Tag Archives: Sei Shonagon

My Favourite Books of 2016

16 Jan

Year 2016 wasn’t a particularly good one when it comes to discovering good books, compared to the previous years. It seems that every new year of my life is nothing but a paler, duller and sadder version of the previous year. Still, there were eleven books that I thought were really good and that I highly recommend everyone to read. I hope I’ll read some really fantastic books in 2017! And I hope you will too!

1908-woman-reading-by-candlelight-peter-ilsted-danishWoman Reading by Candlelight, Peter Ilsted, 1908

1. My Life by Marc Chagall: only a painter could write such an autobiography. It’s almost psychedelic, full of beauty, dreams, love and hardships of the painter’s life. And so full of hope at the same time.

2. The Return of Philip Latinowicz by Miroslav Krleza is a novel about an artist who returns to his homeland Croatia after 23 years, set in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and it explores just about every topic there is; meaning of existence, art, childhood, sexuality, provincial claustrophobia, relationship with his mother and the puzzling question – the identity of his father. After years spent living in the decaying Western European society, Philip hoped to find inspiration by revisiting his cultural roots, but he was instead welcomed by the Panonian mud; intellectual and imaginative poverty of small-town decadence, intrigues and hypocrisies, and the petty-bourgeois mindsets of the people who live there. Here’s a quote that I utterly agree with: ‘I believe in the purity of artistic intuition as the only purity which has remained in this animal world around us!

3. A Thing of Beauty by A.J.Cronin is such a beautiful book, tells the story of a struggling painter Stefan who goes from a proper middle-class student obliging his dominant priest father, to diving fully into the bohemian and artistic life in 1910s Paris. It’s a sad, gentle book, you can empathise with the character and feel his struggles, pains and the beauty of his paintings. I wrote a long long review here.

4. Lust for Life by Irving Stone is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh, beautifully written, easy to read, with a good amount of his personal life and his art because both is equally important. I liked that the chapters were divided by the places he lived in, and that the author managed to convey the personalities of van Gogh and his painter-friends so well. It was only after reading this that I understood what a desire Vincent had to help people, such as the workers in coal mines. Even now, he’s helping the humanity with the beauty of his paintings.

5. Dark Stuff by Nick Kent: This is a collection of essays about rock musicians originally written from 1972 to 1993 which explore the self-destruction and creativity of rock world. I adore the simple and honest way he writes, without patronising, but with utter love for music, and I think it’s so cool that he led that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle himself. I want to be Nick Kent and Tony Wilson of the art world!

6. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a beautiful account of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, Chelsea Hotel, discovering art and music, and a tender love story as well. It showed me Patti in a completely new light, maybe she looks like a boy but she has a loving and forgiving heart and is a true woman.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: This books wasn’t that interesting to read, but the deeper message it carries is worth it. There’s references to it everywhere, and I just had to read it.

8. The Pillowbook by Sei Shonagon is beautiful, lyrical, gentle and witty portrayal of court life, customs and nature in Edo period written by a woman who is often called the ‘first blogger’! Shonagon won me over with her descriptions of cherry blossoms, plum trees, snow, moonshine, clothes, gossips and chatter on court. Anyone who loves nature, poetry or Eastern culture should definitely read it! Here’s a quote: ‘In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.’ I wrote a longer review here.

9. Return to Cardiff by John Williams: What I love about this book is that it’s a product of our day and age. I am always bitching about how boring and uncreative the 21st century world is, so I was very delighted to read something as moving and amusing. It’s a story of memories and changes for Cardiff as well as the characters. I wrote a longer review here.

10. The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki: is a novel written in a diary-form about the loss of communication between a middle-aged couple. Wife and husband are reading each other’s diaries to find out their true fantasies and desires. It’s only erotic at first reading, but its main subject – loss of communication or alienation is something that pervades our modern world. I’m realising more and more how difficult it is really to make a deep, sincere connection with another human being, and this novel really chimed with me.  I like Tanizaki’s style and I really want to read ‘Naomi’ next – it’s suppose to be the Japanese version of Nabokov’s Lolita.

11. A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney is kitchen-sink drama which I read because I knew Morrissey loved it and it was inspirational for his lyrics. And I loved it too! Set in the grim and industrial landscape of Manchester, it tells the story of a pregnant schoolgirl with a black-sailor boyfriend, careless mother and a gay friend. Delaney writes about everyday struggles and social issues with such delicacy I think. It inspired Morrissey to write his song This Night Has Opened My Eyes, do you need another reason to read it?

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Have you read any of these books?

Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook – Lyrical Meditations on Nature and Court Life

22 Aug

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. This month I read her famous ‘Pillowbook’; a collection of the previously mentioned texts and poems which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often funny as well. The book was written in 990s, and it’s something so poignant in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring moonshine, still lakes and gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me.

I will end my short review by saying that I thoroughly recommend the book, if you still haven’t realised that. Happy reading!

1800s Courtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th centuryCourtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th century

This is how The Pillow Book begins, with Sei Shonagon describing the beauty of four seasons:

In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

In Summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!

In Autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sets close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild gees, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

In Winter the early mornings. it is beautiful indeed when the snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

1793. Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies

Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies, 1793

*As this is mainly an art blog, I am aware of the fact that Shonagon lived in Heian period and the painting by Hokusai is from Edo period or 19th century, so there’s a discord here. It would be the same as putting a painting of Queen Victoria and a Medieval text, but I really liked this painting by Hokusai and I felt it fits the mood of Shonagon’s book.