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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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Spotlight on A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I am currently reading Ruth Ozeki’s long-awaited novel, A Tale for the Time Being.  Ozeki just blows me away on every page.

 

a tale for the time being

 

A brilliant, unforgettable, and long-awaited novel from bestselling author Ruth Ozeki

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.

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.  

Ozeki blurs the line between fiction and reality.  One of her principal characters is a novelist named Ruth who lives on an island near Vancouver.  Ozeki is a novelist who lives on an island near Vancouver.  If I could interview her, I would ask her if what happens in the book really happened to her.  It makes for truly compelling, intriguing reading.

A Tale for the Time Being is imaginative, ambitious, and sometimes harrowing.  Once you start reading Ozeki’s story, you should be prepared to ignore the rest of the world.  I was fascinated from the very first page and now I must leave you to get back to the book.

A Tale for the Time Being comes out March 12 from Viking.

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki

 

 

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Interview with Kristina McMorris

Interview with Kristina McMorris, Author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris

 

Jaime Boler: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is your second novel.  What was your first book and what was the premise behind it?

Kristina McMorris: My debut novel, Letters from Home, was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ wartime courtship letters. Here is a brief summary: In the midst of World War II, a Midwestern infantryman falls deeply in love through a yearlong letter exchange, unaware that the girl he’s writing to is not the one replying. Woven around this tenuous thread are three female friends whose journeys toward independence take unexpected turns as a result of romance, tragedy, and deception, their repercussions heightened by an era of the unknown. It’s a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war, and the chance encounters that change us forever.

Her debut novel, "Letters from Home"

JB: You and I share a mutual fascination with the 1980s miniseries North and South.  How did that story inspire you to write Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Years ago, an old family friend shared with me that he had fought for America while his brother served for Japan. I was captivated by the idea. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when I’d found my calling as a writer, that I remembered his story and realized what an amazing premise it would make for a novel. Combined, as you mentioned, with my undying love for the U.S. miniseries North and the South, wherein loved ones were labeled enemies overnight, I set out to write my book. But in the midst of research, I happened across an obscure mention of roughly two hundred non-Japanese spouses who had chosen to live in the U.S. war relocation camps voluntarily. I phoned my agent that very day and said, “This is it. I have my story!”

JB: I know you did lots of in-depth research for this book.  Did anything that you found surprise you?

KM: Aside from non-Japanese spouses living in the camps, other discoveries that shocked me were the cases of Japanese American men who became stuck in Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then, on account of their ancestry, were conscripted into the Imperial Army or Navy. I was also surprised to learn that you only had to be 1/16 Japanese to qualify for internment, and that even adopted Japanese American children were torn from their Caucasian families and placed in an orphanage in the camp.

I’m proud that I was able to weave these findings into my story, as I believe people should know these things happened.

JB: I read where you actually rode in a B-17, just as TJ does.  What was that like?

Kristina McMorris

KM: It was anything but a hard day at work! There was a maximum of only ten passengers allowed, and after takeoff, we were encouraged to roam the B-17 for the entire flight. It was incredible. I spent the majority of the flight in the nose-gunner’s seat, with nothing but Plexiglas beneath my feet. Flying over lush green farmland, I could imagine for a brief moment what it must have felt like to soar over English farmland during the ’40s. That is, until I reminded myself that there was a huge difference: nobody was trying to shoot down my aircraft—thankfully.

JB: In writing for the character of Maddie, you show such knowledge of music.  Do you play any instruments?

KM: As with most of my research, I relied on generous “experts” that made me look much wiser than I am! Although I used to play piano, I was clueless when it came to the violin. Fortunately, an old friend from high school is a violinist who attended a conservatory and continues to perform in a symphony. She and my husband, who used to play violin as a kid, were immensely helpful. I also learned a great deal from watching performances of the specific pieces on YouTube.

JB: Please describe what a typical day of writing is like for you.

KM: You mean a usual day of being pampered by my personal chef, maid, chauffeur, personal assistant, and… oh, wait, you’re referring to the actual not-so-glamorous life of an author, ha. Well, my alarm goes off at 6:30am, in order to get the kidlings ready for school. After doing dishes and tossing in a load of laundry, I’ll clear out my emails then take a quick shower. Next, I get into my comfy clothes and ugly fuzzy socks, and I park on the couch with my half-caff coffee and laptop to tackle writing, publicity and/or marketing. It’s a cyber sprint until the kids come home, at which point I give myself an extra hour to wrap things up before handling all the usual mom activities until the munchkins are in bed. I often work on my laptop while my hubby and I catch a little TV. Since I’m a night owl, I stay up until at least midnight, then hit the hay and wait for that dreaded alarm to go off at 6:30am. (The cycle reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day actually.)

JB: My favorite character was Lane.  Do you have any favorites?

KM: Which of my children is my favorite? LOL. Bea, Jo, Eddie, TJ… I honestly enjoy every one of them, since I understand who they are and why. I suppose if I had to choose, however, I would say Kumiko. It takes time and effort to peel away her layers and gain her trust. She reminds me of that tough teacher we all had at one point in our lives who didn’t believe in giving A’s, so the day you actually earned an A from her—or in this case, her full approval—you appreciated it more than any others.

JB: Are any characters autobiographical?  If so, who?  I know many are based on actual people, particularly those you came across in your research.  Are any of your characters based on people you know?

KM: I’ve pondered the question a good amount when asked this in the past, and I think it’s the most accurate to say that my own personality is sprinkled throughout each of my characters, even the guys; in fact, mostly the guys!

As for basing characters on other real people, there’s only one person in the story that portrays an actual figure: Justin “Sam” Barry, the legendary USC coach. In order to feel comfortable depicting him, I researched as much as I could, but found very little about him. Luckily, the Sports Information Office Director at USC was kind enough to connect me with Coach Barry’s godson and namesake, who offered some helpful insight about the man’s demeanor.

JB: Were any of your ancestors victims of the Japanese internment?  If so, what happened to them?

KM: My father, an immigrant from Kyoto, was actually born after WWII, so our family didn’t have to face these challenges directly. Now, that’s not to say my parents didn’t encounter resistance from both sides of the family when they wanted to marry. My maternal grandfather had, after all, served as a U.S. Navy signalman on a Destroyer escort in the Pacific during WWII. On a side note, I will add that ironically my father’s birthday is December 7th, which of course is Pearl Harbor Day. In that way, I suppose I should have always known I was destined to write about this pivotal moment in history.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Quite simply, the blank page. That blinking, taunting cursor is typically not my friend. I do, however, love to edit, which is what keeps me trekking away.

As for research that I found most challenging, it was definitely the Japanese POW camps. Reading about the senseless horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon each other—and even finding enjoyment in those acts—often left me in tears. Fortunately, surprising tales of wartime compassion would help alleviate those dark moments.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of researching and writing this novel?

 KM: I think the greatest thing I gained was a newfound admiration for the Japanese American veterans who often risked their lives in the name of democracy, despite their families being unjustly incarcerated by their own country. Also, the humbleness of those families and lack of resentment they held after being released continues to both astound and, though it might sound odd, inspire me. Their resiliency and determination to move on, regardless of hardships, is truly remarkable.

 JB: Do you think something so awful as relocating a people based on their race and keeping them corralled could ever happen again in our country?

KM: Sadly, it continues to happen to this day in other parts of the world. Do I think it could happen again in America? Given our current means of instant and mass communication, and thus widespread awareness, I think it’s unlikely on such a large scale; just imagine the protests that would occur if even a single neighborhood was forced out of an area due to race. That said, nothing is impossible. Lack of knowledge breeds ignorance, which largely fueled the hysteria that led to the Japanese American internment. And no doubt, cases of similar discrimination could be made following 9-11, affirming that learning about the past is vital for many reasons.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: In addition to being transported into another world, I hope readers gain a deep appreciation for real-life heroes they otherwise didn’t know existed, as well as knowledge about history too often brushed over. On a more personal note, if the story causes them to reexamine their own values and perspectives on other cultures, I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

JB: Are there any plans on making this book into a movie?

KM: Ooh, a red carpet stroll sure sounds nice. The truth is, my film rights agent at CAA is very enthusiastic and recently started shopping the book to producers. Realistically, even if it’s optioned, the chances of a book making it to the silver screen are slim—but hey, you never know! It’s definitely a fun thought, anyhow. And in the end, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my story published into an actual book that is reaching readers’ hands; that alone is an accomplishment I’m extremely grateful for.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KM: Up next, my novella, The Christmas Collector, will be released in October in a holiday anthology titled A Winter Wonderland, headlined by Fern Michaels. In this contemporary story, Jenna Matthews, the daughter of a former hoarder, seeks catharsis through her career as an estate liquidator. However, while preparing for a sale just before Christmas—a season of overpriced “junk” exchanges she despises—she stumbles upon a shoebox of wartime memorabilia that reveals the secret past of an elderly woman (her young version is a minor character in Letters from Home), and soon leads Jenna on a hunt to understand the true value of keepsakes, holidays, and memories.

Other than that, I have two more novels on contract with my publisher. The first one is tentatively titled Through Memory’s Gate, which I’ll be diving into as soon as the whirlwind of my current book tour settles.

JB: And your readers look forward to them all!  Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.  I wish you much success.

The Subject of Our Interview--"Bridge of Scarlet Leaves"

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It’s Only a Paper Moon: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Haruki Murakami proves, once again, that he is a literary god with his newest novel 1Q84.  His fans have known this for years, but now the world knows, too.

1Q84 was released as three separate volumes in Europe and Asia and was published as one big book on October 25 in the United States.  1Q84 comes in at 925 pages and is a surreal masterpiece.

The novel begins in Japan in 1984 with the very beautiful Aomame (whose name literally translates to “green peas” in Japanese).  Gridlock from an accident has her cab backed up in traffic.  An anxious Aomame sits in the backseat, afraid she will be late to an important meeting.

We assume Aomame is a business person late for an appointment with a colleague.  After all, she is dressed for the part in a green light wool Junko Shimada suit, a light beige coat, and Charles Jourdan heels.  She looks to be a typical 1980s Japanese business woman.

Such an assumption could not be further from the truth.  Aomame is a part-time assassin who specializes in ridding the world of men who violently abuse women, and she is very good at what she does.

It is very important to remember that in Murakami’s world many things are not what they seem.  And that truly does begin at the beginning of the novel with Aomame.

The cabdriver senses Aomame’s urgency and tells her about a hidden entrance to a stairway that will eventually lead to the subway.  According to the driver, “it’s for drivers who have to abandon their cars in a fire or earthquake and climb down to the street.”

Aomame decides the emergency stairway is really her only option; she just cannot miss her appointment.  The cabdriver, though, issues her a very cryptic warning with “please remember things are not what they seem.”  Aomame does not understand him and asks the cabdriver what he means.  He explains, “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary…after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little.  Things may look different to you than they did before.”  However, he adds, “there’s always only one reality.”

Aomame goes on with her life as usual.  Her world, though, has been irrevocably altered.  The first hint she has of this is when she notices policemen have slightly different uniforms and carry automatic weapons.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

One night Aomame stares at the sky and sees something “different from the sky she was used to seeing.”  It takes her several minutes to accept what her eyes tell her they see: There are “two moons in the sky–a small moon and a large one…floating there side by side.”  The moon as we know it is still looming, but there is “another moon right next to it…lopsided, and greenish, as though thinly covered with moss.”

Aomame knows something is wrong, something is off kilter.  She decides that she must not be living in 1984 anymore and feels that a “newly changed world must need” a new name.  For that reason, Aomame calls her new world 1Q84 (“Q” translates to the number “9” in Japanese).  For Aomame, the “Q” is also “for question mark” because her new world “bears a question.”  Aomame’s world, the real 1984, no longer exists, as “the air has changed, the scene has changed,” and Aomame will “have to learn the rules of this place and adapt” herself to them.

Meanwhile, Murakami introduces us to a second major character named Tengo.  The true beauty of 1Q84 is how, in time, the lives of Aomame and Tengo intersect. Tengo teaches math at a cram school and is a part-time writer.

A friend of his, Mr. Komatsu, who is also a publisher, asks Tengo to re-write seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri’s novella called Air Chrysalis.  Mr. Komatsu thinks the work shows promise to win a prize for new writers, but the novella needs polish and re-working.  As Tengo has written for him in the past, the publisher believes Tengo is up to the task.

Tengo finds himself immersed in his own strange, new world.  Fuka-Eri’s story is an unusual one, not typical of a young girl her age.

In Air Chrysalis, a ten-year-old who girl lives in a commune in the mountains is assigned the task of looking after a blind goat.  The goat, according to the story, has “special meaning for the community,” and the girl is responsible for making sure no harm comes to the animal.  However, the goat dies in the girl’s care.  As punishment, the villagers lock the girl in a storehouse with the dead goat and make her stay there for ten days.  During her stay with the goat’s corpse, she meets the “Little People,” who come into the world through the dead goat’s mouth.  The Little People “would go back to the other side when dawn broke.”  The girl speaks to them, and they teach her “how to make an air chrysalis.”  The girl “discovers that she herself is inside the chrysalis” and “stares at this other self of hers lying naked on her back, eyes closed, apparently unconscious, not breaking, like a doll.”  The Little People explain to her the creature inside is her “dohta.”  The girl herself, according to the Little People, is the “maza.”  To me, these words spoken aloud are very similar to mother and daughter and the chrysalis described in the novel almost mimicked pregnancy.

Fuka-Eri, Tengo learns, is herself a strange girl.  Her father is the leader of a cult, and she is the girl in her story.  When she was ten, she ran away from the cult to seek refuge with a family friend and has been with him for seven years.  Her fictional story is really true.  Fuka-Eri helped the Little People create an air chrysalis, which is a cocoon.

Tengo re-writes the story, and the novella goes on to win the new writer’s prize.

As previously stated, the two storylines slowly converge.  Nowhere does this have more impact than when the dowager asks Aomame to kill Leader, Fuka-Eri’s father.  What happens that night seals the fate of everyone involved, but most especially the fates of Aomame and of Tengo.

Tengo realizes later that he, too, is living in a different world.  One night, he notices the two moons in the sky.  He thinks at first “it might be an optical illusion, a mere trick of light rays,” but he realizes it is no illusion.

Aomame and Tengo have a history together, and Murakami reveals this in bits and pieces, never revealing too much too soon.

Rife with symbolism, everything in this story takes on a new, deeper meaning.  For example, Murakami plays with George Orwell’s 1984 in many ways, the most obvious being the title and setting.  Murakami gives “big brother” a new twist  with the “Little People,” who watch over various characters in the story.  Like Big brother, the Little People see all, hear all, and know all, and they are always watching.

Murakami tells the story of Aomame and Tengo in alternating chapters until book three when he introduces a new character into the mix.  This change is jarring.  In fact, book three is my least favorite and the slowest-moving of the story.  There is little action and lots of monologue and stream of consciousness, which distract from the overall story.  The end, though, is very satisfying as everything comes to a wonderful denouement.

If you are planning to read this story, plan on devoting a block of time to it.  I would not advise you to read a chapter here and another chapter there.  1Q84 is a surreal book and calls for the reader to immerse herself in its “surreality.”  If you do anything less, then you are shortchanging yourself.  I will acknowledge that, at 925 pages, 1Q84 might intimidate some readers based on length alone.  Please do not let this deter you from reading and loving this brilliant masterpiece.

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