Friday, February 14, 2014

What Did the Book Club Think of Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being"?

Part One: A Book is Picked

For months and months, folks have been coming into Boswell, telling me that I had to read Ruth Ozeki's novel, A Tale for the Time Being. They'd look at me and say, "I think you'd like it." Do I wear my reading taste on my sleeve so nakedly that even amateurs can figure out what I like? Oh, yes, there is this blog thing.

Back at Schwartz, we'd had a great run with Ozeki's first novel, My Year of Meats, successful enough that we made the tour schedule for the second, All Over Creation. Alas, that novel didn't seem to have the momentum of the first novel; why are audiences so fickle? To that measure, why is writing so fickle?

Ozeki took some time off between her second and third novel. After all, she's got a lot on her plate. Not only is she a filmmaker, but she's also a Zen Buddhist priest. I'm not sure what goes along with being a priest as I am not as schooled in Buddhism as you'd expect a bookseller to be. I would think you meditate, keep the sacred spaces sacred, and write books about the whole process.

So A Tale for the Time Being was announced, Ozeki came to 2013's Winter Institute, and I got a copy signed. I played my old trick of having it personalized to Daniel, to force me to read it, but it didn't happen. Much as I wanted to, there were authors with upcoming events who wound up beating Ozeki out for the "currently reading" slot, and heck, I suspect she wouldn't be into the competition anyway.

Can you imagine it? I pit two authors against each other in some game of skill to see who I read. The truth is, and I'm not sure how recently I mentioned this, is that when I have no reading deadline and can't figure out what to read next, I line up 13 books and pick a card. The seven of spades means I read the seventh book down. If I don't finish the book, I must give it away or donate it.

We came close to an event, actually, halfway between hardcover and paperback publication. Every year Ragdale, the retreat in Lake Forest, has an arts celebration called A Novel Affair, which seems to triple the number of writers in attendance. Over the last few years, Jane Hamilton has set writers up to read in Milwaukee. In 2012, it was Gail Tsukiyama and in 2013, it was Karen Joy Fowler, and that was how I wound up reading We are All Completely Beside Ourselves (on sale in paperback on February 25).

So it turns out that Ruth Ozeki also could have read with Karen Joy Fowler, or so could have any number of authors, such as Lauren Groff, whose Arcadia we also read at the in-store lit group. But if she had come, I wouldn't have had the group read A Tale for the Time Being as I would have read it already, and you know the rules--I only pick books I regret not reading.

So it seems that during the day, every other person comes into the store wondering why I hadn't read All Over Creation. Then I go home and stare at the inscription, "So nice to meet you!" See, she had a good time! I must have really charmed her in the four seconds I talked to her in the line. The paperback release is scheduled for December 31st, meaning that February is as good as booked.

Then the holidays come, and the book seems to surge in popularity, hitting a number of yearend bestseller lists. I almost feel prescient. OK, so it was also on the Man Booker shortlist, in the last year that you have to play the game, "how is this author part of the British Empire?" Answer: she's Canadian, perhaps by dual citizenship, but nonetheless. But being on the NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) shortlist? That's completely after we picked our book club selection, and I was completely not influenced by the piles of laurels thrown at Ozeki's feet.

Part Two: I read it.

So for those who are not paying attention to worthy literary fiction, A Tale for the Time Being is told from two different perspectives. A woman named Ruth, living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shores. Inside is a diary of a young girl named Nao. She fears that this was lost in the tragic Japanese tsunami of 2011. Why do I not know the name of this storm, and why should I care, except that The Weather Channel now seems to name everything. That last storm was Pax, by the way.

The story alternates between Nao's perspective and Ruth's. Nao has trouble deciding how to tell her story. What tone exactly should she take? What she knows, as she writes from the cafe where young women dress up like French maids, is that her father, Haruki, is very depressed and seemingly wants to commit suicide. The victim of aggressive bullying at school, she is also thinking about ending her life. And then there's also her father's uncle, Haruki #1 (dad is #2), who one of the suicide bombers in World War II. The secret may lie with her great grandmother Juki, a Buddhist nun who takes care of a remote monastery.

Back in Ruth's story, there's a lot of pondering over exactly what happened. Ruth lives with Oliver, an artist in semi-retirement. It appears that Ruth might be happier in New York, but lives there for the sake of her husband, in a community that appears to be a hippie version of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a lot of quirky characters and gossip).

At first, the story felt a bit heavy handed. The teenage girl, Nao, ponders a lot about "now", and though you might argue that the two words are not puns in Japanese, Nao actually grew up in the United States, in Northern California, where her father worked for a high tech company, but lost his job in the tech bust. This is another factor that has led to Haruki #2's depression. So I wonder, "Is the Time Being going to be a character? Is my brain big enough for that?"

So what can Ruth do? Of course a neighbor needs to remind her that this diary crossed the Pacific Ocean, and the likelihood is that Nao's fate is sealed. Of course you've figured out that Ruth is a stand in for Ruth, the author (and yes, her real-life husband is named Oliver). So Ruth is the reader and Nao is the writer, but we know that the reader is actually the writer. And that's just the beginning of the ideas that started spinning around in my head in this story that combines physics and Buddhism and storytelling (of course) together.

Part Three: What did the book club think?

N. was one of those people who liked it more the more she read it. She found the Japanese cultural details enlightening, though it was hard to read the scenes about the bullying, both among the Japanese soldiers and the Japanese students. Another attendee wondered how commonplace bullying was in Japan, and I noted that I had read a whole book about it, well mostly about that and the children who wind up never leaving their parents' houses.

Someone else noted that this treatment of soldiers is not uncommon, and we ourselves came across it when we read John Boyne's The Absolutist, which was about British troops in World War I. I noted that this was also just a story in the news, with that story circulating several months ago about toxic commanders in the military system. Here's Craig Whitlock's take in The Washington Post.

J1. really liked the give and take between reader and writer, though she thought maybe the Ruth sections could have been shorter. J2 really liked it and when she was finished, she wanted to start reading again from the beginning.

J3, our resident scientist, was particularly intrigued by the scientific theories in the book. Spoiler alert, but there was a lot of talk about multiple realities, and whether in fact there were two parallel stories told in Ozeki's novel. I'm not talking about Ruth and Nao, but Nao and Nao. Did Nao actually suffer two fates? It was discussed heavily. But the clues are in the references to Schrödinger's Cat and quantum mechanics that are spread throughout the story, and are discussed further in the appendix.

One of the things I should note here was that while there were a few women who did not like the book in the group, all three men did, so if you have a couples group or something, this might be a better suggestion than you first thought when you saw that teenage Japanese girl's face staring at you.

Several folks wondered whether someone like Jiko could have existed, and C., who read the book for her second time, said yes, much like Germany, there was a period in Japan before World War II where the culture was very progressive, and a women's rights pioneer like Jiko (yes, she had a life before her religious piety) absolutely did exist.

As I mentioned before, if there was any complaining, it was more about Ruth's story. Some folks didn't much see the point of her husband and the villagers, but L. found Oliver quite sympathetic and though the played a vital role in the story.

So then J2 (yes, she was probably the biggest naysayer) though that he happy ending felt fake. You say happy ending, I say Dickensian, but as we all noted, that was just one alternative. I bet Ozeki is a big Dickens fan anyway. So this led to (spoiler alert) another meditation about whether the quantum physics of Nao's story (affected by Ruth, the writer) spread to Ruth's own story. Specifically, did the cat die or not? I leave that to you to decide.

In my notes, I wrote the following equation and in the spirit of the science vibe of the story, I will repeat it here: Ruth's mother/Jiko = Oliver/Haruki #2. Sadly, I have no idea what I was thinking. T

Did I ever note that if you read two books in a row, you see connections that you never would see otherwise? Well I read this just after Patrick Ness's The Crane Wife, and I was surprised by how much I connected the stories. For one thing, while Kumiko in that story is not said to be Japanese, she has a Japanese name and spends her days cutting and folding paper...just like Haruki #2. I also thought both novelists were fascinated by the dualities of life and the alternative directions our fates take us, though while Ness's characters are generally on the precipice, Ozeki's seem to somehow follow both alternatives.

Our friend M. came by afterwards, unable to attend, and wondered whether we saw the parallels with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Yes, for a French novel, there was also a strong Japanese esthetic, a philosophical pondering of life and suicide, with a lost teenage girl who deserves a better fate at the center of both stories (Nao and Polma). Renee in a sense is Haruki #2 and Ozu, the elegant older Japanese man, is perhaps Jiko. (Aside: we should hit our 500th copy sold of Elegance this year).

So then we talked about the crow imagery. What does it mean, what does it mean? After several rounds back and forth, I thought of Paul Harding's sage words and said, "Sometimes a crow is just a crow." G. agreed that crows are great and I showed everyone G.'s crow painting that hangs in our store. Elizabeth Kolbert worries about crows in her new book, The Sixth Extinction.

One of the great things about A Tale for the Time Being is that whether you go into the discussion having liked the book or not (or liking it at the beginning and then losing interest, or not knowing what to think and loving it by the end, or seven other combinations), you can't come out of the discussion without an insight or two, and a bit more respect for what Ozeki was trying to pull off.

And that makes for a great discussion. Oh, and everyone who told me that I would like the book was right. I'm so glad I took your collective advice.

Part Four: What's next?

Next up is Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. To make room for Lorrie Moore, who is appearing at Boswell on Monday, March 3 for her new short story collection, Bark (7 pm, free and open to the public, let us reserve a copy for you), we've bumped the book club discussion to Tuesday, March 4, 7 pm.

If you want a head start on our April selection, we're discussing Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena on Monday, April 7, 7 pm...unless an amazing author wants to appear at Boswell on that date, and then we'll adjust.

1 comment:

Emily Tanski said...

I loved this book, and I am so disappointed I was unable to participate in the discussion. I wrote some thoughts in a brief review on Goodreads, copied here if anyone is interested:
Love love love. This book kicked me out of my reading slump and woke me up with a start. At once intense and serene, this book of contrasts embodies two worlds with great success. The voice of the story alternates between Nao, a sixteen year old writing a diary in Tokyo, and Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island in Canada who finds the diary washed up on the beach over a decade later. The two disparate stories are equally compelling, and I found myself loath to leave either woman's world at the conclusion of the chapters.

The book covers a dizzying array of subjects, including ocean currents, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, Japanese pop culture, the ethics of computer programming, bullying, suicide, Alzheimer's disease, kamikazes, cats, the writer's process, and the nature of time and all beings. The story is enriched through this diversity, and amazingly never feels fractured or overly weighed down. The writing remains light and swift even in the darkest moments. Large ideas are woven in subtly, and the web of connections grows through the addition of other voices to the story, in the form of letters, journals, emails, and articles.

This book is unapologetically unique, and if you give yourself over to it and follow the flow of the current, you may come to find that each of us fractured and confused time beings are more connected than we realized.