A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A cover of stripes, from top to bottom: yellow with the eyes and nose of a young girl's face; Light blue with a dive bombing plane reads A Tale; deeper blue with waves reads For The; mint green with a red book read Time Being; yellow with a brown field and pine trees

by Ben H.

“Time itself is being and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” 

Dōgen

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a lovely book. Part meditation on time and presence, part drama, and part mystery, Ozeki balances her story between two narrators connected by a diary written in the shell of a repurposed copy of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. 

Nao is the teenage author of the diary. She now lives near Tokyo with her mom and dad. Nao faces bullying, parental drama, homesickness for California, and severe depression. Ruth, a novelist, now lives with her husband on a remote island in British Columbia. She faces writer’s block and homesickness for Manhattan.

Nao’s diary washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and Ruth becomes fascinated with it. Nao’s diary is witty, emotional, and bracingly frank. Ozeki phenomenally recreates the way a diary juxtaposes the quixotic and the realistic, the banal and the devastating, the humorous and the tragic. Nao is viciously bullied at school. The bullying is brutal, both physically and emotionally. Nao reports it to her diary in a light tone, but it’s heavy stuff. Suicide is also a common topic in the book, as multiple characters plan to kill themselves. Nao finds refuge from the bullies when she is left with her 104-year-old grandma Jiko, a feminist Buddhist nun, in a crumbling monastery in the mountains for the summer (ghostly hijinks ensue).

Ruth (the character not the author) fills her chapters with lovely descriptions of the natural world. In her displacement, Ruth doesn’t face anything as dramatic as Nao does, but Ruth is out of her element. She’s still searching for her identity on her new rural island. One of my favorite parts is when Ruth takes another diary from the Hello Kitty lunchbox (Nao’s great uncle Haruki #1’s secret diary written in French to hide it from his commander in the army) to Benoit to be translated. Benoit manages the dump on the island and has carved out a perfect little niche for himself, complete with a library full of books rescued from the garbage. Managing a dump on a remote island might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds nice to me.

In some structural ways, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me of Don Quixote (Ozeki even makes a Don Quixote reference). There are embedded narratives for everyone. There are hidden diaries and lost books and real texts and fake texts. Nao even reports in her diary on the texts she sends to Jiko while writing her entry. The transference of meaning between all of the texts, the way they bring new elements to the story or change the context, creates a rich background for the main thrust of the narrative. I totally escape reality when I get lost in a story buried in another story. Instead of getting immersed in ONE book, I’m immersed in a letter reported in a diary reported in another diary reported to me through a character in a book. I’m gone.

Ozeki, a Buddhist priest, fills the book with quotations from Buddhist masters. Even Ozeki’s structure, the interlinking stories, illustrates Dōgen’s ideas of the connectedness of the universe. Nao explores time in her diaristic musings, as does Ruth. In Ruth’s case, she finds herself searching for lost time in a way I think we can all relate to. The internet, the great thief of time, is one of the main culprits behind Ruth’s writer’s block. Ozeki wields form, font, and white space to visually represent how It feels to waste time online, as only a person who remembers a time before the internet can.   

Sometimes you read a book and you and the book just click. A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books for me. If none of the things in my review have piqued your interest, A Tale for the Time Being also features at least one ghost, a magical crow, an episode in the multiverse, and a cute cat.

A Tale for the Time Being is available from HCLS in print format, as an audiobook on CD, and as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

 

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

This beautiful blue cover features the portrait of a young woman, done in paper art She has long dark wavy hair, a tiara and is surrounded by flower. The book has a sticker that says "Reese's YA Book Club" and a mentions "The New York Times Bestseller".

by Piyali C.

High schooler Izumi’s life is relatively uneventful with her single mom, her bad tempered terrier mix Tamagotchi, and her Asian Girl Gang (AGG), comprised of three other girls from diverse ethnicity in their primarily white Mount Shasta High School. Sure, it is not always easy being Japanese American in a mostly white Mount Shasta, California but Izumi has made it work so far. She even changed her to name to Izzy from Izumi for a while to make it easy for others until her friend Noora convinced her otherwise. Izumi’s mother, a Harvard educated botanist, has tried her best to raise Izumi alone with love and support and, for the most part, Izumi is content. She would, however, like to know who her father is. Izumi’s mom refuses to divulge any information about her father. All Izumi knows is that her parents met at Harvard when both were students there, and Izumi is the product of their brief liaison. Izumi’s father does not even know she exists.

One day, while snooping around in her mom’s room ransacking her expensive make-up stash, Izumi’s friend Noora comes across a book Rare Orchids of North America. Noora flips open the book to find a poem in ‘slanted handwriting’ dedicated to Izumi’s mom, Hanako, by someone named Mak. A little research by Noora reveals that the aforesaid Mak is none other than Makotonomiya Toshihito, the Crown Prince of Japan and also Izumi’s father. In other words, Izumi is a princess.

Within days, Izumi’s life is turned upside down when a simple email sent by her to her parents’ common friend inquiring about the Crown Prince results in her father finding out that she exists. She travels to Japan at her father’s invitation, a country she always dreamed of visiting, as a princess, complete with Royal Imperial Guard and cavalcade. But being a princess comes at a cost. Izumi has to navigate palace protocols, conniving cousins, royal etiquette, learning a new language, paparazzi, and her own romantic feelings for the head of her Royal Imperial Guard. On top of all this, she has to build a relationship with her father, the Crown Prince. Both the father and daughter grow and evolve in their relationship as they learn to be a parent and child. But life is not a fairy tale even in this modern day fairy tale. A betrayal of trust almost destroys Izumi’s budding relationship with her extended imperial family, her love as well as her newly found father.

While writing a heart warming, happy story of love and discovery, Emiko Jean very effectively interweaves the universal dilemma of Asian Americans (or any minority for that matter) about whether they belong or where they belong. Izumi is never ‘fully’ American in Mount Shasta, California and she is never ‘fully’ Japanese when she travels to Japan. That uncertainty is true in the lives of most immigrants and the author makes a very convincing case in her delightful novel Tokyo Ever After.

Pick up this book when your brain craves some respite from all that it is dealing with. Let this book take you to a world where you know the end will be happy even if the means to the end is full of twists and turns, ups and downs. Let the story convince you of ‘happily ever afters.’

David Yoon, author of Frankly in Love, sums the book up perfectly – “Emiko’s flair for sumptuous detail —- Food! Castles! Swoony confessions! Court Drama! Cherry blossoms by the million! —locked me up helplessly into a world of splendor I never wanted to leave.” This young adult story elicited a satisfied yet wistful sigh from me as I turned the last page and it also ignited a burning desire to visit the city of Kyoto. One day…..

Tokyo Ever After is available in print and eBook format through Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Cooking up some comics, with a side of fantasy

The cover of Oishinbo: Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi is a collage of black and white art depicting a group of patrons seated at a sushi bar watching the chef hold up a large fish for their approval; several plates of sushi and sashimi; a hungry patron; and a logo depicting the subtitle with a fish above it.

By Khaleel G.

One of the great things about manga is the wide range of topics authors can focus on. Sure, there are still those popular power fantasy series, with heroes rising from lowly origins to take on a supreme evil. Dragon Ball Z or Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer play a similar tune to Superman and Batman. Still, over the last few decades, comics in the West have stretched outside superheroes into new genres, like autobiography, travelogues, and other strange and unique styles of story. There’s no shortage of variety for a graphic novels reader in 2021.

But there’s one genre that the west hasn’t really explored, while manga has done so quite thoroughly: food. Yes, manga about baking, frying, cooking, and eating – they exist, and they’re quite popular, too!

More interestingly, as a genre, food manga isn’t strict about its features. In “shonen” manga, like Bleach or Naruto, there’s a specific path the hero follows, training to becoming better and overcoming new challenges to fulfill their dream. In romance manga, like Skip-Beat or Nana, our protagonist stumbles into young love, leaving us to wonder if those two crazy kids will or won’t finally kiss (until they finally do (at the very end)).

But in food manga, you can really mix any other genre – like documentary or fantasy or combat or history – with the presentation and description of some aspect of food and cooking. The results can be intensely different!

The cover of Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza depicts a collage of black and white drawings: a cook handing a bowl to one of two seated patrons, one of whom is already eating; a pair of hands holding a single gyoza; a cook preparing a dish as someone looks on behind him; and two dishes of food, one ramen with chopsticks resting on the rim of the bowl. The subtitle is depicted with a ramen bowl in silhouette, with chopsticks above holding some ramen aloft.


Oishinbo is a more direct sort of food manga. In each of its six volumes, its author, Tetsu Kariya, focuses on a different aspect of Japanese cuisine and food culture (helpfully described in each title). In one volume, we can learn about ramen and gyoza (fried dumplings), those two staples of Japanese street food, and in another, a deep dive into sushi and sashimi, two varieties of raw fish with rice. Of course, there are gorgeous drawings of the dishes, feeding the reader’s eyes in the same way Studio Ghibli films do. But along the way, we’re told more about the history and culture surrounding the food, in addition to the step-by-step process of making each. 

But this isn’t a printed Instagram feed of cool food art – no, there is a plot! Or, at least, there are characters. Shiro Yamaoka is a journalist who has a troubled family history with cooking, but he still tries to develop the “Ultimate Menu” as a project, visiting restaurants and chefs across Japan. He is joined by Yuko Karita, his assistant, as they sample foods and consider the history of the dishes alongside their own experiences. Keep in mind: Oishinbo ran for over 30 years and 111 volumes, and these few volumes we have are an “A La Carte” compilation. As such, the overarching story has been compressed and mostly removed, resulting in these translated volumes feeling like episodes of documentary travelogue. And that’s alright by me!

Reflecting the time in which the manga started, the characters have a very 1980s aesthetic to their designs. For long-time readers of comics, the style can be nostalgic, but even for new readers, I think the clearer and less-cute style helps the manga’s focus come through much clearer. And that focus? Food is good. It’s a perfect mini-series for amateur chefs, readers new to manga, or for anyone who wants to know more about Japanese cuisine.

The cover of Delicious in Dungeon Vol. 1 shows a young man in armor with brown boots and a bedroll on his back, holding a spatula and frying pan. He appears to be in a castle dungeon, with other characters deeper in the hallway behind him, as well as a red dragon approaching that none of them see because their backs are turned.



On the far end from the realism of Oishinbo is Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui. Yes, that’s a silly title, but this is a very silly series – about fantasy food!  One of the recent trends in anime/manga are stories featuring western-style fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying, and console roleplaying video games. Delicious in Dungeon is about a party of adventurers in such a fantasy world. You have Laios, the dimwitted human knight, Marcille, the squeamish elf mage, and Chilchuck, the halfling lockpick. They’re trying to get to the bottom of the dungeon to save Laios’ sister, but man, it’s a long way down…

During one of their hungrier moments, they meet Senshi, a dwarf, who shows them the craft of cooking beasts they find (and fight) in the dungeon. Which is, as you might imagine, a strange prospect for our adventurers, who aren’t sure if they want to eat boiled mandrakes or a wyvern egg scramble. But Senshi shows them the benefits and necessity of “eating off the land,” as they can delve deeper by cooking along the way. 

So we have action and fighting, as the party battles various mythical monsters. But then we get Senshi cooking their conquest over a fire, using his shield as a wok. Kui draws the process of cooking and the final dish with the same care as Kariya did in Oishinbo, but instead of buckwheat noodles, it’s tentacles. Recipes are included with each fantastical dish, making the whole thing seem both real and absolutely ridiculous. Yet, you know, that roast dragon flank does look pretty good…

These are just two examples of food manga we have at HCLS! We have other series too:If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 

  • If you’re looking for another fantasy cooking series, Drifting Dragons has a visual style and tone similar to Delicious in Dungeon, but a large world and character designs reminiscent of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
  • If you’d rather have a more cozy experience, Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu is a slice of life story of fantasy characters (I told you it was a popular topic) magically transporting into an izakaya, a sort of pub in Japan. 
  • And if you’d rather have some competition with your food, Food Wars! is a fun shonen series, wherein chefs compete in cooking duels to see who’s the best. 

Whether you’re new to comics or if you’re just hungry for something new (ha), food manga is a genre worth sampling. 

Oishinbo and Delicious in Dungeon, and the above-listed series, are available in print from HCLS.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.

Convenience Store Woman

A teal blue cover features a plastic fish full of a dark liquid, with a red stopper. All text is on a slight diagonal.

“And so, believing that I had to be cured, I grew into adulthood.”  

-Keiko 

Keiko, the protagonist of Convenience Store Woman, is pretty wild. Author Sayaka Murata created a wonderfully singular protagonist with piercing and sometimes bizarre insights into life. Have you ever thought that the best way to break up a fight is to knock both combatants out with a shovel? Keiko has. Have you then proceeded to knock them both out? Keiko has. Hence, the wildness.

Keiko experiences life differently than the other characters in Convenience Store Woman and that leads to trouble for her. The things that her family and friends want for her, she does not want for herself. All Keiko really wants is to work at the convenience store. As she ages, she faces increasing pressure to quit her job at the convenience store and do something normal for a woman her age.

This book is ostensibly about the conflict between an individual and society, but it is also a love story between a woman and a convenience store. Keiko and the convenience store are star-crossed lovers, just trying to stay together. On her first day as a convenience store worker, she feels that she has finally found a niche: “At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day I actually became a normal cog in society.” The tragic irony of Keiko’s story is that society doesn’t consider her choices acceptable even though she makes them in order to fit into society.

But back to the love story part. It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without dead bodies or one-off Queen Mab* references.

Keiko’s challenge, in this love story, is to escape society’s expectations. To that end, she cultivates a fake relationship that allows her to continue her romance with the convenience store. I won’t spoil it, but her fake relationship doesn’t exactly end like Daphne and Simon’s faux courtship in Bridgerton. 

Sayaka Murata’s awesome book about the experience of living a life that others can’t understand is full of quirky humor and serious questions about economics and culture. The writing is zippy and fun. The minor characters are memorable, and the convenience store is described in amazing detail. If you’ve ever worked a job that overlaps in any way with a convenience store, you’ll recognize Keiko’s feelings and concerns. Feeling that you are not positioned well for the impending lunch rush will be familiar to anyone who has worked in food service. Noticing that the display is not optimized to showcase seasonal specials will be a familiar feeling to anyone who has ever worked in retail.

I would recommend Convenience Store Woman to anyone who has ever been frustrated by societal expectations. I would recommend it to anyone working a “dead end” job. I would recommend it to anyone. (also as an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive)

Murata’s books are slowly getting translated into English, so keep your eyes peeled for future titles. If you know Japanese, you can read them all right now. As an interesting final note, Murata worked at a convenience store for years, including during the writing of Convenience Store Woman!

*Act I, Scene 4

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).