Book Babble #3 – A Tale For The Time Being

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

★★★★☆

I always used to have a bit of a thing for ‘diary’ books when I was younger – Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Do Not Read This Book – and A Tale For The Time Being is perhaps the first ‘mature’ diary novel I’ve read. One half of this novel consists of the diary of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and the other half consists of Ruth Ozeki’s fictional account of reading and investigating the diary. That might sound a little odd, but the idea works – mostly (I’ll get to that later).

Ruth Ozeki stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach after the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and inside, along with French letters and a watch, she finds the diary of a schoolgirl. This is the diary of Nao. She grew up in America but moved to Japan with her parents, yet she feels incredibly isolated in Japan. Her new schoolmates bully her relentlessly whilst her parents struggle with making their life in Japan, and this is what leads Nao to begin her diary. Initially, she intends to document the life of her grandmother, but the diary clearly revolves around her own life.

The opening page is immediately gripping – Nao is funny, clever, witty and instantly likeable. Ozeki perfectly captures the voice of a teenage girl who has been let down again and again but battles through with dry humour and hilarious observations (much like Midori in Norwegian Wood). Despite the comedy of Nao’s story, there’s also some very unpleasant and, quite frankly, horrifying anecdotes in her tale. Although mostly a very sympathetic character, Nao is not just the victim of bullying; she has endless layers, each slowly uncovered in the pages of this novel. Sure, her grandmother is talked about, but Nao never truly wanted to write about her – she needed to get down her own story.

Nao’s diary is interwoven with Ozeki’s fictional third-person account – she finds the diary, reads it, discusses it with her husband, and researches it to finds out more about Nao’s true identity. It certainly is a unique choice, and for the most part, a well-executed one: Ozeki experiences the reader’s curiosity and intrigue, and her discussions with her husband are almost a metaphor for our own internal dialogue as we explore not just the warmth of Nao’s tale but also the frightening depth. However, I quickly began to lose interest in Ozeki’s chapters. They seemed to vary from captivating to downright boring, and things went truly awry when Ozeki began to have dreams about Nao’s diary. I found myself skipping over the more tedious chapters because, to be honest, they really didn’t add anything to the story. Or maybe I’m just a bad reader!

A Tale For The Time Being is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and, for 70% of the time, gripping. It would make a great summer read, and really gives putting a message in a bottle a new meaning…

Book Babble #2 – The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

★★★★☆

I’m a big fan of short stories. It all started after I read Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek. Anyone who knows that collection knows they’re pretty weird stories -animals measured by volume, robot wasps, zombie cafés – but I was really into them. I read more and more short story collections, and ‘weird’ seems to be a common theme. It’s almost as if writers aren’t quite confident enough to carry their strange and unusual ideas out in a full-length novel, so they opt for short stories instead.

I knew Murakami’s stuff was weird because my dad had been reading 1Q84 and told me about all the strange and wonderful things that happened in it. I wasn’t allowed to read it at the time, though, so I promptly forgot about it – until a few weeks ago. I found a very interesting-looking cover in Waterstones and recognised 1Q84, and then picked up Norwegian Wood as it had its own recommendation card. I was thoroughly intrigued, but we couldn’t find our copy of Norwegian Wood at home so I instead had a go out The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami’s short story collection.

Every one of these stories made me laugh, whether it was because the writing was funny or the story itself was just so bizarre or the ending so unexpected. Each story was, I can only assume, well-translated, although none of them felt ‘Japanese’, per se – they could be set anywhere. The stories range from family affairs (one story is literally called ‘Family Affair’) to urban adventures to unconventional mysteries, but all of them were very Murakami. Here are some recurring themes I noticed:

  • Spaghetti (or miso soup, or tofu)
  • Ears
  • Things vanishing (like elephants!)
  • Housewives
  • Obscure composers
  • American rock bands
  • Cats
  • Percentages
  • Sudden phone calls

In fact, I just found a Murakami bingo board by Incidental Comics, so I wasn’t exaggerating:

murakami-blog

I mentioned unexpected endings. This was a common occurrence in The Elephant Vanishes, but oftentimes perfectly justified. All too often, stories focus on having a perfectly formed beginning, middle and end, but it’s as if Murakami writes his story and finishes it when he has nothing more to add, regardless of how complete it feels. In fact, some stories might seem ‘pointless’ to some readers – if there’s no real conclusion, then why tell it? But these are the exact type of stories that I love. He plays around with structure quite a lot, especially in The Kangaroo Communiqué and The Fall of the Roman Empire (etc), and whilst every story retains its Murakaminess, each is distinctive.

Rather than themes, clichés and storylines, in fact, the largest similarities between these stories are their narrators. They’re all apathetic – they are going through what they’re going through, they don’t think too much of anything, they deal with the situation and they simply tell their story. In that sense, the reader is forced to come up with their own emotional responses. Not that we don’t do this when reading any other stories, but nothing is influencing us when it comes to reactions.

I’d thought the previous story collections I’d read were weird or unconventional before, but Murakami takes the cake. I look forward to reading Norwegian Wood next, and hopefully many more of his works.

(My favourite story from this collection has to be The Second Bakery Attack).