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"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki

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A Tale for the Time Being will rivet you to the page. You will share in the lives - trials and triumphs, and cares and grievances, of two Japanese women. One - a teenage girl - has written a diary full of frightful bullying and soul searching; the other is a novelist afraid she is losing her memory, or worse, going mad. As these two heroines’ stories unfold in alternating streams, our clever author mixes in meditations on Zen Buddhism, Japanese imperial wartime excesses, the idea that ordinary people have superpowers, and the possibility we live in multiple universes at once. It’s a rich, heady mix, told in honest, understandable human emotion; Ms. Ozeki’s ineffable results match her lofty ambitions in this beautiful, multifarious novel. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

Naoko, or Nao, a young Japanese girl about to turn 16, starts keeping a diary. Somehow, about ten years later, a backpack containing it and some letters washes up on the shore of an island in British Columbia. Its discoverer, a novelist named Ruth, picks it up, starts to read it, and quickly feels a bond with this girl and her father, both of whom are beaten down by life. We read Nao’s heartbreaking story alongside Ruth, and drama unfolds in each strand. Nao struggles with cruel beatings and ostracization, her imminent failure in her classes, and beloved dad’s attempted suicides. Ruth relates very closely with Nao, and becomes concerned about her and her dad’s welfare, even though the diary was written ten years before.

These narratives sparkle with philosophical learning and outré possibility. Nao’s voice is pitch-perfect in her portion of the proceedings. But to her also belong the deepest thoughts on philosophical conundrums. She goes on a retreat to visit her great aunt Jiko, 104 year-old Buddhist nun, and finally begins to learn about life, the universe, selflessness, and mysticism. She considers these lessons in a child’s honest voice -  and this is one of Ms. Ozeki’s foremost achievements here: she places into this yearning, confused girl’s unsophisticated language the most challenging and most timeless human questions. What is life and death? How is a life to be lived? How can we most effectively serve others? Why is there so much cruelty in the world?

These considerations take us into the realms also of modern quantum physics; the author provides an appendix (one of several on various subjects) with a detailed explanation of Schrödinger’s cat, for example. And these speculations serve her plot - there’s nothing gratuitous about them. (There is also, as though anything more were needed, a reference to a brief flowering of literature and a liberalization of women’s rights in pre-imperial Japan; this book might also serve as an example of the I-book genre published at that time.)

All the layers, all the twists, all the philosophy, all the superpowers,the fascinating structure - these mix together into a work of genius. Prepare to open yourself to a new experience and take this piece up.

"Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins

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Visionary and terrifying, all the moreso for being vivid and startlingly real, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus forces us to consider a world too ghastly to consider. And in that world the tendencies of humans become all too predictable, repeating the same behaviors that have plagued the race forever. This novel will focus your attention like very few others will. Its sweep and energy and horror all executed with sharp, assured artistry, it clearly fulfills the promise of Ms. Watkins’s earlier short story collection, Battleborn.

Far enough into a profligate, misguided future, no water exists in the western half of North America, and the United States has basically evacuated the land west of the Mississippi, and then written it off.  Our story begins in the lawless, desiccated waste of Los Angeles, where Ray and Luz try to make their way. They prop up each other’s inadequacies and forgive each other’s crippling histories, but then they do something they should never do - they take on another mouth to feed, a third thirst. A toddling, runty, tow-headed girl, perhaps a little developmentally challenged, very apparently needs rescuing, and so they snatch her away.

“Away” turns out to be the leading edge of a dune sea, a hellish, inexorable, mobile environmental disaster, thousands of feet high, feeding on and exacerbating the desert Southwest. The little one becomes a pawn eventually in a con game, run by the charismatic chief of a group of fugitive vagabonds, who are even further beyond the arm of the law or society. She is the one negotiable chip, this little waif, in a bold, perhaps maniacal power play between grownups who serve her very ill.

And here we arrive at the tenor of Gold Fame Citrus: people are ready to use you for their own ends, particularly if those ends center on self-preservation. Characters launch ill-conceived gambits, or engage in cynical bluffs, or manipulate their way to murky ends - all this against a dystopian backdrop that promises no more than certain, agonizing death. But to the great credit of our esteemed author, these designs continue to show venal, suspicious, or rapacious human nature in high relief. Ms. Watkins has constructed a wasted framework for this all-too-human theater, a combination powerful and effective. It’s superb, impressive work.


"I Curse the River of Time" by Per Petterson

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 Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with the author

In a shortish narrative that jumps around in time, Per Petterson relays the story of Arvid, a man in his mid-thirties who cannot get along with his mother. Emotions stay buried deeply in this story, and only surface when Arvid behaves badly.

We witness as Arvid, still in his teens, announces to his mother that he’s leaving college to join the worldwide proletariat as a member of the Communist Party. She slaps him. He travels to a lake with his girlfriend, and while they have fun, we don’t see her any more after this episode. And he hears the news that his mother is terminally ill, but can’t find the love inside required to be anything but a pest, forcing himself into her company as she travels from Oslo to Denmark to visit a home from long ago.

There isn’t much to recommend Arvid, and very likely this is the point. We get this first-person portrait of a very unsympathetic character; his desires and approach to life are rather childish; his wife is divorcing him, and there are mysterious

occurrences in the past concerning a couple of his brothers. This strikes as an example of viewing the world from the eyes of a problem child, a troublesome employee, an adult man who in some ways has failed to launch. It’s effective in that way, but the string that should pull this narrative taut and lift it off the surface in my view stays slack and accomplishes nothing.

Per Petterson is admired for his other work, and I have probably latched on to something lesser here.