Review: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Here is a book I purchased for my mother’s birthday although I had not read it and I had read very few if any reviews of it at the time of purchase and I didn’t read it first. I got it for her only on the basis of the short excerpt NetGalley provided in their “Buzz Books” sampler. That is how much I love the narrative voice of Nao Yasutani. A very very lot.

I’m leading with that because the synopsis of this book would not have induced me to read it. One of the two lead characters is — like the author — a writer called Ruth who has a husband called Oliver. They live on a small Canadian island, and one day a package washes up on the beach — Ruth presumes from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Well-wrapped to protect it from water damage, the package contains two diaries, some letters, and an old watch, all inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One diary is in French but the other — disguised as a Proust novel — is in a teenager’s purple-pen rounded English cursive. It is the diary of a teenager called Nao who is planning to kill herself but wants first to write the life story of her great-grandmother, a radical feminist turned Buddhist nun following the death of her son in World War II.

When writing about this book, Vasilly said there was something about it that felt really special. I felt just the same, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the whole book. There were times, certainly, when it felt like Ruth’s sections of the books were proceeding by rote — she’s interested in the diary, she’s trying to find Nao in real life, she’s talking to her husband about Nao’s life — and I was impatient to get back to Nao. But as the book went on, and Ruth’s life on this island became more fleshed out independent of Nao’s story, I was able to enjoy both sections of the book about equally.

This was helped, of course, by the increasing sadness of Nao’s life, which at times it was a relief to escape from for a little while. Although Nao tries to talk about her great-grandmother, Jiko, she is frequently sidetracked into stories of her own difficulties. Her father was fired from his Silicon Valley job when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nao, who thinks of herself as American in many ways, has never fit in with her Japanese schoolmates. She is brutally bullied in school (really, it gets pretty upsetting), and at home her father is becoming increasingly depressed over his inability to provide for his wife and family. Nao is terrified that her father will kill himself, and her fear expresses itself in anger with him.

Though Nao’s story is tragic, there kept being moments of light that saved it from being too much for me. Nao’s voice, as I’ve said, is captivating and warm and lovely. And old Jiko is a wonderful, wonderful character. She is just the right combination of mystical and down-to-earth, and there’s never any doubt why Nao admires and loves her so much. For instance, this, when Jiko has asked Nao if she feels angry.

“Of course I feel angry,” I said, angrily. “What do you expect? It was a stupid thing to ask.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a stupid thing to ask. I see that you’re angry. I don’t need to ask such a stupid thing to understand that.”

“So why did you ask?”

Slowly she turned herself around, pivoting on her knees, until finally, she was facing me. “I asked for you,” she said.

“For me?”

“So you could hear the answer.”

I just loved that.

As well, Ozeki has a knack for keeping you invested in characters you might be inclined to write off or stop thinking about. I was as frustrated as Nao was with her father, and thinking many critical thoughts about him, and then Ruth found a posting about suicide on the internet, which she suspects was written by Nao’s father:

Recently I am reading some philosophical books written by great Western minds all about the meaning of life. Those are very interesting, and I hope I will find some good answers there.

I don’t care for myself, but I am afraid my attitude is unhealthy for my daughter. At first I thought I should commit suicide so she will not feel shame on account of my failure to find a good job with big salary…Now I think I must try to stay alive, but I have no confidence to do so. Please teach me a simple American way to live my life so I do not have to think of suicide ever again. I want to find the meaning of life for my daughter.

I got all choked up.

Finally, the end. Ah the end. How I loved it. This is the sort of ending that will not please everybody, but it greatly pleased me. It has a quality of semi-deniable magic, which — given the slightly magical feel of the book in the first place — did not feel out of place to me. It’s also an ending with some ambiguity to it. We don’t really find out what happened to Nao, but the book ends on a note of hope. I like a hopeful ending. It doesn’t feel like a cheat to end a sad book on a hopeful note.

If I had to sum up the reason I loved this book, apart from Nao’s really wonderful narrative voice, I would say, I guess, that I admire a book that can look at sadness and still feel hope. I admire a book that suggests — even in the midst of sorrow — that all systems tend towards love.

I received this free e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

March has whizzed by in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms and other even lovelier events, doing me a great disservice by never letting me catch my breath long enough to schedule a post about a Diana Wynne Jones book for the Diana Wynne Jones March operated by the wonderful Kristen of We Be Reading. March has happened so fast I didn’t even remember to relish March 4th, the only day of the year that’s a command. Ordinarily I say “March forth!” with tedious frequency on that day, and this year I forgot. Sigh. March, you whirlwind vixen.

Archer’s Goon, fittingly enough in a post that began with a time gripe, is a book about the constraints of time. Howard’s father Quentin, a writer, has for years written 2000 words each month and sent them to a friend called Lovejoy as a way of keeping his creative juices flowing. This month, an enormous Goon turns up at the house demanding the 2000 words, which Quentin says he has already sent. The Goon says that Archer — apparently Lovejoy’s boss — hasn’t received the words and demands to have them. Howard’s family is gradually beseiged by a group of seven siblings (Archer, Dillian, Shine, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus, and yes, I have read Archer’s Goon often enough that I know those names in order by heart) who run various aspects of the town, are confined to stay within the town limits, and inexplicably seem desperate to acquire Quentin’s 2000 words.

As with many Diana Wynne Jones books, Archer’s Goon did not immediately take its place in my heart as a DWJ favorite. Because I apparently can’t talk about Diana Wynne Jones without saying “She’s better on a reread,” I’ll say it again. There are never too many times to say it! Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread. And Archer’s Goon particularly is better on a reread. The plot is fairly complicated, and because it takes a while for most of the basic questions to be resolved, I missed a lot of the small, fun stuff about Archer’s Goon.

And the small fun stuff is what makes it so great. The power-mad siblings persecute Quentin relentlessly to make him give in and send them the words, and the things they invent to do, within their own spheres of power, are really funny and terrible. It’s brilliant fun how Diana Wynne Jones gradually lets you see the dynamics between the siblings: that Archer hates Dillian and Dillian hates him right back, but Dillian and Torquil are sort of allies. Sibling dynamics are DWJ’s best thing, and the Archer’s Goon siblings are, if not my favorites, at least in my top two. It’s between them and the Dark Lord of Derkholm family.

Moreover, the end of Archer’s Goon is one of the best and most satisfying endings of any of her books. A common and true complain about DWJ is that her endings can feel a little rushed and confusing, but not with Archer’s Goon. The characters realize things that they’ve been building up to realizing all along. The questions that were raised at the beginning get resolved. The good guys put paid to the bad guys. And the climactic fight is just so, so funny. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that I can never read the scene without picturing Diana Wynne Jones at her typewriter giggling madly as she wrote it all out. It’s the best.

As many longtime readers know, I am the hugest Diana Wynne Jones fan. As you may also know, she died last year, in March. I am so grateful for all the books of hers that we do have, and I am terribly sad that there won’t be any new ones forthcoming. But if you haven’t read anything by her, you are in for a treat.

They also read it:

things mean a lot
Books Love Me

Review: Translations, Brian Friel

I have now read two of Brian Friel’s plays (this one on the recommendation of my theater-savvy coworker) and I have determined that I am strongly in favor of him. Ordinarily I do not seek out the Lit’rature of Ireland, ancestral home though it is.* Because the Lit’rature of Ireland seems terribly depressing, and even when it is Breakfast on Pluto and produced both that darling little film with Cillian Murphy and the excellent line about “his disagreeing face, disagreeing because it is as if he is saying ‘you can say this is happening but I don’t agree with you'” — um, yeah, even then, it is depressing.

Brian Friel does sad without being depressing. I’m not sure where the distinction lies here, but Translations is melancholy, not grim, a romantic tragedy, with jokes (if I may steal Tom Stoppard’s description of Arcadia which, by the way, may not have mentioned this yet, I saw. Twice!!). It is about a small town in Ireland in the earlyish 1800s, and the British officers who come to Ireland to make maps of it and change all the Irish place names into English ones.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Translations that makes it so lovely. A crucial element is the wordplay and language-play. Many of the scenes take place in a small village school, where the teacher and pupils toss around Latin and Greek but decline to learn English and don’t always believe they will need to. Along comes the British soldier, young eager Yolland, who understands not a word spoken to him by most of the villagers, but who finds that he loves Ireland and its language and its traditions and its people (one in particular).

Friel does something that must be difficult to stage, which is to imply to the audience that his characters are speaking two different languages, when in fact they are all speaking English. Thus a British character speaks in English, and he’s actually speaking English, but an Irish character, also speaking English, may translate, and the audience is to understand that the Irish character is actually speaking Gaelic. I’m not explaining this very well. Lo, an excerpt!

Lancey [the British dude]: His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of this entire country – a general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information and which will be executed to a scale of six inches to the English mile.

Owen [the Irish dude, translating]: A new map is being made of the whole country.

(Lancey looks at Owen: Is that all? Owen smiles reassuringly and indicates to proceed.)

Lancey: This enormous task is being embarked on so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.

Owen: The job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled in this work.

And so forth.

It’s a meditation on the use of language to preserve tradition, or to discard it. Friel’s plays seem generally to be interested in the capacity of language to destroy or to build, to help or to harm, which I, with my lifelong crush on words, always love. And Translations has got a hell of an ending too. Just as we begin to feel that things might go well for the characters, Friel turns around and wallops you with the implications of the linguistic games the British and Irish characters have been playing throughout. Then it ends with the teacher quoting the Aeneid, and even better, lines I remember from the Aeneid. Yay!

By the way, I’ve become desperately worried that I will miss seeing something amazing on Broadway, just because I haven’t read enough plays. So if you have any recommendations of good plays, please toss them my way. Imagine if this breathtaking production of Arcadia had come to New York, and I hadn’t cared about it! Well, let’s not imagine that, it makes me sad. But that’s what I want to avoid. Thoughts?

*Dear Everyone In Britain, I know you hate it when Americans say their families are from Ireland or Germany, because you think those connections are too distant (being, generally, multi-great grandparents who actually moved from Ireland to America) to make any difference. But in fact it makes a noticeable difference. Holiday meals with my New York Irish relatives are very different to holiday meals with my Louisiana German relatives, and funerals with each group of relatives are even differenter. Hence I carry on saying my people were Irish. Because they were. I promise. They were. xoxo, Jenny.

Also, happy birthday, Rachel! I hope you are having a lovely day!

Review: Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

FTC darling, I am constantly getting you mixed up with the FCC.  I am always saying, Grrr, that FTC, cranky censorship snarl can’t even say swear words on the television grumble grumble grumble, and then remembering twenty minutes later that I’ve been ranting about the wrong acronym.   Sorry, FTC!  It was unkind of me to call you an ugly poophead and a fascist bastard, even if it was just to my sister!  Also, I thought you’d want to know that I received Broken Glass Park for review from the lovely people at Regal Literary Agency.

What I liked about Broken Glass Park:

  • The protagonist, Sascha, is an orphan.  I love a book about an orphan.  Indeed, the sentence that made me decide to like Love Walked In was “All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans.”  For I, too, love orphans.  I dote upon orphans.  Especially plucky orphans.
  • Sascha is a fantastic protagonist with a clear, honest voice that drew me into the story straight away.  She’s tough, and she goes after what she wants, but not in an unrealistically sensible and fearless way.  Which is to say: She plans to murder her stepfather when he gets out of prison, lovingly reviewing her options for poison, breaking bottles over his head, and so forth, but when a local newspaper writes a sympathetic article about her stepfather, and she goes to confront the author of the article, she is madly intimidated by the newspaper office.  So right.  Teenagers find it easy to make murder plans and hellishly difficult to navigate adult spaces.  (At least I did.  And so does Polly Whittaker in Fire and Hemlock.)  (Er, I didn’t make murder plans as a teenager.  The other half.  Easily intimidated by having to interact as an adult with adults.)
  • I liked the way Sascha’s backstory unfolds gradually, so that you have mostly figured out what happened by the time the story confirms it.  Rather than trying to build up to a reveal, and BAM, explain everything at once, the book lets you see bits of the picture at a time until the whole thing becomes apparent.  It made the situation sad, rather than sensationalizing it.
  • Sascha’s relationships with her family rang absolutely true: her frustration with her mother’s romantic entanglements, her fierce devotion to her younger half-siblings, and her half-tolerant, half-nasty frustration with her guardian, a relation of her stepfather.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.
  • The end.  It was one of those endings that is emotionally satisfying endings and not too pat.
  • The translation!  Ah, yes, it is not often I have nice things to say about translated works.  I find them a trial.  Unless, of course, I have translated them myself, like The Aeneid and bits of The Metamorphoses, in which case I find them to be the best thing ever because I have conquered them WITH MY WITS (and sometimes a dictionary and nearly always the invaluable input of a commentary or two).  In the case of Broken Glass Park, however, I never felt I was reading in translation.  Props to translator Tim Mohr.
  • Getting this book in the post.  I do not often get new books at all, let alone as delightful treats through the post.  If I can get them used I do it, as I am an impoverished receptionist trying to decide on a Life Plan.  Still, there’s nothing like new books, with their shiny covers and sharp corners.  I was surprised at how excited I was when this one arrived.

What I did not like:

  • You saw this coming: Violence against women. It upsets me.  After finishing this book, I had a nightmare that a guy broke into my apartment and was just engaged in bashing up the mirrors in my bathroom when I woke up and confronted him.  I noticed I was dreaming, tested it by flicking the light switches to see if it changed the light levels in the room (it didn’t), and then went right on having the nightmare.  This was my second unsatisfactory experience of lucid dreaming in two nights.  I was led to believe that if I learned to dream lucidly, I would be able to have whatever sort of a dream I wanted.  I feel like instead of having a scary dream where I tried to figure out ways to get to my car and push the intruder down the stairs, I should have been able to start having a delightful dream where I traveled back in time and met Oscar Wilde and went to Greece and Rome with him and gossiped about the Theban Band.  So, not good.  The violence against women (Sascha herself as well as her mother) was not excessive, nor extensively described, but it upset me anyway.
  • Along the same lines: Sascha’s predictably self-destructive behavior.  It didn’t ring false or anything.  It just made me sad.
  • This one thing that happened with Volker.  Volker is a kind newspaperman who takes Sascha under his wing and takes care of her.  She becomes fast friends with his son Felix, and then THIS THING HAPPENS.  This thing happens that I can’t stand!  It felt out of character for Volker.  I wanted him to be lovely, but I couldn’t actually like him, because there was this thing.  I could not work out what Sascha’s feelings on the matter were, and the whole episode was jarring.

The Volker thing threw the whole rest of the book (until the end) off-kilter for me.  Still, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with the writing and then translating of Sascha’s voice.  I love it when authors (and translators) can make first-person narrations work this well.  (Muriel Barbery, take note.) (Monsters of Men, wish you were here.)

Have you reviewed this too?  Let me know and I will add a link!

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night.  I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one.  Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified.  (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro?  If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.)  I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.

Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her.  She receives several unpleasant  anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness.  Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her.  There are many hijinks.

Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel.  Oh how I love it.  It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life.  Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.

I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it.  Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF.  Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.

Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed.  They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her.  I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad.  It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.

In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange.  And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either.  I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery.  I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons.  This is the fun of mysteries to me.  The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.

Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.

How do you read mysteries?  Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me?  Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once?  If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer?  (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it?  At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts?  I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it!  The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy.  Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.”  (And we did.  And it was excellent.  But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis?  But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler.  In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all.  He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old.  So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.

I like so many things about this book!  I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise.  Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too.  I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person.  There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him.  Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows.  This Henry says of his past self:

“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too.  And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us.  But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996.  You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”

I love that.  They invent each other!  It’s brilliant!  Slightly weird, but brilliant.

I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future.  There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best.  Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”).  The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.

Also, oh!  Here’s something else that is good!  Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff.  I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad.  Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly.  So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.

I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long.  I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book.  I think those are my favorite ones.