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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Tale for the Time Being

Last week we met to discuss the AMAZING novel A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Here is the publisher's summary [It's a long one]:
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. As 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. 

Before I get to the discussion itself, I have a few general comments. This is one of the best novels I have ever led a discussion on.  This is a book that is BEGGING to be discussed. I will recount all of the opinions and ideas expressed in our discussion below, but this is just a tip of the iceberg.  We could have kept going for 2 more hours easily.

Here are the discussion notes:
  • This is a challenging novel, but I had warned the group about that in advance.  Still, I was a bit nervous asking for a group vote on the book.  I should have known better than to underestimated the ladies.  10 Liked, 2 disliked, 2 so-sos. [2 votes were came in via email or phone as they had to miss the meeting but loved the book too much not to vote.]
    • One of my so-sos voted that way because of how long it took her to "get into it." This comment caused another to say, that was why she voted liked-- once she got to the Jiko character she felt like the book was worth the wait.
    • No matter how people felt, we all agreed it took until part 2 starts (about 100 pages in) until we felt comfortable.
    • I liked the spiritual experiences here.
    • I felt like the book portrayed the Japanese personality well.
    • I loved how the lines between "fiction" and nonfiction blended in the novel.
    • It was an uncomfortable read at times with the horrific bullying, sex industry, and talk of suicide, but it was never gratuitous.  It made you think about these issues.
  • Right at the start a few people mention asking themselves, "Why did I have so much trouble getting into this novel?" I thought this needed to be discussed:
    • It is an entire book about the collaborative nature of reading.  There is a key quote about it on page 109.  The novel's story line is a study in a reader and writer working together to unravel a story. Ozeki involves us by making us experience it too.  We all agreed that this active participation by us, as readers, improves the story and our experience reading it.
    • We talked about this for a bit and then came to the conclusion that the end of the novel was perfect because the end wasn't the end. It keeps going, like life. Very satisfying.
    • I think once we talked about how the novel is constructed in a way that is challenging but for an ultimate goal of our enjoyment of the story, people felt better about how hard they worked.
  • As I am sorting through my notes, I am remembering how philosophical our discussion was.  here are some topics we brought up and discussed at length:
    • What is reality?
    • What is my reality?
    • How does my perception of reality shape my reality?
    • What is the present?
    • What is time?
    • We had a discussion about Quantum Physics using the Appendix which explains the theoretical physics of  the Schrodinger's Cat Paradox. Click here for more on that. This led to discussions about how we think and create in the "time being." and how what is happening around us is dependent upon who is observing the happenings.
      • It is NOT coincidental that a key action in the book involves a box being opened at different times and people finding something different in it at different times.
  • Now, this is a book where what is happening on the page is open to interpretations, As a result we all posited different thoughts as to what was “really” going on:
    • Ruth and Nao are not 2 separate people but rather 2 halves of the same person.
    • Or they are 1 person but one of them conjured the other to cope.  Who conjured whom though?
    • Ruth is a writer in the beginning stages of Alzheimers and the whole novel is her story of the novel she is writing and the process of writing it.  Clues from her husband’s comments as they “read” Nao’s story together, the slow speed at which she “read” Nao’s diary, and the blank pages at the end.
    • This truly is a story told on different planes of reality a la quantum physics
    • Everything that happens can be taken literally and it is a magical realism story.
    • In the end we decided that it means what you think it means and that THAT comment is the entire point of the book.
  • We all loved the Jiko character. 
    • She unites everyone, both readers and those in the story.  That is why she is there.
    • When the stress or conflict in the story escalates, Jiko comes back to calm things down.
    • She is there to nourish the soul.
    • We wish all children could be given a “supapawa" like Jiko gave Nao.
  • We did talk about the ending at length.
    • The ending was very happy, but was it too happy?
    • Ruth needed a happy ending.
    • The reader deserved one too after working so hard
    • The ending was very “quantum” as we had a few possible endings here.
    • The ending is happy because Ruth is celebrating the end of writer’s block and finishing the book
  • We talked about the theme of loss in this story
    • There are many times when they lose power or communication with the outside world
    • Things being erased from the Internet
    • Alzheimers
    • A lost cat
    • A lost child
    • Lost homes (America vs Japan; NYC vs the Canadian island)
    • Whaletown lost its whales but kept its name
    • The free store-- the dump where lost things go
    • Life is an accumulation of losses
  • Of course we talked about time:
    • It’s a “tale” for the time being. The entire book is a tale not the truth. It is not meant to be taken literally.
    • “Tale" invokes fairy tale
    • Time itself cannot be more than a tale because it has no beginning or end.
    • Someone shared a quote from Thich Nat Hahn: "The present moment is where life can be found, and if you do not arrive here, you will miss your appointment with life.
  • Other issues we brought up briefly:
    • Pacifism
    • Environmentalism-- contributed to the theme of loss as we are losing the health of our planet.
    • Radiation issues with Fukushima.
    • Social media and bullying
  • We started to wrap things up with a return to the beginning-- Why was this book so hard to get into?
    • Because it a book that is like life and life can be hard and difficult but is worth it.
    • This book fanned out.  As book went on it blossomed and opened up and turned into a beautiful contemplation of Life.
  • Words or phrases to describe this book:
    • zen
    • spiritual
    • Supapawa
    • writer-reader combo
    • ugliness of human nature vs the redeeming nature of other
    • thoughtful
    • intricate
    • layered
    • mind-blowing
    • magical thinking
    • supportive relationships
    • 4th Dimension
    • challenging
    • loss
    • life- live
    • passage
    • unforgettable
    • philosophical
    • time
    • beauty of pacifism
Readalikes: This one was easy for me. Although the novel was unique, it also reminded me of other metafiction books and/or authors that were thoughtful, stylistically complex, and character driven:
Finally, for watch alikes we had two movies about alternate realities and popular quantum physics applications come up:

2 comments: said...

the spelling of the author of "Snow" is Orhan Pamuk.

you're welcome!

Becky said...

Thanks. I knew that. typo...