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My Name Is Sei Shonagon Hardcover – November 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Blensdorf, an Australian journalist, spins two years she spent in Tokyo into a brief, poetic novel about a Japanese-American woman's search for herself amid displacement, tragedy and cultural conflict. "I don't know what it is that is broken," muses the narrator at the novel's opening. "Only that I slip in and out of a mental wakefulness that can't translate itself to speech, to movement." Confined to a hospital bed, she recounts her tumultuous family history, starting with the sudden death of her American father when the family was living in New York. The girl and her mother return to Japan to live with the girl's uncle, a dark brute with little patience for American ways. She recalls her study of calligraphy and painting, and her mother's unhappiness and eventual suicide, weaving in memories of a more recent past, in which she inherits the family's incense shop and becomes the de facto confessor of her troubled clients, shielded by a screen and the nom de guerre Sei Shonagon, the 10th-century author of The Pillow Book. Sei meets her demanding future husband through her uncle, who becomes infuriated when the unhappy couple divorces. She then falls in love with Alain, a French photographer who comes "to write about the otherness of this country in images." But bliss is not to be, as her uncle becomes an avenging force in a simultaneously reserved and shocking climax. Blensdorf's controlled prose, weighty with description and portentousness, can be beautiful but also murky, and the plot's stab at suspense falls short. Still, this is an affecting debut, a troubling story with bits of brightness. Foreign rights sold in France, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Spain and the U.K.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The strife a child endures goes a long way toward shaping her adult identity. That's the case with Sei Shonagon, which is not her real name but a pseudonym taken from the catty author of the famed Japanese "pillow book," which details the more sensual side of ancient court life. Arriving in her mother's homeland after the death of her American father, this young girl clings hopelessly to the dream that her mother's listlessness will vanish once they settle in Japan, but the young Sei soon finds herself alone and trapped with a strict and terrible uncle who loathes the sight of his half-Japanese heir. She grows to read his moods, a talent she will use wisely when she inherits the family's incense shop and reads the lives of men from behind a curtain. This is the first novel of Australian journalist Blensdorf, who wrote it while living in Tokyo. She richly captures the city's magnetic relationship with modern-day consumerism and its firmly rooted traditions readily traced back to the ancient world. Elsa Gaztambide
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press (November 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585674435
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585674435
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,668,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By algo41 on October 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a novel about a woman in modern Japan. In an ingenious plot device, the woman, as a favor to a friend, converses with the friend's depressed and shy father, using a screen to separate them visually, kind of like a psychiatrist's couch. This turns into something of a career, but also echoes the writings of a famous medieval Japanese woman author, at a time when noblewomen led secluded lives. The love of beauty unites the two women, and is an important element in both historic periods, however unsatisfactory other aspects of the periods are. Now Blensdorf had lived in Japan only 2 years when she wrote this book, and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of some of her commentaries on modern Japanese life; certainly, she isn't very artful or subtle in conveying them. Nor is Sei Shonagon's general plot line very artful or subtle. What Blensdorf does remarkably well is to make the reader experience the woman's love of beauty, and its powers of sustenance.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By nick lauren on February 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Many have written of the otherness of Japan, about its history and culture but few have managed to get inside its soul in the way Jan Blensdorf has done. My Name is Sei Shonagon is no mere travel book.
The story itself is set in contemporary Tokyo and emerges via a series of intriguing memories and flashbacks recounted by a near-comatose woman known as Sei Shonagon. Even as the tale gets beneath the skin of the modern city, it is revealing the contrasting threads of beauty and violence that run through the whole of Japanese history. Whether one knows much about Japanese life or not, this book floods the mind with colours, sounds, odours and images of the daily theatre that is Japanese life. You emerge from reading as if from a dream rich with ambiguities.
Jan Blensdorf spent two years in Japan and inevitably her direct experience must have been as a foreigner, an expat, but she has said in interviews that gradually she came to internalise many of the Japanese attitudes, customs and forms of daily life. For me that is also what makes the character of Sei so fascinating - that she is somehow suspended between two cultures: she has the inside knowledge available to a Japanese together with the detachment of a critic. Her struggle for personal survival - in many senses - is only one part of a complex tale that deftly interweaves the lives of various people Sei comes to know at a level of extraordinary intimacy.
My Name is Sei Shonagon is a multi-layered experience - a story of suspense, a celebration of beauty and, above all, a meditation on the search for personal identity.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Japan Reader on July 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The only reason I didn't give this book a one-star rating is that it starts off with some beautiful writing -- spare, lovely descriptions of beauty and Japanese traditions such as calligraphy and incense. There are also some interesting takes on Japanese society and life.

That said, the book relies too heavily on this and not enough on plot and character. I'm not a fan of totally plot-driven writing, but the conceit of this book -- that the author is in a coma, looking over her life -- is difficult to carry off even in the hands of a seasoned novelist. It's not impossible; I think of the biographical novel of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original "Siamese Twins," which starts with one of the twins waiting for his death. That, though, relays the events of their lives in a lively way, as if they are just happening, so you forget that the entire book is a flashback. In this case, though, the writing style is all reminiscent, a style that works all right for the first 40 pages but then becomes unremittingly flat. The main character never gets out of her own head, and the book never really comes alive.

Neither do most of the characters, most of whom are cardboard cutouts: distant husband (disposed of in three pages from marriage to divorce), evil uncle, saintly mother. We don't see what motivates the uncle to do what he does, even though it's pivotal to the book; and even though the character suddenly has enough spine to stand up to her uncle and husband, we don't see where it came from in her life.

And the ending! It's such a quickie, tacked-on ending that it almost makes me think the author had a page limit and had to end the book within that.
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Format: Hardcover
The narrator - it is characteristic of this enigmatic novel that we never know her real name - is a woman whose father was American and whose mother was Japanese. She was born in the United States, but when she was seven years old, her father died and her mother took her back to Tokyo with her; and that was a great culture shock for the child. They lived with the mother's brother, a harsh, deeply conservative and spartan Japanese, very controlling of his sister and now of his little niece. She is reproached for being only half-Japanese, has to learn not to ask questions, to speak more quietly, and is expected to learn everything about his own passion, the history of Japanese swords and of the samurai tradition. The little girl found some solace in writing down stories about her life in America. She read these to her unhappy mother, who called her `my little Sei Shonagon' after a woman at the imperial court in the 10th century, who recorded her life and her reflections in `the Pillow Book'.

So here we have the record of the narrator's Japanese life. We live with her at first in her uncle's austere house where rooms are separated only by thin paper screens. Later she somehow inherits an incense shop. Above it there is also such a room. We are not told how it came about that a variety of men come to talk to her in that room. She is separated from them by a screen, such as in the 10th century would have separated Sei Shonagon from the men she had entertained. But she is not entertaining them: she is more like a priest in a confessional box or a Freudian analyst sitting out of sight of the patient.
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