But one thing I do have going for me is this: I was befriended by a local independent bookstore owner at a writers’ conference about a year ago and was invited into her secret bookstore-affiliated book club. It’s not technically “secret,” but it might as well be because its existence is kept on the down-low ---- probably to keep out uncouth literary assholes who would dominate the book club discussions and insult anyone who disagrees with them.
I heard a rumor about this book club a few years ago and pressed one the bookstore employees for information about it. He shrugged and handed me a tiny wad of what appeared to be a chewed up pink jelly bean ringed with fur and before I could ask what it was he snatched it back and said, “Oh, sorry. That’s a rat’s ass and I forgot I’m not supposed to give it to you.”
The book club has about ten dedicated members, all of whom are women over the age of thirty-five. They are hardcore readers who buy hardback books the day they are released. They are also the kind of women who actually participate in the community. They run art galleries and work on novels that aren't just a bunch of rough outlines in private settings on a blog and when they’re not running off to the Bay Area to attend some unique cultural event, they’re travelling to exotic places like Croatia or Argentina. In short, these women intimidate the hell out of me and would likely kick me to the curb if they knew that I was probably watching an episode of “Ice Loves Coco” the night Salman Rushdie was in town.
A couple of months ago we were discussing what our book picks should be for the summer. The woman who just got back from a trip to Sri Lanka piped in with, “Well, Ruth Ozeki has a new one coming out.” Everyone perked up and said, “Oh, Ruth Ozeki, well of course we’ll have to read her new one.” I had never heard of Ruth Ozeki, but I nodded my head in agreement and played it off like, “Yeah, totally. We gotta read Ruth Ozeki’s new one. That’s a total no-brainer.”
I shelled out almost thirty bucks for the hardback and launched into it completely blind, didn't even read the dust jacket, so I'd have no preconceptions.
In A Tale for the Time Being, a woman living on the Pacific Rim of British Columbia finds a package wrapped in plastic while walking on the seaweed-strewn shore after high tide. Thinking it’s trash, she takes it home to dispose of it properly, but her husband opens it and they discover a Hello Kitty lunch box containing a diary written in English, a stack of letters written in Japanese and a vintage watch.
The diary belongs to Nao, a sixteen year old Japanese girl living in Tokyo. Nao was born in Japan, but when she was very young, her family moved to Sunnyvale, California where her father worked as a computer programmer for several years. When the Dot Com bubble burst, her dad lost his job and they moved back to Tokyo where Nao is bullied by her Japanese classmates. Her father, unable to find gainful employment, is consumed with shame and suicidal temptations. Nao reveals in her diary that she also is planning to end her life, but first wants to tell the story of Jiko, her 104 year old great-grandmother who was a novelist and feminist anarchist before she renounced the world and became a Buddhist nun.
The novel alternates between Nao’s diary entries and the reactions of Ruth, the woman who found Nao’s diary and is trying to puzzle together the meaning of the stack of letters and the significance of vintage watch. Ozeki uses footnotes to translate the Japanese that Nao occasionally uses to pepper her diary. After a while it dawns on you, that the author, Ruth Ozeki, has plainly written herself into the novel as the character who found Nao’s dairy, and is revealing to the reader her own struggles as a writer. As it turns out, this style of writing is a Japanese literary genre used in the early 1900's called the “I-Novel” where events in a story correspond with events in the author’s life.
A Tale for the Time Being is both a slick read and a deep meditation on time with multiple layers that fold back, and hurl upward, slip and subduct like tectonic plates in an earthquake. It reveals a bit of the dark side of Japanese society, which is also a characteristic of the I-Novel. This book has left me wanting more of Ruth Ozeki’s worlds. I have already made arrangements to acquire both of her other novels: My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. It’s Ruth Ozeki. Of course I will read her other novels. It’s a total no-brainer.