“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

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“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.” – Carl Sagan

Ruth Ozeki was no doubt familiar with this quotation, for she certainly embraces its spirit in her novel. Sagan’s quotation, from the original “Cosmos” series, also includes the following: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are printed lots of funny, dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head – directly to you.” Ozeki even mentions a similar sentiment, noting that “…the ancient Greeks believed that, when you read aloud, it was actually the spirits of the dead, borrowing your tongue in order to speak again.” I think it is easy for those of us who read often – or maybe not often enough – to overlook the magical quality of the act of reading. One of the triumphs of Ruth Ozeki’s remarkable novel, “A Tale for the Time Being” is that it helps us to remember the amazing and almost supernatural relationship between a reader and a writer.

The book’s title is also a play on words, not meaning the common expression in usage today of “for the time being.” For Ozeki and this novel, “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

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It would take too long a post to summarize Ozeki’s complex novel, but if I had to do it in a few sentences I would describe it as a dual tale of a sixteen year-old Japanese school girl, Nao (pronounced “now”, get it?) and an author Ruth (hmm…) “halfway across the world” in British Columbia. The two become linked when Nao’s diary (carefully preserved by being wrapped up in multiple plastic bags inside a Hello Kitty lunch box) washes up on shore near Ruth’s home. Ruth becomes obsessed with the diary and life of her correspondent, (who seems quite aware of the magical writer-reader relationship) assuming that it is the part of the first wave of flotsam produced during the Fukushima earthquake/tidal wave disaster of March 2011. The further she reads in the diary, the more her own grip on time seems to loosen… Nao also writes in her diary – about her diary – that “It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it you’re reaching back to me!”

(Below: Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” also was prominently featured in Ozeki’s book)

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Highlights of the book include Nao’s special relationship with her great-grandmother Yasutani Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Many of my favorite parts of the book take place at the mountain retreat where Jiko resides. Be warned, though, that there are parts of Nao’s story that are disturbing or unsettling and which the very sensitive reader may find hard to read. If there is a flaw in the book it’s that I did find the character of Ruth’s husband, Oliver, a little too good to be true. He seemed to know everything. Whenever a question came up about some erudite knowledge he seemed to know all about it. A little too convenient, but useful to advance the story I suppose. All in all, though, still one of my favorite few books of the year. You may have heard the title among the finalists for the 2013 Mann-Booker prize. It ended up losing out to Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” which I have now added to my TBR list – It must really be something if it beat out “A Tale for the Time Being!”

(below: some of the “gyres”-natural ocean currents- that perhaps helped bring Nao’s diary to the hands of Ruth. Oliver knew everything about these, too. 🙂 )

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Have you read this remarkable book? If not, what’s the hold up? 🙂 If yes, what did YOU think about it?

One good, professional review I found (in the LA Times) may be read here: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/21/entertainment/la-ca-jc-ruth-ozeki-20130324

(Below: I loved this picture from Ozeki’s website. What a feeling it must be to sit in front of a stack of one’s books like that! – Reminded me a little of Walter White’s pile of money in the self-storage unit in “Breaking Bad”…) 🙂

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The author’s website: http://www.ruthozeki.com/

breaking bad

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Ray Bradbury’s “The Last Night of the World”

Short Story #49 of 2014

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My annual short story reading project is winding down and yesterday morning I drew the six of Spades, leading me to Ray Bradbury’s story, “The Last Night of the World.” It was one of the shortest (just over four pages in my edition) stories I’ve read this year and, frankly, ultimately one of the most unsatisfying. First published in Esquire Magazine in 1951, it is also a part of his highly acclaimed collection, “The Illustrated Man.”

(Below: the February, 1951 edition of Esquire Magazine)

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This story is the second of those that I’ve read from this collection that deals with how people react to the knowledge that their lives will soon end (The other was “Kaleidoscope,” which I’ve blogged about before). https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/kaleidoscope-by-ray-bradbury/ The reactions of the characters in this story couldn’t be more different than in Kaleidoscope. In “The Last Night of the World” the characters, a married couple with children, have a kind of resigned acceptance of the fact that the world will simply come to an end that night. How they, and everyone else, knows this is a little vague, except they seem to have shared a common dream, wherein the certainty of the end is not in doubt.

The wife speculates, “Do we deserve this?” and he says, “It’s not a matter of deserving; its just that things didn’t work out.” Later she says, “We haven’t been too bad, have we?” and he says, “No, nor enormously good. I suppose that’s the trouble.”

According to this story, the date that the world will end is October 19, 1969. I’m not sure if this is significant and in my brief, “drive-by research” for this post found no explanation. All in all a perplexing story, and not among my favorites by Bradbury.

This one’s actually available online too. Click the link below if you have 5-6 minutes to spare to read it.

http://www.esquire.com/fiction/fiction/ray-bradbury-last-night-of-the-world-0251

(Below: Clint Eastwood in the great movie, “Unforgiven,” echoed Ray Bradbury’s story by telling Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it…”)

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“Won’t You Please, Please Help Me?”

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OK… I’m working on creating my list of fifty-two short stories to read in 2014, as part of my annual short story reading project. I have about thirty nailed down already, but I’d like to open the rest of the field up to YOUR suggestions. I’m particularly interested in local (Indiana) authors, indie authors, and women authors. I will read almost any genre, but usually about one-fourth of my annual stories are horror/ghost stories, which may be my favorite kind. Most of the stories I’ve already collected are by well-established authors, so I’d appreciate suggestions for lesser known authors’ stories, and ones that I’ve “never heard of” will be given special consideration. Also, if YOU are someone who has had stories published, tell me your favorite, and I will add it to the list.

In 2013, I’ve posted on about two-thirds of the short stories in my annual project. In 2014, I’ll try to post something on all of them. I won’t be finalizing my list until 12/21, so you have some time to come up with some good ones. I eagerly await your suggestions… 🙂

Thanks!

-Jay

 

 

December Reading – the Month Ahead (aka “Crunch Time”)

Imagine my horror this past weekend when I reviewed my “Rainman Spreadsheet” (where I keep track of everything, which of course includes which books I have read and when I have read them) and discovered that I’ve only finished 42 books so far this year. Maybe ten or fifteen years ago this would have been ok, but in my “book blogging” era of the past several years it’s “entirely unacceptable” (and please imagine these two words as being said by Clint Eastwood in the film, Absolute Power).

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I’ve been averaging (comfortably averaging) 50 books a year the past few years so why I am I about a month behind that pace? Laziness? busy-ness? Other interests? Too many short stories and not enough books? Which is it? Actually, it’s hidden answer number five – “all of the above.” BUT… I have a plan by which I can still get there. (For, you know, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail -right?)

So here’s what I will be attempting to read/finish this month:

1) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Is should go pretty fast since its a re-read (and it’s not that long anyway). Two local book clubs are discussing it this month. The first one meets on 12/4.

2) Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
I’m already halfway through this one, which is technically my “current read.” About two hundred pages to go. I should wrap it up by this weekend.

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3) Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan Eller
A great biography, which I’m already two thirds of the way through with, but inexplicably put down many weeks ago and haven’t picked back up again yet.

4) Never Let and Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A fairly short book that a friend recently read for her book club. She assures me that it’s a fairly easy read, and that I will enjoy it. I’m counting on her to be right.

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5 & 6) Taran Wanderer and The High King by Lloyd Alexander
Earlier this year I started a re-read of this favorite five-book series from my youth but got distracted after just finishing the first three. These were YA books of my generation and will be pretty easy going too.

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7) I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates
This will be kind of cheating since I only have a few stories to go in this collection, but I’ve been reading it now for three years (because I’m as savoring them, not because I don’t like them) and I haven’t counted it in prior years so – technically – fair game, yes?

8) Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead by Stephen Jones
More cheating, as this is a collection of ghost stories, and I’ve already read more than half of them, some this year, some last year.

That gets me to fifty. I also may read Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno in preparation for a discussion in January. It’s only about 150 pages but I will count it also – if I finish it in time. 🙂

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What about you? Are you meeting your reading goals for the year? Or do you maybe not set specific goals? How do YOU keep yourself on track in your reading endeavors? What are you hurrying to finish up by year’s end?

“Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe

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(above: an African Bull-Frog. I love this picture – although I suspect in this Poe tale, it more resembles the King than Hop-Frog!)

What is a punishment suitable for a king? And I don’t mean a good and benevolent king, but one who “…does not scruple to strike a defenseless girl?” (and the punishment must also serve for his seven ministers who “abet him in the outrage”) Leave the answer to Edgar Allan Poe, and his character, Hop-Frog, via whom the punishment is dealt…

(below: I found a lot of great, old illustrations for this story on-line; most were not spoiler-free, but the three I included are. 🙂 )

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The story “Hop-Frog” was first published in 1849. I was familiar with it only by means of its curious title, which I had heard mentioned multiple times over the years. Yesterday morning, curiosity finally won out, and I opened my e-book, “The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe”…

Poe begins with some brief history about the tradition of court jesters or “fools” and also speculates on why, apparently, most humorous men are fat men. “Whether people grow fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean joker is a rara avis in terris.” Certainly at this time of year, there is one certain public figure which provides evidence in favor of this observation.

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But back to the story… The hapless “Hop-Frog” has the misfortune of being a jester for a thoughtless and cruel king. Captured from his homeland, along with the sweet girl, Tripetta, who was “very little less drawfish (than Hop-Frog) although of exquisite proportions, and a marvelous dancer,” Hop-Frog lives out a persecuted existence in the king’s service. He earned his name from only being able to “get along by a sort of intersectional gait – something between a leap and a wriggle – a movement which provided illimitable amusement… to the king” The silver lining to his condition, though, was “the prodigious muscular power which nature seemed to have bestowed upon his arms, by way of compensation for deficiency in his lower limbs,” which “enabled him to perform many feats of wonderful dexterity, where trees or ropes were in question, or anything else to climb.” This proves to be a valuable skill in this story, which becomes one of revenge.

The stage is set when the king begins planning a great pageant of masquerade entertainment and wants suggestions from his dwarf. When they are not quickly provided, the king forces Hop-Frog to drink wine to “make him merry” so that humorous ideas will be more quickly forthcoming.

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Hop-Frog hates to drink due to the ease with which he is overcome by alcohol. Tripetta knows this, and attempts to intercede when a second drink is about to be forced upon the dwarf. For her trouble, she is thrown violently to the ground, and – amid laughter – the goblet of wine dashed in her face.

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Seeing his only friend treated thus, Hop-Frog seemingly remains calm, but the beast has been awakened. He skillfully plots his revenge, beginning by suggesting the king and his ministers take for their part in the masquerade a jest from his own country, called “The Eight Chained Ourang-outangs.” They eagerly agree, and so their fate is set…

Read the story on-line at: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/eapoe/bl-eapoe-hop.htm  I now count it a new favorite among his many, many great stories. Not as well-known as his most famous dozen or so, but of equal merit in this reader’s opinion.

Other Poe on this blog:

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

The Devil in the Belfry

The Cask of Amontillado

Poe: A Life Cut Short

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

And – for the trivia points: what is it with Poe and Orangutans? I’ve just – for a book discussion in a couple weeks – finished another famous story of his where they play a prominent role – do you know which one I’m talking about?? 🙂

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