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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

2013, Viking

Yvonne, Jane and I discussed A Tale for the Time Being at our last bookclub meeting.

After eating a lovely lunch, and chatting a lot but not about books, we eventually starting sipping our indispensable tea and got down to business. Here's an idea of what we said:

Jane: I loved the parts about Zen Buddhism and the exploration of suicide. I found main character Nao appealing and her story compelling. On the other hand, the characters from the different "time zone", Ruth and Oliver, are forgettable. Also, I didn't like some of the stylistic elements -- switching narratives, the use of dreams and especially the talk of quantum physics which alerts my brain to shut off! But I'm glad I read the book.

Kellie: I'm glad I read it too, especially for the Zen themes which ultimately pulled me back into the book after a false start. At first I didn't like Nao's adolescent language, and found the Ruth and Oliver characters unconvincing. I skipped ahead to the brief appendix about quantum physics, and was inexplicably relieved to learn that at least one scientist considers it complete nonsense! Nonetheless, the author effectively links the theory to Zen concepts of time and its numerous possibilities.

Yvonne: The appendices bored me and, like Jane, I had no interest at all in reading about quantum physics. But I liked Nao and learning about the problems she was experiencing, like bullying and the absence of her parents as well as her decision to look for some kind of community as a sex worker out of a sense of abandonment. I was interested in her life in Japan vs the US, how hard it was to be an outsider, even if she physically presented as Japanese.

I was fascinated by Haruki #1's accounts of his wartime experience as a kamikaze pilot and the contrast between his concept of suicide and honor compared to that of Nao's father. I thought it was great how reading his uncle's letters was a wake-up call and that he found his vocation in helping his daughter and others escape bullying.

I also liked the use and explanations of Japanese expressions.

Kellie: I liked learning the Japanese word Tadaima: ただいま or 只今, "I'm home." When Nao's father returns to see his mother Ziko, after being away for a long time, he says, Tadaima. It's comforting.

We all loved Ziko. She is such a great soul and we can all learn from her outlook on life. Nonetheless, after Nao's first visit to her, I found the book starting to get a bit long. For example, did the part about Nao working in prostitution add anything? She'd already been through so many problems with her parents and the horrific bullying. I guess I was disappointed that after spending time with Ziko, her problems weren't mostly solved. That may have been expecting too much, though.

Jane: I agree that the book would have been just as good without the prostitution part. However, it did show that when Nao was at her most dissociated, the news of Ziko’s impending death jolts her to action in the form of a certain vengeance against one of her clients (hiding his clothes). This reminds me of the memoir Any Girl by Mia Döring. She describes how she “fell into” sex work after a rape and had conflicting feelings of power and worthlessness which I found in Nao’s tale as well.

Yvonne: I’d go even further in saying that after the horrendous bullying, exclusion and ghosting at her school and non-presence of her parents, I think she was looking for some type of community and fell temporarily into sex work due to her contacts with some of the girls who lived in her building. I agree that Nao had deep feelings of worthlessness; the sex workers showed some pity and at the same time used her. So I did think it was an important part of the story. I also have to say that Japan is not bound by Judeo-Christian notions of sex.

Jane: I'd like to hear more about Japanese attitudes to sex.

Kellie: Topic for our next bookclub...?

Two stand-outs:

The book's discussion of the writing and reading processes, especially this quote by Marcel Proust.

Ziko's wisdom. When Nao asks her 104-year-old grandmother Ziko how old you have to be before your mind really grows up, she answers, 105.

footnote number 106: coincidence?!

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