Another week has passed and I’m just now writing a post. This summer my son has been staying up a little later at night, and by the time he’s asleep I’m just TIRED, y’all. I just want to read a bit or watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a minute and then GO TO BED. I know that when we get back in our routine and he’s going to sleep by 8:30 I’ll have more time to myself at night, and hopefully more energy for blogging! Tomorrow’s his birthday! He’s been bouncing off the walls and I’ve been consumed with party plans.
But I did read another book for #20BooksofSummer, and it’s also my book group’s pick for June. (We meet to discuss in about a week.) Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of those books that I had avoided reading until now, despite near universal acclaim and one very persistent library patron telling me that I MUST READ IT. I know, I know, I’d say – it’s on my list! Only for some reason I wasn’t all that excited to read it. If it hadn’t been our book group pick, I probably never would have.
And that would have been a real shame! I am quite glad that I was forced to read it. It was strange, occasionally beautiful, sad, mind-bending, and startlingly original. I didn’t wholeheartedly love it, but I very much enjoyed it.
It was a slow start for me, however. The first 150 pages or so were not really landing. Here’s the Goodreads description, because it’s a super tough book to try and summarize:
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 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 a 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.
I usually enjoy dueling narratives, flashes forward and backward in time, all of that. I enjoyed the playfulness of the contemporary character, Ruth, being a novelist named Ruth, living in Canada with a husband named Oliver. (All things true of Ms. Ozeki.) But the novel didn’t take off for me until Nao goes to stay for a while with her amazing great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, at her monastery. That’s the point where I became fully invested in the book, and remained so for the next 250 pages. While I empathized with Ruth and was interested in her search to find out of Nao ever really existed or was still alive, it was Nao’s narration that I was more eager to return to. Nao’s life was really hard – her struggle for identity, feeling more American than Japanese, having grown up in America; her father’s depression and suicide attempts; the insane cruelty of her classmates’ bullying. Ozeki doesn’t shy away from dark topics, yet there are flashes of humor throughout. Ruth and Oliver have a cat named Pesto, who they call “Pest” for short (cute.) And there’s this line from early on in Nao’s diary:
My dad wants me to apply to an international high school. He wants me to go to Canada. He’s got this thing about Canada. He says it’s like America only with health care and no guns, and you can live up to your potential there and not have to worry about what society thinks or about getting sick or getting shot.
The book takes a turn towards the magical realism/speculative genre towards the end, and I don’t want to give away too much. I’ll say that for a brief time I was left wondering whether or not I was a character in a book that someone was reading, and I’ve never felt that particular feeling before because of a book. I felt a bit dizzy when I finished reading this, and I took that as a good sign. I think it’s going to be a very good book for discussion at my book group meeting. There’s an experimental vibe to the book that was interesting, unique, and trippy, but somehow it didn’t add up to a book that I could say that I loved. I’m glad I read it, however, and sometimes that’s enough.
Have you read this? What’s the determining factor for you in rating something either a 3 or a 4 on Goodreads? Have you ever been so flummoxed that you couldn’t give a book a star rating? I’d love to read your thoughts.