This book has been chosen as the Everybody Reads by the county library this year. Because so much time has passed since I read this the first two times, I’m rereading it so the details will be fresh for group discussions coming up. While I could have integrated the notes into one, I’m going the lazy route and just including all three. Besides the time benefit for me, you can see where I change my mind. 🙂
Also, I see the spoilers can’t be hidden in the transfer from Goodreads, so I’ll label them and maybe you can avoid them.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After the third reading (2023).
And I’m glad that I have read it again. I see more connections with each reading. This time I was struck by the parallel between Ruth, who was experiencing writers’ block in trying to write her mother’s story, and Nao, who intended to write Jiko’s story but kept writing her own. (Of course we did get a picture of Jiko, but it wasn’t her full story.)
And because one Everybody Reads gathering focused on the Buddhist elements in the novel, I realized more was Buddhist than I’d realized on the first two readings. And on this reading, the Buddhism, as such, and climate science felt wholly integral to the storyline and characters.
This time I saw that Ruth had translated the journal rather than that Nao had written it in English. I don’t think I’d paid much attention to the footnotes on the first two readings; this time I noticed where Ruth said she had made notes when translating, so I read them. Most were useful, and they serves as a reminder that it had been written in Japanese.
After the second reading (2015)
One of the pleasures of a second reading is that no longer needing to find out “what happens next?” frees one to enjoy other features. And to revise previous opinions. Or to see that the wrong questions were asked. I started reading with a focus on Ruth, as planned. The more I read the more I realized that it was not really two stories alternated, but one continuous narrative, that Ruth’s portions could not be separated from Nao’s . SPOILER: There was so much preparation for Ruth’s dream encounter with Nao’s father, Haruki, that it wasn’t deus ex machina at all. Early on Ruth had two dreams of Jiko. There was the time discussion where Oliver reminds Ruth of the ten years that had passed from the writing of the journal to the present. There were the statements of Jiko involving apparent contradictions being equally true and the flow of identity and time. It is “background” until the disappearance of words in the journal. END SPOILER
I still feel the philosophy was mostly well integrated. Possibly more actual Buddhist early on and more new age when it gets heavier at the end.
I could pause and savor the many puns on “time being,” such as “Mind and words are time being. Arriving and not-arriving are time being” (347). Also enjoyable were the meditations on moments and on “now/Nao.”
While I had intended a second reading eventually, I am glad for my book group selecting the book to prompt me to do it.
After the first reading (2014)
One of my favorite narrative structures is one that combines a past (through letters or journals) and a present story. And that is the basic structure of this novel. Ruth in the Pacific Northwest on a remote island finds a packet containing a journal and other objects washed up on shore, possibly from the earthquake and tsunami a couple years before, . The chapters alternate between Ruth, the finder and Nao, the writer. At first I wondered why Nao would have written a journal in English–it became clear when she revealed that she had spent her early life in California.
The pacing is interesting. Instead of racing through the journal, Ruth paces herself slowly to reflect the pace it was written. In addition there is a French journal and some letters in old Japanese–these do not get translated immediately, but add essential information when they do.
The characters are well drawn, sometimes interesting, sometimes ordinary. Sometimes likable sometimes less so–but as more is revealed, the major characters become more likable. The minor ones, the school contemporaries, not so much. At one point in the middle I found myself wondering about Ruth’s chapters. Would her story be worth a novel without having found the journal? What were the parallels that were going to pull the two narratives together? I may reread it and focus more on Ruth, though the natural focus is Nao.
Science, philosophy and religion were woven into the novel, generally not too heavily, though heavier at the end. The novel is a kind of exploration of time, of existences, of influence. How seriously are we to take the question of who is creating whom? I was intrigued by the moments of magical realism, though I have not yet decided if they were integral or an easy solutions to narrative problems. SPOILER:Was the happy ending believable? Contrived? I realize “happy” may be a stretch since the father and daughter may have perished in the tsunami–this possibility leads to calling it ironic rather than happy; however, the question remains about Ruth’s intervention in the father’s intended suicide. END SPOILER And did I learn about Buddhism or New Age cooptations of Buddhism? I will ponder these when I reread also.
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