Friday, October 4, 2019

Literary Sewing Circle: Halfway Point!

It's hard to believe that we are already halfway through our Literary Sewing Circle round for this fall! Today's the day for some serious book talk! How are you doing with the book? Have you started it yet? Finished it? Do you have any reactions you'd like to share? 

Here are a few questions to ponder today and for the next while -- whether you have begun reading, or you've only read blurbs & author interviews so far and still have something to say, join in! Although there might be a few spoilers in the questions and discussion below so if you haven't got too far yet you might want to come back to this post.

I'll add some of my own thoughts and you can reply to them or add your own impressions. If you want to hear other takes on a part of the book that you are curious about, leave your own questions in the comments, too. I hope you are all enjoying it so far!

1. What was the first thing that drew you to this book? Was it the setting? The historical context? The concept?

I first read this book when it was newly published because I was already a big fan of this author. The fact that it seemed more complex than her earlier novels was also a draw -- plus I do love Japanese settings. And lots of philosophical talk in my novels. So this was a win all around. When I first read it I knew right away that this one was a award contender with staying power.

2. Do you enjoy the narrative switching between Nao and Ruth? Do you prefer one over the other?

I really did like it. Naoko's story was tough -- so much difficulty and struggle in her life at the point that she was writing her diary. So it was a kind of relief to switch over to Ruth, who was reading Nao's story right along with us, and see how she was interpreting it and dealing with it too. 

I feel like the core of the book is Nao, and Ruth's story is kind of like a commentary alongside of it. Though the way the two lives intermingled more and more was also interesting! How Ruth's reading influenced Nao's writing, even from the future/past. The shifty nature of time was a great inclusion.

3. Nao writes a diary, trying to communicate with an imagined future reader, and Ruth is a writer, trying to do the same thing in a different context. What do you think the focus on reading and writing is saying about communication between people in our lives?

As I just noted, the interplay between Nao's writing and Ruth's reading was fascinating for me. How can writing from the "past" influence our daily life, and vice versa? The idea that time is malleable was so interesting. In this context, I think that the writing element also shows the isolation of both characters, the way in which communication comes at one remove for both of them, in many ways. 

I do feel that reading somebody's writing is the closest we can get to being truly inside their heads, and maybe that's why I love fiction and diaries so very much. Reading helps us understand and empathize with others and with differing experiences and life views. 

4. There are many references to physics, ecology, and environmental issues in this book. How does this reflect the way the characters live in their world? Did you engage with this element at all? 

I loved this element! Like I've said, I do enjoy thoughtful writing, and I also appreciate frank discussion of the issues we are all facing in our environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is real, and it's affecting us all. It's explained a little more in this novel, alongside of ecological issues thanks to Oliver's work, and the symbolic presence of an alien species to BC, the Japanese Jungle Crow. 

The discussion of time as a concept also resonates both with Buddhism and with physics. I love physics, and have often seen discussions of spirituality alongside the weirder aspects of physics. It makes you think, and wonder about the solidity of our perceptions. Of course, this is also an important concept in the plot of this book -- how can Ruth shift time and affect Nao, in ways that we don't expect that we can influence the past in the same way we can clearly influence the future -- it all comes down to the questioning of the reality of time as an arrow, and the perception of daily or dream life. 

5. There is quite a bit of focus on death in this book: whether suicide, war, old age, or other reasons, there's a lot of discussion about it. What role does this theme play? Do you think it's connected to the Buddhist content of the story?

There really is a lot of discussion of death, and suicide, and being or not being. This is integral to this story of Time Beings, though, I think -- the whole point of the questioning of time and of the Buddhist content is that we are all only really alive NOW in this moment. And the impermanence of life means that there will someday be no more Now for us. 

I did appreciate Ozeki's explanation of suicide and its differing meanings in the West and in Japan -- a different cultural context for it results in vastly different understandings of how and why it happens. 

I feel like only by understanding and accepting death can the characters truly appreciate life, and in Jiko's death, both Nao and her father are restored to a committment to living. 

6. What do you think about the role of dreams in this novel? How much influence do you think dreams have on 'real life', and why does Ozeki play with this concept frequently in the story?

I both liked and didn't like the reliance on dreams. Nothing is more boring that listening to someone else recount their dreams to you, in a social context, and Ozeki skirts that line a bit here, at least for me. 

That said, at least the reader is experiencing the dream alongside the character, and not listening to them tell someone else about it! 

The final dream is a bit discombobulating, and one of the elements that most divides people who read this book! I understand that Ruth's influence on Nao's present by moving into Ruth's past is kind of the point, a play on the themes of the book, but I felt a little conflicted about whether or not I really bought it. Again, it's another expression of the malleability of time and reality, and so within the confines of this particular story, I think it does fit. 

7. Is there a particular character that you found especially compelling? Any themes or symbols that really resonate with you? 

Aside from the main characters, I really loved Jiko -- she is so clearly a wise woman, inspiring to Nao and to readers. Her words and her sanguine approach to life were appealing. Perhaps we all wish we had an old grandmother like this to guide us, or maybe we hope to be like her ourselves some day.

But some of the side characters were also charming, like Jiko's fellow nun who does all the support work in their temple. And Ruth's mother was also one of those lovely characters for me. 

There were a lot of images and symbols in the story that resonated as well. Water, tides, the ocean, currents -- they reflect the shifting nature of reality in the larger story. The Japanese Jungle Crow, out of place but meaningful. Trees & Nature. Writing. Time itself. This book feels like it contains endless ripples of themes and images to discuss.

8. Is there anything specific  in the book that has sparked an idea for a project yet? Are you mulling over any ideas?

There are some sentence-level images that really resonate with me, like the idea that handwriting expresses the soul much more than a screen (when Ruth first finds the diary) or Nao's description of the gingko trees at the temple. I'll be looking more closely at some of these images in our next inspiration post. 

Right now I have an idea or two based on the setting and on some of the descriptions of both British Columbia and Japan. And I have some suitable fabrics to use too -- just have to decide on something. My project will most likely be a dress, knowing me.  I have to narrow down my multiple ideas! 


  1. I've just reached the part where the last few pages of Nao's diary are blank. I find that somewhat disconcerting, just as I did when Ruth said things were 'disappearing'. I'll have to read on to see how that is explained.
    I have an idea for my project too. I really liked Ruth's description of traveling to 'The Liver' and it reminded me of my last trip to Victoria in a very small plane and our approach to the airport. We traveled over some small coves with sail boats and other watercraft reflected in the water. I have a piece of fabric like that and I think I'll make a skirt. It may be too cold to wear this fall but if I do it now, it will be ready for next spring.

    1. It is a bit startling near the end...I hope you'll like how it turns out!

      I like the idea for your project. That image could be beautifully interpreted in a skirt. I have an idea from "The Liver"as well, but it's quite different from this one :)

    2. I’m at the exact same spot. I found the author’s ability to pack so many storylines into one novel incredible. The bullying parts were so, so awful but fit with the repeated concept of bravery.

      I have a few ideas for a project - plaid skirt maybe? But my heart is so broken for Nao that I’m not quite ready yet.

    3. Vivienne, your project sounds quite suitable and pulls another element of the story in too. I hear you on how hard it is to read about Nao's experiences. It's hard to read but I think the author does a good job resolving the issues and providing a brighter look in the end. I hope you'll think so too.

  2. I finished it a few days ago, so some images are still drifting through the back corridors of my mind [I'm always gobbling up the next book, and re-reading dark corners of my library, which can sometimes jar with what I read before.] Jiko was a wonerful charcater, I NEED the story of her life, but then again, a novel that leaves you still feeling hungry for more is often the one that satisfies your appetite most don't you think?
    I also found the dream magic element jarring in this gentle tale, but maybe it's the sand in the oyster?
    ANyway, time to do some sewing...shirt?Hakama? kimono? something along those lines...

    1. Glad you found this one haunting, so to speak. Yes, I really do love Jiko too. Can't wait to see what kind of project you decide on.

  3. I'm really enjoying this book! Thanks for choosing it, Melanie. Nao is a really compelling character with everything going on in her life, the interesting histories of her family members, and her very astute observations about it all. (However, I have to suspend my disbelief about that last point -- as a middle-schooler, she's way too young to be quite this articulate about her experiences.) I agree with you about Ruth -- that it's nice to have her in the book as a way to parse out what's happening with Nao.
    I read a lot of the links you provided in an earlier post about the author and Buddhism, just as I was beginning to read the book. Ruth is clearly a pretty autobiographical character for the author. Knowing something about the author added a level of 'meta' information for me which was interesting...we see a character in the novel struggling to write a book at the same time the actual author of the book we're reading is struggling to write IT.
    Ok, so for sewing....I haven't been sewing at all for the past few weeks because I have had three major projects happening at work all at once, so I can't even THINK about sewing. In mid-October, though, I hope to be able to think about this and sew something. Maybe a linen jacket based on a pattern in a Japanese sewing book I have.
    Thanks so much for organizing this, Melanie. I always really enjoy reading along and I appreciate the amazing amount of work you put into it all.

    1. I'm glad you have time to read along this round! I find this book so thought-provoking. It's true that Nao is preternaturally eloquent ;) But I guess that's important to be able to tell this story. I also found the biographical nature of Ruth's character interesting - how do you manage to recreate yourself as a character who both is and isn't the real you? Hmmm!

      I do hope your work projects will settle down and you'll have a chance to try sewing something. I have many ideas but nothing concrete as yet. Though I've been poring over all my Japanese Sewing books as well. Hope to see a project from you in the end :)

  4. I just wanted to say that I am really happy to have found your blog. I have not read the book yet and may miss it as I will be traveling for the next month but I will certainly try to do the next one.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it and we'll definitely be having another round in the new year :)

  5. Reading through this book for a second time with the sewing element is fun! I'm noticing how much symbolism and depth I missed on my first read.
    I don't know that much about Buddhism, but I wonder if the dreams have a deeper significane than just a neurological event. Are dreams tied in with ideas of life and death or am I making connections that don't actually exist?
    The settings in the book make me want to move to the Pacific Northwest and travel to Japan. The mental images of the isolated island and the temple on the hill are so peaceful.
    As far as sewing, I have been inspired by several elements. One, the type of clothing that would be practical on an isolated island. Two, the idea of the 'modern woman' of Jiko's youth. And three, the images of the crow and ginko. Not sure what's going to win out in the end, but this book has been excellent for sewing brain storming.
    Thank you for leading this fun event!

    1. I'm glad you are finding so much in it on your second go! I also find that there is so much to focus on here, and even with everything I was looking at, the idea of the modern woman of Jiko's youth hadn't occurred to me. What a neat thought! I definitely have some gingko inspired ideas, now if I can carry them out or not...well, we will see.

      As to the dreams, I think you are on to something. They seem to tie into the sense of real/not real, or set time and unfettered time, that the author is playing with in her references to Time Beings and Buddhism and so forth. So tying them into life and death themes also fits really well. I may have to reread with that in mind.

  6. Once again I don't think I would have picked this book off the shelf. Which sometimes makes me wonder what I do pick off the shelf, as I think every review I have done with the Literary Sewing Circle starts this way for me. And yet each time it has been fascinating reading and has really got me thinking.

    When I realised there was going to be narrative switching I also thought, 'oh no …. not my most enjoyable preference..'. But in this case I have to say I really enjoyed it! I think because I found all the characters to be real and believable, well developed, had meaning in the story, and it was almost seamless in narrative. I could not say I prefer Nao or Ruth, as they both had a place and a very interesting 'story'.

    Authors all really write to an unknown audience. When we give public speeches, whether it be in small groups or lectures etc, we basically know the composition of the audience. But I feel with an author, you cannot guarantee who will pick your book up and read it. I think Nao is focusing on one reader, and assuming that reader is continuing to read, and so only one reader, and it is demonstrated by her intimate style of writing and allowing the reader to enter her really private thoughts and life. Whereas Ruth as an author of books for the public, is writing to a much wider audience, some who will finish her books, some who will not. That is one example of different contexts that I can think of.
    I love Ruth's comments about the penned word as opposed to the typed word. After all, how often these days do we ever read handwriting, or even get personal letters. (It will be interesting to see what impact this has on children in the future!) And the penned writing of Nao further adds to the intimacy of her story to you – the one reader.

    I was constantly reflecting on the struggles Ruth lived with, by choice. Although she misses having a library similar to what she has had in the past, she compromises, even though that is not without problems. She purchases books she wants to read and to be surrounded by, but the humidity destroys the books, and so the story may be never read. I think in many ways this is how it is looking at sustainable sewing and clothing and the 'oh so many problems' in the world as a result of the way fashion and waste has developed. We try to find a way to compromise this, but it is difficult, and so the sustainable clothes of our dreams don't get made or worn, we too resort to what is available, although with compromise.
    As for physics …. over my head!

    I loved reading and considering so many points of view on death. It is so cultural how it is approached, and the meaning behind it. But I need to think more about this.

    One concept that was pronounced for me was the fakeness (is that a word?) of life. Nao goes to school pretending she will enjoy it, her father walks with her pretending he is going to work. Her mother sits in the aquarium thinking she is doing something. You have to wonder why people can't say life as it is? If it is because we think it will hurt others, is that a good enough reason? Is it our decision to make? How can anybody in a community help one another if there is so much pretence? How can we truly know our neighbour? Who does know what is real? On the other hand, Oliver does not demonstrate pretence, that is his nature, and is what develops his character. And because of this I think he makes the most amazing, grounding statements.

    1. You have such great insights to so many elements of the book. I'm so glad you ended up enjoying it despite first impressions!

      I like the comment that Nao is writing to one 'ideal' reader, while Ruth as an author is writing to a more generalized audience of hopefully many readers. I wonder how that affects the way someone writes.

      And you're right, compromise is a big theme which I hadn't really thought about. But both stories are threaded through with the compromises that the main characters have had to make. So interesting. And how does a dream match up to what we have to put up with in the end? I think this may be connected to the idea of 'fakeness' and how surface-oriented people are in everyone's situation. Pretence is such a social convention yet how can we be a community if no-one is connecting? Lots to think about!


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!