructed to bring home.

Life in the United States was not all fun and games for Zubaida however. Apart from the grueling reconstructive surgeries (13 in all) and long periods of convalescing where her movements were severely restricted, she found herself all alone with the "Others" (as she was prone to call the Americans) as her father had to return to Afghanistan to fulfill his other duties. With the inital language barrier and the always prevalent cultural barrier, Zubaida found that there was no one she could talk to, no one she felt who would understand all that she was going through and soon she was exhibiting terrible mood swings and seemed suicidal. It was a terrible time for her host parents who wanted to help her, but didn't know how. Ofcourse, as with all success stories, things worked out well in the end and today Zubaida is back with her grateful parents in Afghanistan - a beautiful, 14-year old with hopefully a good future in store for her.

Anthony Flacco, in telling Zubaida's story, is a psychologist, anthropologist, journalist and medical reporter, all rolled into one and does a super job of taking us into Zubaida's life and presenting this story from her point of view. However, Zubaida's journey back to wellness is just one aspect of this story - how it all came together, the compassion, courage, sacrifice (time and money) and hard work it took for all Zubaida's befrienders to cut through the red tape and make her trip to the US happen is an equally important and powerful part of the story - it restores one's faith in human kindness and makes us realize and rejoice that altruism and compassion is not yet dying or dead.

I would be happy to pass my copy on to anyone else interested in reading it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee (one of the first Chinese-American novels)

"What is the first thing you think of when I say "Chinatown", San Francisco"? I asked some of my friends yesterday. Some of them said the Chinese New Year festivities, for others it was Chopsuey, but for me, it is and always has been the Roger Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song". I remember being as young as three when I first saw the movie on an old video recorder of my father's, after which I was hooked, watching it nearly everyday and singing along to the wonderful songs, "A 100 Thousand Miracles", "I Love Being a Girl" and so on. So imagine my delight when I discovered that Penguin had a recent edition of the book by C.Y. Lee (the Broadway show was based on this book). I bought it without hesitation and it has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but seeing a review at Suzan Abram's blog stirred the nostalgia in me and I took it off the shelf, dusted it lovingly and didn't come out of my room until I had devoured it completely (OK, you know I have a penchant for exaggeration), but it did keep me engrossed, amused, delighted, charmed and enthralled for two full days while I read it.

"Flower Drum Song" is a story set in San Fransisco's Chinatown in the late forties and revolves around 30-year old Wang Ta's family who immigrated from mainland China when Wang Ta was a young boy. Old Master Wang (Wang Ta's father) comes across as an absolutely loveable character despite his curmudgeonly countenance and his old-fashioned ways. He is a product of the old days and cannot get used to the American way of life, nor does he wish to try. He's never bothered to learn English and nor will he give up his beloved Chinese silk robe for a Western suit. He employs only Chinese servants in his house and fulminates when either of his sons adopt Americanisms like playing baseball or eating a ham sandwich. He doesn't trust a bank (he considers it an unsafe and newfangled idea to keep one's money with strangers) instead he keeps all his life's savings in a steel trunk and is fond of declaring "All white men look alike". Like all good patriarchs Old Master Wang wants to control his sons' lives (demanding his eldest son Wang Ta marry an imported "picture bride") believing in his old-fashioned and sometimes misguided way that parents always know more than their children. But like all normal young men the sons rebel against most everything their father stands for (and that includes the Chinese way of life and all the Confucian ideals he has tried to impose on them), instead, they strive to take on the culture of their adopted country.

While "Flower Drum Song" is a humorous, warm and endearing read of an older generation trying to make sense of modern times, it is also a touching portrayal of immigration - and although it was written in 1957 the immigrant's balancing act of holding on to tradition while giving in to the natural desire to assimilate is pertinent even today. This book should sit right up there with "Funny in Farsi", the much-loved and highly acclaimed memoir by Iranian writer Firoozah Dumas.

While I loved the book from start to finish my favorite image has to be of Old Master Wang mistakenly walking into a strip joint on one of his first walking exursions outside Chinatown:

"...When he was waiting for the traffic light to change at the intersection, a heavily made-up woman winked at him and said something he didn't understand. He ignored her, and the woman snorted, then walked across the street without further waiting, swinging her hips. Suddenly Wang Chi-yang felt bad about it. She might be a nice woman asking directions. He had acted rudely and put a black mark on the friendship maintained between Chinatown and the foreign territory. He followed the woman, hoping he could catch up with her and offer her an apology. The woman entered into the International Settlement and disappeared. Wang Chi-yang walked into the settlement and was amazed by the strangeness of the street. It was full of bars and clubs, with pictures of nude foreign women hanging outside the doors like poetic banners posted outside the Chinese stores during the New Year..."

Will stop here for I certainly don't wish to spoil the fun for those of you who might want to read the book.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Song of the Cuckoo Bird: A Novel

Fiction | Ballantine Books | Trade Paperback | December 2005 | $13.95 | 0-345-48315-4


Amulya Malladi website

Read an excerpt

India has exported many things around the world - some tangible, like curry spices, mangoes, Pashmina shawls, Bollywood movies and even doctors and software engineers, but some exports are not so tangible, like Yoga, Gandhism, its spiritual traditions and so on. What India also has, and which is coveted not only by her own people but by those living outside of India, is a multitude of holy men and women, Gurus or Swamis. These holy people are usually housed in
ashrams, the upkeep of which is paid for from generous donations by besotted devotees.

The main protagonist of this book, "Song of a Cuckoo Bird", is not a person, but one such ashram called "Tella Meda" or "House with the White Roof". Tella Meda is not your regular, big ashram with a well-photographed, miracle-performing Guru at the centre, rather, it is a small house on the banks of the Bay of Bengal in the south of India which functions as a shelter for outcastes (mainly women) of society.

Central to this ashram is a lady, Charvi, whose father first saw the light of the goddess within her and deemed her a devi, a goddess, a guru; he was her first devotee. When the novel opens Charvi is a young lady of 21 years and seems very uncomfortable with being called a "goddess" but, as time wears on, and people shower their devotion on her, she comes to embrace her role as a mystic and even starts certain practices like healing the sick by placing her hands on them and making predictions based on dreams. Surrounding Charvi are a cast of very colourful and wonderful characters who live in the ashram. Let me introduce them to you:

Ramanandam Shastri, is Charvi's father and a well-respected author with female equality being his favorite topic to write about, however, it seems likely from his actions, that female independence and emancipation were lofty ideals well worthy of being written about, but not practised, atleast not in his household anyway.

Then there's my favorite character, Kokila, who came to the ashram at the tender age of 11 as a child bride. Tella Meda was supposed to be only a temporary abode for her (she was supposed to go to her husband's home after puberty), but when the time came she rejected her inlaws and elected not to leave the ashram. In India where the status of a woman is dictated by marriage and children, Kokila's decision to stay on in the ashram might appear to have been a foolish one.

There's also Chetana who was the same age as Kokila. She was brought to the ashram as a toddler by her mother who was a prostitute and didn't feel at all maternal towards her. Like they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and Chetna grows up to have so many characteristics of her mother, but thank goodness for that because she brings life and drama to the ashram!

Subhadra, one of the oldest members of the ashram is the cook and her food is compared to ambrosia or nectar for the gods. She came to the ashram after finding out she couldn't conceive a child for her husband. As was tradition then, her sister became the second wife of her husband and Subhadra who couldn't bear to see her sister take her place, left home and came to the ashram for solace.

There's also Ravi, Mark, Manjunath, Shanthi, Renuka, Bhanu, Meena and a whole host of truly wonderful people that populate the ashram but I will let the book do the rest of the introductions.

The novel spans 40 years in the life of the ashram (1961-2000) and before you reach the last page of the book, its inhabitants will have become your intimate friends. You will have been privy to all of their years spent in the ashram - celebrating with them when things were good and commiserating with them when circumstances were dreadful. Best of all you will have seen how with the years came progress especially with regard to the status of the women.

Amulya Malladi can be very proud of this finely crafted novel. I think it's stupendous piece of writing. You can tell that a lot of thought and creative energy has gone into the formation of each character and even though there are so many of them, each one has been given a very unique personality and a very distinctive voice. Through the characters, the ashram and the landscape, she has also very cleverly detailed the social and cultural environs of the mystical land that is India and we come away feeling just a little more enlightened about Hinduism as a way of life, social ostracism, the caste system, the role of marriage in a Hindu woman's life, the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India and so on. A truly enlightening reading experience.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney

Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Lit. and Fiction


Excerpt from the book

Discussion questions

Radio interview with the author


It's the middle of February, the year 1900, a young auburn-haired woman is riding fast towards Boston on a delivery sleigh belonging to 'Gerson's Fine Pastries and Biscuits', with fifty dollars in cash in her purse. She also has a box of cakes, tarts and sugar rolls, a pair of borrowed wool mittens, and a small valise of clothing and toiletries lent to her by Mabel Gerson, the propreitress of the bakery.

The woman in question is Charlotte Heath, the protagonist of our novel and she is running away after seeing her fabulously rich and aristocratic husband almost kissing another woman in the middle of the street. They (the husband and this woman) weren't expecting to see Charlotte, after all, she was supposed to be in the sick room of the Heath Mansion recovering from a disease thought to be polio, but because of the stigma attached to it, the family preferred to refer to it as a disease of the brain. Charlotte is so betrayed by what she sees that in an impetuous moment she decides to run away to Boston to a hotel exclusively for ladies where her previous and much-loved housekeeper, Mrs. Petty, now works.

What Charlotte doesn't know however is that this exclusive hotel for ladies is a brothel, or a brothel-in-reverse actually, where every room comes with the services of a handsome young man in the employment of the hotel! Now, when you learn of a premise as enticing as this one, you want to grab the book off the shelf and take it to your nearest reading hole and devour it, after all, who among us hasn't envisaged having a harem of men, or atleast one nice young man, to meet our every need? Sadly, however, this book doesn't quite match most of our fantasies. It's a nice story told in a charming old-fashioned way but it does not titillate mostly because it is written from a Victorian standpoint. Having said that however, there is a lot of intrigue and a sexual undercurrent running through the book making it exciting in its own way, though nowhere near as exciting as it should have been!

The fact that the book is set in February in the middle of a Boston winter perhaps is meant to serve as a metaphor for Charlotte Heath's life - when she arrives at the hotel she is as frozen as the city, unable to think for herself, unable to deal with her emotions, but after she spends time there and away from her domineering husband and his family she seems to be empowered and her reserve and fear melt like the snow in spring.

The author Ellen Cooney populates this book with a whole host of colourful characters: a lady doctor who works 24/7 seemingly to escape from a marriage gone cold, an artist with polio who is confined to a wheelchair, and tends to nod off mid-sentence, a reclusive lady opium addict and wife of the owner of the hotel, and even a cameo appearance by Fannie Farmer, who like our protagonist, had polio as a child but went out to write a very successful cookbook. Unfortunately the author doesn't really flesh out these characters well and I didn't connect with any of them on an emotional level.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a love story although I would describe it as a romantic comedy. Its main theme seems to be how our heroine Charlotte overcomes her rather prim and prudent Victorian upbringing by embracing her sexuality thus stepping out of the shadows and into the light. Makes me want to end with the very popular Virgina Slims slogan, "You've come a long way, Baby"!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Book Review: One Hundred Shades of White

Format: Paper Back

Publishers: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-00-714346-X

Genre: Literature & Fiction

"...The only way I can describe our arrival was that it was like being taken from bright technicolour into a silent black and white film. No rickshaw noise or horns or buffaloes or cows crowding the street blocking traffic. No grasshoppers or croaking toad lullaby or screeching chickens, just a mute,inoffensive calm..."

It's the 1970's and this is how 9-year old Maya Kathi describes her first impressions of England when she, her brother Satchin and her mom, Nalini arrived in the UK from India to join her dad who was already working there.

Despite the dull first impressions, Satchin and Maya grew to like England and treated it like one big adventure. Their father was an affluent man and they had a nice Victorian house and they attended a school for well-to-do kids. But one day, their entire world turned upside down when their mom came to collect them from school with the grave announcement that their father had been killed in an accident.

Nalini, the mother, contemplated going back to India but felt it would be a selfish move especially since the kids had grown to love England so much. Instead, they moved from their palatial home to a one- room bed sit in the poorer East End of London. Nalini took up a job in a garment factory to make both ends meet, but after a short stint and with the help of her Irish landlady's son (who I believe was half in love with her), dived into her one big passion - cooking. She started a cottage industry of home-made pickles which allowed her family to move out of the bed sit into a slightly larger apartment. It also afforded Nalini more time with her children, the opportunity to take English classes, and led to the chance encounter with her new husband-to-be.

Being an immigrant myself, a lot of Nalini's story was familiar to me - the foreignness of an adopted country, the yearning for the home of your childhood, the panic you feel when you see your kids imbibing the culture of their adopted land rather than the land of their parents, the obsession with foods from home, and so on.

The other prevalent theme throughout this book is that of food and how food is the answer to everything - it is medicine for the body and emotional comfort for the soul. We use food to socialize, we use it when we're bored, we use for nutrition, we use it as an artist would creating new dishes by using spices like colours. Food has mystical and magical powers and is often used to create spells. Food is such an important part of our lives, but how often do we sit down and take notice of the role it plays?

But back to the story - the author narrates the story of the Kathi family through the perspectives of Nalini the mother and Maya the daughter, and so this is as much about mother-daughter relationships as it is about veiwing life through first and second generations of immigrants, but the underlying theme of the book , is not food or mother-daughter relationships, but is that of truth. The mother tells a lie to protect her children,but many years later, that very same lie comes back to destroy exactly what it was meant to protect. According to the author, there are no absolutes in life and truth itself can present itself in many guises, hence the title of her book, "One Hundred Shades of White".

Preethi Nair has written a neat little novel (294 pages) which will appeal to most women on account of the many women's issues she deals with in the story - parts of it, especially when Maya visits India for the first time, read like a finely-crafted travelogue. A great read also for readers who enjoy foreign cultural experiences.

"...It was intensely humid when I got off the plane in Mumbai. A smell lingered in the air; I couldn't quite make it out but it was like sweat and sadness. You push it away by not inhaling properly, but it follows you. At first you cannot see very clearly, everything is blurred with dust and heat. The distant sound of ringing comes at you from everywhere; bicycles and cowbells, scooters and car horns, all keeping you alert so you will not go back into slumber..."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Book Review: Street Kid by Judy Westwater

Pub date: May 02, 2006

Publishers: Harper Element

ISBN: 0-00-721375-1

Price: £12.99

Genre: Memoir

After the brouhaha with James Frey I had vowed to myself not to read another memoir, but when HarperCollins (UK) dropped this ARC in my lap I couldn't resist reading the first chapter of the book and soon I was hooked.

This is the story of Judy Westwater the unfortunate child of a spiritualist-healer father cum con man. Her father despised little Judy but kept her around because she was an essential cast member in the little tableau vivant he presented to the world - in particular his church clients, who supported him with cash donations - of a family man with a loving wife and a well brought up, beautifully mannered child. No one knew his dirty little secret - that he and his live-in girlfriend, Freda, starved Judy and locked her up like a dog in the backyard of their house every single day, brutally thrashing her anytime she escaped to scavenge for food in the neighbour's garbage bins. They treated her like a work slave, never permitting her to have friends or to take part in school activities and when they left Manchester (UK) for South Africa, they did so without informing Judy's mom, or the authorities, as to where they were taking her...

Judy bore the abuse as best she could, finding joy in the littlest things like a stuffed teddy bear given her by a kindly elderly couple and then a pet dog, Gypo, who unfortunately was given away by her dad (with no thought to how she felt) when he decided to move the family to South Africa. She read a lot because books were her way of escaping to a place somewhere, anywhere but where she was. She also took pleasure in the gymnastic tricks she could coax her supple body to perform.

Judy's dad moved the family to Durban in South Africa when Judy was 11 years old. They lived in a one-room dump of a boarding house and the strict and demanding school she was placed in was sheer torture for her. Her descriptions of apartheid Africa in the 1950's are well worth reading. When Judy found she just couldn't take the abuse and the loneliness any more she escaped to a visiting circus. I shall end here because I certainly don't wish to spoil the remainder of the book for you.

The sort of abuse that Judy went through would have damaged any weaker person, but Judy's resilience, perseverence and her ability to constantly visualize a better life for herself saw her through. She also incorporated one very important tool in her daily life and that was to set goals for herself - achieving them gave her a sense of accomplishment and self-worth which was a life saver because abused children rarely have an good sense of self.

She writes without self-pity and melodrama and none of the incidents in the book are set up to wangle tears out of the reader, infact, often she comes across as feeling sorry for Freda and her mom even though they ill treated her - having said that however,there are a couple of passages that will cause a lump to form in your throat and to reel from a force of sheer gratitude for the childhoods we had.

Related links:Judy Westwater is interviewed by BBC Radio 4 "Home Truths"Street Kids

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Book Review: Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles by Francine Prose

Author: Francine Prose
ISBN: 0060575603
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 2005-10

Caravaggio bio
Publisher's Note: review
WNYC: interview
Other books on Caravaggio:"The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece" by Jonathan Harr


Author Francine Prose on the life and paintings of Caravaggio.


I am besotted with HarperCollins' "Eminent Lives" series. It is such a pleasure to hold one of these beautifully-bound biographies in my hands knowing that in a sweet 150 pages or so, I will be acquainted with someone who made his/her mark on history, either as a world leader, musician, painter, historian or someone equally noble. The series prides itself on its brevity, serving more as an appetizer, rather than the meal itself, but, truth be told, when there are so many books to be read and so little time, books like these are so very useful!

A couple of months ago I read Edmund Morris' Beethoven (also from the Eminent Lives collection), and today I finished reading Francine Prose's "Caravaggio". Caravaggio has always been an enigma to me - how could a man bearing such a dark, surly and quarrelsome temperament paint such exquisite pictures of the Nativity and other religious pictures - surely that makes his life an oxymoron? Prose theorizes that the reason for Caravaggio's frustration and general cantankerousness is that he was so ahead of his time and was quite unappreciated by his patrons and contemporaries.

Caravaggio was born Michaelangelo Merisi in 1570 somewhere near Milano, Italy, but he was known as Caravaggio because that is the name of the town where he was born. Two things about Caravaggio that were made absolutely apparent from the time he was a young painter was his violent temper and his realistic paintings. Caravaggio hated "classicism" the accepted style of his day and painted things as he saw them, warts and all; he would never "pretty" his paintings just so that they could be aesthetically pleasing. For instance, if he was drawing a bowl of fruits that happened to be overripe to rotting, he would paint them as is. Infact, Prose points out that if you look closely enough at some of Caravaggio's canvasses you will see the odd worm-infested apple, the mottled pears or the angel with dirt in his nails...

But often these uncomfortably realistic paintings got Caravaggio into trouble; many a time, his religious paintings of martyred saints were rejected by the very same people who had commisioned them because they were scandalized by their brutal realism. Take for instance the painting titled "Death of a Virgin": they were so upset at him for projecting the Virgin Mary as a bloated dead body with naked feet instead of showing her ascending into heaven on a cloud of angels as Church dogma would dictate appropriate, that for a long, long time it went unsold. As Ms. Prose recounts , Caravaggio quite probably used the corpse of a drowned prostitute as model for the Virgin Mary, offending the Carmelites who commissioned his work for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala. They much preferred Cesari's (Caravaggio's rival) neatly coiffed, brightly robed, sqeaky-clean saints to Caravaggio's barefoot laborers and dirty whores masquerading as dignified apostles and virginal Madonnas.

And then there was the matter of his series of paintings of Cupid and Bacchus for which he had young boy models posing with very seductive expressions, add to that his lifelong lack of interest in naked female flesh (compared, for example, with artists like Titian, his contemporary) and historians are fairly able to conclude that Caravaggio was bisexual.

Francine Prose's biography on Caravaggio takes us into this painter's tumultuous life where, owing to the kind of people he hung out with, getting into fights or duels was even more common than bathing! He supposedly killed a man at one of these many duels and had to run away from Rome where it happened until he was pardoned many years later. Reading this book is also like taking a trip through a museum exclusively devoted to Caravaggio's paintings with the author describing each painting to us through our own special headphones. Her observations are just marvellous and presented to us in such beautiful prose.

Caravaggio today:

There are no more than about 80 known paintings by Caravaggio in existence and each one today is worth nearly tens of millions of dollars if they ever come to be sold on the open market. Go to a museum today and you will be challenged to have an "alone" moment with a Caravaggio because there are always huge crowds of people infront of his paintings. I think the reason why Caravaggio appeals to us so much today is because we have come to understand and appreciate that while the saints and Jesus may have had extraordinarily divine experiences on earth, they were still human beings and experienced human suffering and other human emotions which Caravaggio captured. Also, we like how he straddled the middle ground between "the sacred and the profane". After all, it must have taken some nerve to be known as the creator of both, "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "Victorious Cupid", but that was Caravaggio - a man of extremes.

Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Movie Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

"Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005)
Directed by: Rob Marshall

- Ziyi Zhang
The Chairman - Ken Watanabe
Mameha - Michelle Yeoh
Nobu - Koji Yakusho
Pumpkin - Youki Kudoh
Chiyo - Suzuka Ohgo
Hatsumomo - Gong Li
Dr. Crab - Randall Duk Kim
Young Pumpkin - Zoe Weizenbaum
Sayuri Narrator - Shizuko Hoshi

I had been waiting for a movie version of "Memoirs of a Geisha" ever since I read the book ten years ago, so I could hardly contain my excitement when the movie finally made its debut in Toronto on Dec23rd. I had longed so much to see Arthur Golden's "Geisha" personified on the big screen that when the first press reports stated Chinese actresses had been selected for all the main parts, including the role of "Sayuri", I was immensely disappointed and feared so much it would rob the movie of its authenticity. After all, did Rob Marshall and Co. not think us discerning enough? Can we not tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese women? And when I did see them on screen, as resplendent as they were in their beautiful kimonos, I still couldn't get used to the fact that they were Chinese girls masquerading as Japanese. It spoiled the movie quite a bit for me. The other irritating factor was the accented English. It would have been so much more authentic for the director to have had the cast speaking Japanese with English subtitles. Ahhh, but I forget, the leading ladies don't speak Japanese!

OK, I'm finished griping now. The rest of the movie - the costumes, sets, music, photography, especially the photography, was quite lovely. I'll give you a concise storyline, but will try to capture the spirit of the movie through its other elements.

Storyline: Chiyo has been sold by her poor fisherfolk parents to the "Okiya" or Geisha house. Everyone makes a huge fuss over her blue eyes and proclaims that she is going to be one of the greatest geishas of all time (blue eyes apparently can do that for you in Japan!) But Chiyo has an enemy - Hatsumomo (Gong Li) a leading Geisha in her day but whose light is now fading - does everything in her power to make this little Chiyo fail. One day, while Chiyo is lamenting her fate on a bridge in the market place she encounters a rather influencial businessman known simply as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and he buys her a cherry ice. This act of kindness inspires in her a desire to become a Geisha and to live to serve him. Fine aspirations for a girl all of 9 years old! In the meantime, the Chairman who is quite taken with her blue eyes, requests a senior geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) to take Chiho under her wing and to train her to become a respected Geisha. So, in this way, little Chiyo becomes beautiful Sayuri, the most "sought-after" geisha in Gion, except, things don't go the way she and the Chairman have planned, well not at first anyway, but I will let you uncover the plot for yourself.

Set & Photography: A massive set of the Gion district of 1920's Kyoto was constructed an hour outside of Los Angeles on a private farm in the Thousand Oaks area. The set included a running river, two bridges, authentic period buildings, and real cobblestone streets. A great deal of smoke and dry ice was used to give the set a foggy, hazy look. Other parts of the movie were filmed at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino and at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The shots of Buddhist temples were filmed in Japan, in Kyoto and they were simply beautiful.

Costumes: The kimonos were to die for, and I found they were a lot sexier than the ones you normally see in other Japanese period movies. The kimono is a fascinating garment and it seems to follow the ideal that "more is less" - the many folds and bows of the kimono have an element of mystery and hidden treasures. It is more about sensuality and exciting the imagination than it is about outright sexuality. Infact, according to the "GreenBay Gazette" Wisconsin, the movie has started a new trend in clothing and make-up.

Music and dance: There is no doubt about it, the crowning glory of "Memoirs of a Geisha" was Sayuri's amazing kabuki-like performance, or the "spotlight" dance. It was a very stylized dance, lots of stark lighting and drama and very entertaining. I, however, cannot see that this is a dance done by Geishas in Kyoto. Enjoyable as it was, it reeked too much of Hollywood to me. I much preferred Sayuri's debut "Fan dance" where every click of the fan reminded me of the foot tap of a Spanish Flamenco dancer. The musical score is haunting and the two theme songs, "Brush on Silk" and "The Chairman's Waltz" are definitely melodies I would listen to over and over again. However, Rob Williams has been criticised for not picking a Japanese composer and for going instead with John Williams (creator of the musical score for Star Wars and the Harry Potter movies). Where was Tan Dun, I wonder? Not available perhaps?

Finally, I think the movie, as visually appealing as it was, didn't do the book any justice. It is a movie blatantly made for a western audience and the Oscars with the Hollywood stamp all over it. Yes, it is educational, in that, you will learn a little about the lives of Geisha women but I doubt that the impact of the movie will be anything like that of the book. Truthfully, I am hoping that someone else is inspired to do another movie version of the book, for this wasn't nearly good enough. If your intention is to have something pleasant to look at and to be entertained, go see it - but if your intention is to get something deeper out of it, you're chasing a distant dream. Just re-read the book instead.

Pictures, courtesy of:

www.urbanwire.com; www.cinemareview.com; http://michelleyeoh.info

Drum roll, please.....

I have often wondered what it might be like to review a book, and a movie based on that book, back to back. When "Memoirs of a Geisha" hit the screen last month I found the perfect opportunity to do that, except, there was one problem - I had read the book nearly a decade ago and couldn't count on my seive-like memory to provide details for a review. Luckily for me, my friend Nisha who has just finished reading the book, bailed me out by agreeing to do the book review--- so a drum roll, please, to welcome Nisha as "Lotus Reads" first guest reviewer:

Over to Nisha:
"I felt as a bird must feel when it has flown across the ocean and comes upon a creature that knows its nest.’
‘Was life nothing more than a storm that constantly washed away what had been there only a moment before, and left behind something barren and unrecognizable?’
‘We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.’

Beautiful words from a truly beautiful book! I loved Memoirs of a Geisha from beginning to end. Couldn’t put it down (love books like that!) and enjoyed learning about the life of a geisha.

Before I start this review, I have to admit that I looked up a few book reviews for inspiration. I’ve never written one before and I needed some help! One paragraph in a review caught my eye and I have to put it in here –

"...Near the beginning of the book, Sayuri says she used to joke that someone had poked a hole in her eyes and all the ink had drained out. While her translucent gray eyes do guide the reader through nearly 40 years, that spilled ink gracefully rolls onto Golden's pages, forming the alluring curves and supple lines of this elegant debut..." Mark Luce

Now if I could write like that, I would have said the same thing!

Here’s a brief summary of the book -- Memoirs of a Geisha follows young Chiyo-chan from her unglamorous beginnings as the child of a peasant fisherman to her life as a successful geisha. Her parents' ill health and poverty force them to sell their two children to the geisha houses of Gion. Chiyo is traumatized after being separated from her sister and thrust into a life as a maid in the Nitta okiya. Here she finds an existence unlike any she has known. After suffering much abuse from a powerful senior geisha, it seems her future leads nowhere, save the detested brothels. It isn't until a chance encounter that Chiyo's future begins to look up. From here, Golden gives us a poignant and elegant portrait of a young geisha coming of age.

As Lotusflower has mentioned in her blog , the geisha ( Mineko Iwasaki) Arthur Golden interviewed for the book says that the details he provided about her life are not true at all and has published a book with her version of a geisha’s life. Iwasaki claims that Golden's fictional novel portrays geisha as high class prostitutes. I find it intriguing…who is right? Is Iwasaki hiding something that Arthur uncovered? Or is she right and is just protecting geishas’ reputations?

I was a little disappointed in the end…I was very happy for Chiyo but it seemed like an ending that was created to make the reader happy. A feel-good ending to leave us on a good note after all the troubles she went through. Aside from that, I totally recommend this book that will take you on a lovely journey of a geisha's life.

In the next post, Lotus Reads will review the movie.