Tag Archives: Ruth Ozeki

Saturday Sun

It’s almost become tradition around here to do a book review on Saturdays, and I’m all about tradition, as you know. So, in keeping with that, today’s blog is going to be about one of my recent reads.

However, because I like to mix things up a little, too, this book isn’t written for children. It’s not even YA. It’s an honest-to-goodness book written for grownups – so long as they’re grownups with dreams and imaginations and the ability to allow themselves to be charmed and carried away by a story.

The book I’d like to look at today is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’, by Ruth Ozeki.

Image: morebooks.de

Image: morebooks.de

This book, this beautiful book, hooked me from the very first page.

You’ll often read, on agents’ and publishers’ websites, about the importance of grabbing your reader from the first line, the first page. For me, the opening lines of ‘Time Being’ are a textbook, if you’ll pardon the pun, example of how to do that. The novel opens with a direct address to the reader, written in the voice of Nao, a Japanese teenager, who is eager to tell us all about what it means to be ‘a time being’, or – simply – a being who lives in time. Her voice is bright, energetic, full of life and spark; she feels real enough to touch.

You can almost see her as she sits in Fifi’s ‘maid café’, a seedy-sounding coffee shop in Electricity Town, in Tokyo. She writes copiously in her journal, which is fashioned out of a cannibalised copy of Proust’s ‘Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu’. She mentions her ‘granny’, who is an extremely elderly Buddhist nun living in an isolated hilltop monastery, as well as her parents and the other children who attend her school. Her life is constrained and, at times, brutal; for instance, her classmates enact a funeral ceremony for her, despite the fact that she is not dead, because they wish to exclude her so thoroughly from their society. She is a lonely girl, one who feels her only friend is the pages upon which she pours out her heart.

This diary ends up wrapped up securely and placed into a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and thence to the sea, from which it washes up on a beach in Canada. From there, it’s found by a woman named Ruth, a blocked writer, who lives with her husband on an island where everyone knows everyone else, not to mention their private business. One character, for instance, a recovering alcoholic, attends the local ‘A’ meeting – so named, we’re told, because there’s no point having an ‘AA’ meeting, as nothing is anonymous on the island. The novel swaps between Nao’s narrative voice (which I loved), and Ruth’s, and each of them tells their story as the book unfolds. Ruth reads Nao’s diary one entry at a time,  in ‘real time’ as she describes it, and the complexity of Nao’s situation deepens with every chapter told in her voice.

It becomes clear to the reader that Ruth fears Nao’s diary entered the water after the devastating earthquake which destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the subsequent tsunami. She is terrified, for a large part of the novel, that Nao is in danger, and that her family may be at risk. For some reason, she doesn’t seem to realise that if Nao was in the path of the tsunami, she has already been swept away by it; her need to read the diary one day at a time has somehow sucked her into the timeline of Nao’s life. She tries to find Nao, to contact her and warn her about the danger, despite the fact that she knows on some level that it’s impossible. Strangely, despite all the details Nao mentions – including her family and their names, her father’s employment, her ‘granny’ (actually, her great-grandmother), who published a book about Zen Buddhism, her school – Ruth can find no trace of Nao on the internet. Nao’s diary begins to mention her father’s mental health struggles, and his attempts to commit suicide, and Nao (after a particularly horrific bullying experience at school), begins to talk about suicide herself. The quest to find her becomes desperate.

Reading about Nao, trying to help her and find out who she is (or was), gives Ruth back her energy and her love of research and words. In an odd way, reading about what may be the last days of Nao’s life seems to revitalise Ruth’s. I found myself missing Nao’s voice while Ruth was narrating, and missing Ruth’s while Nao was narrating, such was the skill with which Ozeki weaves their voices together while ensuring at all times that they remain completely distinct.

I adored Nao’s exploration of her own history, including the uncovering of her great-uncle’s role during World War II (the sections written in his voice, telling us about his training as a kamikaze pilot, and his final choice, are unspeakably moving); I found Nao’s relationship with her father deeply touching, too. I loved the hazy feeling the whole novel creates, the sense that we don’t know where we are in time – we don’t even know if Nao is real, or merely a symbol (try saying her name out loud and you might see what I mean) – and the fact that despite Nao and Ruth never meet, their lives and destinies are intertwined, just as the lives of everyone who lives in time are intertwined.

It’s a dreamy, shimmering, not-quite-pinnable-down sort of work, a meditative and philosophical novel, a story which takes in Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, Japanese culture and subculture, language, meaning, identity and time. Nao’s voice is utterly charming, and the gradual flowering of Ruth’s seemingly arid existence is wonderful, if at times unsettling, to witness. If you think you’d like a book told through two vastly different lenses, and one which never lets you know quite where you are as you read it, then I can’t recommend ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ highly enough. It’s beautiful, meditative, and utterly engrossing.

Happy Saturday! Happy reading… what’s tickling your eyeballs these days? Any recommendations?  Do let me know!

Recommended Books (Vol. 1)

The other day on Twitter, a very kind lady named Steph asked me if I’d ever blogged a list of books I’d recommend. I thought about it, and realised that I hadn’t, really, ever written a post like that. I do random book reviews, and I’ve talked a bit about why I buy certain books and not others (which, no doubt, you’re aware of if you’ve been hanging out here for a while), but I’ve never put together an actual list of books I would recommend to others.

It’s been on my mind for a few days now, and I think I’ll give it a go.

It’s a bit scary, though, in some ways. It’s sort of like opening the door to your mind and showing people around, hoping they won’t turn their nose up at your choice of curtains or finger your upholstery in a derisory way, going ‘Really? This fabric? Couldn’t she afford anything better?’

'Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn't see that at one of my candlelight suppers!' Image: politicsworldwide.com

‘Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn’t see that at one of my candlelight suppers!’
Image: politicsworldwide.com


So, the list of books below are some of those which I found world-enhancing, life-changing, utterly wonderful in every way, and which I’d recommend everyone reads as soon as possible. Here goes. Be gentle.

The Silver SwordIan Seraillier. I first read this book in first class at primary school (so, I was about seven or eight); we were going through a World War II phase, wherein we read this book, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank, and another book I adore called I Am David by Anne Holm.  Everyone in the world has heard of Anne Frank, but not everyone has heard of the others. So, that’s why these ones are recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle. I brought this book on a family holiday when I was about ten, and I lost it. I almost lost my reason, too. The strop was almighty and unmerciful, and nobody escaped my wrath. I actually found it again years later, after I’d already bought myself two replacement copies, but I didn’t apologise to my family for the temper tantrum. So it goes.

Speaking of l’Engle, though – as much as I adore A Wrinkle in Time, I’m not completely sold on the other books in the series of which this book is the first volume. As they go on, they get a bit less interesting and a bit more ‘preachy’. But Wrinkle is definitely worth reading.

I’ve already wittered on about The Little Prince and Elidor before, so I won’t do it again.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and The Owl Service, all by Alan Garner, are so amazing that I don’t have a word to describe them. Just read them, as soon as possible, and then read everything Alan Garner has ever written, including Boneland, Strandloper, Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, The Voice that Thundersand anything else I may have forgotten.

I need to go and have a lie-down now, after thinking about Alan Garner’s books. They’re that good.

Right. Next, move on to Susan Cooper, and her magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence of books; once you’ve read them, try Victory for size, a story which links the modern day to the Battle of Trafalgar, and which is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. I read the last fifty pages of it through a veil of tears. Just a fair warning.

Then, there’s Jenny Nimmo, and her Snow-Spider Trilogy, which is fabulous.

There’s also John Connolly, who has written for children (beautifully), but who also has the marvellous Charlie Parker detective novels, all of which are worth reading; my favourite is Bad Men.

I’ve spoken before on this blog about Jeanette Winterson. To be honest, I’d find it impossible to recommend one of her books above any of the others, but if I had to, it’d be Sexing the Cherry. Or The Passion. Or The Power Book. Or Written on the Body. Gah! I can’t choose. Read them all, and you decide.

Margaret Atwood. What can I say about her? Read The Edible Woman, and follow it up with Surfacing, and then let me know if your mind is blown. Because mine was when I first read these books. I was the same age as Atwood had been when she’d written them, and I went into a funk of ‘what on earth am I doing with my life?’ that lasted about four years.

It’s pretty unfashionable not to read and love Neil Gaiman these days; I’m no exception to the rule. Pick anything he’s written and give it a go, and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. I recommend all his novels (perhaps not Anansi Boys as much as the others, for some reason), but my absolute favourite Gaiman is Sandman, his graphic novel. Genius.

I love Garth Nix. I read The Abhorsen Trilogy several years ago, and was astounded. Those books inspired me to write more than (I think) any other young adult/children’s book I’ve ever read. Give them a whirl, if you haven’t already.

When it comes to Ursula le Guin, everyone recommends The Earthsea Quartet. Of course, I do, too. But there’s so much more to her than that. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Word for World is Forest are also amazing.

I’ve just finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, either. I took a chance on it, as I’d never read anything by the author before, and I was richly rewarded for it. A beautiful, completely unique book, it’s great and should be widely read.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando changed my life when I first read it. It showed me what a novel can do, by breaking every single narrative rule in the universe and then making a brilliant story out of the shards. Incredible.

Also, Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of stories). This book left a lasting impression on me. Everyone has read The Bell Jar (also wonderful), but not as many people have read Plath’s stories. So, do it.

I reckon that’s enough for one day. I have a feeling I’ll revisit this topic, because I’ve really enjoyed taking a stroll through my bookish memories.

Have you read any/all of the books I mention here? What did you think? Would you agree that they’re worth recommending to others, or am I off my trolley?