Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication Date: March 12, 2013 (weirdly, I finished reading this book on March 12, 2014!)
Page Count: 418
Genre: Literary Fiction
Goodreads & Amazon 

On her daily walk along the coast of her Canadian island, Ruth finds a trash bag-wrapped Hello Kitty lunchbox. When she takes it home, and peels it open, she is surprised to find that it contains the diary of a sixteen year old girl named Nao, a stack of letters, and an old watch--all from Tokyo. Ruth decides to take the reading of the diary slow, so she is reading it at about the same rate that the teen wrote it. She becomes obsessed, pulled into Nao's story, especially when she reads that Nao is suicidal, and planning to kill herself as soon as she writes about the life of her 104 year old, Buddhist nun, great-grandmother Jiko. Ruth makes it her mission to find out as much as she can about Nao, specifically whether or not she is still alive, and enlists the help of her gossiping, fellow-islanders to help her decode and translate the diary.  Not only does Ruth worry about Nao, but she takes her story to heart, and thinks about her own culture, status in life, and marriage.
So here I am, at Fifi's Lonely Apron, staring at all these blank pages and asking myself why I'm bothering, when suddenly an amazing idea knocks me over. Ready? Here it is:
I will write down everything I know about Jiko's life in Marcel's book, and when I'm done, I'll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!How cool is that? It feels like I'm reaching through time to touch you, and now that you've found it, you're reaching back to touch me!
If you ask me, it's fantastically cool and beautiful. It's like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too, right out of old Jiko's and Marcel's prewired world. It's the opposite of a blog. It's an antiblog, because it's meant for only one special person, and that person is you. And if you've read this far, you probably understand what I mean. Do you understand? Do you feel special yet? 
Wow! What an amazing story. I wrote a couple of posts ago about how I was initially worried over how long this book would take me to read, but this book was sooo worth it.  This book covers so much ground and so many things, and once I got sucked into reading it, I could not stop. One of the strongest aspects of this book were the settings. Ruth lives with her husband Oliver on the seemingly remote Cortes Island. She moved there mostly because of her husband, as he spends a lot of time studying the outdoors and planting trees. She spends a lot of time thinking about her old life in Manhattan, one that was full of social activities, and likeminded people that stimulated her and was home to places she loved to visit. On Cortes Island, she is often annoyed by the town gossip, and the way people drop in unannounced. Her living on this island adds to her isolation, especially when a powerful storm thunders in and knocks out the power and her connection to the rest of the world. Maybe it's because Ozeki actually lives on Cortes Island, but I really got a sense for this place and the people that live there.
Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives. 
As interesting as Ruth's island was, I was completely entranced by where Nao spends/spent her time. She is a teen girl living in Tokyo, Japan. She writes her diary in a french maid cafe, looking out for creepy men and watching the girls take dates. She visits the electronic parts of town to shop for cute outfits with her neighbor, which feels fast paced and modern. And then she drags us into the dirty parts of her life like school bathrooms and back alleys. We see the coffee and cigarette vending machines, and the impact of technology, costumes, and intricacy that makes up the life of a teen girl in Japan. There is also the perfect serenity of old Jiko's Buddhist temple, and the beauty that it is. I don't even think I can accurately describe all of the places Nao takes us, and how it felt to go on that journey with her.
The way you write ronin is with the character for wave and the character for person, which is pretty much how I feel, like a little wave person floating around on the stormy sea of life. 
This could be somewhat of an unpopular opinion, but as enchanting as Ruth's island was, I was not as entertained by her points-of-view on the novel as I was with Nao's. A Tale For the Time Being alternates between Nao's diary entries, and Ruth's life on the island as she reads through the diary.  There isn't a whole lot happening in her narrative. She does a lot of searching on the internet for details about Nao's life, and thinks a lot about her relationship with her husband Oliver. They fixate a lot of attention to a Japanese crow that has found it's way to their neck of the woods, and Ruth visits with neighbors to get help with translations of the Japanese and French contents of the lunchbox. She also has a lot of memories of her mother, who had Alzheimer's and whom she used to care for. As sad as the disease is, I did not feel that this aspect of her life added anything to the narrative, as most of it happened in memory. There wasn't a lot of connection between her mother and the diary. To put it simply, there just wasn't a whole lot of drama or intrigue happening in Ruth's life.
Jiko says that everything has a spirit, even if it is old and useless, and we must console and honor the things that have served us well. 
Nao's sections in the novel were an exact opposite, even if it was infinitely more heartbreaking. As mentioned before, Nao is a sixteen year old girl who wants to 'graduate from time' after she writes the life of her century-old great-grandmother. She lived the first couple of years of her life in the Silicon Valley in California, and her father was a big-time software developer. But when he loses his job, he must retreat back to Tokyo with his family, and he becomes a shut-in after several failed suicide attempts. Nao not only has to deal with her fathers depressing ways, she also has to deal with an army of bullies at school. When she reaches a breaking point, she is then sent away by her family to live at the Buddhist temple with old Jiko. Jiko was also a strong character, always speaking in mantra's and consistently teaches Nao how to be the best version of herself, and helps her hone her supa-powa!. Nao reflects a lot on life, death, and overcoming the struggles with her father and those who want to hurt her. Her diary entries gave me chills and tears, usually both at the same time, and made me think a lot about recovery and overcoming obstacles. Nao's voice is also super authentic, using words like 'totally' frequently, and she is insanely perceptive to those around her, and the lessons that Jiko tries to instill in her.
And if you decide not to read anymore, hey, no problem, because you're not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you decide to read on, then guess what? You're my kind of time being and together we'll make magic!
I was slightly disappointed by the outcome of the novel. I don't want to give any spoilers, but I will say it was neither here nor there. Though as old Jiko would say, "here...there..same thing." I thought the ending would be much more than it actually was, and I thought that Ruth's part of the story was building to something much bigger than what actually happened. There was also an interesting magical realism element to the story, where Ruth dreams about Nao's diary. It was a really interesting moment, but given the fact that there was NO magical realism anywhere else within the novel, it came off more confusing than I'm sure Ozeki wanted it to be.

I would read novels and novels from Nao's perspective. It was fresh, vibrant, heartbreaking, and uplifting all wrapped together in a perfect bundle. The finder of her diary, Ruth, wasn't as interesting, but her place in the world was a quaint little pocket of lively characters. I thought we could have done without Ruth's narrative, but maybe someone else will see a bigger purpose for it than I did. It's just so hard to compete with such a strong narrator like Nao, and I don't think Ruth stood a chance. Beautiful read, regardless, and one that will make you think a lot about faith, family, strength, overcoming, and more.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Have you heard of this one? Are you interested?

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