Two Solitudes/ Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/ Memoirs of a Geisha

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
If this book had been required reading in high school it might have given my generation a bit of insight into the tension between French and English in our home province, New Brunswick. It wasn't on my radar at all till one of our book club members selected it. I might have missed it entirely.

It follows two families: a French family, the Tallards, and an English family, the Methuens. Living in two different worlds beginning to mesh into one nation, the families fight to preserve their own way of life. It covers two generations of family members fighting, loving, hating, betraying, and grieving. The characters themselves didn't appeal to me that much but the history of the conflict between the two cultures was fascinating for me. If I wasn't Canadian, it probably wouldn't have made such an impression on me, but as a Canadian, I couldn't get enough. It opened my eyes to things I hadn't seen before. 

I'd like to say I'm glad all that conflict is over, but I can't. My province is the only officially bilingual province in the country and a lot gets said publicly about how we all get along, but beneath that cooperative veneer there are strong emotions on both sides of the language divide. After a century and a half of confederation we still haven't figured out how to get students to high school graduation fluent in both English and French or how to make the job market fair for everyone. We all want compromise as long as it's the other guy doing the compromising. I don't know if we'll ever be truly united. I've lived 68 years and at this point I see the gap widening instead of closing, and not just in N.B. but across Canada. I could break into a rant here about the decline of western civilization as we know it....but no. 

The book was good. You should read it. 


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
This is Pirsig's journal of a motorcycle trip he and his son, Chris, took across several states. Part of it deals with their relationship (not an easy one) and part with the countryside they're travelling through, but the larger part of the book is philosophy. He thinks (and writes) deeply about what is good, what is quality, and how to live a quality life. He mentions Plato and Socrates, but he mostly talks about a guy called Phaedrus, whose philosophy of life he is studying, or maybe a better word is analyzing. Somewhere in the middle of the book you begin to realize who Phaedrus is and how he is significant, unexpectedly significant, to the story and that moment changes everything for the reader. The reviews all called it inspirational, and it is, but that word alone is too light, too small for this profoundly moving story.   
  
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
As a 9 year old girl, Chiyo is sold into slavery by her destitute father. She is taken from her small village to a city famous for its geisha, and is placed in a training house to be taught the arts of dance, music and conversation, while also being a maid to famous geisha, Hatsumomo. Mother, the woman who runs the house, is horrible to her, but it's Hatsumomo who wins the prize for mean girl. She's jealous and bitter and takes it all out on this little girl who is more beautiful than she is. I almost quit the book in this section, but then things turned around for Chiyo when another geisha, a kinder one, adopts her as "little sister" and becomes responsible for her training. At a certain age she is given her geisha name, Sayuri, and she enters the world of silk kimonos, intricate hair arrangements and the entertaining of wealthy men. WWII interrupts her career briefly, like a character playing a bit part; it's dismissed so quickly it's almost like it never happened. She goes back to her geisha life until finally moving to the US where she builds a similar if somewhat more independent life.  

Did I like it? Well, it was intriguing and I learned some things about Japan and the geisha life. I think. It's fiction so how much is made up I don't know. I get the feeling I'm supposed to feel nostalgic for this world that is passing away, but that's hard to do when a child is sold like so much meat, her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and everyone is free to slap her around and exercise unlimited power over her. Sure, when she gets older she gets invited to beautiful estates and socializes with the rich and famous, but even then she has no power, no independence. So while I did find it interesting I was also uncomfortable reading it and can't say I truly enjoyed it. Also one plot line is a too-predictable love story that I wasn't buying; I know the world wants a love story in every book, but this was just a cliche, and didn't add much. In the end, Sayuri got her man and was happy, even though that man had a wife and children and all Sayuri got was his spare time. It reads as though it's a victory, a happy ending. I'm not buying that either.  

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