Tale for the Time Being (Ozeki)

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki, 2013
Viking Adult
432 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143124870

Amid the garish neon glare of a district of Tokyo known as Akiba Electric Town, sixteen–year–old Naoko Yasutani pours out her thoughts into a diary.

She is drinking coffee in a cafe where the waitresses dress like French maids and a greasy–looking patron gazes at her with dubious intent. The setting is hardly ordinary, but Nao, as she is called, is not an ordinary girl.

Humbled by poverty since her father lost his high–income tech job in Silicon Valley and had to move the family back to Japan, Nao has been bullied mercilessly in school. Seemingly unmanned by his professional failure, her father, Haruki, has attempted suicide.

Nao herself regards her diary as a protracted suicide note—but one she will not finish until she has committed to its pages the life story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun named Jiko.

Years later on the other side of the Pacific, shielded from damage by a freezer bag and a Hello Kitty lunchbox, Nao’s diary washes up on the shore of British Columbia and falls into the hands of a writer named Ruth, who becomes captivated by Nao’s revelations.

s Ruth’s fascination grows, however, so does her sense of dread: Has Nao followed through on her suicidal pledge? If not, is there still time to save her? Or has Nao survived her bout with adolescent angst, only to be swept away to her death by the cataclysmic tsunami of March 2011?

Moved to compassion by the young girl’s words, Ruth ransacks the Internet for a trace of Naoko Yasutani or her father. She finds almost nothing there, but the mystery deepens when she discovers a second document in the same packet: a collection of letters from Haruki’s uncle, Jiko’s son, who was conscripted against his will in 1943 to serve the Emperor as a kamikaze pilot. Slowly Ruth pulls the pieces of the mystery together, learning about the lives of an extraordinary family whose history is both inspirational and tragic.

Day by day, in her quest to save a girl she has never met, Ruth begins to acquire the wisdom that just might save herself. And above all the mystery and drama stands the presiding spirit of great–grandmother Jiko, an Eastern saint whose prayers and paradoxes point the way to a more settled sense of self.

Unflinching in its portrayal of the deep conflicts in Japanese culture, equally incisive in its assessments of the West, A Tale for the Time Being exposes a world on the edge of catastrophe. Simultaneously, with exquisite delicacy and an intimate sense of human motivation, it reveals its characters as kind, compassionate, and worthy of deliverance from the evils we do to ourselves and to one another.

Ever mindful of the small, A Tale for the Time Being also contemplates the large: quantum mechanics, Zen meditation, computer science, climate change, and the nature of being all pass beneath the author’s thoughtful gaze. A novel about both the near–impossibility and the necessity of communication, A Tale for the Time Being communicates a love of life in all its complex beauty. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 12, 1956
Where—New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Education—Smith College; Hara University
Awards—Kiriyama Prize; American Book Award
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, and British Columbia

Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. She worked in commercial television and media production for over a decade and made several independent films before turning to writing fiction.

She was born in New Haven, Connecticut of American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College and traveled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University. During her years in Japan, she worked in Kyoto’s entertainment or “water” district as a bar hostess, studied flower arrangement as well as Noh drama and mask carving, founded a language school, and taught in the English Department at Kyoto Sangyo University.

Film and novels
Ozeki returned to New York in 1985 and began a film career as an art director, designing sets and props for low budget horror movies. She switched to television production, and after several years directing documentary-style programs for a Japanese company, she started making her own films. Body of Correspondence (1994) won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and was aired on PBS. Halving the Bones (1995), an award-winning autobiographical film, tells the story of Ozeki’s journey as she brings her grandmother’s remains home from Japan. It has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival, among others. Ozeki’s films, now in educational distribution, are shown at universities, museums and arts venues around the world.

Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times.

Ozeki  currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she writes, knits socks, and raises ducks with her husband, artist Oliver Kellhammer. She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a priest in June, 2010. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
As contemporary as a Japanese teenager's slang but as ageless as a Zen koan, Ruth Ozeki's new novel combines great storytelling with a probing investigation into the purpose of existence. From the first page of A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki plunges us into a tantalizing narration that brandishes mysteries to be solved and ideas to be explored…Ozeki's profound affection for her characters, which warmed her earlier novels…makes A Tale for the Time Being as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually provocative.
Wendy Smith - Washington Post

Masterfully woven.... Entwining Japanese language with WWII history, pop culture with Proust, Zen with quantum mechanics, Ozeki alternates between the voices of two women to produce a spellbinding tale.
O Magazine

Forget the proverbial message in a bottle: This Tale fractures clichés as it affirms the lifesaving power of words.... As Ozeki explores the ties between reader and writer, she offers a lesson in redemption that reinforces the pricelessness of the here and now.

A powerful yarn of fate and parallel lives.
Good Housekeeping

Ozeki weaves together Nao’s adolescent yearnings with Ruth’s contemplative digressions, adding bits of Zen wisdom, as well as questions about agency, creativity, life, death, and human connections along the way. A Tale for the Time Being is a dreamy, spiritual investigation of how to gracefully meet the waves of time, which, in the end, come for us all.”
Daily Beast

As we read Nao’s story and the story of Ozeki’s reading of it, as we go back and forth between the text and the notes, time expands for us. It opens up onto something resembling narrative eternity...page after page, slowly unfolding. And what a beautiful effect that is for a novel to create.”
Alan Cheuse - NPR

Ozeki’s absorbing third novel (after All Over Creation) is an extended meditation on writing, time, and people in time: “time beings.” Nao Yasutani is a Japanese schoolgirl who plans to “drop out of time”—to kill herself as a way of escaping her dreary life. First, though, she intends to write in her diary the life story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun.... [T]he diary eventually washes up on the shore of Canada’s Vancouver Island, where a novelist called Ruth lives.... Nao’s winsome voice contrasts with Ruth’s intellectual ponderings to make up a lyrical disquisition on writing’s power to transcend time and place. This tale from Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, is sure to please anyone who values a good story broadened with intellectual vigor.
Publishers Weekly

In Tokyo, shy, bullied 16-year-old Nao determines to end it all—but not before chronicling the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. After the 2011 tsunami, a novelist named Ruth opens a Hello Kitty lunchbox that's fetched up on a remote island off North America's coast and is immediately drawn into the story of Nao and her ancestor. Ozeki lives part-time in British Columbia and was recently ordained a Buddhist nun, so in some ways she's writing close to home. But here's betting that this award-winning novelist (My Year of Meats), also honored for her work in film, will take her narrative to the next level while remaining engagingly accessible; the best-selling Meats was translated into 11 languages and sold in 14 countries. Sales rep enthusiasm, too.
Library Journal

(Starred reviw.) An intriguing, even beautiful narrative remarkable for its unusual but attentively structured plot.... We go from one story line to the other, back and forth across the Pacific, but the reader never loses place or interest.

(Starred review.) Ozeki's magnificent third novel (All Over Creation, 2003, etc.) brings together a Japanese girl's diary and a transplanted American novelist to meditate on everything from bullying to the nature of conscience and the meaning of life. On the beach of an island off British Columbia's coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a stack of letters and a red book. The book contains 16-year-old Nao's diary.... [Ruth] plunges into Nao's diary... [and] the book's extended climax...transcends bitter anguish to achieve heartbreaking poignancy as both Nao and Ruth discover what it truly means to be "a time being." ... The novel's seamless web of language, metaphor and meaning can't be disentangled from its powerful emotional impact: These are characters we care for deeply, imparting vital life lessons through the magic of storytelling. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. A Tale for the Time Being begins with Ozeki’s first–person narrator expressing deep curiosity about the unknown person who might be reading her narrative. How did you respond to this opening and its unusual focus on the circumstances of the reader?

2. How does Ozeki seem to view the relationship between a writer and her reader? What do they owe each other? How must they combine in order to, in Nao’s phrase, “make magic”?

3. Though we may feel for her in her struggles and suffering, Nao is no angel. She is extremely harsh toward her father, and, given the opportunity, she tyrannizes over her hapless schoolmate Daisuke. Does Ozeki sacrifice some of the sympathy that we might otherwise feel for Nao? What does Ozeki’s novel gain by making Nao less appealing than she might be?

4. More than once in A Tale for the Time Being, a character’s dream appears to exert physical influence on actual life. Does this phenomenon weaken the novel by detracting from its realism, or does it strengthen the book by adding force to its spiritual or metaphysical dimension?

5. Is there a way in which Nao and Ruth form two halves of the same character?

6. A Tale for the Time Being expresses deep concern about the environment, whether the issue is global warming, nuclear power, or the massive accretions of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. How do Ozeki’s observations about the environment affect the mood of her novel, and how do her characters respond to life on a contaminated planet?

7. Suicide, whether in the form of Haruki #1’s kamikaze mission or the contemplated suicides of Haruki #2 and Nao, hangs heavily over A Tale for the Time Being. Nevertheless, Ozeki’s story manages to affirm life. How does Ozeki use suicide as a means to illustrate the value of life?

8. Jiko’s daily religious observances include prayers for even the most mundane activities, from washing one’s feet to visiting the toilet. How did you respond to all of these spiritual gestures? Do they seem merely absurd, or do they foster a deeper appreciation of the world? Have your own religious ideas or spiritual practices been influenced by readingA Tale for the Time Being?

9. Responding to the ill treatment that Nao reports in her diary, Ruth’s husband Oliver observes, “We live in a bully culture” (121). Is he right? What responses to society’s bullying does A Tale for the Time Being suggest? Are they likely to be effective?

10. Haruki #1 cites a Zen master for the idea that “a single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth” (324). What kind of enlightenment is Ozeki calling for in A Tale for the Time Being? Is it really available to everyone? Would you try to achieve it if you could? Why or why not?

11. Imagine that you had a notebook like Nao’s diary and you wanted to communicate with an unknown reader as she does. What would you write about? Would you be as honest as Nao is with us? What are the benefits and risks of writing such a document?

12. Ozeki makes many references to scientific concepts like quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat. What role do these musings play in the novel? Do they add an important dimension, or are they mostly confusing?

13. What lessons does Jiko try to teach Nao to develop her “supapawa”? Are they the same that you would try to impart to a troubled teenaged girl? How else might you approach Nao’s depression and other problems?

14. Even after receiving these lessons, Nao does not change completely. Indeed, she gets in even worse trouble after the summer at her great–grandmother’s temple. What more does she need to learn before she can do something positive with her life?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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