Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I attended the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference this week. Just before an afternoon workshop on Wednesday, I chatted with a woman who is writing her memoir.

“I don’t read fiction,” she told me. “Are there any good female writers?”

Not “Are there any female writers you’d recommend?” Just, “Are there any good ones?”

Never mind the 813 ways I wanted to respond to the question. I thought of the last great book I’d read, which happened to be written by a woman. I began to tell her of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

I said something about a teenage girl’s diary washing up on the shore of a remote island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia. About a writer in the doldrums, plodding through her memoir. About a mystery and Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics.

I did a terrible job of describing this beautiful book, for the woman sitting next to me said, “Oh, mysteries. I would never read a mystery. My husband likes P.D. James, though.”

No, wait, I wanted to say. You don’t understand. It’s not a mystery mystery. There’s just this diary of a young girl being bullied and the tsunami and flotsam and Schrödinger’s cat, and …. But it was too late. Class began and we delved into the mysteries of character development.

Her question made me consider the relevance of author gender. A part of the me thinks Who cares if the writer is male or female? Why can’t we categorize a piece as a fine work of prose without the condescending sub-category of “woman/female” writer? We don’t say male writer, now do we? Yet, when it comes to a work as self-referential as A Tale for the Time Being, it is hard to separate the writer from her thematic approach. Men and women do regard time, space, the natural world, memory and mortality differently, don’t we? Or perhaps we articulate the same beliefs and emotions in a different way. I’m getting all tangled up here. Much like Ruth does as she attempts to sort out the mystery of the diary she finds on the beach.

Ozeki uses the avatar of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu as a literal and figurative bookend. A copy of this 19th century classic is repurposed as a blank journal and written in by Naoko, or Nao, as she prefers to be called. Nao is a young woman, ethnically Japanese but raised in the United States. The late 90’s tech bubble bursts and the economic collapse sends her family back to Japan. There she buys the journal and uses it to escape from the horror of the physical abuse and psychological torture she experiences at her new high school and the tragedy of her father’s depression. Nao is our guide through much of this story and like her name, Nao is a time being. Her now is in the past, but Nao becomes Ruth’s present.

Many years after Nao’s abominable teenage years, Ruth, the story’s main character – a writer and student of Zen Buddhism, much like Ruth, the book’s author – finds the journal. Enclosed in the diary are several letters written in Japanese, which appear to be from a much earlier time than Nao’s diary entries in English. These letters become a mystery within a mystery. Ruth wonders if the carefully packaged journal is flotsam from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami or jetsam from a young woman crying for help.

It is significant that the title of Proust’s epic novel cum memoir is translated either as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, for both titles fit Proust’s and Ozeki’s themes (although the first translation is literal). This is a story of time. How truth and memory shift and are reconstructed with time; how impatient we are for troubled times to pass, yet we are breathless with regret when we realize the time we have wasted on the way. It is an ode to the bliss of the present; an elegy to the lost past.

This is also a story that takes time. It asks that you slow down and turn its pages as carefully as Ruth does Nao’s diary. It is a story of images, of settings, nuances and breath which, like Nao’s diary and the old letters Ruth has translated, “reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.”

Ozeki juxtaposes the peace of Ruth’s isolation and simple life on the island with the chaos of Nao’s Tokyo. Yet even the island is subject to the chaos of the natural world. Ruth must dash off e-mails before the latest winter storm knocks out power to their home. She and her husband search their property and beyond for the corpse of the family cat, certain wolves have made quick hors d’oeuvres of kitty. This is in contrast to Nao’s beloved great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun living a life of elective poverty and self-reliance at a peaceful mountain temple site.

We are reminded that the past never forgets, whether it is found letters or diaries, or a moment captured on the internet that can never truly be erased. We are reminded that it is the present which demands our greatest attention, for the present becomes the past with the beat of a heart, the screech of train, the crash of an airliner into a skyscraper or the crash of a wave on an island.

This is a novel of grand themes, complex themes, themes that require appendices. It is a work of fiction with an extensive bibliography. I tend to steer clear of complicated works of fiction that endeavor to instruct. I simply want a good story. Which Ruth Ozeki offers. Oh boy, does she ever.

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Book Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet ToothSweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth reveals the story’s end, which is a tidy way of compelling you, dear reader, to focus on the important parts – the middle and such. You know it ends badly, so you can’t possibly be disappointed; therefore, don’t worry about it.

But then you remember that you are reading Ian McEwan, master of unreliable narrators and oft-tricksy endings, and you wonder – am I being told the truth of the ending as it is, or the truth as the narrator would have me see it? And suddenly you are on edge, tense, looking for clues. Oh, Ian, you clever, clever man.

The plot is playful: a young co-ed, Serene Frome (rhymes with Plume), flops a bit in her maths degree and flounders after graduating Cambridge in 1972. Although well-bred and well-read, Serena’s ambitions are limited. But she is recruited, by way of an affair with a retread professor, into the secretarial pool of MI5. Seeing her pliability, borne of boredom and upper-middle class ease, her superiors envelope her in an undercover operation, code-named “Sweet Tooth.” Sweet Tooth is a cultural op – its mission is to identify and promote British writers who demonstrate anti-Communist philosophies. The writers are led to believe a literary foundation is behind the generous financial support and their only responsibility is to write away, honing their brilliance. Serena’s assignment is to recruit a young writer and English professor, Tom Haley, into the scheme. It’s not such a difficult mission, as it’s hard to imagine any struggling writer turning down a pot of cash from a well-known foundation which has just stroked his ego until he is as content as a cat with a bowl of cream. But Serena manages to muck things up royally, by falling in love with her target.

Sweet Tooth isn’t really a Cold War cloaks and codes thriller, as much as its pretty and pretty vacant heroine would love it to be (she’s a simple girl who just wants to have fun. Or, if she can’t have that, she’d be happy curling up in her dreary bedsit with a novel – Jacqueline Susann is just as good, if not better than, Jane Austen, thank you very much). It’s a slowly unraveling set piece, chock full of deceptive aplomb, in which everything turns to custard with surreal glee.

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of draggy parts in the middle. But don’t you dare skim, because you’ll miss the clues that’ll catch you in a cross-double cross that I dare not spoil here. And lots of author self-indulgence, as McEwan weaves in snippets of his short stories and real life characters from his early career; it’s a satirical rewriting of the author’s own history. The short stories within the story are terrific and the spy agency-funded rise and hilariously ironic fall of a writer – based on a true story – is fascinating.

Hang out with the fact that Serena stops sounding like a young woman coming of age in the early 1970s and starts sounding the way a man would imagine a young woman would think and behave; McEwan is particularly adept at writing women and I couldn’t quite accept a failure here (Blue’s Clues!) File away as interesting asides, but let off the hook, the red herrings of the IRA and Russian double-agents and jilted MI5 bureaucrats. They won’t get you anywhere. And sad is the case of Tony Canning, one of the most interesting subplots – the one that could have turned this book from writer’s folly into legit thriller: his story dead-ends with nothing but a nosebleed to show for all the trouble.

I’m equivocating – I can’t quite commit to saying that I think Sweet Tooth is a great book – I found it a bit too smug to buy a theme of the power of literature (as some reviews have claimed) – there was too much stifled laughter and indulgent sweet (tooth) ness for something so grand. It also wasn’t that great of a thriller, which it doesn’t pretend to be, (but again, other reviews have found a John Le Carre note that I can’t carry). But it is terrifically entertaining – all plummy accents and witty repartee that make Americans swoon in equal measure for Downton Abbey and 007 – and McEwan’s fine, fine writing is irresistible.

And then there is that Absolutely Fabulous ending.

Enjoy Sweet Tooth. Seriously. Don’t read heaps into it, just enjoy the read.

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