May 2013 tbrToday’s reviews are of books that are both by female authors whose books I have enjoyed for some time now. They’re very different, but I will always read any book published by these authors, and know that I will have a reliably interesting and absorbing read. Ruth Ozeki has written three books so far, and I am going to revisit one of them in my Month of Re-Reading in July. Cathy Kelly has written eleven, which pleases me, as I think I’ve only read about six of them. One of these is literary fiction and one is what would probably be described as “women’s fiction” – both are good reads in their different ways.

Ruth Ozeki – “A Tale for the Time Being”

(27 April 2013)

I read this as my second readalong with Matthew, where he listened to the audio book and I caught up each evening with the paper book. In fact, because of some mild animal peril and slightly challenging themes, he did get further ahead of me than that and checked it was OK for me to read. It’s a good way to read a book, although it was a slower read than Capital, the first book we read in this way.

Ruth lives with Oliver and their cat on a remote Canadian island. When a bag containing a diary written by Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, washes up on the beach, an entire community gets involved as different expertises and knowledge sets are needed to interpret the barnacles growing on the bag or the languages used in the texts within it. Is this the first detritus from the Japanese earthquake/tsunami starting to appear via the ocean currents? Were Nao and her family caught up in those events?

Ruth feels a connection with Nao, and reads her diary to Oliver every evening (a nice echo of our reading process for this book). She tries to research the family and abandons her own writing, while Oliver tries to plant trees that the authorities say he’s no longer allowed to plant as part of an ecological artwork, and studies a new kind of crow that has appeared seemingly from across the ocean, too. Alternative sections of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s narrative, along with letters from Nao’s uncle, forced to become a fighter pilot in the Japanese Air Force in WW2 cover the personal, the philosophical and the historical, with forays into alternative worlds theory and Buddhist practice as well as Japanese popular culture. It’s an emotionally touching read in which you also learn a lot (like with all of Ozeki’s novels), although in this case it sometimes feels a little like the knowledge is there because Ozeki learnt it and wants to include it, rather than because it adds to the narrative or the background.

I felt that the power of the ending was undermined rather by the metafiction and almost “cleverness” that prevailed in the latter sections of the book. This led to a slight but marked sense of disappointment – I would like the author to have resolved things in maybe a more natural way. But it’s still a powerful, affecting, curious and surprising read.

Warning: the book contains some quite powerful scenes of violent and violating bullying at school and in the air force, an unexpected concentration on 9/11 and the Falling Man which may upset people, and some animal peril although this is not gratuitous and if you flick to the back of the book you can work out what happens there.

Cathy Kelly – “Homecoming”

(22 November 2012)

Kelly is a favourite light author of mine, and very much the inheritor of the “Irish women’s fiction with humour and reality” mantle passed to her by Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes. In this satsifying novel, a cross-section of people live or arrive in a Dublin square, from a spinster teacher with a much younger sister through a cafe manager with a heart of gold and a hidden sorrow, an elderly American woman mourning her husband and re-reading her mother’s recipe book, to a minor celebrity who’s committed an indiscretion and needs to hide at her aunt’s house for a while. They are all healed by love, patience, sensible advice and the odd scrap of romance. Satisfying, funny, heat-warming – an easy read but well written and expertly crafted: happy endings don’t always come and when they do they have to be earnt, and it’s a great read for the exercise bike or the wallowy bath. Sometimes you can’t get better than that.

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I’m currently reading an excellent biography of the diarist and recorder-of-matters-Bloomsbury, Frances Partridge, and a slightly indigestible PhD printed directly as a book on Iris Murdoch. What are you reading at the moment?