Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Editorial Ass's Top 3 Historical Novels about Japan by White American People

1) MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden
The story of the life of a Kyoto geisha through the Depression, World War II, and the American Occupation. Yeah, it was a bestseller for 10 years or something like that. Yes, it was made into an unfortunately not quite perfect movie by Rob Marshall. But it is such a rich, careful, and subtle story that it's one of the few books I feel safe recommending to anyone. The pace is quick and the plot hugely appealing, so fans of literary AND commercial fiction both tend to like it, and it is a Japanophile's jealous dream (unlimited entry into a sacredly closed set, kind of symbolic of how most "westerners" think about Japan). You don't have to love this book but you can't help but like it.

2) THE TEAHOUSE FIRE, by Ellis Avery
The story of a 9-year-old French-American girl who is stranded alone in Kyoto when her uncle's Jesuit mission burns down in 1860, and who ends up becoming a servant in a famous tea ceremony academt. Another careful, subtle recreation, this time through a foreigner's eyes, so a little more honest and a little less exoticized. Another Japanophile dream, but this one is a little more literary than commercial.

3) THE PEARL DIVER, by Jeff Talarigo
The story of an Occupation-era sea village girl (a pearl diver) who is diagnosed with mild leprosy and is committed to an institution. A quick and pretty read on an unusual topic.

Runner-up: THE TOKAIDO ROAD, by Lucia St. Clair Robson
An epic thoroughly rooted in Japanese literary tradition. The fallen daughter of a feudal lord who was forced to commit suicide sets out on a quest to avenge her father that takes her along the ancient and adventure-steeped Tokaido highway. Despite the appeal based on the premise, the book is a little too long and doesn't suck you up in the way the above three do. There are also some plausibility issues. But it is a good read, especially for fans of samurai lore.

Ps I've ordered all the books you guys suggested in the previous post. So don't be surprised if there's a follow-up.

25 comments:

angelle said...

hmm. memoirs of a geisha is among my favorite books but i cant think of any additional white guy books about japan. i really liked snow falling on cedars but thats japanese american.

hmm hmm.

moonrat said...

i'm all for girl power, but Ellis was the only female writer i included. i felt a little bad about that.

moonrat said...

(Lucia being only a runner-up, that is)

Ello said...

I didn't mention Memoirs because I basically assume everyone under the sun had read it or knows about it. But the most interesting aspect of it is that Golden wrote the whole thing in third person first and then changed it to first in order to get published.

How about top 3 most romantic novels of all time, top 3 novels you would have to have if stranded on a desert island, top 3 funniest novels, top 3 scariest novels. I've got lots! This is going to be such fun!!!

mapiprincesa! said...

I loved Memoirs as well because I feel like, in certain terms, I lived it. For anyone (gaijin) who spends enough time in Japan to really infiltrate there is a certain common bond shared. Do you have personal Asian/Japanese ties? I'm interested in what your ties are. I'll have to read back in your blog a bit, since I'm new to you!

Oh...and I am definitely one of the most Asian/Latin mixed White Girls I know...JA!

Jill Myles said...

I enjoyed Geisha but it didn't leave me a raving fan.

I have to admit that THE TOKAIDO ROAD sounds like three kinds of awesome, though. Gonna have to see if I can find that at the library. You mention 'epic' once or twice, so I'm imagining some sort of War & Peace bastard child.

moonrat said...

close--only it's running along the 47 Ronin tradition (Chushinguro etc). the reason i think i personally enjoyed it less is because the center piece was an adventure, not an elaborate cultural tapestry. i have a short attention span for action. but forge has just reissued it which i suppose makes it classic backlist.

Josephine Damian said...

Ello, I'm with you about not mentioning "Geisha" - it was the first choice that poppped into my head, but I dismissed it as too "popular" and therefore probably not all that literary.

Interesting story, but not on my to-be-read-again-keeper list.

My book club was more impressed about a man writing about "women's things" than a white dude writing about Japananese culture.

I read that Golden's family owns/owned the NYTimes - I could be wrong about that - but yes it was interesting that he re-did the whole thing from scratch because of the POV thing.

I'm going to try to anticipate Moonrat's next "top 3" post and say "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie as my favorite China-set novel. Definitely a keeper for me.

And Moonrat, if you try to stump us with Vietnam books, I've got a nice choice for you too. :-)

Jill Myles said...

I vote Afghanistan books. I suspect moonrat can wax poetic about those. :)

moonrat said...

darn it!! you guys are TOO SMART. now i have to trick you on #2 and not use THOSE two ideas until #s 3 and 4.

angelle said...

what about books about an anglo-saxon world written by asians? MUAHAHAHA. just to be the cheeky minority voice here (because moonie, you know how i do... i want to be one of those asians who writes about non-asian thingies). but in all seriousness, i'd choose ishiguro a couple of times for that..

Leigh Russell said...

I had to drop in to wave the flag for Kazuo Ishiguro who is a brillian writer, but I see Angelle has already mentioned him. Nothing to do with Japan, but set in an equally hierarchical society, I strongly recommend Remains of the Day as a moving narrative, brilliantly understated as the protagonist is a traditional British butler. Stiff upper lip and all that.Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro is another engaging book, despite the title. His novels about Japan, An Artist of the Floating World and ... I can't remember the other title I was going to mention.... are also worth a look. In my opinion.

moonrat said...

i love ishiguro. i ordered three more this week and am currently reading ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD.

i have SO many books about Japan to talk about that i was forced to make this category exceptionally narrow. don't worry, there will be some serious further category abuse to work mr ishiguro in.

moonrat said...

mapiprincesa--in answer to your question, it's hard to explain what my asian ties are, but i'd say they're there. hmm, i tried to draft this comment but i realized it's more like a whole post. so i guess i'll post on that in a minute.

ello, i've noted all your topics. and yours, josephine and jill. i've made some serious headway tonight in future planning ;)

sorry, guys, i've answered everyone's comments ALL out of order here. it's been a long week. please don't hate me.

Anonymous said...
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Dara said...

I realize this was posted over a year ago but I just noticed it now. It caught my attention because I'm actually writing a historical fiction novel set in Japan in 1890--and I'm a white American :P I've read two of the three on the list and liked them. Maybe someday, within a few years, I'll be on the updated version of the list (one can dream...)

moonrat said...

hi Dara,

Good luck to you! can't wait to read it--it sounds just up my alley :)

in case TEAHOUSE FIRE was the one you haven't read, you absolutely should! it's perfect re: your subject and is a really well written and beautiful book.

Globalism said...

Hi Moonrat. Just discovered your blog after googling 'current state of the publishing industry' - nice work well written, by the way.

Felt compelled to comment on this particular post having a bit of a big Japan thing myself.

You may already know about them (and they may not even be necessarily 'historical' enough to fit into your category), but thought I'd mention a couple.

Although he doesn't seem to be that well-known outside of Japan, despite having been a NYT film critic for Japanese cinema, Donald Richie is very much worth a look. Still alive and living in Japan since the occupation, he is the archetypal 'insider's outsider'.

Another one that I was surprisingly taken aback by was David Mitchell's 'number9dream'. He spent a few years living in Hiroshima and manages to really get under the skin of things pretty well.

Cheers,

Globalism

moonrat said...

Thanks, Globalism!

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Anonymous said...

Another fine novel is Martin Cruz Smith's December 6. An American boy with missionary parents grows up in Japan in the 1930s and identifies with Japanese rather than American culture. Everything leads up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The boy becomes a kind of film noir loner, distrusted by everyone.

Jacquie said...

A little late to the party, but for kids, I recommend the Samurai Detective series by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler and "In the Monkey Forest" by Kierin Meehan (an Australian).

Anonymous said...

Presumably you have all read Shogun, James Clavell?

Matthew Rush said...

This is an interesting idea - at least for me, because I love all things Japanese. Personally I loved Shogun, by James Clavell, but it is a bit of an epic. I can only compare it to Memoirs of a Geisha (which I thought was good but not great) because I have not read any of the others. I will definitely be checking them out, especially the Tokaido Road.

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Naomi said...

thumbs up for Tokaido Road! hard to put down, that one :)