Saturday, July 4, 2009

Review: Isami's House

Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family
Gail Lee Bernstein

In this powerful and evocative narrative, Gail Lee Bernstein vividly re-creates the past three centuries of Japanese history by following the fortunes of a prominent Japanese family over fourteen generations. The first of its kind in English, this book focuses on Isami, the eleventh generation patriarch and hereditary village head. Weaving back and forth between Isami's time in the first half of the twentieth century and his ancestors' lives in the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, Bernstein uses family history to convey a broad panoply of social life in Japan since the late 1600s. As the story unfolds, she provides remarkable details and absorbing anecdotes about food, famines, peasant uprisings, agrarian values, marriage customs, child-rearing practices, divorces, and social networks. Isami's House describes the role of rural elites, the architecture of Japanese homes, the grooming of children for middle-class life in Tokyo, the experiences of the Japanese in Japan's wartime empire and on the homefront, the aftermath of the country's defeat, and, finally, the efforts of family members to rebuild their lives after the Occupation. The author's forty-year friendship with members of the family lends a unique intimacy to her portrayal of their history. Readers come away with an inside view of Japanese family life, a vivid picture of early modern and modern times, and a profound understanding of how villagers were transformed into urbanites and what was gained, and lost, in the process.

First Sentence:
Early one morning at the end of April 1899, the second floor of the Matsuura sake storehouse caught fire.

This book tended to be a little dry at times and definitely a little confusing due to all of the family members that you have to keep track of. Just to prove how difficult keeping track can be Gail Lee Bernstein has added a time line, two family trees and a list of central persons to the beginning of the book. The fact that there are so many different characters represented throughout the novel makes it very hard to become attached to any specific one. However, Gail Lee Bernstein does an amazing job transitioning between all of the characters and different generation of families. Even with all of its downfalls, Isami's House is an excellent description of how life and values changed in Japan since the Meji Restoration. I also really enjoy the pictures of the family throughout the book because when it comes to memoirs I love being able to put a face to a name.

I would probably only recommend this novel to people who are truly interested in the history of Japan or its culture. Having a grasp on Japanese history would be helpful for the reader to posses, but it is not necessary.

Title: Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family
Author: Gail Lee Bernstein
Paperback: 314 pages
ISBN 10: 0520246977
ISBN 13: 978-0520246973
Buy It: Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble
Review Number: 14


Mari said...

I am sorry you didn't enjoy it more. Books packed with lots of information and history are really hard for me to get through.

I have given you an award. Come and see!

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