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Geisha Paperback – October 1, 1998
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In the mid-1970s, an American graduate student in anthropology joined the ranks of white-powdered geisha in Kyoto, Japan. Liza Dalby took the name Ichigiku and apprenticed in the famed Pontocho district, trailing behind "older sisters" bemused by this long-legged Westerner intent on learning their arts and customs. In Geisha, this observant ethnographer paints an intoxicating picture of the "flower and willow world" to which she gained entry. "Why are you studying geisha?" asks one slightly belligerent older sister. "Geisha are no different from anybody else." Not quite, says Dalby dryly, pointing out that geisha and wives play utterly divergent, though complementary, roles in traditional Japanese society. "Geisha are supposed to be sexy where wives are sober, artistic where wives are humdrum, and witty where wives are serious." While hardly feminists, they reap freedoms unknown to other women. Dalby illustrates broader cultural differences, too, with a million tiny details about boisterous customers, how many hundred-weight of tabi (split-toed socks) geishas go through, what defines iki (chic), why maiko (young apprentices) are drawn to the life, and what geisha wear, from the skin out. Acknowledging that her growing personal stake in the masquerade prevented objectivity, Dalby frees the reader to enjoy a fluid and fascinating look at one aspect of Japanese culture. --Francesca Coltrera
"A meticulously researched work of scholarship. . . a delightfully personal account. . . . The bible of geisha studies to this day." -- The Times
"An engrossing account of a society shrouded by centuries of mystery. . . . Dalby brings us the real women behind the white face paint and silk kimonos. Her patient exploration of the nuances and ambivalences inherent in geisha life leaves the reader with a new understanding, and respect, for these hardworking often lonely . . . 'curators of tradition.' . . . She has given us an unprecedented perspective on a fascinating society." -- Kathryn Jankowski, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"Based on her experiences, [Dalby] provides the sort of information that should -- once and for all (set the legends, tall tales, assumptions and prejudices straight." (Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday
Top customer reviews
Others have said the many ways this book is a great and informative vicarious experience. My main point, as a rather timid person, is just my admiration for the courage it must have taken for an American young woman to sign up to work as a geisha in Japan. I mean, for goodness sake, Japan is well known as a place where there a lot of customs about just how to behave in various circumstances. I can't get over the fact that she could step up to play the geisha social role as she did, Talk about dangers of committing faux pas!
Dalby also gives plenty of history (she is an anthropologist) as well as becoming her own test subject by actually portraying geisha herself. These personal accounts are worth every penny for the privelage. I would have much rather seen a film of this book!
There is so much that is deeply moving about her relationships with the Geisha and the dramatic losses of real life that are interwoven throughout the book. I would love to see a follow-up to the book, to see how all of this ultimately became part of her life.
There are excellent photos throughout, though some in color would have been nice. This is a true anthropological memoir but it is never dry, never overly intellectual. Dalby is not a great writer but she is a terrific journalist.
I've read many books about Geisha and this stands alone as the finest.
For those who are looking for the passion of Memoirs of a Geisha, you should probably read Arthur Golden's book -- which is much more detailed than the movie. For those who will enjoy an objective but sympathetic view of life as a geisha from the 1930's to the mid 1970's, I recommend this book.