“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

October Reading – The Month Ahead

I’ve been a bit of a reading slacker this year compared to the last three years. I’ll probably even end up a few books short of my unofficial “par score” of fifty books in 2013. Part of this is because my blog’s focus seems to keep slanting more toward short stories, which, honestly, was not my original intent. As a fairly busy person, though, it’s a logical practical decision to read more shorter works. We’ll see if the trend continues into 2014, when I hope to take my annual short story reading project “public” and make it a reading challenge that hopefully other bloggers or readers will participate in. Anyway, back to October 🙂

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I am going to revisit Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” as it is the October reading selection of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s  book club. What’s more, I’m supposed to lead the discussion, so I’d better be prepared. It’s an awesome book, though. I could probably just ask one question and let everyone talk for the next hour, but I’ll try to add a little more value than that.

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I’m also currently reading a great non-fiction book called “Osman’s Dream.” It’s by Caroline Finkel and is a history of the Ottoman Empire (Osman being the first Sultan of that mysterious – to me, anyway – entity). I’ve learned a lot so far in just the first eighty pages, but look forward to becoming a little more conversant with that corner of world history, which I’ve hitherto neglected.

Bookmama’s bookstore is having a discussion of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” next week. I’ve read it before, but may revisit in time to drop by and attend. As a kid, I always loved the movie version with James Mason and Pat Boone(!)

(below: James Mason leads his intrepid group of explorers deeper into Carlsbad Caverns… oops, er, I mean The Centre of the Earth!)

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I also plan to read Jack London’s novella, “Before Adam.” Recommended by an old college/H.S. classmate of mine, I tried a few pages a couple of weeks ago and the premise is fascinating…

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Since it’s October, I’m sure I’ll also squeeze in some ghost or horror stories (I bought a new anthology recently!) and hopefully blog about a few for the R.I.P. Challenge, to which I’ve already contributed a couple posts.

Let’s see, what else… I’ll continue reading stories for my “Project: Deal Me In” annual short story challenge, and there are a couple other books that I’ve read a few pages into but haven’t really officially “started” yet, those being Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being” (which I got far enough into to appreciate that that title doesn’t quite mean what you would think… & It’s also a finalist for the coveted Mann-Booker prize!).

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Also there’s James Alexander Thom’s “St. Patrick’s Batallion,” which is much shorter than his other books that I’ve read, so I should be able to knock it out in a few days, right? 🙂

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That’s it for my plans, but what about YOU? What are you planning to read this month?

Happy Book Lover’s Day!

Did you know that today was National Book Lover’s Day? Neither did I, but I heard on the radio this morning that it was so I googled it and – sure enough there is such a thing. How will you be celebrating? I will probably start by working from 8 to 5, but after that I think I will get started with reading Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being.” What will you be reading?

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Oh, and I have a another tidbit to share:

My first literary neologism: The “Frankenslam!”

(below: Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein”)

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I recently learned on Twitter about a book that deals with the lives of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and the romantics. It’s Lynn Shephard’s “A Treacherous Likeness.”  It sounds very interesting, but I’m not sure if it would be my up of tea or not. It did get me thinking about Mary Shelley again, and her wonderful “monster.” I remember, the first time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, marveling and how articulate and literate her “Modern Prometheus” was. Although I knew enough not to expect some grunting, lurch-ing Lon Chaney (Boris Karloff?) version of the monster, I was still surprised at his intellect.

How did come by it? Well, during the novel, he finds a portmanteau containing three books which help him educate himself. It is in chapter fifteen when the “monster” describes how he came by part of his education:

“One night during my accustomed visit to the neighboring wood where I collected my own wood and brought home firing for my protectors, I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau containing several articles of dress and some books. I eagerly seized the prize and returned with it to my hovel. Fortunately the books were written in the language, the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sufferings of Young Werther. The possession of these new treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually exercised my mind on these histories…”

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(above: John Milton, author of “Paradise Lost”)

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(below: Plutarch’s Lives)

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It is primarily from these three books that the monster slowly constructs his mighty intellect. How fortuitous that ‘divine providence’ saw fit to not only provide the poor wretch with some books, but some classics! (Perhaps this was the same providence which caused a watertight sea chest to wash ashore “with everything he needed” on Robinson Crusoe’s island?) Anyway, it set me pondering about these three books. I wonder how many of us (besides the monster) have read them all? I assume Mary Shelley did, but at this point, she’s the only person I know of who has completed the relatively rare “Frankenslam!”

I’m on my way, though, as I actually own copies of all three, and have read Geothe’s “The Sufferings of Young Werther” and much of Plutarch’s Lives (and the monster notes that the portmanteau contained “a volume” of Plutarch’s Lives, not all*). I’ve attempted Milton a couple times without success, but maybe trying again should be how I celebrate National Book Lover’s Day? (And I wonder, perhaps it was on August 9th that the monster found the books… )

What about you? How far along are you with the Frankenslam? Have you started? Finished? Will you be joining the small club of those who have managed it?

*re-reading further, he relates that it is the volume that contains the lives of the founders of the ancient republics. I may have to do some research to determine exactly which volume it translates to.

(below: my personal library’s raw materials for a Frankenslam. Note the “used” sticker on the spine of Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained – must’ve bought that at the Wabash College Bookstore way back in the day… Perhaps I should purchase “a leathern portmanteau” in which to keep them?)

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