The year has moved forward once again catching me out by suddenly turning into July. So my post in which I take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read etc on the first of the month is a bit behind schedule. But I know you’re all desperately waiting for this (a girl can pretend can’t she??) so let’s get on with what I was up to on July 1, 2017
Last month the book on my bedside table at the start of the month was one of the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It was one of the strangest books I’ve read for many years and one of my favourites for 2017 so far. (here’s my review my review in case you don’t know the book) On July 1, I was coming towards the end of another book from that reading list: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’ve since finished the novel (review is posted here) but would love, if I ever got the time, to re-read it because it’s so rich in big themes (the meaning of time, Zen Buddhism, suicide to mention just a few) and yet is a highly readable coming of age story about a lonely Japanese girl. If all the books I read in July are anywhere as good as this one I’ll have a stellar month.
On July 1 I was also creeping my way through Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir which is the first in her series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I borrowed this from my sister just before going to see Weir talk at an author event marking the launch of book two in the series. I made it to about page 100 and then stalled. It’s not that the book is poor or lacking interest (I’m a sucker for the Tudor and Stuart periods in British history) but the characterisation lacks a bit of something special.
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 276. Although I haven’t imposed a ban on buying new books, I have been very restrained. So far this year I’ve bought just three titles and acquired another ten through give-aways or from authors/publishers. I’m giving myself a huge gold star here when I think that in 2016 I bought/acquired 180 new items for the bookshelves.
Thinking of reading next…
I don’t plan far ahead with my reading because invariably I change my mind at the last moment. I have plenty of choices in my 20booksofsummer list still and July is also when I’m going to join in the Japanese literature month hosted by Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. I also have a copy of The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius that I’ve agreed to review before the paperback version is published at the end of July. It’s set in her native South Africa and is a dual time frame narrative. Part of it takes place in 1901 at the height of the Boer War, when a doctor at a British concentration camp conducts a series of grim experiments on Boer prisoners. The other part focuses on a murder investigation in 2010 which begins with the discovery of a body burned beyond recognition.
Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK. It’s a fabulous adaption that is compelling viewing. In between we’re catching up on an old favourite – Foyle’s War, a British detective drama television series set during and shortly after the Second World. All the action takes place in the coastal town of Hastings where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) has deal with potential spies, blackmarketeers and a few murderers. Although some plots are a bit far fetched, the episodes are always convincing in their portrayal of the period (apparently the Imperial War Museum acted as an advisor to ensure historical accuracy).
Listening: I’m a latecomer to the podcast called Serial – season 1 is a compelling true story about a murder in Baltimore and a fight for justice for the teenager sent to prison for 16 years. It’s as good as another true life story I heard earlier in the year called The Body on the Moor in which BBC Radio followed a police investigation that tried over the course of a year to identify a body found by a cyclist. I highly recommend this one.
And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I haven’t gone off the rails and my book stock hasn’t suddenly multiplied many times over.
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.
We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here
Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.