Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Review: A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel

Shira and I have a trip to Japan scheduled and I wanted to get further into the mood by reading / listening to a Japanese related book. I popped into Overdrive and searched the Arlington library for "Japan" and among the available results was Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel. I started listening to the audio version of the book, and quickly became hooked.

Part of what made the book so appealing is that I had zero expectations. I could clearly tell it wasn't my typical book (there are no action packed fight scenes, or dystopian landscapes--unless you consider Canada a dystopia), but I was awfully curious how the writer was going to resolve the story. So, I stuck with it, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

The basic premise is that you've got an aging Canadian writer named Ruth discovering the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao, and from there the story unfolds as we learn about both Ruth and Nao's world. Ozeki does a splendid job of keeping both worlds believable and separate, yet at the same time they are obviously parallels.

As the title suggests, Ozeki does find creative ways to explore the notion of time and how slippery it can be when you actually try to introspect it.

The book contains some NC-17 related themes that I'd usually shy away from. However, by the time the content arrived, I was too invested to stop listening. So keep that in mind if you're squeamish or considering having your kid read the book.

Finally, Nao does give wonderful descriptions of Japan and Japanese culture. I'll find out after my visit if her descriptions are at all accurate. If so, I'd chalk up "learning about Japan" as another benefit to this book.


OK, this isn't really a spoiler, but I felt like I had to give Ozeki props. When I started her book, I was curious to see where it was all going. And in the end, she managed to create a multi-layered masterpiece with a wonderfully satisfying ending. At times it was a meandering path to get there, but definitely worth the build up.

Who knew the lives of a struggling writer, teenager, Zen master, laid off software engineer and a Kamikaze Pilot could all be connected in such novel ways. The lessons they have to teach about coping with impossible situations is interesting and inspirational. Ozeki manages to let us see their struggles from both inside the head of each of these characters, as well, as from outside; it all makes for powerful reading.


  1. Hey Ben, your post appeared in my Facebook news feed because Jen commented on it. You might want to talk to my son Andrew about Japan. He will be returning from there in about a week. He was in Toyko for two weeks and is now taking bullet trains around the country. Yesterday was Nagoya, today Hiroshima, and he's got many places left to visit.

  2. Irene - it was great catching up with you at shul and hearing about Andrew's travels. Hopefully, we'll all get to compare notes when I'm back!

  3. I really liked your comment: "the author had managed to construct a sort of hierarchy of characters, where each one's hardship's are minimized when compared to the ones that they linked to." I had not thought of stacking the characters in that manner. Also if you have not read Shogun, that would be an excellent choice for your trip.

  4. Thanks Elizabeth -- I'll definitely have to look into Shogun.