Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I love reading bad reviews. For household items and clothing, for example, they can so often let you know what an advertiser doesn’t want you to know (oh, it breaks after 2 uses, kthx, I’ll choose something else)– but they can also bring out people’s feral critical sides, which read almost as delicious as gossip– or as dumb as a half-assed drunken shout at an afternoon tv show. The thing about the bad Amazon reviews for this ultra-famous book– are that the bad reviews totally missed the point (and that they maybe didn’t actually even read the book). But what’s even crazier is that the good reviews missed the point too. And so did the description on the back.
On the surface, this is a teenage girl’s (Nao’s) story as told through her diary which is being read by a middle-aged woman (Ruth) who found it on the other side of an ocean. Their two existences/stories are kind of tied together by the Japanese tsunami and Ruth’s reading of the diary and interest in trying to find Nao to make sure she survived. BUT this is part where you should kindly stop reading and move onto another post if you want to read the book without a “SPOILER.”
OK. Here goes.
Go ahead and read the publisher’s description and the positive Amazon reviews– because that’s a part of what you’re going to get. Don’t worry, they won’t mislead you too much (except for maybe the part where you’re told that you’re gonna learn all about Jiko’s life story- you actually only get a little). These chunks of writing (reviews, descriptions) will allude (sometimes quite a bit) to the book’s focus on “Now” (there’s a character named “Nao,” get it?), the present, and perception of time, which is still pretty right-on (but this gains in importance in the next paragraph).The reviews are all like “oooh, zen, isn’t that neat” (yeah, there’s some zen stuff too).
But they all ignore the important and heartbreaking and ugly (and in my opinion, biggest) part of the story. Memory. And memory loss. When I had maybe 1/4 of the book left to read I started to realize that maybe Ruth’s perceptions weren’t as reliable as we first thought they were. Nao’s narrative crumbles a little. The amount of filled pages that Ruth sees in the diary on some days is different from what she remembers. She’s able to affect Nao’s family’s story with her dreams. Things that Nao mentions are sometimes very similar to what Ruth experiences/knows. Sometimes Ruth writes things, forgets about them, and when she re-reads them it’s like nothing she thinks she’s ever seen before. Sometimes an entire day has passed and she doesn’t remember.
I’m suggesting that this is not actually a book about 2 different people. But does it actually matter in the grander scheme of things?
(it did to me).
I’m not going to pretend to understand zen or philosophy (though the book takes an excellent stab at teaching), but the book is gorgeously written and cleverly put together. I didn’t necessarily like the direction that the last fraction of the story took– but I certainly can’t say that it was badly done. It’s just that it scared me a little. Even though there’s awesomeness to the present, I’d prefer to keep my memories too (all of them). Still, though, there are lots of awesome messages and ideas and factoids that will appeal to lots of different readers: there’s history, nature, philosophy, spirits… You get a teenage narrator and a middle-aged narrator. You get a story that can be read on lots of different levels, which might make it a really good pick for a book club (if participants choose to actually read it).
Get a copy at the library.