A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I know! It’s about time I got around to reading the Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki! I don’t know why I put it off for so long. It’s a book that checks all of my boxes: Zen buddhism, the Pacific Northwest, a lost diary and fleeting references to Proust – yes, yes, yes and yes! And yet, while I really enjoyed the novel, I did not love it and I can finally understand why it did not win the Booker.

A Tale for the Time Being is about Ruth who finds a red diary washed up on the shore of one of the gulf islands in British Columbia. Part of the story is about her life on the island while reading diary, the other part of the story is the diary itself. It belonged to Nao, a Japanese-American teenager forced to move back to Tokyo from California after her dad looses his job. Somehow (the 2011 tsunami?) the diary has made it to the west coast of North America.

I found the parts about Nao to be absolutely captivating. The diary recounts the bullying she experiences at school, her family’s problems and the amazing life of her 104 year old great-grandmother. Unlikely as it sounds, perhaps the most interesting part was the summer Nao spent in a Buddhist monastery with her aged great-grandmother.

Less interesting to me were the parts dealing with Ruth’s life. Perhaps that would have been better served as a framing story, rather than a full half of the book.

Who would like this book? I think A Tale for the Time Being would make a particularly good book club read. There is a lot to talk about, especially when the book delves into more philosophical territory. The book also does a wonderful job at providing glimpses at parts of Japanese life I knew little or nothing about. I was also fascinated by the parts that were about a kamikaze pilot during WWII and the training he had to undergo. My question for you is this: would Haruki Murakami be a good follow up to this book? I’ve never read Murakami (major oversight!), but as Japan’s most eminent writer, perhaps I should.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

theluminariesI must admit my bias before I begin the review. I loved The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Well thought out, impeccably written and clever. After reading it I believed that Catton was a genius in our midst (and a young one at that!). All that makes for a very hard act to follow. The Luminaries, Catton’s sophomore novel, is one of the most anticipated books of the season. Indeed, it has made the shortlists for the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction. But can it live up to its anticipated greatness?

From the first page of The Luminaries I knew the writing was great It grabbed me and took me away. As the novel continued I picked up on noticeable stylistic differences from her earlier work: The Luminaries reflects the time, the late 1800s, in which it is set, it is much more straight forward than The Rehearsal, and much more detailed and descriptive.

The story itself takes place during the Gold Rush in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century. From that perspective it is a frontier story and reminiscent of a Western, an area I tend to stay away from in my reading. If it had been written by anyone other than Catton I would not have picked it up. For me the novel was saved to a certain extent in its telling as it unravels somewhat like a Victorian Era or Agatha Christie mystery. Each character brings their own perspective to bear on the unfolding of events. At various points, though I liked what I had read, I thought how is this going to carry on for another 500 hundred pages?

And that is my main complaint about The Luminaries. It was just too long. I can’t imagine having written it. With each character that contributes to the story new details and layers are revealed. The planning that had to have gone into it is amazing. And yet for all that work, I still wonder if it could have been shorter.

Who would like this book? Simply because of the length, The Luminaries is a commitment. You are not going to plowtherehearsal through this book no matter how much time you have to dedicate to it. I would also suggest that this novel is perfect for one who revels in the detail. I am more of a big picture thinker, so although The Luminaries had much to offer in that direction, I think I became too bogged down in the minutia of each character’s perspective. This book would also appeal to those who like good literature, as it’s many nominations attests to. But when the question come to whether or not I would recommend this book, I would have to say no. Instead, I demand that you read The Rehearsal. It is brilliant and of a much more manageable size.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandWhen someone like Jhumpa Lahiri comes out with a new book you just know that I’m going to read it. As a Pulitzer Prize winner, her books are always well written and highly acclaimed. The Lowland is no different, having made it on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.

The Lowland tells the story of two brothers in Calcutta who take very different paths as they grow up. Subhash more than fulfills his parents’ dreams by flying off to the United States for graduate school. Udayan, who is Subhash’s intellectual equal, remains in Calcutta to pursue a more controversial and political calling by becoming involved with the communist Naxalite movement. Most of the story focuses on Subhash’s time in the United States, which came as a bit of a disappointment to me. The Naxalite movement in India in the 1960’s and 1970’s was such an important time in the development of the newly Independent India, and its reverberations continue to be felt today, and yet outside of South Asia very little is known about it.

The Lowland is written in a very understated style that is pervaded with a sense of melancholy. I think the Canadian cover of The Lowland (pictured above) captures this style very effectively. Everything that occurs is told in a very flat way. The highs are not very high, and everything else seems to be low. I am not a fan of this style. Though there is a lot to gain from reading The Lowland, i have to admit that reading it made me a little tired. It was not a book I could sit down and gobble up in one reading.

lowlandukBy contrast, the UK cover captures the dynamism of the times portrayed in the novel, as well as the politics that are always lying just below the surface. If I were to judge a book by its cover, it is a book I would much rather read. Not only that, the UK cover brings to mind the parts of the novel I really enjoyed.

Who would like this book? Obviously, The Lowland is going to appeal to those who like good writing and literary fiction of the highest order. As a contender for the Booker Prize, I am not quite sure who it is going to fare. So far it is the first on the short list that I’ve read, but I feel its chance of winning may be slim more for political reasons than for actual merit. I think this book would also be well suited to those who are interested in finding out more about a political movement that is not normally discussed in fiction set in South Asia. Lahiri’s inclusion of the Maoist insurgents known as the Naxalites makes The Lowland her most overtly political novel. It is a direction I would like to see her move in again in the future.