Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and how it might have looked as a Buzzfeed post

Pillow Book1002. ebook. Penguin. Paperback pages: 416 (including introductory matter, footnotes and appendices).

Translated by Meredith McKinney.

Recommendation from: several comments on Shelf Love Jenny’s review of The Tale of Genji

Review:

Sei Shonagon was a gentlewoman who served the young empress Teishi. The Pillow Book is a collection of short vignettes about court life as well as thematic lists. The world and events Shonagon depicts are at once distant from my own world and strikingly universal. For instance, while I may not identify with the particulars of watching an imperial procession from within an enclosed carriage, when Shonagon remarks on “the great melee caused by the carriages of the High Priestess’s attendants and the rest all setting off for home,” it reminds me of the parking lot traffic jams after an outdoor concert at Wolf Trap.

Many of the anecdotes included in the Pillow Book involve the frequent practice of exchanging poetic messages between the gentlewomen and their male friends / admirers / lovers. The poetic message usually operated as a challenge, as the recipient sought to compose the perfect reply, based on allusions to Japanese and Chinese poetry, good taste, and quick wit. Shonagon is, unsurprisingly, often triumphant in these battles of wit. Shonagon also has a keen eye for style and clothes and often plays fashion police in her descriptions of fellow court denizens.

After a while, these anecdotes and sections became repetitive for me, especially as it’s hard to truly “get” some of them without the aid of footnotes to explain the puns and allusions that make the stories funny or clever.

It is Shonagon’s many lists that I think mark her work as a classic that transcends time, lists that run along themes such as:

Infuriating things – “you’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail . . .And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out”

Things that create the appearance of deep emotion – “The sound of your voice when you’re constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.”

People who are smug and cocky – “Present-day three-year-olds.”

As others have noted, Shonagon’s lists are kind of like the literary ancestors of internet listicles. Some items on her lists could easily be transplanted to a site like Buzzfeed:

3 Startling and Disconcerting Things

1. “Someone bluntly saying things that are embarrassing and unpleasant for the other person.”

Ann parks and rec

2. “Someone with a letter that’s to be delivered elsewhere shows it to a person who shouldn’t see it.”

Carly bachelor

3. “Someone pins you down and commences laying down the law about something that means absolutely nothing to you, without your being able to get a word in edgeways.”

Leslie Parks and RecIn addition to these more snarky lists, Shonagon also conjures palpable atmosphere in passages such as this:

Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you are lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried.

It’s also lovely, on a dark moonless night, to catch the smell of smoke from the pine torch being carried up ahead, that penetrates the whole carriage.

And a sentiment that has probably been experienced by most readers in some variation:

Things that give you pleasure – You’ve read the first volume of a tale you hadn’t come across before, and are longing to go on with it – then you find the other volume. The rest of it can sometimes turn out to be disappointing, however.

All in all, while some of the book became repetitious, even skim-worthy, for me, The Pillow Book was a “thing that gave me pleasure” while I was reading it. Shonagon’s writing provides much to delight.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Striped Armchair – “What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t be afraid of The Pillow Book! I think every blogger who reads it compares it to a blog, and I’m no exception. The entries had a mix of short and long, random lists, detailed stories, and little anecdotes that make blogs so much fun to read. And Shonagon’s personality, witty, snobby, hilarious, shines through in each of them. She’s acutely aware of how a cultured life should be lived.”

Rebecca Reads – “Because Shonagon lived more than 1000 years ago, her work is also an historical and cultural piece . . . I loved learning about life in a palace that wasn’t what I was used to hearing about (my only palace exposure previously has been Western, via fairy tales and Arthurian legends).”

Tony’s Reading List – “The Pillow Book is great fun, but it’s a work to dip into, not to plough through – it’s definitely best taken in small doses. There are some great stories and excellent scenes of court life, showing Shōnagon as the entertainer she was.”

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A visit to Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store

Last week, I visited Denver to attend a conference. In my free time, I briefly went inside the Capitol building and then spent a couple of hours in the Denver Art Museum. I particularly liked the William Matthews exhibit. And of course, I found a local bookstore to patronize, the Tattered Cover, which has a location off 16th street in the LoDo neighborhood.

Tattered Cover books

The Tattered Cover appeared to sell mostly new books with some gently used books interfiled among them. With independent bookstores, I sometimes take the route of buying books based off of the staff recommendations that many such stores place throughout the shelves. I also usually like to check out what they have in the way of travel memoirs. In this case, there were no staff recommendations in the travel memoir section, but I did find two used books there of interest: Freya Stark’s The Valley of the Assassins and other Persian Travels (originally published 1934) and a 1942 memoir of Paris written by two young women, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

Like many other independent bookstores, The Tattered Cover had copies of the “Indie Next List” newsletter from IndieBound.org, and one title intrigued me: Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. It’s a memoir of the author’s visit to Japan after the 2011 tsunami, and seems to touch on her personal grief as well, as her grandfather passed away shortly before the tsunami and her father had also died recently.

Aside from shopping, I also found a nice spot to spend time with the book I was currently reading on my Kindle: Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, which is the second book in his America in the King Years trilogy, and covers civil rights history from 1963 to 1965.

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Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Cry the Beloved1948. Scribner. Paperback. 316 pages.

In a nutshell:

Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of an elderly minister, Rev. Stephen Kumalo, who travels from his drought-stricken Zulu village to Johannesburg, the city that has swallowed up his sister, his son and most of the young people of the country villages. It is also the story of racial oppression in all its complex layers, described through the lens of Kumalo’s quest.

Review:

I’ve known of Paton’s novel since I was in high school, but never had much interest in reading it, because I had this suspicion that it was a classic solely because it was “important” at the time of its publication. I’m so glad, then, that my cousin gave it to me for my birthday last year, so I could realize that it is a classic not for being a time capsule, but because much of it is timeless.

Cry, The Beloved Country starts off with a somewhat flowery, poetic introduction that made me wary, but once Rev. Kumalo reaches Johannesburg, the story really picks up and the poetic sections felt more organic. Each character that Kumalo meets along his search for his family illuminates an aspect of the unjust situation in South Africa. But this isn’t a polemic screed. Through his characters, Paton captures a discussion, rather than a monologue, of how to understand, even improve, the state of South Africa.

It is amazing that so much of what Paton writes is still relevant to today’s discussion of racial injustice.

She put the paper down on the table, and showed the other women the headlines. ANOTHER MURDER TRAGEDY IN CITY. EUROPEAN HOUSEHOLDER SHOT DEAD BY NATIVE HOUSEBREAKER.

They were shocked. These were the headlines that men feared in these days. Householders feared them, and their wives feared them. All those who worked for South Africa feared them. All law-abiding black men feared them. Some people were urging the newspapers to drop the word native from their headlines, others found it hard to know what the hiding of the painful truth would do.

Aren’t we still having this moment? Where an act of crime is used to harden, even justify, existing lines of prejudice? Where we grow impatient with the media’s tendency to simplistically characterize the news with its choice of labels?

Paton not only has a keen eye for the nuances of racial oppression, but he also takes on economic injustice, mainly in the form of the South African mines, but written in such a way to apply to many arenas of economic exploitation.

As insightful as the novel is in racial matters, the book was clumsier with the status of women. Kumalo is harsh to a young teenaged girl because she has had many “boyfriends”. He soon repents of his harshness, but the book struck me as a little blind to systemic sexual and economic oppression of women. It’s a blindness I have seen before in otherwise progressive mid-century writing.

Overall, I greatly valued the resonance of the novel’s themes of injustice, but in saying that, I don’t want to downplay the characters and the story. In Stephen Kumalo, Paton has created a good man, but not a saintly one, and he is the heart of the novel. Even while he is on a road of suffering, he still finds new friendships and new family in Johannesburg.

It’s ultimately a story that reaches toward the hope of reconciliation for a small set of characters, even while acknowledging their pain, even while acknowledging the majority of South Africa is not reconciled. It is scary that Paton saw the situation so clearly, and that the book was so popular, but that apartheid didn’t end in South Africa until the 1990’s.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

BookLust – “Paton is one of those rare people who can write a story populated by flawed characters without passing judgment; rather, he makes the reader see just how much suffering a person goes through, and just how much impact a small kindness can have.”

Vulpes Libres – “The line that has been running through my mind from these writings has been ‘We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under’. And, despite this book being written in 1948, for me, this resonates with modern ‘developed’ society.”

Worthwhile Books – “Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that comes close to describing this mysterious relationship between suffering and grace in our world.”

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Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni

Honeymoon in TehranHoneymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

2009. Random House. ebook. 370 pages.

In a nutshell:

In this memoir, Azadeh Moaveni, journalist for Time magazine and author of the book Lipstick Jihad, describes life in Tehran from 2005 to 2007. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Moaveni was raised in California, but had more or less been living in Beirut since 2003, taking a number of trips to Iran during that time. But for the events covered in this book – both personal and political – she calls Tehran home.

The book starts on the eve of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran, a change of leadership which surprised nearly all observers. It is at this time that Moaveni meets the man who she will later marry, and she also has a child during the two years covered by this memoir.

Review:

Chronology is the primary driver of Moaveni’s narrative, both through her own life’s course of events, as well as the progression of events in Iran and the world. Within this loose framework, topics range from encounters with her government minder “Mr. X”, the common past-time of making homemade wine, the prevalence of c-section births in Iran, and the elusive answer to the question of who is actually in power in Iran. In a way, Honeymoon in Tehran has the spirit of a book of essays if not the format.

Honeymoon in Tehran succeeds in providing a nuanced portrayal of Iranian life – it is not just lives dominated by fear, though there is fear especially for prominent dissenters like lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who Moaveni meets with periodically. But there is also a culture Moaveni calls “as if” – “a mode that involved behaving ‘as if’ most of the regime’s rules did not exist.” According to Moaveni, Iran is divided “between a minority of religious militants . . . and the majority of moderate Iranians, who longed for stability and prosperity.” One of my favorite stories from the book is the following:

When I first moved to Tehran in 2000, this love of irony struck me as one of the most charming aspects of Iranian life, though I knew its purpose was to ease the pain of being ruled by heartless, inept, and hypocritical mullahs. During one of my first afternoons driving in the city, I struggled to execute a three-point turn across lanes of chaotic traffic. Halfway through the turn, my veil slipped off, and I froze, uncertain whether to clear the road or adjust my covering. As a man passing by surveyed the traffic jam I had caused, he noticed me fumbling with my scarf, grinned, and yelled, “Islam is in danger!”

I appreciated how Moaveni paid due attention to economic matters. Corruption in the government stifles innovation and economic sanctions further hamstring Iranian professionals. In Tehran, young people struggle to support themselves and usually cannot afford to live on their own. This state of economics affairs is a critical piece to understanding Iran.

As for the possibility of widespread political rebellion, Moaveni writes:

That [Iranian youth] were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate ten-foot radius . . . many young people envisioned their futures abroad, and were unwilling to compromise those hopes for the sake of somehow changing Iran, a notion they considered chimerical, costly, and best left to a future generation.

Of course Moaveni wrote this, at the latest, in 2008, and this portrait should not be considered as necessarily accurate today, but still I found it an insightful assessment of the mood of a nation.

As for the titular “honeymoon in Tehran”, I found Moaveni and her husband’s inclusion of traditional Persian and Zoroastrian elements in their wedding to be intriguing (and so do their guests, who are surprised and pleased when the ceremonial text is read in Farsi and not in Arabic, which few understand.) In fact, throughout the book, Moaveni makes reference to Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian culture and how vestiges of it still remain, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it by writing it out of history books and forbidding certain Persian and Zoroastrian baby names. It makes me want to learn more about traditional Persian culture.

In the end, increasing restrictions and unsettling incidents – paired with Moaveni’s concern for her son’s upbringing – lead Moaveni and her husband to relocate to London. That move itself is a tricky cultural adjustment which she describes briefly in the epilogue.

I read most of Honeymoon in Tehran on a snow day, home from work. I’ve seen other reviews that found the book too slow-moving and meandering for their tastes, and I can see how that could be. I may have benefited from having an unexpected pocket of time to read much of this book nearly in one sitting. In any case, I really enjoyed this memoir and the complex picture it provides of Iranian life.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The 3 R’s Blog – “I learned a bit about Iranian life without feeling like I was being “educated,” and I was able to relate to much of her story, even though the details of our lives are very different.”

Devourer of Books – “Iran is depicted in a way that is very relatable and easy to grasp for any Americans – and certainly other Westerners as well – who are willing to discover the people of Iran, not just its administration.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Moaveni’s second memoir is slow to start, but once it picks up provides an optimistic and honest look at what it’s like to live inside one of the world’s most unknown countries.”

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