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

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Adult; 432 pages; $28.95).

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            The relationship between a writer and a reader is sacrosant.  Nowhere is that truer than in Ruth Ozeki’s wildly imaginative, ambitious, and brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being.  Ozeki redefines that sacred link between novelist and bibliophile and simultaneously blurs the lines between fiction and reality, exhibiting an unbridled and whimsical style so convincing and creative that the reader feels part of the story.   Ozeki intertwines multiple voices in her parallel narrative:  a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a troubled Japanese teenage girl, and a writer named Ruth.

She opens with the unforgettable tale of Nao, a teen living in Tokyo’s Akiba Electricity Town.  “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” she writes.  “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  “Nao” is eerily similar to “now,” and her name is a deliberate play on words that lends even more power and urgency to this story.

Depressed and anxious from being bullied by her classmates, Nao is an outcast with one friend half a world away.  She is a desperately unhappy young woman who seriously contemplates suicide.  “The truth is that very soon I’m going to graduate from time…I just turned sixteen and I’ve accomplished nothing at all…Do I sound pathetic? I don’t mean to.  I just want to be accurate.  Maybe instead of graduate, I should say I’m going to drop out of time.”  First, though, she vows to write down her great-grandmother’s life story in a diary.  Not only does Nao provide insight into the life of her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, but she also illuminates her own existence.

As Nao writes in her diary, she wonders about the person who will one day read her words.  “You wonder about me.  I wonder about you.  Who are you and what are you doing?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap?  Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?”  Although she is just a teen, Nao seems very aware of the passage of time and meditates on the brevity of her existence on earth: “Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.”

The character of Nao allows Ozeki to introduce Japanese manga and anime culture into her story, making it more lively and accurate.  For Nao, the characters in manga are her friends who help her discover her very own superpower.  Nao needs to find an inner strength, and time with her great-grandmother also helps the girl become confident and strong.

It would have been fairly easy for Ozeki to write a book based solely on Nao’s narrative, yet Ozeki changes her tone and style to present a kind of detective story.  No one is better at detective work than a novelist accustomed to research.  So Ozeki brings in an author named Ruth.

Curiously, Ozeki puts herself in her own fictional work.  Like Ozeki, Ruth lives on a remote island off British Columbia.  Ruth is also a novelist who suffers from writer’s block (Ozeki’s last novel, All Over Creation, was published in 2003, so perhaps this is also true).  Like Ozeki, Ruth is married to a man named Oliver and her mother has recently passed away.  Ozeki is part Japanese and so is Ruth.

I do not recall ever having read a story in which the author becomes such a central figure in his or her own story.  It is a weighty technique, leading the reader to wonder how autobiographical the work is or if it is simply fiction with a revealing twist. Whatever the case may be, the line between fiction and reality is not clear-cut in this novel, which makes it all the more enthralling and appealing.

While walking along the beach one day, Ruth finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  Inside the lunchbox are a number of items: a series of Japanese letters, a red book containing a famous Marcel Proust piece, and a watch.  However, the pages written by the French novelist, critic, and essayist have been removed and the book now contains the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao.  The teen’s diary captivates and even obsesses Ruth; she begins a dogged pursuit to find out what happened to Nao.

The deeper Ruth gets into her research and into her quest to locate Nao, the more Ruth is certain that, through the humble act of reading Nao’s diary, she can save the troubled teen.  Ozeki goes a step further, though.  She makes the reader feel like he or she can effect this tale  by reading the story.  The reader really becomes Ruth, transfixed and possessed by Nao’s account.  The fate of the Japanese teen matters deeply not only to Ruth but also to us.

Ozeki expresses our universal desire to connect with others through words and stories.  Ozeki’s characters speak to us across time and across continents and beckon us to follow them to unknown worlds.  Equal parts sobering and inspiring, A Tale for the Time Being is wholly inventive from the first page to the last.  Not since Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a novel so deeply moved me.  Profoundly touching and amazingly good, A Tale for the Time Being is destined to become a modern classic.

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Book Review: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

                                 The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $24).

Iris Dupont, a budding high school journalist, carries on conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.  As she explains, “…Yes, I knew he’d been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?”  Odd?  Yes.  Then again, Iris is not your typical young woman.  Quiet, introspective, and highly intelligent, Iris is just one of the quirky characters who drive Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly.

Miller’s title is an apt one.  Socrates’s critics called him the gadfly of Athens: “No matter how hard his opponents tried to swat him away, he kept biting them with difficult questions.”  Like Socrates, Iris is the horsefly in this story.  She asks the hard questions, the queries everyone else wants to sweep under a rug.

Iris has had a difficult year.  Her best friend, Dalia, dies.  The death sends Iris into a depression.  Her family moves so that Iris can attend storied Mariana Academy, whose code is “brotherhood, truth, [and] equality.”  The family rents a house that once was home to the former headmaster of the academy.  Iris sleeps in a room where the headmaster’s daughter once slept.  Her name was Lily.  Iris feels odd living there: “…Maybe we were dopplengangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily).  Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises…Lilies…reeked of death.  Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.”

Foreshadowing is just one of the plot devices in which Miller shows off her skills.  Traveling to the school with her mother, Iris notices that “the mountainous peaks resembled teeth.  The road stretched between them like a black tongue.  And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.”  One cannot help but wonder if the school will swallow Iris.

To Iris, Mariana “screamed asylum more than school.”  Her journalistic nose senses something sinister within its walls, and her hunch is proven correct.  A powerful secret society called Prisom’s Party rules the school.  Prisom’s Party gets students expelled and even teachers fired.  What would Edward R. Murrow do?  She asks his ghost this question, and he answers her.

Iris decides she will investigate Prisom’s Party as she works on the school newspaper.  Miller makes it difficult for Iris at every turn.  And that is what makes this a good mystery.

Miller adds to the suspense by introducing two other characters and alternating the story among their distinctive points of view.  Jonah Kaplan is Iris’s teacher who once attended Mariana with his twin brother.  Because the story shifts back and forth through time, readers see the teenage Jonah, nerdy and unsure, and Mr. Kaplan, the instructor who instills fear and awe in his students.

Mr. Kaplan’s lessons are not only about biology; they are also about life: “Embracing extremity will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent–different from everybody else.”  Miller draws comparisons between adolescents and extremophiles (extreme-loving organisms) by illustrating how very few teens are left unscarred by adolescence.  The teenage years are difficult ones, and few emerge unscathed from those years.  Mr. Kaplan himself still carries the weight of his adolescence.

One of Miller’s biggest themes is bullying.  Prisom’s Party is, in all respects, the biggest bully on Mariana’s campus.  They may as well rule the school.  Miller shows how prevalent bullying is in schools all across the country and how dangerous bullying can be.

In a narrative that consists of flashbacks, Miller illustrates how Lily is bullied.  Lily is albino, and her difference makes her a target.  In contrast to the first-person narratives of Iris and Mr. Kaplan, Miller tells Lily’s story in the third person.  Yet the effect is not one of detachment.  Far from it.  Lily’s account may be the strongest in The Year of the Gadfly, especially when Iris finds a book called Marvelous Species that once belonged to Lily.  The book further intrigues Iris and plunges her deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding Prisom’s Party and Lily’s fate.

I recommend The Year of the Gadfly to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Miller’s story is intelligent, sharp, and eye-opening.  Miller shines as she describes the pain of adolescence and aptly compares high school to the political dealings of a Third World nation.  “In high school,” Miller warns, “you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend.”  Keep that warning in mind as you read The Year of the Gadfly.  As in Miller’s novel, our enemies sometimes disguise themselves as our friends.  Iris should be vigilant.

Look at the new paperback cover!

Look at the new paperback cover!

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