Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book was far too weird for my liking.  I kept at it because I thought the main storyline was interesting but it was interspersed with Zen practices and beliefs which I found distracting though I was able to skim over them for the most part.  There was also some magical realism which I just didn't buy, or maybe didn't get - pages disappearing then reappearing and strange things like that.

The basic story was about Ruth, who lives on a small island off Vancouver Island.  She is a writer suffering from writer's block who has moved there from Manhattan to follow the man she loves who is also quite weird.  I was never quite sure if he was an environmental activist or what he was - he also suffered from some undefined illness that I never really understood.  Walking along the beach Ruth finds a freezer bag filled with a diary written mostly in English, a notebook which appears to be another diary written in French, some Japanese letters and a man's watch engraved in Japanese.  She, and others on the island, speculate this is something swept away by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that travelled the ocean and ended up here.  Though they are never quite sure the timing is right.

The English diary is that of Nao, a teenaged girl who was born in the US but moved back to Tokyo with her parents when her father's job in Silicone Valley disappears, together with his savings, after the bubble bursts.  Nao is bullied at school, must face the repeated suicide attempts of her father and is generally miserable living in relative poverty after a very middle class life in the US.  When her mother gets a job and her father is trying to get help for his depression she is sent to spend the summer with her 104 year old great grandmother who is a buddhist nun living in a small, secluded community.  Her great grandmother senses her misery and tries to give her coping mechanisms which she calls super powers.  After leaving her summer feeling stronger, though not strong enough to return to school, she spends her days trying to tell the story of her great grandmother's life though it is really more her own story.  There are also several asides that are quite interesting about her great uncle who was a kamikaze fighter who lost his life in WWII.  The French diary, Japanese letter and watch belonged to him.

Ruth tries hard to find Nao and her family and discover first whether they really existed and then what happened to them in the wake of the tsunami.  She enlists others to help translate the Japanese and French (though she is Japanese herself, her command of formal language is not perfect) so we meet some local characters too.

There were also distracting segments about the fate of her cat and a crow that appeared to be from Japan.

All in all, though there were some interesting stories and characters, the book was just a bit too hard to figure out for me to find it enjoyable.

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