Note: This is my first official 2016 review, and I’m late getting started due to some unforeseen medical issues. Also, this first book packed a wallop and took some time to get through–but it was worth it. Here goes.
Summary (in my own words): A Japanese-American writer named Ruth who has moved from NYC to a small island community off the Canadian west coast finds a diary and other personal items (Hello Kitty lunchbox, old letters written in Japanese and French, an old wristwatch) washed up on the shore. Ruth and her environmental artist husband Oliver become captivated by the diary, written by a teenager named Naoko who was raised in California’s Bay Area. But when her father lost his job due to his protesting the use of his software development being used to train soldiers how to kill, Naoko’s family is forced to move back to Japan, where her father attempts suicide multiple times, and Naoko is bullied by her new classmates. Interwoven throughout the diary are stories of Naoko’s great grandmother Jiko who is a Zen master. Naoko’s thoughts and experiences are revealed in full color to Ruth, who has been struggling to make sense of her own raison d’etre as her writer’s block prevents her from producing meaningful work. The two women’s lives become interconnected in ways beyond imagining and present the question of NOW.
Diverse Elements: Female protagonists, Japanese culture, Japanese-American culture, Zen Buddhism, written by a Japanese-American author who is a Buddhist monk.
What I liked: Everything. I didn’t laugh once–this is not that kind of book. I didn’t cry until the last 100 pages, and it made it that much more satisfactory. It moved at a real-life pace. Walks on the beach, conversations about the missing cat, the feeling of parental abandonment and how to reconcile loss and liberty, introspection, etc. And through it all, the struggle of grasping for unanswerable questions without being sentimental.
What I didn’t like: I was a little bit confused at first about why this book was characterized as fiction. The protagonist Ruth has the same name as the author herself. And the real Ruth Ozeki is married to an environmental artist named Oliver, like the protagonist. My analytical mind wanted to know how much of this was “real” or not.
What I LOVED: Ruth realizes that she has power in her thoughts. She uses dreams, totems, and omens with ease born of not being aware. Her actions link to Naoko’s actions. And the idea of the multiverse and quantum thought pops up everywhere. The questions of consciousness and purpose and letting go and glory/honor/patriotism vs. conscience. And does or should technology have a conscience so that it would refuse to be used for foul or malevolent intent? The struggle to comes to terms with these questions while maintaining a grasp of the “real world” and familial or societal “obligation” resounds throughout and is met with unflinching disquietude that resolves by letting go. This wrestling with purpose is captivating, empowering, and raw–and the best way to start my new reading year.
Lines I loved: Too many, so I’ll pick one at random.
“‘Am I crazy?’ she asked. ‘I feel like I am sometimes.’
‘Maybe,’ he said, rubbing her forehead. ‘But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.’”
Additional Note: Best way ever to start this project. I feel very lucky, or like it was fate. I randomly chose this book at the library, having never heard of it or the author before, and wowsers. Definitely on my recommendation list now, and want to buy it, and to read all her other words.