Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Favorite author: Ruth Ozeki (new book coming out!)

In the days before I started blogging and writing book reviews, I read two books by a Japanese-American writer and film maker named Ruth Ozeki: My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. I got to hear her read at my local bookstore, Annie Bloom's, one evening as well, and I found her to be inspiring and eloquent. I named her as one of my "15 writers who have influenced me."

Ozeki is also a Zen Buddhist priest (ordained in 2010) and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website.

I gave both My Year of Meats and All Over Creation five stars on and they were #1 and #2 on my "Best Reads of 2004" fiction list, so as you can imagine I was very excited to read that Ozeki FINALLY has another novel out--to be published in early March. Here's why you should read Ruth Ozeki:

My Year of Meats

My Year of Meats tells two parallel stories: that of documentary film maker Jane Takagi-Little, who is assigned to a new Japanese TV show sponsored by a beef export company, "My American Wife," which shows Japanese housewives how to prepare American meat, and of Akiko Ueno, the wife of the Japanese producer, who is bulimic and deeply unhappy. The story explores Japan's fascination with all things American in addition to the sometimes-harsh reality of being a Japanese housewife. Jane soon uncovers information about the American way of producing meat. It's not pretty. This book contributed to my decision to stop eating red meat many years ago. Some have called it a modern-day Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. You have been warned. As I'm always interested in all things Japan and in particular connections between Japanese and American women, this book is one of my all-time faves. 

All Over Creation

Moving from meat and onto potatoes, this novel takes place on a farm in Idaho, with another Japanese-American protagonist, Yumi Fuller. She hasn't been home for 25 years, but she brings her three children home to her parents' potato farm when they both become ill. She soon becomes enmeshed in the complexities of agribusiness and genetically modified food. This book has a quirky cast of characters, such as a band of activists who travel the country in a van biofueled by french-fry oil and who try to convince her father to stop planting genetically modified crops. Injected with a strong sense of humor, All Over Creation is intelligent, well researched, and heart warming.

A Tale for the Time Being

This new book is what prompted me to write about Ruth Ozeki, who I'd all but forgotten about (All Over Creation was published in 2004 and My Year of Meats in 1998). This is the Goodreads description:
A brilliant, unforgettable, and long-awaited novel from bestselling author Ruth Ozeki
“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.”
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.  
Here's a video of Ozeki talking about our bullying culture, suicide, Buddhism, and how she came up with the idea for this novel:

Early reviews are excellent. Writing about her first two books makes me want to read them again...I don't reread books often (too many new ones to get to). Stay tuned for a review of A Tale for the Time Being! Ozeki is coming to Portland later in March...I hope to be able to go see/hear her again.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin

Somehow, I'm not sure why, I was late to the Bruce Springsteen train. I knew his more popular songs and liked them, but it wasn't until I went to my first Springsteen concert with my teenage son last November that I became a convert.

Peter Ames Carlin, a writer for the Oregonian and author of several musician bios, interviewed Bruce and his colleagues and pored over the albums, articles, and interviews to create this exhaustive (and some say, exhausting) biography. At times Carlin uses sentence fragments, which I'm not crazy about, and he does tend to go on at times...perhaps a more diehard Springsteen fan would have gotten more out of the long stories about various concert tours and people who helped him along the way. It was interesting to read about how Bruce made it big, gradually and with a lot of hard work and a loyal fan base in New Jersey.

Younger Bruce
One reviewer (and local New Jerseyite) wrote about how this book was book-ended by death...starting out with the childhood death of Bruce's aunt, which affected his whole family forevermore, and ending with the death of his beloved friends and bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. Reading about Clarence's death (and Bruce bringing his guitar into the hospital room to sing Clarence out during the last 3 hours of his life) brought me to tears, as did the poignant description of how Bruce's dad asked him to sit on his lap one night (as an adult) after a lifetime of conflict and tense silence between the two of them.

With Clarence
I'm still amazed that I'm a Springsteen newbie. He stands for so much of what I believe in. From representing the common American working person to singing a song for the movie "Philadelphia," before most of Hollywood became gay friendly, from engaging with and advocating for Vietnam vets and Amnesty International, to continuing to sing about the underprivileged even after he hit it big, and for showcasing a local charity at each of his concerts...he is a strong voice of social justice.

Carlin's book does not paint him as a perfect man...he can be narcissistic, demanding and selfish. He hurt the members of his band when he cut them off for several years to pursue his solo work. He has exacting standards for everyone who works with him.

With Steve Van Zandt
But he is clearly a musical genius, prolific in his song writing and creative in his musical arrangements, and a true poet of the people.

The one thing the book was lacking was more about his family. Carlin writes about the birth of Bruce and Patti's first son, but doesn't go beyond that. I'm guessing that Bruce asked Carlin to keep his family out of the book...but it would have made this bio much more comprehensive. We hear about his initial relationship with Patti, but in later years not much.

Bruce Springsteen Pictures & Photos
With his family at the Kennedy Center Honors
Now I'm going to go listen to the albums painstakingly described in the book, and they will mean much more to me.

For fun, watch this clip of Bruce yukking it up with Jimmy Fallon, imitating Neil Young, in "I'm Sexy and I Know It."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Burning

The Burning, by Jane Casey

I read Jane Casey's first novel, The Missing, and was not as nearly taken with it as her second, The Burning, which felt similar to BBC's "Prime Suspect" (with Helen Mirren), but with a young Irish detective named Maeve.

One reason why I didn't like her first novel was that I didn't find her main character, Sarah Finch, to be very likable. She ended up being a teacher after she hated school, and she didn't seem to get any enjoyment out of her job. I cannot relate to this, but my husband tells me that he thinks it sounds British...he thinks that more people in the UK go into teaching without really being called to do so. That might be true.

At any rate, I prefer Maeve. She has to put up with her English colleagues' misogyny and crap about her Irish ancestry, but she is a strong and complex character. She's working on a case to catch a London serial killer who likes to beat his female victims to a pulp and then set their bodies ablaze. It's more of a police procedural (hence the Prime Suspect comparison) than a mystery book, but I liked it.

The other thing I appreciated about this book was the publisher didn't dumb it down for in, they didn't change the British terms and language (like they did in Harry Potter, for example). Most Americans will not know what a bacon buttie is...but that's okay! They can look it up if they want to know.

I will keep reading Casey's books (she has three more Maeve Kerrigan books published with another one on the way), and I'm so glad she redeemed herself after the first one.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Very Thought of You

The Very Thought of You,
by Rosie Alison

Last year Mike and I watched a short British made-for-TV movie called "Good Night, Mister Tom," and I became interested in the history of English children evacuated to the country during World War this book intrigued me.

It's the story, in part, of Anna, an eight-year-old girl who is evacuated from London and sent to a stately home in Yorkshire in 1939. Wise beyond her years, she soon becomes aware of the adult secrets around her. Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who have opened up their home, are deeply unhappy with each other. Soon they each start affairs. In the meantime, Anna's mother (whose husband is fighting in Africa) starts up her own affairs in London, for no particular reason except that the war is on. Every adult in this book is unhappy and unfaithful....even Anna herself when she grows up.

Unfortunately, none of the characters are sympathetic with perhaps the exception of Thomas. Anna was more likable as a child, but when she grew up I found myself getting irritated with her choices and the way she let her life fall to ruin. This book, unfortunately, does a great deal of telling rather than showing. In fact there's little dialogue. The writer is a documentary film maker, and in many ways that shows.

I felt this book had promise--the setting in Yorkshire, the time it happened, the idea of children being sent away from home, the war--but I feel let down. I think I will have to read Good Night, Mister Tom (also a book) instead.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Somewhere Inside

Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home,
by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling

This is the first book I've read since my surgery that has really compelled me. Any story about or by sisters always interests me, and this one--about Asia--did in particular.

As you might recall, Laura Ling was captured with her colleague, Euna Lee, and imprisoned in North Korea from March to August 2009. They worked for Current TV (cofounded by Al Gore) and were making a documentary about North Korean defectors who escaped into China, some of whom ended up in forced marriages or sex trafficking. They traveled into China on tourist visas instead of admitting they were journalists because they were not going to be portraying either China or North Korea in glowing terms. They hired a guide to take them to the Chinese-North Korean border, and one morning the guide encouraged them to go onto the frozen river that serves as the boundary between the countries. They followed him, and they came to regret it. Although they went back into China, guards from North Korea pursued them and captured them.

For five months, they were interrogated about their intentions and actions and kept isolated from one another. At the same time, Laura's sister Lisa (who works for Oprah and used to appear on "The View") took advantage of her media and government connections and did everything she could to get her sister out of North Korea. She was in contact with Al Gore, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Oprah Winfrey, the U.S. State Department, and media and entertainment celebrities. At one point, Michael Jackson even offered to perform for Kim Jong Il (if it would help), right before he died so suddenly.

It's clear that Laura Ling had powerful people working for her, trying to get her out. If her sister hadn't used all her connections and if she hadn't been working for Al Gore's company, who knows whether they would have been able get former president Bill Clinton to make a visit to Pyongyang to retrieve her and Euna Lee (who had left a 5-year-old daughter at home in the U.S.).

Clearly, they made an error in judgment by taking the risk to cross into North Korea...whether they were persuaded to take the risk by their guide or not. But that doesn't detract from this story.

I was touched by the very close relationship between the sisters, who are best friends. I cried several times, as I did again when watching the video of Laura Ling's speech as she got off the airplane in Burbank, California. I'm always deeply affected by stories of sisters being separated or reunited.

I also found it touching to read about the relationships she developed with some of her guards, translators, and even her primary interrogator. Even though she was being held in captivity, she was treated well for the most part. Even though the North Koreans felt angry at the United States, most of them did not treat her unkindly.

It's clear, as is mentioned in the epilogue, that many political prisoners do not have the resources Laura Ling and Euna Lee had...working incessantly to free them. But evident in the book, too, is Laura Ling's keen intelligence and political and media savvy. She handled the imprisonment professionally, wisely, and diplomatically, in spite of her own health problems and severe stress.

Here's an extensive Fresh Air interview with the Ling sisters, as well as the trailer of the book: