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Posted March 9, 2007
Delicious, delightful, and most charming
It is a rare book that can move me to the point in which, at its end, I feel as if I had lost a close friend. The Pillow Book has affected me in such a way¿it is so personal, so intimate, and so meticulously and beautifully descriptive that I feel as if I had been Sei Shonagon¿s confidante during the 250+ pages and she has been whispering her innermost thoughts in my ear. I actually feel a loss that this woman has been dead for one thousand years and her amazingly individual voice is forever silenced. Not only is Shonagon an incredibly skilled prose artist and poet, but her personality illuminates each and every page of The Pillow Book, giving us a crystal-clear window into what life would have been like for a lady-in-waiting in 11th century Heian Japan. I, as a 21st century American woman, initially felt a culture shock reading Shonagon¿s descriptions of how noblewomen were kept completely separate from men until marriage, cloistered behind a tall screen called a kicho. Their lives were spent attending the many festivals and celebrations that were held many times a year, as they traveled in carriages woven of bamboo and drawn by oxen. They also attended retreats in Buddhist monasteries, their religion being interestingly described as a mix of Shinto and Zen with a smattering of Confucianism thrown in. Shonagon¿s passages are important historical records that also give the modern reader a privileged view of her personal impressions on everything from how a gentleman caller should conduct himself the morning after, to Shonagon¿s musings about how men think-- one of the passage headings is, Men Really Have Strange Emotions, and in this series of random thoughts, Sei muses, ¿I do not understand how a man can possibly love a girl whom other people, even those of her own sex, find ugly¿. Sei Shonagon has been criticized for being an elitist snob at one point she discusses servants, whom she considers to have ¿no more value than a roof-tile or a pebble¿. Yes, she is arrogant and elitist in her accommodation of the rigid class structure of that time. She is also petty, jealous, vain, and, as contemporary and rival Murasaki described her, ¿frivolous¿. But her essence leaps from the pages of The Pillow Book so vividly that the reader becomes lost in that distant and alien world, in such a way that rarely happens with works written so long ago. As you read The Pillow Book, you can effortlessly visualize the spectacle that Shonagon was a part of. You can almost smell the cherry blossoms blooming in early spring, or delight, as she did, in the light of a waning moon. Shonagon is utterly, wonderfully human, and her work is to be savored, a bit at a time, like a delicious, sweet morsel that one wishes would never disappear.
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Posted March 15, 2010
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