Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Tale for the Time Being’


‘A Tale for the Time Being’

Ruth Ozeki

422 pages, softcover: $16

Penguin Books, 2013

A Hello Kitty lunchbox washes ashore, wrapped in a freezer bag, coated in barnacles. Inside is a diary by Nao, a witty 16-year-old girl in Tokyo, written inside a copy of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” alongside a watch and old letters.

Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist, finds this message-in-a-lunchbox on the coast of Desolation Sound in Canada, and begins reading and sharing what she learns with her husband, Oliver. Thus begins “A Tale for the Time Being,” the spellbinding novel by Ruth Ozeki (who, like her fictional stand-in, is a Japanese-American novelist with a husband named Oliver and who, like another character in the book, is a Zen Buddhist priest).

We learn, as Ruth learns, that Nao identifies more as American than Japanese. She spent her childhood in Silicon Valley, where her dad was a programmer until the dot-com bubble burst forced a retreat back to Japan. There, her father is a defeated man and Nao is mercilessly bullied in school. Both wish to die.

The watch in the mystery package unveils yet another story from another time and another character contemplating suicide. It belonged to a kamikaze pilot, whose ghost Nao meets on a visit to her 104-year-old Buddhist great-grandmother.

The book takes the reader back and forth across the Pacific in a brilliant narrative that transcends time and space, tragedy and comedy.

Like a lot of readers, I cautiously approach novels held together with eccentric postmodern armature — the footnotes, apendices, the Nabokovian text-within-the-text, the fictionalized version of the author as a protagonist and the cute wordplay (Is Nao “now” as in “for the time being”?) can be warning signs of a self-indulgent story — because too often, and more often than not, all the playful stylistic pyrotechnics don’t pay off but instead grow tiresome over the course of a few hundred pages.

“A Tale for the Time Being” is one of the rare gems where the quirky touches work, complementing a gripping narrative that leaves you grinning, laughing out loud, then gasping in shock, before it inspires another grin. It’s a wonder of a book, winningly intertwining humor and wisdom.

Ruth Ozeki will close the 2014-15 Winter Words series on Tuesday, April 14, at Paepcke Auditorium. The event is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Tickets and more info at

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