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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A tale of time beingI am going through a phase of my life which hasn’t happen for the past 5 years.

I actually took time to read my book. Slowly. Very slowly…..

It’s been a month since I posted on this blog and I suspect that’s the future of this blog going to be. Hope you don’t mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read as much as I used to and review books as fervent as before.

But I sooooo……. want to tell you about this book. As you may know recently, A Tale of Time Being made it into the Man Booker prize 2013 shortlist but didn’t win it.

Time itself is being, and all being is time.. In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately lined with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.

It is a book about Ruth, a woman who lives in a remote island in Canada who found a lunchbox washed up on her beach. In it she found a diary from a young girl named Nao, a wrist watch of a Kamikaze pilot and some letters. The lunchbox is one of the many items that washed up in Canadian shore by the tsunami in Japan.

It is also a book about Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, who was transferred from Sunnyvale, USA, after her father was made redundant in an IT company. Her father has since been unemployed and feeling suicidal. Nao is also being bullied in school (such terrible, terrible things one kid do to another, I wonder if all described in the book is real?). One summer Nao spent it with her great-grandmother Jiko Yasutani, who is 106 and lives a life as a Buddhist nun. Nao learnt the way of life of a nun and get to know that her great-uncle is a kamikaze pilot during WWII. Nao is also lonely. Very lonely and she doesn’t have anyone she could turn to.

It made me sad when I caught myself pretending that everybody out there in cyberspace cared about what I thought, when really nobody gives a sh*t. And when I multiplied that sad feeling by all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’are all so busy writing and posting, it kind of broke my heart.

…… and then one day I happened to check my statistics, and I realised that the whole time since I started my blog, only twelve people had ever visited it…. so that’s when I stopped. There’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself.

I didn’t like the voice of Nao because I do find the lingo and multiple questions of Nao irritating at the beginning (which is a deliberate attempt by the author I think, because Nao is indeed a 15-year-old teenager). But then, like Ruth, I began to develop a bond with Nao and her family. Ruth googled up the Internet and hope to find evidence that the diary she is reading is true. Like Ruth, I too want to know if Nao survived the tsunami, or die in some other ways instead…..

Ruth in the meantime, has some personal issues. Moved from New York, she found herself isolated in an island without the basic living comfort of continuous electricity and neighbourhood grocery store. She is experiencing writer’s block and lives with partner Oliver who studies plants and permaculture. So occasionally you will see scientific names of fauna and flora in the book, which all of them went over my head. A part of me think the story of Ruth is autobiographical, because Oliver is also the real name of Ruth Ozeki’s real life partner.

I don’t know what to expect from this book. That’s the way I always want to start a book, not reading any reviews or know anything about it. I certainly didn’t expect it to be a book with complex themes, philosophy, quantum physics, time, a young teenage girl’s coming of age story, Zen Buddhist teaching, exploring the conflicting emotions of duty vs conscience, suicide (oh boy, the most extensive talk about the topic ever I can find in Japanese literature) and surrealism.

It is inevitable that Nao’s story captivates me more than Ruth, because Ruth lives this mundane domestic life in an remote island which nothing else quite happened. On the other hand, Nao is living in a precarious age of finding her path, in a dysfunctional family and in a hostile school environment. Just when you think Nao’s misfortunes cannot get any worse, it became so dire that it sucked the air of my lungs when it actually happened. This is the first time, I mean the first time, in many years of reading a novel, I actually feel sorry for a teenage character!

The quibble I have is around 77% of my Kindle reading progress when Ozeki decided to mix and mesh the real and the unreal. So that the fate of Nao and Ruth’s dream somehow intertwined and Ruth in some way has a role in changing the destiny of Nao… I wanted to turn away at this point as the book was doing so well, why introduced any form of surrealism when both Ruth and Nao’s stories feel so real and grounded?!! And oh.. the number of times (165 times really) I have to click a link to read a footnote due to the use of sporadic Japanese sentences in the novel. The use of foreign words lends the book an air of exoticism but I think the novel contains too many footnotes than it is necessary. It becomes unwieldy after awhile…..

“This is why I think shame must be different from conscience. They say we Japanese are a culture of shame, so maybe we are not so good at conscience?”

Still.. this is a very entertaining, humane and touching story. Many times I have read a Japanese novel, only to go away with a feeling of distance from the characters because Japanese authors tend to be subtle and not mention the obvious in their novels. This is great for depth but it is hard to feel totally connected with the characters in the book. With an American (Ozeki) writing about a Japanese character however, feels different. It felt personal, transparent, explicit to the point of heartbreaking; it feels just how I feel when I watched the characters in contemporary Japanese movies, the characters come alive, the emotions are all out in display.

I also love the word play of Naoko short name Nao, as “Now”.

Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide of something…

Ozeki is a very intelligent writer. She can write about complex subjects yet maintains the entertainment value of her novel. I think this book is far ambitious than it looks. So I thank the Man Booker Prize judges this year, without them I wouldn’t know about Ruth Ozeki. This is a strong shortlist, perhaps not written in a way to fit into the box of a Man Booker Prize winners stereotype… but who cares? Because this book is so good, I think you should read it. If you don’t like it, you would still come away learning more about the Japanese culture than the usual Japanese classics or literature would teach you (bar Yukio Mishima’s novels). Oh, and let me know if you are convinced about the theory that supports suicide (This is the first time I finally understood why suicide is a big part of the Japanese culture from the book, another motivation to read this book!)

There are plenty more I could have said about the book but enough said. I’ll be checking out Ruth Ozeki’s backlist and one day re-read this book again.

Rating: four and a half stars

– “Anonymity is the new celebrity.” – Harry (Haruki) Yasutani

Other views:

Jackie @ Farmlane Book Blog: Despite my minor quibbles, the positives far outweigh the negatives. It perfectly captures life at the present time and I recommend you read it soon, before it inevitably becomes dated.

Book MagnetA Tale for the Time Being is wholly inventive from the first page to the last.

Chalk the Sun: This is a novel of grand themes, complex themes, themes that require appendices. It is a work of fiction with an extensive bibliography. I tend to steer clear of complicated works of fiction that endeavor to instruct. I simply want a good story. Which Ruth Ozeki offers. Oh boy, does she ever.

Kindle ebook. Publisher: Canongate 2013; Print length: 403 pages; Setting: Canada and Japan. Source: Own copy. Finished reading at: 4th November 2013.

Ruth OzekiAbout the writer:

Ruth Ozeki (born March 12, 1956) is a Canadian-American novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. She worked in commercial television and media production for over a decade and made several independent films before turning to writing fiction.

Ozeki was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut by an American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and traveled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University in Nara, Nara.

Ozeki moved to New York in 1985 and began a film career as an art director, designing sets and props for low budget horror movies. She switched to television production, and after several years directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company, she started making her own films. Body of Correspondence (1994) won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and was aired on PBS. Halving the Bones (1995), an award-winning autobiographical film, tells the story of Ozeki’s journey as she brings her grandmother’s remains home from Japan. It has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival, among others. Ozeki’s films, now in educational distribution, are shown at universities, museums and arts venues around the world.

Ozeki, a speaker on college and university campuses, divides her time between Brooklyn and British Columbia, where she writes, knits socks, and raises ducks with her husband, artist Oliver Kellhammer.
She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Ozeki is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010.

Awards and honors

  • Kiriyama Prize for My Year of Meats
  • American Book Award for All Over Creation.
  • In 2013, Ozeki is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, for her book A Tale for the Time Being.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


13 thoughts on “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t like Nao’s voice right away! That was what drew me to the book in the first place. I read an excerpt from it, I think in the NetGalley fall books preview thing that they released? You know? And I was immediately captivated by Nao’s narration. I wish this had won the Booker Prize — I love how absolutely weird and sui generis it is.

    Posted by Jenny @ Reading the End | November 6, 2013, 3:21 am
    • Thanks for dropping a comment on my blog… Like Nao I thought no one actually care about my blog anymore! LOL

      I wasn’t too keen when I read Nao’s questions at the beginning. I find it a little annoying.. but when things get really mellowed and serious.. I found myself captivated by Nao’s story.

      I love this too and it should have won the Man Booker prize if you and I were at the judging panel! LOL

      Posted by JoV | November 6, 2013, 9:11 am
  2. I agree that this book would have been better if kept in reality. I didn’t think the quantum physics bits worked very well and the philosophy sections weren’t as good as others I’d read. But despite these problems I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to trying her other books.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | November 6, 2013, 12:34 pm
    • Thanks for dropping by Jackie…

      Yes if you and I were to write the book, I think towards the end we would re-write the story to say Ruth finally track the girl down and perhaps met her and have a chat with her… I think that would have gone down better!

      Posted by JoV | November 6, 2013, 7:10 pm
  3. I’m glad you posted again, I was wondering if you were OK 🙂
    And I’m also glad you liked this, as it’s one I am very much looking forward to reading.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | November 6, 2013, 8:04 pm
    • Thanks so much Sam for thinking about me. My circumstances have changed and I am in between jobs. It is a shame I can’t read and review as much as I would like, because I love reading and the bookish community we have here. So I’ll keep reading and review wherever I can.

      I hope you get to read this soon, I have a feeling you may like it!

      Posted by JoV | November 6, 2013, 9:54 pm
  4. I think we all go through different phrases in life, including blogging hehe so it’s understandable if one is being inactive for some time.. but its a pleasure to see you update once a while
    As for me, I have abandoned my book blog.. will still talk about books when I feel like it but on my personal public blog..
    Take care! 🙂

    Posted by Ting Ting | November 7, 2013, 3:59 am
    • Thanks for dropping by Ting Ting. Ahh… Do I have your personal blog link?

      I have yet to see a Malaysian who continuously blog for more than one year. I suspect it has to do with too many gatherings, outdoor activities, friends and relatives invitations and abundance of food! 😉

      Posted by JoV | November 7, 2013, 4:52 pm
  5. I’ve heard quite a bit about this book – I almost started reading it, but never got along much with it. I’ll have to get back to it.

    Posted by Athira | November 17, 2013, 1:33 am
  6. This is in my TBR list. From your review, I’m looking forward to reading it. Hopefully, before the year ends 🙂

    Posted by 5eyedbookworm | December 6, 2013, 11:55 pm
  7. That rare book with a socio-cultural AND ontological dimension. One of the best books yet written in the 21st C. imo. Ozeki is a heavyweight.

    Posted by Steven F. | January 16, 2015, 4:29 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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