I've started reading more in the past few months - part of it is a new determination to go through my largely un-read bookshelf. I would love to say that I finish more than one book a month, but I'd be lying. My weekly reading is restricted to the commute, and admittedly I don't read as much during the weekends. However, as part of a new resolution to improve myself, I've start tackling books that already laid untouched (collecting dust) in my bookshelf; it's also given me the opportunity (excuse) to buy even more books. This has thus prompted a new idea: write a review of the books I read. Ideally there will be one every month. But let's see where the tides take us!
The first review is about A Tale for the Time Being, written by Ruth Ozeki. I had seen this book on several occasions in bookstores. The cover, I confess, captured my attention. It took a while before I actually committed to the purchasing and reading the book. But on my birthday I figured I would treat myself and buy it. I'm glad I did.
The following book review will have as little spoilers as possible. I'll warn you in the event that a spoiler is inevitable.
A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman, Ruth, who finds a ziploc bag while walking by the shore of an island in British Columbia. The contents of the bag (not a spoiler) are: a watch, a journal, and a bunch of letters. The journal, being one of the most important of objects, contains the story of Nao Yasutani. Nao, a Japanese girl born in California, now living in Tokyo, explains that the purpose of the journal is to tell the tale of her great-grandmother, Jiko Yasutani. However, we obtain more insights into Nao's current life and state of being, than about Jiko herself.
This isn't, of course, a mistake on Ms. Ozeki's part. Nao's life is poignant and full of suffering. She is bullied - in extreme ways - at school, and her father is suicidal. Nao's writing, as has been described by critics, is realistic. When reading her journal entries, you can envision a young girl speaking/writing. This is what makes Nao's story far more compelling and engrossing than Ruth's. Personally, I found the character of Ruth to be secondary. This may be as intended, but while reading the book I was eager to get through the passages involving Ruth and Oliver's (her husband's) story. While Ruth was whiny and at many times spiteful, Oliver was interesting and knowledgeable. You always got the sense that Ruth (not the author) was being far too cruel or petty with him. You don't need to necessarily like a character to enjoy a novel. I am a huge fan of Notes from Underground, for example, and the main character is far less charming than Ruth. But the development of that plot line felt flat and unnecessary. I wouldn't have minded reading a book that was only about Nao and her timeline.
As I've mentioned before, I was a huge fan of Nao's character, as well as of her great-grandmother's, Jiko. Jiko, a buddhist monk of approximately 104 years of age (she can't remember anymore), was an inspirational character. Having lived through WWII and losing her only son during the war (he was drafted and had to become a kamikaze pilot), Jiko was unquestionably a character who had suffered. Yet through her years of buddhist practice she obtained an enlightenment I can't really imagine obtaining. Jiko showed peace and mercy to all. Nao, in contrast, also suffered greatly. Her peers made school a living hell, and her father's depressive and suicidal state made home life equally unbearable. Nao shows, particularly at the beginning of the story, less compassion than Jiko. Yet she maintains a greater understanding of the people around her than Ruth does. While Nao is retrospective and self-aware, Ruth rarely wavers in her opinions or admits to being wrong. Nao does admits to being wrong. Even if not necessarily at the time of things happening. But Ruth remains obstinate and unmoving. When Nao learns of buddhist teachings from Jiko, she becomes more "enlightened" - though not quite in the way a 104 year-old buddhist monk. Throughout her story, Nao shows a depth and growth that would make anyone wonder why they spent their teens being so unaware.
This is the beauty of Nao's story. She grows tremendously throughout the story. And so do the characters around her. While reading, you'll get a great sense of time passing. A beauty that is likely obtained by Ruth stating that she would read the journal at the pace the writer, Nao, had intended. Ms. Ozeki manages to pull this off, undoubtedly, by interrupting Nao's story with that of Ruth's. Regardless of whether Ruth's story is as compelling or not.
My final verdict is this: read the book. You may or may not like Ruth's storyline, but you'll likely love Nao's. Hopefully you haven't suffered the life Nao has, but you will be able to empathize and understand her instantly, regardless of your own background.
Overall Rating: 4.5 / 5.0
If you read this book, let me know what you think!