A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, had been on my reading list for quite a while. Our book club members enjoy being entertained, but they also want to be challenged and to experience new perspectives, and A Tale for the Time Being offered both: it concerned a teenager in Japan, her Buddhist grandmother, and a writer in Canada.
The topics covered in A Tale for the Time Being are definitely challenging – bullying, suicide, prostitution, environmental decay, and even quantum physics! However, I was still surprised to find that the majority at the meeting did not like the book, and a couple of members had been unable to get past the first 30 or 40 pages.
The ending was confusing and perhaps too easy–solved by a dream. Some readers found the writing tedious. The bullying in the story was disturbing to everyone and a few found it hard to believe. We had a good discussion about bullying in stories throughout history, and one member mentioned the classic example of Lord of the Flies.
We also discussed suicide and the different role that culture and religion – Christianity vs. Buddhism – plays in the higher than average suicide rate in Japan. We would need to know more to be able to answer this question. The father was actually fined for the cost of his attempted suicide. And as life meets art, one member told us how the attempted suicide on our local freeway a few days ago had impacted thousands. Another noted that the decision to commit suicide led Nao and her uncle both to appreciate life more fully.
We discussed how the “supapawa” concept was similar to the belief in the power of a positive attitude or the law of attraction. But somehow the idea of developing a superpower was so much more empowering to me. It wasn’t just attitude, it was imagination.
As often is the case, we noted the biographical similarities between the story and the author, who lives in British Columbia and New York, has a Japanese mother, and is a Soto Zen priest. Does this make the story any more believable, accessible, authoritative? Our concern for the characters, especially Nao, makes it important to some of us.
We only referred to one question from the official discussion questions. Did we think the narrative opening of Nao writing to an unknown reader was successful? Although we disagreed here, one member noted how she felt that she was listening, even if her answers weren’t heard. Another felt that the journal writing was to fill a need to communicate, as if to a friend. We spoke of many things, all relevant. The book is filled with so much and I wonder if we had followed more of the questions if we might have delved deeper, almost as if into Pandora’s box! The meeting seemed to fly by – time is relative, even in English.
We ate Japanese rice cakes, Hello Kitty chocolate marshmallow candies, and drank Blue Mountain Blend coffee as we discussed. It’s exciting to me to find choices tied to the readings. I always hope that the new tastes will help us solidify the memory.
I opened the meeting by reflecting on the various languages in the book. Japanese is a culture steeped in metaphor and I mentioned one researcher who specifically noted how different languages can change cognitive abilities and even understanding of time.[i] I also showcased some of the books and movies that can perhaps be more accessible in helping to understand some of the concepts covered in the book. In the end, I asked if anyone else had found the book uplifting. Smiles and some nodding heads. Language. Communication takes many forms.
- Other works discussed:
- Bully (2011) Documentary DVD
- Shall We Dance (1996) DVD English subtitled
- The Wind Rises (2013) Sprited Away (2001) DVD Miyazaki
- Whisper of the Heart (2006) DVD Studio Ghibli
- The Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
- The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
[i] Moxley, Mitch. “Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality? .” Slate Magazine. Graham Holdings Company, June 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/uc/2014/06/can_language_influence_our_perception_of_reality.html
AA, who couldn’t attend the meeting, sent this insightful review:
I enjoyed the book because it includes so many themes: cultural integration, suicide, bullying, family, nature, science, spiritualism, economy, and war. It is a book about humanity. I like the fantastical aspects the author includes (the ghost of the girl’s uncle and her grandmother) and the depth she creates while touching on so many different societal communities. The magical part of her story reminds me of Alice Hoffman’s stories. I was not surprised when a friend of mine told me that the author is a Zen Buddhist priest.
I love to find new authors and new subjects but this book was too depressing. I only got part way through it as well. I couldn’t make last night’s meeting but have read Go Set A Watchman so should be ready for next month. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that didn’t like this months pick.