Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the first full-price hardcover book I remember purchasing for myself, ever. As I wrote in February, Ozeki has long been one of my favorite authors, and I was thrilled when I read that she had finally published her third novel. I went to see/hear Ozeki read from this book at Powell's, and I was enchanted. In the intervening time since she published All Over Creation, she became a Zen Buddhist priest. Clearly, this experience informs this novel.

She explained that she has always wanted to do the audio recordings of her books, but publishers prefer not to have authors read their own books. She realized that if she put enough Japanese words in the book, they would let her do her own reading. After listening to her read, I think I might like to listen to the audio book too. This is a highly unusual reaction for me, as I don't often read books twice--at least not until many years have passed. Take a look at this beautiful trailer for the book--you can see what I mean when you hear Ozeki's voice:


I found myself reading this book very slowly--it took me most of April to read, in fact. Ozeki is a poetic, lyrical writer. I am often drawn to her books because they are set in Japan or the United States (or both) and feature Japanese or Japanese-American characters. This was no different.

It's the story of 16-year-old Nao, who is living in Tokyo but spent much of her childhood in Sunnyvale, California. She is mercilessly bullied by her classmates and even her teachers. Some might find it difficult to believe, but bullying is an extreme problem in Japan, and it's even tolerated and sometimes encouraged by the adults in charge. Her father, who lost his job in California and has become unemployable back in Japan, keeps attempting suicide, which is considered an honorable out in Japan. The only bright spot in Nao's life is her 104-year-old great-grandmother, who is an anarchist, feminist, novelist Buddhist nun, who she calls Old Jiko. She decides that she's going to commit suicide, but first she wants to tell the story of Old Jiko's life in her diary.

Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist living on an island in British Columbia, finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach. The resemblance between Ruth the character and Ruth the novelist is more than just their name, ancestry, and location. Ozeki has actually put herself, and her husband Oliver, into the novel.

As Ruth begins reading the book, she becomes captivated by Nao's life and begins to care very deeply about what happens to her. Not too long after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, initially Ruth believes that this is what has caused the diary to come into her hands.

I loved so many things about this novel...the way that Nao finds such deep solace and healing in writing down her pain, the wisdom of old Jiko and the way she connects with her young great-granddaughter, the connections between Japan and North America--present in each of Ozeki's novels, the way Ozeki describes the sparsely populated island on which she and Oliver live, the poignant reflections of Nao's great-uncle's time in the Japanese army and Nao's connections with him, and the spiritual, symbolic activities of the crow, cat, and the sea. So many things have changed since I left Japan, and so many things remain the same.

As Nao goes to visit Old Jiko up on the mountaintop, I envisioned the monastery to look something like Koya-san, where I visited while I lived in Japan. I could picture Nao riding the bus up that mountain and communing with the trees and spirits while she visited there.

So many things about this story were deeply sad, but ultimately, the novel had great redemptive power and spiritual meaning. I highly recommend it--A Tale for the Time Being will definitely be at the top of my book list for the year. It was worth the full price, as the story will stick with me for a long time.


  1. I am intrigued by learning about other cultures. However, where any culture, including mine, weaves cruelty into the status quo leaves me shaking. Especially where it isn't questioned, just a shrug of the shoulders, that's the world. It sounds interesting, not sure I can get through it without taking the sad parts with me. But it does sound like an interesting read. I enjoyed your review.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Wendy. I encourage you to read the book--thanks for stopping by!