If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way. But not only did I enjoy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki it’s turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
This is a novel that addresses big themes that transcend cultures and borders yet it starts at the level of one individual. In a Tokyo cafe where waitresses dress up as French maids, 16 year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her thoughts into a diary. Her journal is an attempt to deal with the severe loneliness and feelings of alienation she has experienced since her father lost his lucrative hi-tech job in Silicon Valley, California and the family had to move back to Japan. They live in a one bed room apartment; her mother sits for hours in front of a tank of jellyfish at the aquarium, her father, unable to get a job, has attempted suicide. Nao has been bullied, ostracised and humiliated at school and is herself contemplating suicide. But first she will write the life story of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a nun who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan.
More than a decade later, the diary, wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and freezer bags covered in barnacles, is washed ashore on an island in British Columbia where it’s discovered by Ruth, an author. As she reads the Nao’s words Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of the girl’s life. How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world? Did it float across the Pacific on one of the huge gyres of waste she learns about from her husband Oliver? How long had the package been tossed about in the sea? What happened to Nao – did she kill herself or was she a victim of the tsunami in 2011? Can Ruth find and save her? Questions that compel Ruth to frantically hunt the Internet, seek insight from local marine experts and help with translation. Each time she thinks she is making progress, she hits another dead end.
The novel oscillates between first person excerpts from Nao’s diary and third person narration in which Ruth reacts to the diary and the other documents. New layers of story emerge and new connections are made. In the lunchbox, Ruth discovers letters from Jiko’s son, Haruki, a young man forced to give up his studies and become a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War. In the letters, written in French so his commanding officers cannot understand them, he reveals his fears about the task he has been ordered to undertake. The package also contains Haruki’s watch which miraculously still keeps time.
Time of course is one of the threads that holds the novel together. The slippery nature of time is one of Nao’s preoccupations. She calls herself a “time being. … someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” She captures her thoughts about her “last days on Earth” in a diary bound within the covers of an old copy of Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. As she recounts her past, she wonders not only who will read her story, but also when she will catch up to her present and what catching up will feel like. At the same time, she seems to believe that “now” is an impossibility because it keeps disappearing:
In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.
She invites her imagined reader to count the moments of the now with her. Across the years and across the ocean Ruth tries to keep in time with Nao, forcing herself to slow down the pace at which she reads the journal. Reading it at the same pace at which Nao wrote it, will she reasons, enable her to “more closely replicate Nao’s experience.” It’s left to Ruth’s husband Oliver to provide a logical explanation for the conflation of past and present she experiences, using the experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat as evidence that an object (or Nao herself) may be simultaneously both alive and dead.
Philosophical explorations of quantum mechanics, discussions about crow species and the anatomy of barnacles populate A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a dizzying array of ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader (especially if you also pay attention to the 163 footnotes and six appendices). What holds it all together is Nao’s voice. She’s a direct and engaging narrator, holding little back in her account of her fears for her father and the despair when a disturbing film about her goes viral through social media. What saves her is her relationship with her grandmother. During a summer holiday at the temple Nao learns how to control her anger, empty her mind and express gratitude for the simplest things in life. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl in her pain and her desire for love.
If you want a novel that deals with both the big and the small issues, A Tale for the Time Being ticks all the boxes. It’s quite mesmerising in scope but at the heart of it is a young girl reaching out across time and space for help.
About the Book: A Tale for the Time Being is Ozeki’s third novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.
About the Author: A native of Connecticut, Ruth Ozeki immersed herself in English and Asian Studies college and through extensive travel in Asia. After working in cinematic set design and television production, she became an independent filmmaker. Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki divides her time between New York and British Columbia. There are numerous parallels between the author and the character of Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being – aside from sharing a name, they are each married to a man called Oliver, have a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, a moody cat and have a house on an island in Desolation Sound.
Why I read this book: I heard about this book when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was considered to be a strong contender (though some reviewers said they felt the section set in British Columbia was weaker than the Tokyo sections). I never got around to reading it but then found a copy in a library sale. It’s one of the books on my 20booksofsummer reading list.
I decided at the start of this year that I wouldn’t make any reading plans. I’m just hopeless at sticking to them so what’s the point? And so far I’ve been able to keep pretty much on track, just reading whatever has taken my fancy from my current bookshelves (only a few non-bookshelf exceptions like Station Eleven).
But a few cracks have developed in that game plan lately.
First, along came Cathy’s 20booksofsummer challenge which I joined last year and thought would be good to repeat. I seem to prefer short term ‘challenges’ where you can participate at different levels. This one is just three month’s duration and though it involves making a reading list, there’s no compulsion to stick to the list. I’m now on book five from my list and not yet feeling constrained.
Then Adam at Roof Beam Reader pops up with his Austen in August event where the idea is to read Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished), or biographies, critique’s etc. Since this is Austen’s bicentenary year, what could be more appropriate? Besides which I have a few non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read for several years including What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Bryne. And so I’m signed up for this.
The next person to test my resolve was Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. with her Japanese literature challenge which runs from June to January 2018. Easy this one I thought – there’s no need to make any kind of a list and most of the activity will run after 20booksofsummer is over. And so I’m signed up for this.
Still manageable I was thinking until I saw a blogger mentioned a few that I’d forgotten about like July such as Spanish Lit Month in July, German Lit Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August. And then there is the All August/All Virago project happening in just a few months.
You can see a pattern emerging now I think?
For someone who had no plans, I seem to have acquired one which will take me into 2018. Hmm. However that’s happened, the reading journey ahead is going to get congested because I still have 10 titles remaining to complete my Booker Prize project . I’m determined to do that by end of this year.
To navigate around the bottleneck I’m going to reign back even further on my Classics Club reading . I’m way behind with that anyway – 16 books to read before the end of August if I’m to meet the ‘deadline’ of 50 books in five years which is never going to happen. I’ll also be a little more judicious about any further reading projects/challenges I join for the rest of 2017. I’ll do the ones I’ve already signed up for (20booksofsummer, Austen in August, Japan literature) but I’m going to forgo Spanish Literature Month and decide between Women in Translation and All August/All Virago.
Wish me luck as I steer through the congestion.
Time to get that cuppa brewing and those Hot Cross buns buttered. After a lifetime of tasting various versions of these buns I feel qualified to vote the ones my dad makes as by far the best. Even though he gave up his baking business more than 20 years ago he keeps his hand in every Easter with a bunch of these buns for selected customers only (ie family and friends). Forget about those variations they now offer in supermarket – chocolate flavoured for goodness sake – they are no substitute for the real thing. Sorry you can’t taste them for yourselves but I’m planning to scoff the lot…..
Suitably sustained I’m in good shape to do a catch up on what’s been happening in the Booker Talk world of late.
Wales on the Map
I admire bloggers like Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums who are advocates for the literature from their country. Reading their blogs made me realise last year how poor a job I did as an ambassador for my own native land of Wales. I’ve been slowly rectifying that on the blog (you can see some of the results on the Authors from Wales page). The Book on the Map series run by Cleopatra at CleopatraLovesBooks has given me an opportunity put Wales into the spotlight via an interview with the author Thorne Moore who lives in Pembrokeshire and whose book A Time of Silence I discovered late last year. If you have a moment in between all that bun-eating, do take a look at the interview on Cleo’s site and the superb photos.
2017 Goals Update
Let’s start with the good news here. My first goal was to cut back on buying/acquiring anything new so I could enjoy the ones I already own. At the start of the year I had 314 unread books in my personal library. Just over three months into the year and the tally has broken the 300 mark – just (at 298). It would have been even lower but the fact I gained a few donations from my sister (two of which have duly been returned unread) and I won two giveaways. It hasn’t been as onerous as I expected though I won’t guarantee not to slip a little in the next few weeks. The one thing I know I’ll have to watch is that I don’t over-compensate for the enforced deprivation by buying a stack of new stuff in the second half of the year.
How about the second goal which is to get a bit more creative with images I use on this blog? This got off to a slow start. I worked my way through a manual on how to use the Photoshop software program but it was hard going. I had bought a scaled down version because I know the full one is way too sophisticated for my needs but even then the vast array of tools was just confusing. I produced a few montages – like this one of the Swallows of Kabul but they weren’t any great shakes and each one seemed to take forever to produce. Then last week I did what I should have done months ago – turned to my resident Photoshop expert (otherwise known as Booker Talk husband) who uses the full blown version for his graphic design work. I’d stupidly assumed the two versions wouldn’t be similar to any great degree. But after just one hour he figured out what I needed to do and away I went.
My first attempt – His Bloody Project – turned out pretty well I thought though I had to go knocking on his door for help more than once.
The second one – The Daughter of Time – was all my own work. Now I’m not claiming these are brilliant but they are a lot more visually appealing than the standard book cover image I’ve used for the last few years. Maybe not quite a giant leap for mankind but this certainly counts as progress.
This week I finished reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy which represent a significant milestone in my Booker Prize project. It means I now have just 10 titles remaining to read. What’s been the best titles I’ve read so far? You might have seen a recent joint post I did with fellow blogger Joslyn of Chronic Bibliophilia on this point. We challenged ourselves to identify our top three Booker winning titles. Here are my top three. I’ve also ranked all the others in order and in due course will reveal my least favourite titles. Of course these choices might change by the time I get to the end of the project – certainly my enjoyment of The God of Small Things has pushed that up to the top of the list.
Progress on the Classics Club has been just as slow this year as it was in 2016. I’ve read only one title on my Classics Club list so far this year but it was a good one – Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. But hey these are classics and most of them have been around for a hundred years or so; I reckon they can wait a few more years until I get to them.
And that’s it for today everyone. Back to working my way through the rather large collection of chocolate my mum seemed to think it was essential I had this Easter Sunday. Hope you all enjoy your day….