Friday, September 27, 2013

Of Time and Tsunamis of All Sorts

--I recently read Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. What an amazing book! I picked it up because I was after Lionel Shriver's latest book, and Ozeki's was on the shelf too. I knew that my father-in-law was coming for a visit, which meant limited access to computers in the wee, small hours of the morning, so I wanted to make sure I had enough books.

--To think I might have missed this book! Why was I so resistant? After all, I’ve read her other two books, and they were wonderful and amazing. So why, when I read the reviews, had I decided to pass this one by?

--I knew that it was partly comprised of the journal of a teenage girl, and I feel the same way about teenage girl narrators that I do about narrators who are young children: weary and ready to never read another one again. I also don’t often like novels where a journal or letters are the narrative.

--I should have trusted Ozeki. While her teenage narrator has some annoying qualities, they didn’t overwhelm me or make me decide to quit reading. And the book quickly transforms the annoying qualities of the narrator into ways of making us see them as coping strategies.

--I LOVED the other narrator, Ruth, the writer who lives with her husband, Oliver, on a remote island off the coast of Canada.

--The book is full of various artists.  I was taken with Oliver, whose medium is trees, for one project.  He's aware of global warming and the changes the planet is undergoing:  "Oliver wasn't worried.  He took the long view.  Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut, owned by a botanist friend.  He planted groves of ancient natives--metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginko--species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago" (p. 60).

--This book is also about time in all of its facets.  Ruth thinks about narrative as capturing time.  Oliver has a different view of his art:  "This was his latest artwork, a botanical intervention he called the Neo-Eocene.  He described it as a collaboration with time and place, whose outcome neither he nor any of his contemporaries would ever live to witness, but he was okay with not knowing.  Patience was part of his nature, and he accepted his lot as a short-lived mammal, scurrying in and out amid the roots of the giants" (p. 61).

--The book also explores time and technology: 

"Time interacts with attention in funny ways.

At one extreme, when Ruth was gripped by the compulsive mania and hyperfocus of an Internet ssearch, the hours seemed to aggregate and swell llike a wave, swallowing huge chunks of her day.

At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water" (p. 91).

--Yes, particles and waves.  This is a book that manages to use quantum physics in an approachable way.  I'm in awe of Ozeki's ability to use various sciences in so many interesting ways.

--It's also a book about literal waves.  The 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami are central to this novel.

--Ozeki weaves it all together in interesting ways.  Here Ruth contemplates time, ocean currents, technology, and tsunamis:

"What is the half-life of information?  does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it?  Pixels need power.  Paper is unstable in fire and flood.  Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing.  . . .

Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories like geodrift, into its orbit? . . .

Like plastic confetti, they're drawn into the gyre's becalmed center, the garbage patch of history and time. The gyre's memory is all the stuff that we've forgotten" (p. 114).

--The novel also has a strong spiritual element, with a Buddhist nun as a major character, and a Zen Buddhist philosophy that undergirds much of the novel.  For more on that aspect, see this post on my theology blog.

--And the novel explores World War II in interesting ways.

--I realize that I've thrown out nuggets that might make a casual reader of this blog despair at being able to comprehend the novel.  But Ozeki is more than capable.

--This novel has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize.  It seems to be a good year for that prize.  I read this review of the nominated novels and want to read every one.

--The eternal complaint:  so many books, so little time to read them!

--But don't miss Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being!

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