A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026630
On sale March 12, 2013
Magical, playful, inventive and compelling, Ruth Ozeki's third novel arrived like a breath of fresh air on my desk. A Tale for the Time Being entwines the stories of a Japanese teenager, Nao, and a middle-aged Japanese-Canadian author named Ruth. Nao, who is 16 and something of a loner, is writing down the story of her 104-year-old grandmother in a diary—a diary that Ruth discovers when it washes up, preserved in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the shore of the Canadian island she lives on with her husband Oliver. They wonder: Is it flotsam or jetsam? (Precision is important to Ruth.) Detritus from the 2011 tsunami, or a message in a bottle? From the first page of the diary, Ruth is captivated by Nao's voice, and determined to uncover her fate.
Ozeki uses this intriguing premise to explore the reader-writer relationship and the interconnectedness of human life. But this is a novel to be enjoyed as much for its graceful writing and vivid characters as its provocative ideas. Here, Ruth opens the diary for the first time:
Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the human eye.
Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.
Ruth stared at the page. The purple words were mostly in English with some Japanese characters scattered here and there, but her eye wasn't really taking in their meaning so much as a felt sense, murky and emotional, of the writer's presence. The fingers that had gripped the purple gel ink pen must have belonged to a girl, a teenager. Her handwriting, these loopy purple marks impressed onto the page, retained her moods and anxieties, and the moment Ruth laid eyes on the page, she knew without a doubt that the girl's fingertips were pink and moist, and that she had bitten her nails down to the quick.
What are you reading this week?
Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026661
On sale March 11, 2013
If you truly want to know an author intimately, you must read their letters. For example, if you want to discover the man behind Slaughterhouse-Five, you read Vonnegut's Letters, featured in our November Well Read column. I especially love when two writers find mutual respect and creativity through letters—like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Their correspondence begins, aptly enough, with a discussion of friendship. It moves on to the financial crisis (which, mercifully, Auster puts a kibosh on pretty quickly), and then to sports and competition, language and style, American poetry, film, sports again, Israel, libraries and much, much more. By skipping from one subject to the next, the letters never drag or feel sluggish or boring. The time and distance between letters and the frequent changes in topic allow the correspondence both levity and quickness. Meaning: Those who don't spend time pondering Samuel Beckett will enjoy these letters, and those who do will enjoy them, too.
Perhaps my favorite topic was the concept of names. Coetzee writes:
Your name is your destiny. Oidipous, Swollen-foot. The only trouble is, your name speaks your destiny only in the way the Delphic Sibyl does: in the form of a riddle. Only as you lie on your deathbed do you realize what it meant to be "Tamerlane" or "John Smith" or "K." A Borgesian revelation.
To which Auster responds:
We grow into the names we are given, we test them out, we grapple with them until we come to accept that we are the names we bear. Can you remember practicing your signature as a young boy? Not long after we learn how to write in long-hand, most children spend hours filling up pieces of paper with their names. It is not an empty pursuit. It is an attempt, I feel, to convince ourselves that we and our names are one, to take on an identity in the eyes of the world.
Needless to say, I have spent my whole life exploring and meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for small, little. Auster: Latin for South Wind. South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart.