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The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon: The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan - Sei Shōnagon, Dennis Washburn, Arthur Waley A fascinating glimpse into a very different world; the Heian Court of 10th Century Japan, where, concealed behind screens, ladies in waiting occupy their time with poetry, gossip and the perfect combinations of kimono layers.

Sei Shonagon is one such lady and this book is not so much a formal diary as a collection of notes, lists, impressions and journal entries. It has to be said that her character is not very endearing; Sei Shonagon is, above all, concerned with appearances, with how things should look and with what is clever and correct. Her attitudes to those outside her own narrow social class are appalling in their callousness and contempt. At one point, she mentions a hilarious incident in which she and her friends pretend to be about to offer charity to a poor man and then run away, laughing.

The disjunction between her keen appreciation for the beautiful and the ugliness of her cruelty is striking.

Sei Shonagon is, however, a vivid writer and a bold and witty personality. The format of the book with its short discrete entries makes it perfect for dipping into and slowly building up a picture of life in the Heian court.