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Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being

July 21, 2015

21. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

Length: 422 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction

Started: 27 March 2015
Finished: 10 May 2015

Where did it come from? Bought from Amazon.
Why do I have it? It was my book club’s pick for April, but I’ve had several friends recommend it as well.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 26 January 2015.

A journal that can
connect two people across
the years and ocean.

Summary: Ruth is a writer who lives on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. One day she discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a plastic-wrapped diary inside on the beach. The author of the diary is Nao Yasutani, a Japanese girl who – thanks to her family’s unstable financial situation, the bullying she faces at school, and her general feeling of not fitting in – has decided to kill herself. But before she does, Nao wants to tell the story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, who is a Zen Buddhist nun. As Ruth reads the diary, she feels an ever-increasing sense of connection to Nao, and an increasing sense of urgency about her fate, even though she suspects the diary is flotsam from the Japanese tsunami of 2011, and thus involves events that are long past her ability to influence.

Review: I loved this book. It took me a long time to get into it (partly due to my schedule, certainly, but also partly due to the structure of the book, I think), but once it started picking up steam everything started coming together and it was just great. I loved Nao’s voice (more than Ruth’s, certainly), and was fascinated by her life and the story she told about her life in modern Japan – very different from what I encounter on a regular basis, yet also very recognizable. I loved Jiko, Nao’s great-grandmother; I loved her sense of humor and her sensibility, and wish she could have been my grandmother. I didn’t love Ruth’s parts of the story as much – something about the way she and her husband interacted didn’t appeal to me, and it made me dislike her character somewhat – but I appreciate the need for the framing device/parallel storylines, and thought that the story was well constructed.

I also really, really liked where the story wound up going in the end. I don’t want to say too much about it, since it was a lovely surprise for me, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise for others, but this book does deviate from straight-up fiction, veering into the meta – and the metaphysical – towards the end. (The first clue that it was going meta should have been that the main character is ALSO an author named Ruth Ozeki.) Meta-ness doesn’t always work for me, primarily when an author is using it as a means of being clever more than as an integral part of the story. In this case, however, it totally worked, since it blends in so seamlessly with all of the other elements that were already established, and becomes the thread that binds them all together. This book wound up reminding me a lot of The Tao of Physics, even though that’s non-fiction and this is a novel, but there are certainly a number of ideas in common. And, similarly to that book, I ultimately don’t feel like I “got” all of A Tale for the Time Being, but what I did get, I absolutely loved. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think fans of literary fiction with a good sense of humor, who don’t mind a little magical realism oddness mixed in would be the perfect audience, but really, I think this book is good enough that I’d recommend it pretty broadly, even if it’s outside your usual style.

After the temple, Dad would walk me to school and we’d talk about stuff. I don’t remember exactly what, and it didn’t matter. The important thing was that we were being polite and not saying all the things that were making us unhappy, which was the only way we knew how to love each other. –p. 47

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Farm Lane Books Blog, I’m Lost In Books, The OF Blog, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 3: “As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future.” – a song, esp. an intimate ballad.
  • p. 34: “She was wearing an old Cowichan sweater and a long skirt, made out of some rough peasant fabric that covered the tops of her gum boots when she put them back on.” – a heavy-wool knit animal and geometric patterns made by the women of the Cowichan people of British Columbia.
  • p. 92: “Like her mother, Ruth often forgot things. She perseverated. Lost words. Slipped in and out of time.” – to repeat a word, gesture, or act insistently or redundantly.
  • p. 113: “In the two weeks following the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor, the global bandwidth was flooded with images and reports from Japan, and for that brief period of time, we were all experts on radiation and exposure and microsieverts and plate tectonics and subduction.” – The SI unit for the amount of ionizing radiation required to produce the same biological effect as one rad of high-penetration x-rays [for sievert; a microsievert would be 1 x 10^-6 of this]
  • p. 122: “Outside, the same moonlight shimmered softly in the garden, only now in the distance, beyond the garden gate, Ruth could dimly make out what looked like the outline of a cemetary, its jaggedy silhouette of stupas and stones, stark against the pale night sky.” – A dome-shaped monument used as a Buddhist or Jainist reliquary or commemorative shrine.
  • p. 149: “For her, and for the women writers who came after, this literary praxis was nothing short of revolutionary.” – Practical application or exercise of a branch of learning.
  • p. 173: “Down below, a ragged line of wolves ran silently, in single file, following a deer trail through the salal.” – A small evergreen shrub (Gaultheria shallon) in the heath family, native to the Pacific coast of North America, having white or pink flowers clustered in racemes and edible purple-black berries.
  • p. 220: “Dreadlocked punks scavenged for chains and derailleurs in the tangle of bicycles.” – A device for shifting gears on a bicycle by moving the chain between sprocket wheels of different sizes.
  • p. 421: “Second, I offer thanks to my sangha of readers and friends: to …” – A particular community of Buddhist monks and nuns, or of the monks, nuns, and laity engaged in Buddhist practice.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2015 4:25 pm

    You’ve convinced me I should give this a try!

  2. aentee @ read at midnight permalink
    July 22, 2015 6:32 am

    This book sound lovely, I like books with a non linear kind of storyline and different POV, so this one will be popped onto my TBR :D

    • July 22, 2015 10:11 am

      I’m also a big fan of parallel storylines, although usually what I find are novels where one of the storylines is modern and one is historical (at least, a bit more historical than a few years ago.)

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