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MY NAME IS SEI SHONAGON

Meditations and mini-essays about the delights and drawbacks of all things Japanese are interwoven throughout, providing...

Australian journalist Blensdorf, now England-based, debuts with an overwrought melodrama about the beleaguered life and long identity crisis of a woman half-Japanese and half-American.

So much could have been so wonderful if our narrator’s imaginative and likable American father hadn’t died in New York “one evening as a stolen car shot out of the darkness.” His death leaves the little girl and her modest Japanese mother at the mercy of his parents: the grandfather is nice enough, but the grandmother is a crushing snob who scorns the mother and wants only to Americanize the girl a.s.a.p. Result: the two flee back to Tokyo to live with “my mother’s elder brother.” So much could have been so wonderful if only the unmarried uncle weren’t an intolerable, cruel, perverted male-supremacist brute (he’s obsessed by samurai swords) who drives his sister to suicide, whereafter he does something equally unspeakable to our poor girl narrator. And so much could have been so wonderful if only the narrator’s new husband hadn’t turned out to be—well, a brute and slug. Her shameful divorce alienates her enraged uncle forever—but our narrator inherits a little incense shop and, in its quiet upstairs room, sits behind a screen and listens to the sad stories of her male “clients,” then gives such spoken comfort and advice as she can. (The real Sei Shonagon was a courtier in the Heian period who, when she was given paper as a gift, used it to write The Pillow Book, circa a.d.1000). What at last seems true happiness—with the love of French photographer Alain—ends up, thanks again to brute villainy, to be something worse than any of the deaths, suicides, rapes, or divorces so far.

Meditations and mini-essays about the delights and drawbacks of all things Japanese are interwoven throughout, providing much ethnic and historic and cultural information. But, as fiction, Voices is slow going, the melodrama unrelieved (and unbelievable), the message a toss-up between the heavy-handed and the saccharine.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2003

ISBN: 1-58567-443-5

Page Count: 158

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2003

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THE MEMORY POLICE

A quiet tale that considers the way small, human connections can disrupt the callous powers of authority.

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A novelist tries to adapt to her ever changing reality as her world slowly disappears.

Renowned Japanese author Ogawa (Revenge, 2013, etc.) opens her latest novel with what at first sounds like a sinister fairy tale told by a nameless mother to a nameless daughter: “Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here…transparent things, fragrant things…fluttery ones, bright ones….It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is on this island.” But rather than a twisted bedtime story, this depiction captures the realities of life on the narrator's unnamed island. The small population awakens some mornings with all knowledge of objects as mundane as stamps, valuable as emeralds, omnipresent as birds, or delightful as roses missing from their minds. They then proceed to discard all physical traces of the idea that has disappeared—often burning the lifeless ones and releasing the natural ones to the elements. The authoritarian Memory Police oversee this process of loss and elimination. Viewing “anything that fails to vanish when they say it should [as] inconceivable,” they drop into homes for inspections, seizing objects and rounding up anyone who refuses—or is simply unable—to follow the rules. Although, at the outset, the plot feels quite Orwellian, Ogawa employs a quiet, poetic prose to capture the diverse (and often unexpected) emotions of the people left behind rather than of those tormented and imprisoned by brutal authorities. Small acts of rebellion—as modest as a birthday party—do not come out of a commitment to a greater cause but instead originate from her characters’ kinship with one another. Technical details about the disappearances remain intentionally vague. The author instead stays close to her protagonist’s emotions and the disorientation she and her neighbors struggle with each day. Passages from the narrator’s developing novel also offer fascinating glimpses into the way the changing world affects her unconscious mind.

A quiet tale that considers the way small, human connections can disrupt the callous powers of authority.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-87060-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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SUCH A FUN AGE

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged White mom and her Black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a Black boy hoping to go with a White girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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