Monday, April 28, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being (by Ruth Ozeki)

I was immediately grabbed by this book, which is structured as two interlocking stories wit two protagonists. One protagonist, Ruth, finds a diary and some letters and a notebook washed ashore after its writer has (presumably) been lost in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Ruth's story is interwoven with that of Nao, the author of the diary, with some side ventures into the letters and notebook written by Nao's uncle, a kamikaze suicide bomber (or "sky soldier") in WWII.

If the entire story had been Nao's diary plus her uncle Haruki's letters and notebook, including Nao's tales of her great-grandmother the Zen Buddhist nun, I probably would have loved this book and sped through it. However, I kept getting stopped in Ruth's parts of the narrative, in which the most compelling story is that her cat goes missing. Another issue is that it switches from first to third person, immediately giving you more distance from the action. And then there's the fact that Ruth isn't overly sympathetic. (Neither is Nao at times, but she's a teenager, so you kind of forgive her. Ruth is ostensibly an adult woman.)

It gets worse: there is more than one section where we switch from Nao's story to Ruth's, and the scene is Ruth and her husband Oliver talking over the diary. I don't need to read someone else rehashing a story I literally have just finished reading. Ruth: "Did you understand the subtext? Such-and-such is what really was going on." Oliver: "Oh, I didn't catch that. But did you notice blah blah?" It felt like Cliff Notes embedded in the book itself.  Then there's a metaphysical twist at the end that really really did not work for me. At all.

It sounds like I really disliked this book, which made it to the semifinals of the Tournament of Books and everyone really loved. But I didn't. I loved this book, except I only loved half of it.

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