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The Book of Form and Emptiness

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A brilliantly inventive new novel about loss, growing up, and our relationship with things, by the Booker Prize-finalist author of A Tale for the Time Being

After the tragic death of his beloved musician father, fourteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house--a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world, where "things happen." He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.

And he meets his very own Book--a talking thing--who narrates Benny's life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki--bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.

548 pages, Hardcover

First published September 21, 2021

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About the author

Ruth Ozeki

15 books5,561 followers
Ruth Ozeki (born in New Haven, Connecticut) is a Japanese American novelist. She is the daughter of anthropologist Floyd Lounsbury.

Ozeki published her debut novel, My Year of Meats, in 1998. She followed up with All Over Creation in 2003. Her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was published on March 12, 2013.

She is married to Canadian land artist Oliver Kellhammer, and the couple divides their time between New York City and Vancouver.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,979 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,709 reviews25k followers
June 15, 2022
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022

Ruth Ozeki's writes an extraordinary philosophical and offbeat novel touching on fundamental issues and challenges faced at both at an individual and global level, our disconnections and the impact of our fraying connections, grief, love, loss, approaches to mental health, family, technology, books, libraries, consumerism, politics, environmentalism and climate change. When Japanese/Korean jazz musician, Kenji Oh, a man with a close personal affinity with crows, dies tragically after being run over by a truck, his wife, Annabelle, and young son, Benny, named after Benny Goodman, spiral in their own separate ways into a state of grief that is to pose a threat to their ability to see each other, building into a dark cloud with the capacity to destroy their family unit. Annabelle who monitors the news, print and then online, puts on weight and becomes an out of control hoarder, unable to discard anything, yet cannot stop buying items that catch her eye.

Benny begins to hear voices of inanimate obects, a problem exacerbated by the growing number of items in his home, there is a distinct difference between their chaotic voices and the voices of the unmade (nature). It doesn't stop there, additionally there is the book of his life, relating his past and present, to which Benny attributes power and agency over his life, only for it to remind him this actually lies in his hands, Books are beginning to lose their trust in humans. The voices lead to Benny ending up in a children's psychiatric ward, under the care of Dr Melanie, where he meets Alice (the Aleph) a homeless artist who leaves notes and captivates Benny, she makes bleak, dystopian, apocalpse snow globes, she is to come and go in his life, along with vodka drinking Slavoj, a wheelchair bound poet with a prosthetic leg. In the meantime, a book with a Zen approach to tidying keeps turning up at crucial times in the isolated Annabelle's life, without a support network there for her, and only when she has such a network will matters start to improve.

There is magic, compassion and humour in a narrative that simplifies complex issues, as Benny finds refuge at the library, Benny asks his own fundamental discovered question, what is real? It underlines the impermanence of everything and everyone, illustrated with an earthquake that hits Japan. This is a difficult book to capture in a review, to which the only answer is to read it and experience it for yourself! A beautiful and thought provoking coming of age novel that raises important questions and perspectives that asks us to look at the world anew, inviting us to perceive the impermanence of form and the empty nature of all things, it made for a joyous read, and a book which I think many readers will love. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,394 reviews804 followers
October 10, 2021
Kerry Shale has made my “favored narrator” list. Listening to him perform Ruth Ozeki’s “The Book of Form and Emptiness” was pure joy. In fact, I finished this 3 days ago, and I miss Shale’s voice and his characterizations of Benny Oh and his mother, Annabelle. I miss sweet and kind Annabelle, who is one of the most thoughtful and empathetic mothers in literary history. And Benny, one can’t help but root for him in his journey through adolescence. Let’s not forget the amazing Ruth Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, a filmmaker, and a fabulous author. I absolutely loved her previous work, “A Tale for the Time Being”, and I love this one, although this one is a bit more “out there” in her magical realist fiction.

In this story, Benny Oh is a 14-year-old boy who, after his father, a jazz clarinetist, tragically dies when a truck carrying live chickens runs him over in the alley. His father enjoyed his cannabis, passes out right before he gets home. Both Benny and Annabelle grieve in different ways. Benny develops sensitive hearing and hears the voices of the objects in his home. For example, he knows the socks don’t like being apart and want to be together. His books want to be organized on his shelf. Unfortunately, all the things get loud, and the only place of somewhat peace for Benny is the library where all the things in their use their library voices and it’s quiet.

Meanwhile, Annabelle struggles with depression. She gains weight and loses interest in her appearance. As with all teen boys, Benny is embarrassed by his mother. Plus, Annabelle begins an unfortunate hobby of hoarding. Annabelle loves her junk, in particular snow globes. Author Ozeki has some fun dreaming up snow globes.

Ozeki adds an interesting narrator: The Book. Yes The Book narrates the story, has its own chapters, and tries to teach Benny to tell his own story, to be a hero of his own story. Benny interacts with The Book. When The Book provides the back history to Annabelle and Kenji’s partnership, Benny is particular that his mother’s sex life is OFF THE TABLE for discussion in The Book’s narration. It’s funny. Benny and The Book have some disagreements. But The Book is trying to help Benny find his place in life. It’s an interesting concept: having The Book as a character and as a narrator.

So, we have a boy who says objects talk to him and a grieving hapless mother. It gets worse when their landlady goes into the hospital and the evil son tries to evict them. Furthermore, Annabelle has work issues which don’t help with her hoarding problem. Benny hears the objects at school as well. Scissors are made for cutting and want to cut….you can see where this is going. Benny gets sent to a psychiatrist who, of course, numbs him with drugs and institutionalizes him. Guess what happens to Benny when he must return to school.

Benny seeks refuge in the local library where he meets a cadre of beguiling characters. As with many libraries, Benny’s library hosts the street people, providing more fodder for Ozeki. This is a fun story. Ozeki had even more fun with a “Marie Kondo” like character who Annabelle writes to, confessing her struggles.

I can highly recommend the audio of this novel because I feel strongly that Kerry Shale (the voice narrator) made this story. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I just read it. There is so much going on. It’s a hefty 548 pages, almost 19 hours long. Listening to it, I could picture what was going on, especially with Shale’s performances of all the characters (the Bottleman was one of my favorites). The audio is a joy.

Profile Image for Cheri.
1,796 reviews2,389 followers
September 27, 2021

’A book must start somewhere. One brave letter must volunteer to go first, laying itself on the line in an act of faith, from which a word takes heart and follows., drawing a sentence into its wake. From there, a paragraph amasses, and soon a page, and the book is on its way, finding a voice, calling itself into being.’

The year that Benny Oh turns 12 is the year that his father dies. His life, and the life of his mother begin to unravel quickly. Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects, some of which insist that he use them for evil purposes, which is how he ends up in a psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, his mother is worried. Worried about him. Worried about her job. Worried about the landlord’s son who keeps trying to have her evicted. Worried about the crows which she befriends that seem to hover over this story. Worried about life and how best to live it. She is unwilling to part with a number of objects that have some sentimental meaning to her, from her son’s clothing when he was a young boy to broken teapots and other objects that she keeps meaning to repair. At the same time, she frequently finds new objects to add to this collection, and in perusing a store for yet more to add, she discovers a book called ’Tidy Magic’, the author of which is a ‘real Zen monk.’

’Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.’

When Benny returns home, his mother has tried to put some of the ’Tidy Magic’ recommendations into practice, but since almost everything she owns, to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, ’sparks joy’ almost nothing ends up in the toss bin. Benny begins to spend more and more time at the library, the time he is meant to be spending in school. At the library he meets up with The Aleph, a young girl slightly older than him. She becomes somewhat of an influence on him, and eventually a friend, although he harbors a somewhat secret crush on her.

’Pencils have stories inside them, and they’re safe as long as you don’t stick the point in your ear. Just hold it next to your head and listen. Can you hear the wood whisper? The ghost of the pine? The mutter of lead?’

At times, this reads like an ode to books, to reading, writing, and the haven and solace found in words shared in books, especially when there is no person who can provide that comfort, that safe shelter for the soul. Other times, it is an adventure story, as well as a story of love. A mother’s love, a young boy’s first love. At times it is heartrending, other times it provides a healing touch.

An enchanting story of love and its power to heal shared with a sprinkling of magical realism.
Profile Image for John Mauro.
Author 5 books514 followers
August 5, 2023
My complete review is published at Before We Go Blog.

“Books will always have the last word, even if nobody is around to read them.”

Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is an ingeniously told magical realism tale focusing on Benny, whose musician father has perished in a drug-induced accident.

In The Book of Form and Emptiness, the primary narrator is the Book itself, i.e., the Book telling the story of Benny’s life. The role of the Book is both to convey an accurate account of Benny’s life and also to help him through his psychological struggles in the aftermath of his father’s untimely death.

Benny hears the Book speaking to him, narrating his story. Benny also hears other household objects talking to him, communicating their feelings and trying to influence his actions.

The situation is exasperated by the hoarding behavior of Benny’s mother, Annabelle, whose problem becomes significantly worse in the wake of her husband’s death. Her mental condition is not much better than Benny’s, e.g., she believes that her dead husband is communicating with her through the magnetic words on her refrigerator. She is also woefully negligent toward Benny.

Ruth Ozeki takes us deep into the distressed minds of Benny and Annabelle through all their struggles. As readers, we are not sure what is real and what is imagined. By the end of The Book of Form and Emptiness, we gain more clarity on what is actually happening in the story, but Ozeki leads us to doubt our own minds in the process.

The Book of Form and Emptiness is clearly drawing inspiration from Czech author Milan Kundera’s classic novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Beyond the similar titles, both novels deal with the creation and loss of memories and embrace magical realism combined with a highly creative narrative approach. In Kundera’s case, the narrator is revealed to be the author himself, or a fictionalized version of himself, whereas in the Ozeki’s novel the narrator is the Book.

I should also comment on Ozeki’s beautiful prose, with is especially poetic when the Book is addressing Benny directly. The Book of Form and Emptiness will capture you from the very first sentence and not let you go.
June 16, 2022
Winner of The Women's Prize for Fiction 2022!


The Book of Form and Emptiness is an astonishingly beautiful novel written by Ruth Ozeki. At the heart of this novel are Benny Oh and his mother Annabelle who are reeling from the shock of Benny’s father’s untimely death in an accident. A young sensitive 12 year old boy , Benny starts hearing inanimate objects speaking to him with their voices cluttering his mind. His mother deals with her emotions by hoarding material possessions. Benny’s problems cause him to exhibit behavior that gets him into trouble at school and subsequently institutionalized more than once while Annabelle struggles with guilt, grief and loneliness while trying to hold her family together.

What sets this novel apart is the unique narrative shared by Benny and his Book (The Book) which is telling Benny’s story to help him recall details of his life and emerge from the shell he has wrapped himself in. As The Book tells Benny, “We have to be real, even if it hurts, and that’s your doing. That was your philosophical question, remember? What is real? Every book has a question at its heart, and that was yours. Once the question is asked, it’s our job to help you find the answer. So, yes, we’re your book, Benny, but this is your story. We can help you, but in the end, only you can live your life."

Themes of love, family, grief, substance abuse and mental health are touched upon with great compassion by the author. As the narrative progresses, the author paints a compelling portrait of how our interpersonal relationships are impacted by the importance we give to material belongings and the clutter we allow in our lives. Our inability to comprehend the “impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things” often costs us our human connections.

The profound impact that books can have on our lives is a running theme in this novel and is eloquently expressed throughout the narrative.
“Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”

Adding to the depth of this novel are elements of magical realism and an interesting mix of characters such as the Zen Buddhist monk whose book on decluttering finds its way into Annabelle’s proximity, the European 'hobo’ Slavoj who befriends Benny in the library (the only place the voices are quiet and Benny finds some respite) and shares his wisdom and insight with him and a young teenage girl who calls herself The Aleph- ‘a gleaner, a freegan, an artist who worked with garbage’ who Benny meets while institutionalized.

The Book of Form and Emptiness is a complex, layered and lengthy novel that inspires pause and reflection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and definitely recommend it.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews600 followers
September 23, 2021
voice-narrators: Kerry Shale & Ruth Ozeki
18 hours and 50 minutes

The voice infections, intonations, and deliveries from Kerry and Ruth are phenomenal; completely outstanding!
Besides the striking contrast between Ruth and Kerry’s voice ….as Annabelle (mom) and Benny (son)….
there are times when ‘The Book’ speaks….(uncouth, crude, angrily aggressive)…..
….but unlike Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’….the ‘book’s voice is not gentlemanly like the candelabra or fastidious like the mantle clock.

Benny begins to hear voices of material objects —trinkets -(clutter)- from Annabelle’s hoarding obsession after Kenji dies.

‘The book’ can see all the clutter that Annabelle has stockpiled. Benny heard the book’s voice - among other objects —
The Book has ‘feelings’ -has important things to say - to teach - to awaken.

As for this ‘entire’ story itself..
My god … I don’t know where to begin to describe it….
words that come to mind are:
Wow!!! CRAZY-*Wow*!!!

Even if I were to bedazzle
“The Book of Form and Emptiness” with gold, lace, and sparkling jewels — it wouldn’t add an ounce of flourish decoration to the already- accessorized- original- brilliant- outlandish- eccentrically offbeat narrative.

Prepare yourself for one of the most unique storytelling-train rides you’ve ever been on.
Readers of visionary, challenging, and literary fiction will be drawn to this often mystifying and perplexing astonishing novel.
The humor and dialogue—comic-tragic combination—is entertaining—
as well as morally rich in insightful substance.

Themes surrounding grief, loss, sadness, death, mental health, relationships, and love, are evident …
but what’s less transparent is everything else and how these themes embody every inch of life.
Symbolically-we begin to see the relationship between the emptiness, consumerism, lack of happiness, and its discontents.
Later in the book climate change and protests have never been written with more humor…( truth behold)!

Rather than try to explain a book - that needs to be experienced—
I’m choosing to instead share tidbits- trinkets-and teasers.

….Annabelle Lang and Kenji Oh (Jazz musician), fell in love. They got married.

Kenji and Annabelle were in the doctors. During a routine pregnancy checkup, when they saw the ‘floating’ baby on the black & white sonogram—Kenji cried out…
“Our Space Baby”….
After ‘space baby’ was born, they called him Benny ( Benny Oh).
Annabelle had never been more happy in her life.
But ….
due to an accident Kenji dies young…leaving Annabelle a single mom with an over-flowing plate of challenges.

Meanwhile, Benny was trying to make sense of his father’s death - with the help of Annabelle’s explanations.
“Spirit is re-born, and he’ll come back to life in another body…..maybe not a Christian, maybe an animal, maybe a crow”.
Benny wasn’t having any of his mother’s hogwash.
I am being WAY TOO ORDINARY and reasonable TRYING to explain this book - when (TRUST ME?/!) … there is NOTHING ordinary in this novel.

… Think Edward Scissorhands
…✂️ants 🐜 … a sneaker 👟 …wilted lettuce 🥬 etc. meets the Zen Master
….a spoon, a marble, pencils, glue stick, dishes, cockroaches, books….they are metaphorically, symbolically - eye-openers into our deeper selves and how we try to fill our emptiness with material possessions.

….Benny is Half Korean, and half Japanese. He’s small for his age- has asthma.
He’s never been extremely popular at school, but he has friends.
….His mother’s sex life, is an off topic.
….Benny has dreams.
One night he wakes up he sees a finger floating in front of his nose-
Then he sees that the finger is joined to a hand.
Then he sees a floating face…. a beautiful girls face.
In all of Benny’s thirteen years and nine months on the planet, he’s never seen a more beautiful face than hers.

….Benny falls in love with love

….Benny sees a pediatric psychiatrist- Dr. Melanie…
He spends a couple of weeks in a pediatric psychiatric hospital > meets other kids - begins to hear ‘human voices’ … he actually enjoyed his stay.
Music and art therapy were good enough but not group therapy.
….one night Benny meets some vagabonds (here we just say the homeless)…
….Benny rather ‘not’ go to school > the library gives him more comfort.
Many odd things happen in a library- including falling in love.

…I fell under the spell - in love with Benny and Annabelle.
In much the same way that I was under Ruth Ozaki’s spell in “The Tale for the Time Being”…..
it happened again … I was mesmerized by her unique inventive-storytelling.

…There are so many funny and poignant scenes - completely irresistible, charming and endearing…
I’ll remember this book for a long time!!

….What makes people desire more and more and more possessions?

….what are the values of self-distancing? ( besides covid-lifestyles)

….What might we learn from a teapot? A broken teapot? The homeless? protesters? Free speech? The astronauts who walked on the moon?
Books? Zen? The library?

….sing-a-long 🎶
I’m a little teapot short and stout …..
what might this song teach us?

What might we hear from the people who take to the streets?

“The people united will never be defeated”

“Show me what democracy looks like”

“Climate change is not a lie we will not let our planet”

“No more silence and police violence”

“Say it loud and say it clear immigrants are welcome here”

“Love not hate makes us great”.

I found this book to be sooo all-encompassing extraordinary- enjoyable - lovable - heart-breaking and heart-healing!

Ruth Ozeki is the queen of brilliance! Nobody does what she does with more heart, creativity, and compassion!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,664 followers
April 26, 2022
A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favourite novels of the century (and one of my most popular Goodreads reviews ever), My Year of Meats was a terrific backlist read a couple of summers ago, and I’m eager to catch up on All Over Creation. So I’d built up this fourth Ozeki novel in my head, thinking a library setting and magic realist elements presaged something deliciously Murakami-esque.

What I actually found, having limped through it off and on for seven months, was something of a disappointment. A frank depiction of the mental health struggles of the Oh family? Great. A paean to how books and libraries can save us by showing us a way out of our own heads? A-OK. The problem is with the twee way that The Book narrates Benny’s story and engages him in a conversation about fate versus choice.

When Kenji Oh, a jazz musician, is run over by a chicken truck, Annabelle finds herself a single mother to Benny, a troubled teen who starts to hear everyday objects speaking to him. His voices and Annabelle’s hoarding habit jeopardize the viability of their household: Benny spends time on a psychiatric hospital ward for minors and Annabelle is threatened with eviction.

For Benny, the library and the acquaintances he makes there – a fellow pedi-psych patient named Alice who calls herself The Aleph, an Eastern European philosopher who goes by The Bottleman (= Slavoj Žižek?), even the Ozeki figure tapping away on her laptop – may be his salvation; for Annabelle, it could be the book Tidy Magic (modelled on Marie Kondo’s work), written by a Buddhist nun. But until then, their stories get very dark indeed.

Concern for the principal pair and their relationship kept me reading even though this is too long and I wearied of Ozeki’s habit of literalizing metaphors (books speaking to people; being crushed by one’s belongings; crows playing a protective role). I’m still sympathetic to Ozeki’s aims, even if she doesn’t quite pull it all off here. If I pit the rather similar The Sentence and The Book of Form and Emptiness against each other, Erdrich comes out ahead.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for renkotsuban.
15 reviews7 followers
March 8, 2022
NOTE: After writing this review, I learned from an author interview that the library in the book is supposed to be based on one in Vancouver, not San Francisco as I mistakenly believed. The book is seemingly written to take place anywhere (the words "Canada" or "Vancouver" in the Kindle version never come up, and "San Francisco Public Library" comes up as a reference to an apparently different library) so while I am still disappointed that the story has zero sense of place or culture or history, I will admit that my desire to have more descriptions of San Francisco Chinatown etc were misplaced. However, my criticism that San Francisco Chinatown is portrayed as acultural, divorced from its history and people, and stereotyped as full of "hobos, junkies, and hookers" can be applied to any Chinatown, and it still really sucks.

Ozeki definitely peddles in Japan-first mystical Orientalist bullshit with stuff like "You would take that extra bit of time to hold [broken objects] in your hand, feel a little bit of gratitude to them, and then throw them out. That’s beautiful. That kind of thing is more a part of Japanese culture than it is of our culture" because one look around Japan reveals the same hyperconsumerism, wastefulness, and disposability present in every other capitalist country. Like, why do you think KonMari was such a phenomenon in her home country if what she was advocating for is already "a part of Japanese culture"??

Also, I misspoke, the line was not "vertiginous slope," it was "vertiginous footbridge." Seriously, look at this LOL

The original unedited review continues below.

I'm 31% through and I'm going to have to DNF this. There are three major problems I have with this book, and I don't see any of them being resolved before the end.

The first is that this book is described as magical realism, but the "realism" part is extremely dubious. There is very little world-building (just repeated lines of the streets being full of "hobos, junkies, and hookers") and isn't grounded as a real place, more like shorthand stereotypes to get you to think of The City. At around the 25% mark the book mentions something about San Francisco, which came as a shock because nothing up to that point read like California or San Francisco or, really, anywhere in particular. It reads like someone who has never been to San Francisco Chinatown relying on pop culture stereotypes instead of describing a real, and culturally important, place. No specifics, no details, just generic "seedy, full of trash, lots of hobos and crazies" over and over. Ozeki has zero interest in ever going to Chinatown and her disdain comes across in her writing.

There are a lot of things that, individually, sound like nitpicking pedantry, but taken in aggregate make me think Ozeki and I do not share the same plane of reality. It is the novel-length version of that Arrested Development "what could one banana cost, ten dollars?" meme. Off the top of my head:

- The family took a vacation to Florida, where they went to DisneyLAND, not Disney World. (Can you see now why I couldn't guess that this story takes place in California?) I thought this might have been a typo, but it gets brought up again later as Disneyland. Anyway, they went across the country to visit the more expensive version of the amusement park that's in their own state?

- Annabelle thinks about going to Whole Foods to buy a salad, but resigns herself to going to the "cheap and unhealthy" supermarket instead. Who thinks of supermarkets as "cheap and unhealthy" besides the ultrawealthy? Especially a woman who lives in what the book is constantly describing as a place full of "hobos, junkies, and hookers"? Stuff like this reads like Ozeki making a case for gentrification. Annabelle is also horrified that a public library is open to, well, the public:
Now, she was surprised at how tawdry it had become. The piazza was filled with homeless people, slumbering at the café tables next to their bundle buggies and shopping carts, or picking through the garbage for empty cans and crusts. Pigeons strutted on the ground by their feet, fighting with the sparrows over muffin wrappers and croissant crumbs. The smells of alcohol, marijuana, and urine commingled under the arches.

Seriously the whole book is like this, just constantly pointing out how gross it is that "marginal types" exist in public spaces. Even if this is all to set up that Hobos Are People Too™️ later on, it's unbearable.

- No-Good Wong is a young Chinese-American man living in San Francisco's Chinatown, and he... talks like a cartoon hillbilly, for some reason? "Them birds are evil" and all that, what??

- Mrs. Wong herself acts like a character from Seinfeld, a total stereotype. Again, it is absolutely shocking that this is supposed to be taking place in San Francisco Chinatown, with a main character who is part-Japanese and a father who was from Japan. I know Ozeki is also Japanese, but I have to wonder, does she know anything about Asian-American history and life in California, in SAN FRANCISCO, outside of TV caricatures? There's actually a lot more than just chicken trucks and shrill Asian women screaming in broken English!!

- Kenji studied concert clarinet at a conservatory in Tokyo (i.e. he comes from BIG MONEY), then learns about jazz... from a monk at a Zen temple? If there is one accurate thing in the book, it is that outside of familial ties, temples take in basically two types of people: wealthy tourists willing to pay for the whole Oriental lifestyle (Ozeki herself being an ordained Zen priest in the States makes this observation VERY FUNNY), or people with no money or family and no other way of eking out a living in Japanese society. Kenji apparently fell into that latter category despite, and I must repeat this, studying concert clarinet at a Tokyo conservatory?? And a Zen monk is the one who introduces Kenji to jazz, rather than the music school that he is presumably paying a lot of money to attend?? Everything about Kenji's characterization is romanticized to the point of bland Disney prince.

- Ozeki wants to talk about jazz but is not interested in doing much more than name-dropping Benny Goodman (and ONLY Goodman, like there doesn't exist a single other Big Band/swing artist) or listing off track titles from his albums. Which is why we get things like the frankly goofy portrayal of his friends playing Goodman songs in the rain while carrying Kenji's coffin "New Orleans-style." (Goodman was, of course, NOT connected to Black New Orleans jazz and instead famous for making jazz ""respectable"" i.e. for white theatergoers in New York. Remember what I said about Ozeki making the case for gentrification?) Also: San Francisco had its own brand of swing (it's practically the epicenter of the 90s swing revival) but here we get nothing about that whole scene because god forbid we give this story any sense of place.

- For a book that wants to depict racial tensions (Benny gets bullied for being, among other things, "a Jap") it also doesn't seem terribly interested in exploring it beyond microaggressions and schoolyard slurs, and is perfectly happy to fall back on caricature as a shortcut for setting and characterization. See: Chinatown, the Wongs, the accent for "the hobo" Slavoj, the complete whitewashing of jazz, the idealized and mystical portrayals of Japan/Zen Buddhism, etc.

- Annabelle went from hourly work on the brink of being downsized out of existence, to... having her company pay to turn her living room into a fancy workstation with five monitors and tons of electronics and office desks with a swivel chair and everything, so that she can do probationary full-time work (with benefits!!) from home? At a point in time when America was aggressively turning into a gig economy hellscape? At a time when the Bay Area was turning into, well, THE BAY AREA?? More surreal that this was published in 2021 after we've seen that few companies would do this for even their veteran staff during an honest-to-god global pandemic.

- Benny, who is a high school student sometime in the 2010s, thinks of "the millennials" as chai latte-sipping hipsters looking for outlets to charge their laptops. Who talks about "the millennials" this way besides Boomers?

- Slavoj, just everything about him. He is repeatedly referred to as "the hobo," all of his dialogue is phonetically written out and accented like a Boris and Natasha cartoon, and he pops a wheelie on his wheelchair before saluting Benny with his prosthetic leg. It's so stupid.
And as Benny waited to pass through security, he heard the hobo, whose name he now knew was Slavoj, say, “Ya, ya, of course, my dear Ronald, but I hef become somewhat intrigued by this notion of a slot. That a slot is a thing, we cannot deny, however it is a thing defined entirely by lack, by an absence of form, by negative space, by its own emptiness. We know vat it isn’t, but how can we truly know vat it is? How can we tell ze difference between a slot and, say, a slit? Is a slit slimmer than a slot, and therefore lacking less? If it lacks less, does it vant more? And if so, how can we know if this slot or slit vants books and not bottles?”

Just real cornball shit. This was the point when I decided this book is not worth any more of my time.

My second biggest problem is with the way Book talks, and by that I mean the way Ozeki overwrites. Tons of instances where a simple phrase ("steep slope") gets an unnecessary thesaurus upgrade ("vertiginous slope") which then gets repeated. There is SO MUCH alliteration, combined with random exclamations:
Every time such a patron paused on the bridge, we would catch our breath and wonder what would prompt an architect to design such a precipitous point of departure into a Public Library? What folly!

Ozeki must have been especially proud of that line since her self-insert character (what overindulgent book DOESN'T have a smug author self-insert) repeats it word-for-word only a few pages later:
"You really have to wonder what would prompt an architect to design such a precipitous point of departure into a Public Library."

It's just so... bad.

On top of the annoying writing style, Book also has a tendency to go on long tangential rants: about how kids don't read, about consumerism, about defunding public libraries, etc. I don't feel like I'm reading a story and getting the themes organically from the writing, I feel like I'm reading slivers of fiction that get interrupted by the author lecturing on the importance of the topics presented in the text. (Sorry, I prefer not to get my moralizing from books that talk about "marginal types" with disgust.)

In my opinion, the best parts of the book are when Benny speaks in the first-person, since we get his thoughts and feelings without Book's getting in the way. Unfortunately, those chapters are very short (usually a couple pages at most) and appear far less frequently than Book's. Because who cares about Benny, right? People don't read books for characters or plot, they want sermonizing about how books are omniscient and judging you all the time. I wish it had been written from the POVs of Annabelle and Benny instead of Book acting as an easily distracted and quite insufferable narrator.

Ozeki is also one of those writers who thinks rattling off loooooooooooong lists of crap is a substitute for actually saying something. It really does feel at times like she just looked stuff up on the Internet and info-dumped them in the book as a substitute for world-building; it's so inorganic and unnecessary. Things like listing off every side effect for medication or the names of every piece of Medieval armor, like what is this? A NaNoWriMo project trying to hit 50k words?

And that brings me to the third problem with the book: it's just too long. We get relatively little about Annabelle, Benny, their relationship, or the world they inhabit; instead, we get entire chapters filled with self-important editorializing about the nature of books, or whatever the fuck. I am only now getting to the side characters who might draw out Annabelle's and Benny's personalities (Slavoj, Alice/the Aleph) but from the outset, they don't look very promising at all. I already talked about how cartoony Slavoj is, and Alice/the Aleph is the very image of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. There's also the very blatant KonMari knockoff which might have been cute if it wasn't also cheesily setting her up to be Kenji's long-lost sister. I really don't want to read through hundreds of more pages of this.

In general, it feels like this book didn't go through enough revisions. I've run into several typos or missing words, and at one point his name is written Benji instead of Benny. It's a bit nitpicky to bring up typos, but it does show how this book probably could have used a few more read-throughs before publication. So many passages that go no where that should have been cut, especially Book's rants. (Book even apologizes for one rant, which might have been funny if the entire rest of the narrative wasn't exactly the same. So, what was the point of that?)

I usually commit to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and read books through to the end no matter how unpleasant they are, but I think for this case I need to cut my losses and run. It's just not very good.
Profile Image for Nilguen.
230 reviews76 followers
July 27, 2023
Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2022

This multi-layered, coming-of-age novel by Ruth Ozeki tells an evocative story of mother and son bonding during their experience of loss and grievance.

Kenji´s sudden death caught both, Annabelle and Benny, off-guard and drags them through a string of incidents to find closure and peace with severe loss. While Annabelle is grieving over her husband by living in chaos, Benny is struggling to find a way to express his sorrow over his father´s death. He is haunted by voices of objects around him. Eventually, mother and son find a way to embrace their grievance with a Zen Buddhist.

The novel is narrated from two perspectives: Benny and the book 📖. The latter is the main differentiator from other books. Imagine a book telling its side of the story and engages the reader to reflect on the meaning and importance of books per se. This made it a great, one-of-a-kind reading experience to me!

Following a golden thread, the writing style encapsulates perfection. I am deducting one star for I had the feeling that experts in health care were a tad downgraded in their competence to help people cope with grief in favor of Zen Buddhism.

I received an advance review copy from NetGalley, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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#Netgalley 🫶
477 reviews151 followers
August 21, 2021
A gratifying, strangely moving, and deeply perplexing book. It's about emptiness (of various kinds), what we do to fill that emptiness (love, art, stories... things), the difficulty (sometimes) of distinguishing what's real and what is not, what's normally "normal" and what is not. It's a paean to story-telling. It struck me -- and I don't mean this as a criticism at all! -- as having the heart of an indie movie filled with "oddball" characters -- the people who live on the fringes of society -- and Big Ideas.

The main story: Benny is a young adolescent who's unhappy at school, short for his age. His father is killed in a bizarre accident and his mother, grieving, has become a hoarder by inclination (snow globes, porcelain, rubber duckies) and by profession (she clips articles for a company that provides that service for other companies, organizations, etc. -- I actually did that to earn money back in college; computers do it now). Mom tends to infantilize her son and behave irresponsibly.

Shortly after his father's death, Benny starts hearing voices. At first it's his father's voice, but then he starts to hear the voices of things (scissors, chairs, moldy cheese, half-eaten cartons of yogurt, etc.) all clamoring loudly for his attention. Distressed, he skips school, hiding in the library where he begins to discover notes hidden in books, which he takes to be directions left for him to find. He meets unusual people: an often inebriated Eastern European poet in a wheelchair, a teenage girl called Aleph, like the Borges story, with silver hair... I'll stop here. Yep, there's a lot going on. Not to mention something like Magnetic Poetry words on a fridge changing, apparently, by themselves.)

One other noteworthy aspect of the story: it's told by two voices -- Benny's and "The Book." The book we're reading, yes, but somehow more than that. The two voices, Benny's and The Book's, are aware of each other and interact. Benny complains at one point, If you're my book, I have to pay attention. It's either that or go crazy again, and my job these days is not to let that happen. So all I'm suggesting is that you do your job, and I'll do mine. (He also complains when the book offers too much information about his parents' sex life.) It sounds "meta,"yes, but it doesn't feel that way as you're reading it. In fact, it's kind of charming at times, the back and firth between book and boy, between a possibly unmoored young mind and a muse impelled to express itself. This device -- a book that is somehow more than a book -- brought to mind the diary that played such a key part in Ozeki's magical earlier novel, "A Tale for the Time Being."

Scattered throughout the novel are oracular comments that hint at what the book is "about" and what the title refers to. The poet says to Benny, for example, "Let me tell you something about poetry, young school boy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I hef created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem... In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems."

Art can be used in an effort to fill the silence, as can love and sorrow, and delusion. But so can mere objects, though not to good effect, not in our own thing-obsessed culture: Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.

(Just as a diary played a key role in Ozeki's wonderful "A Tale for the Time Being," so does a Marie Kondo-like book on de-cluttering appear here.)

A lot happens in the book, and I honestly found myself caring about what's happening even though I wasn't not sure what it all meant, what was really happening and what might have been imagined. I cared too about the characters: they're all sympathetically portrayed, all their flaws acknowledged, as they try to find their way in the world. It's all something of a puzzle, but a really quite engaging puzzle. Is Benny mad in believing The Book speaks to him? Is the reader... well, maybe not "mad," but somehow delusional, in asking the book he/she's reading "speak"? In seeing our lives as a kind of narrative, as we all do, are we...

You get the point. I liked the book a lot. Not as much as "A Tale for the Time Being," but that's OK. It's a novel that actively invites the reader into its creation. Readers who like clarity and cleanly flowing narratives will probably not find "The Book of Form and Emptiness" to their liking. Everyone else, though, should consider giving it a try. It's almost certainly unlike anything else they've ever read.

My thanks to Viking/Penguin Random House for providing an advance digital copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Laura .
377 reviews152 followers
July 30, 2022
FINAL UPDATE- I am dnfing at 61% - on page 326 of 536
I don't feel guilty; I'm not changing the one star rating.

The action parts read like some kind of Teenager TV series, possibly a cross between Alec Rider and Nancy Drew. Benny, the Aleph and old Bottle-man Slavoj.

One of the elements I found interesting was Ozeki's use of Walter Benjamin. A famous essay - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I am aware/familiar with his theory; we discussed it in Grad school. I like Benjamin's theory, which is that original art works retain the essence of the time, the age in which they they were made.

I quote Ozeki:

He wrote a famous essay on the subject called "Unpacking My Library," (skip a bit)
(skip some more Ozeki - all boring) "Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have with objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them."

So, basically that's an important quote because it's more or less what her book is about. Benny's relationship with things, also his mother (Oh God), and most importantly his relationship with the book, - or in fact himself.

"it is he who lives in them." The idea is that the art objects and possibly other kinds of objects do in fact hold our lives. This makes a lot of sense when you consider a book, or a painting, or a piece of music - the person lives on in that object.

Ozeki, compounds Benjamin's theory with another idea - which is that it is the boy who makes the man. In this story we are to understand, that Benny, doesn't yet have his voice - he is trying - and the sections labelled BENNY are the 14 year old 'speaking'. Most of the rest of the story falls into lengthier sections labelled

In - The Book - are TWO separate voices - which Ozeki blurrs. First - the omniscient narrator - or in fact the mature Benny, writing the story of how he/she became the person who would write this book.

And another voice when The Book speaks directly as if it were a character; which represents I think, the idea that when a book is finished - it takes on its own identity, and no longer belongs to the author. The book interacts with the reader and becomes a whole other thing. (This is actually quite an enjoyable idea, but Ozeki is not the first to do it - the intrusive omnipient narrator is a well established writing style.)

So for me Benny's story is not particularly interesting or Annabelle's story either - she is - Words Fail. What is interesting - to me - is the process by which someone develops the self-esteem, and the skills, and yes the commitment to becoming a writer. This is interesting and seems to be quietly tucked in between the loud and tedious story apparent.

After some thought last night I felt the need to add one small item to my review -

"The Old Pond" by Matsuo Bashō

An old silent pond

A frog jumps into the pond

Splash! Silence again.

The Haiku above is a Zen moment by master Matsuo Bashō.

. . . from Wikipedia - 'Zen teaches that our suffering arises from our sense of separation, from feeling "alone and afraid in a world I never made". The practise of haiku is a way of dissolving this feeling of separation by experiencing the unity of our own nature and the nature of everything around us'.

The beauty of haiku - is that it captures the universe in a SHORT poem.

The downside of Ozeki's book is excessive detail which is extremely hard to convey in a review. I've included two paragraphs below, but you have to imagine pages and pages and pages of similar style. After a very SHORT time your reading mind becomes suffocated - it's a sort of drowning in words.

He printed out the letter on the coin-operated printer using the change his mother had given him to buy a soda. He remembered seeing Dr. Melanie's girly signature on a prescription, and after practising a few times on a piece of scrap paper, he signed the letter, scanned it, and attached it as a reply to the principal's email from the dummy Annabelle O account.

The Middle Eastern exchange student was still asleep and snoring softly, his cheek pressed against the pages of an astronomy textbook. On his laptop screen, a live webcast of a star cluster, viewed from a telescope in a Chilean observatory, reloaded every few seconds and synchronized with his exhalations, so that it looked like his breathing controlled the refresh rate of the stars. A calculator sat on the desktop next to a half-eaten falafel sandwich.

Two paragraphs no problem - 536 pages of this - NO - severe over-consumption.
Profile Image for Susie.
322 reviews
January 1, 2022
Well that could have been 200 pages shorter without losing any gravity. A miss for me. It was all over the shop, never really took off, and I was never able to connect with the characters in a meaningful way. The concept just didn’t quite work for me.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
January 23, 2022
Book 1 of 2022 is a mighty tome that I started in late 2021 thanks to @lovelybookshelf (in Instagram) and the Chunkster Readathon ... and it's really thanks to the public library closing earlier for the holidays than I expected that I ended up reading this book, because I was prepared to bail after not immediately connecting. But it was on the Tournament of Books shortlist and it deserved another try, especially since last year I reread A Tale for the Time Being by the same author and had a much more favorable experience my second time. There are some feelings from that book in this book, in the vaguest way.

This books has many layers and some are difficult to explain, but maybe I'll start by saying that Ozeki bases some of the underlying ideas on Zen Buddhism. So hearing voices has a different meaning for some of the characters, mental illness is seen differently, even inanimate objects may have a life of their own. One type of object is a book - each person has one - a godlike presence reflecting but also gently influencing decisions for dramatic purposes.

The Buddhist nuns discuss the concept of tsukumogami at some point - the "unquiet spirit." Apparently this can happen both with people who pass and with objects, although it is rare. And then there are people more able to hear it. So they jump to assuming Benny fits that category (of course being known in this way is far less typical in American culture.) When they meet in person, she recognizes Benny immediately as a being familiar to her.

Still with me? Okay. So Annabelle was married to Kenji, and had a son Benny. Kenji died young and they are both grieving. Benny, an almost adolescent teen, is trying to mask that he hears voices but it is getting more difficult. Annabelle has anxiety and depression (and/or grief) coming out through hoarding tendencies, although she can't really see it.

Another Zen Buddhist concept that comes up is that of impermanence, the teacup that is already broken, honoring brokenness - you could write a dissertation on how that shows up in the novel, and it was probably at this moment that I realized I would be giving the book 5 stars. I was surprised, not going to lie!

The chapters alternate between Annabelle's story (through a Book), Benny's reaction to it, and sometimes chapters of a Marie Kondo style book. Benny also has encountered some interesting off-grid creatures that deepens the reader's assumptions about mental health.

It's a reading experience for sure, once you get into the rhythm of it. Ozeki has a lot of compassion for her imperfect, lonely characters, and to me that made a significant difference in how the Book resolves.

And then the books philosophizing about how they do not exist in a singular state - another dissertation.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,822 reviews1,382 followers
June 15, 2022
Winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize.

He has several ....... entities he talks to, and many others who talk to him. His Aleph is one of them. He says she lives in trees. …. And another he calls the B-man, or sometimes the Bottleman, whom he describes as a hobo with a prosthetic leg. These appear to be complex visual hallucinations—he can see them and describe them in some detail. In addition, there’s the larger group of elementary auditory hallucinations, including miscellaneous objects like teapots, table legs, shower heads, scissors, sneakers, sidewalk cracks, and glass window panes, to name a few. But there’s one that’s different, a primary and complex auditory hallucination, an entity he calls the Book.

I read this book due to its longlisting for the 2022 Women’s Prize, although I would have read it anyway (I was awaiting the paperback publication on 24 March) as I was a fan of the author’s Booker shortlisted “A Tale for The Time Being” and indeed asked my first audience question at the In person Booker shortlist readings about that book (on the quantum mechanical aspects).

And in a Women’s Prize longlist which seems to be ratcheting up its focus on alternative voices: three tales of ghosts and magic to offset a bias towards reality: two books with talking animals to counter the resulting anthropocentricity: a book with a talking tree to make the case for the plant world against the colonialism of the animal kingdom: this book takes things a step further by having at its very heart a backlash against (my term) animatenormativity by giving inanimate objects the voice they have long been denied in fiction - here both with a novel effectively narrated by itself and in active dialogue in its own pages with the teenage boy whose story it is telling, and with the key characteristic of that boy being his unwanted and often deeply troubling ability to hear the cacophony of voices of the everyday objects that surround him physically and crowd him aurally.

Amusingly even within the inanimate kingdom it seems that further hierarchies occur - although I think this does rather neatly capture how many present day tensions and injustices (from the caste system to skin colour distinctions) are the legacy of colonialism.

“In the beginning, before there was life, when the world of things was the entire world, every thing mattered. Then life happened, and eventually you people came along with your big, beautiful, bisected brains and clever opposable thumbs. You couldn’t help yourselves, and it was only a matter of time before you caused a rift to occur, dividing matter into two camps, the Made and the Unmade. Over subsequent millennia the schism grew. Haltingly at first, in fits and starts—a pinched pot here, an arrowhead there, a bead, a hammerstone, an ax—you worked your way through the material world, through clay, stone, reed, hide, fire, metal, atoms, and genes, and little by little you became better makers. Cranked by the power of your big prefrontal cortices, the engines of your imagination gathered steam until, in tumultuous leaps of what you came to call progress, the Made proliferated, relegating the Unmade to the status of mere resource, a lowly serf class to be colonized, exploited, and fashioned into something else, some thing that was more to your liking.

Within this social hierarchy of matter, we books lived on top. We were the ecclesiastical caste, the High Priests of the Made, and in the beginning you even worshipped us. As objects, books were sacred, and you built temples for us, and later, libraries in whose hushed and hallowed halls we resided as mirrors of your mind

Like a number of other books on the longlist it has a child/teenage protagonist and putting that together with what at times is a rather didactic approach (with the voice of the book often switching into a rather portentous lecturing style - as the above shows) does I feel mean that this book read perhaps more like a young adult book than a literary novel. Although there too I am perhaps showing that my genre snobbery one also held by books it would seem

Is it odd to see a book within a book? It shouldn’t be. Books like each other. We understand each other. You could even say we are all related, enjoying a kinship that stretches like a rhizomatic network beneath human consciousness and knits the world of thought together. Think of us as a mycelium, a vast, subconscious fungal mat beneath a forest floor, and each book a fruiting body. Like mushrooms, we are a collectivity. Our pronouns are we, our, us. Because we’re all connected, we communicate all the time—agreeing, disagreeing, gossiping about other books, name-dropping, and quoting each other—and we have our preferences and prejudices, too. Of course, we do! Biases abound on library shelves. The scholarly tomes disparage the more commercial books. Literary novels look down on romance and pulp fiction, and there’s an almost universal disregard for certain genres, like self-help.

This is nevertheless one of the more intriguing books on the longlist - a lengthy and varied book which perhaps as a consequence is at times very successful and at others can feel in dire need of a traditional editor’s blue pen. However when a novel speaking as a character in its own pages itself strongly makes the case for (my terms) a bibliocentric view of novels with authors largely as intermediaries between books and readers; it is perhaps not surprising that the editing of this book feels like it concentrated more on encouraging and expanding and rather than reducing the wide ranging scope of the novel.

This is also a book which has as its main female lead who is both: a collector of facts and news (via her job as a “scissors lady” working as a reader and print clipper for a media monitoring agency - an agency with an obsession with document retention which only too easily fits this employees own proclivity); an increasingly obsessive hoarder whose tendencies there are not helped by the loss of her jazz musician Japanese-Korean husband who perhaps acted as the one check on her and whose very death introduces an additional need to memorialise.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see similar tendencies in the author herself and in her writing if the book.

When writing her previous Booker shortlisted novel - the author changed tack half way through (I think as a result of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and Tsunami) and did not use around 300 pages of material on an eccentric cast of characters (a young female and rather troubled radical conceptual artist, an alcoholic wheelchair bound Slovakian poet philosopher) who inhabited a large public library with a possibly haunted bindery at its heart. But in the best tradition of hoarding this material was neither deleted or discarded but kept for when it could might prove useful in the future. And in what is perhaps a radical departure from the more obsessive hoarder that moment actually arose and the material was successfully deployed in this project.

And having the “scissors lady” at the heart of the novel also gives the author all the excuse she did not really need (as it is I think an inherent tendency) to throw in current affairs (particularly climate change, anti capitalist activism, the Trump electoral win and its aftermath of protests and police brutality) and any other scraps of information that intrigue her (for example on space exploration).

The novel I think shows a spectrum of research in its myriad of influences: personally experienced (the role and worldview of a Buddhist Priest); rather overworn and cliched (the Marie Kondo decluttering trend); very empathetic and detailed (Hearing Voices and the world of municipal libraries); intermediate (the life and works of Walter Benjamin); rather superficial (the jazz of Benny Goodman).

In terms of some missteps I would include the frequent references to “hobos”, the two very stereotyped Chinese characters and the voice of the poet - as in this example which is actually the first to explain the book’s title

Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I hef created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.” He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” Benny thought about this for a while. He thought about his mother and her fridge magnets. He didn’t write those stupid poems, and that was the truth, but his mother thought he was lying, and that was a problem. He had a lot of problems. “Is that what you write about? Your problems?” The poet shrugged. “Not so much my problems. But ze world’s problems, yes. I listen and write down vat I hear.”

But overall there is enough here to make it a worthwhile read.

My thanks to Canongate for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,458 reviews144 followers
October 12, 2021
Fourteen-year-old Benny starts to hear voices after the death of his clarinet playing father. The voices come from different things including a sneaker, a piece of lettuce, and most significantly, from a book. It’s a book that will play a major part in the narrative throughout. The Book of Form and Emptiness” is imaginative and inventive with pages of wonderful prose, but nothing there that drove me to want to read on to each next chapter. I enjoyed the parts when I read them but had to force myself to pick the book up once I had put it down. Unfortunately, unlike Benny’s book in the novel, my book didn’t speak to me. I really enjoyed ‘A Tale for the Time Being”, but this one was much less satisfying.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,548 reviews603 followers
December 5, 2021
The Book of Form and Emptiness starts with the death of Kenji Oh, run over by a truck in the alley outside his home. The following 546 pages recount the suffering and struggles of his wife, Annabelle and son, Benny in the aftermath of his death. But this is not a grim novel. Ozeki infuses the pages with warmth, wisdom...and levity.

There is a lot of weirdness going on. For one, the book is a character in its own book. I was unsure of the line between Benny's hallucinations and the reality of the book. Do the objects really talk? After all, the book does and it is real. But it never takes itself too seriously.

It makes sense that Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. She guides the reader to look deeper, widening our perspective. This is the kind of book I love! One in which I emerge looking at life a little differently.
Profile Image for Dwayne.
120 reviews127 followers
September 9, 2023
Sometimes big books can be a daunting task, and in the wrong hands, they can be a chore for readers to plod through. At almost 550 pages, this is not the case for The Book of Form and Emptiness.

I admit, the plot sounds a bit... sketchy, maybe a little fanciful- after the death of his father, a boy starts to hear the voice of objects around him. Also, the book is mostly narrated BY a book. To say I wasn't very excited to read it would be correct. Right before the Women's Prize was announced, I decided to read it as a friend of mine (now my boyfriend) got me a copy.

While I didn't dislike it, I wasn't too impressed with it at first, but along the way, something marvelous happened- I got more and more into the story. Indeed, by the end, I was completely invested.

After finishing it, I realized just how much I cared about these characters, even the father who dies at the very beginning of the book. It's a wonderful and moving story of grief and trauma. Yes, it's kinda meta, but it's also deeply philosophical. I can completely understand why this resonated with the Women's Prize committee.

There have been some criticism that the book reads like YA fiction, and I suppose there is some truth to that. But please don't be turned off by that assessment. Its tone may suggest it was intended for a younger audience, but its subject matter is anything but trite.

This is a story that sneaks up on and will surprise you in many ways. It's a story about life, and how we try to cope in a crazy world. It's dark in places, but there's also so much hope and beauty inside the mess. I can't recommend this enough.

4.5 stars!
Profile Image for ally.
88 reviews5,096 followers
November 21, 2022
there were some beautiful lines that i marked with pen but overall i just couldn’t connect with this one 💔
Profile Image for Marc.
3,109 reviews1,175 followers
February 14, 2023
I know, 2 stars is very meagre and maybe even undeserved. Because this book is smoothly written, combines a lot of wit with some deep wisdom, and is in essence an inventive game of dialogue between the narrator (apparently the book itself) and main character Benny Oh, an insecure adolescent who hears the 'voices of things'. Ozeki has turned it into an interesting cocktail, with attention to relevant social themes on both Benny's and his mother's side (you can feel sympathy for both). But I'm afraid it did not really captivate me: the pedantic 'Zen' sauce and the magical realism turned me off. I guess I'm not the target audience. My bad, perhaps?
Profile Image for Ellie Hamilton.
128 reviews123 followers
May 13, 2023
I can definitely appreciate this book and the writing was 😘 but overall it felt too long and I wasn't invested very much ✨More books by the author are definitely on my radar though.
Profile Image for Melki.
6,036 reviews2,387 followers
March 3, 2022
It's not like I wanted to be the spokesperson for the fucking toaster oven, even if it thinks I am.

Not long after the accidental death of his father, young Benny began hearing objects talking to him: glass screamed because it was upset over the death of a bird, scissors urged him to stab, stab, stab. Meanwhile, his mother, dealing with both grief over her husband, and her son's progressively baffling behavior, finds herself increasingly unable to cope. Interestingly enough, both characters find solace, and solutions in books.

This was a wonderful novel, but putting up with these two characters, and their seemingly insurmountable problems on a daily basis . . .well, it wore me down. It was a tough, though definitely worthwhile read thanks to Ozeki's beautiful prose.

Story is in the air that you people breathe, the ocean you swim in, and we books are the rocks along the shoreline that channel your currents and contain your tides.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,081 reviews919 followers
October 18, 2022
I give up - I've listened to 60%, the novel isn't terrible, but there's so much gibberish and so many small things that just feel like fillers to me, so I decided not to torment myself any further. It could also be a timing thing.
Profile Image for Skrot.
45 reviews2 followers
October 2, 2021
I think my favorite part is when the protagonist’s serious mental illness just magically disappears in the last 20 pages, because, you know, that’s how it works!
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
June 15, 2022
Winner of the Women's Prize 2022

My final book from the Women's Prize list was one I wasn't looking forward to (partly because of its length), but for the most part was an unexpected treat, and might just be my favourite of the six that are left (though I haven't entirely forgiven the judges for failing to shortlist Salt Lick, my personal favourite).

Ozeki's story is an original one, describing the life of the teenaged Benny Oh, who starts to believe that man-made objects talk to him after his Japanese father, a jazz clarinettist, dies in a bizarre accident. The other main character is his mother Annabelle, who works as a news archivist, and becomes an increasingly compulsive hoarder. Benny also believes that his life is being narrated by a book (continuing the non-human voices theme common to a number of books on this year's prize lists), and the narration alternates between the book's perspective and Benny's shorter interludes, along with occasional extracts from a book Annabelle finds about zen tidying.

Ozeki is a sympathetic narrator, and brings humour to what could have been a pretty bleak story. I am not sure I entirely believed the happy ending, which for me robbed the book of any chance of a fifth star.
Profile Image for Sarah-Hope.
1,130 reviews108 followers
October 10, 2021
I'm still relatively new to the work of Ruth Ozeki. My wife picked up a copy of A Tale for the Time Being on remainder, but because of vision issues, I couldn't read it. The cover, nonetheless, pulled me in, and when I found a copy of the book on CD at a library sale, I bought it. It made for wonderful commute "reading" and left Ozeki very much on my radar. She's become one of those writers I "stalk"—checking regularly online to see what they have in the works and doing all I can to get my hands on a review copy.

The Book of Form and Emptiness, like A Tale for a Time Being, is lengthy and complex, but Ozeki has the gift of creating complexity that nonetheless seems straightforward. One has to read for a while before recognizing the complexity of the world they've entered.

The world of The Book of Form an Emptiness is populated by the sort of people one might not notice in real life (though the question of "what is real?" runs through the entire book, and that's probably part of Ozeki's point): Annabelle, a young widow whose attachment to objects has left her home a labyrinth; Benny, her son, who has been hearing the voices of inanimate objects since his father's death; a young woman living on the streets and producing both conceptual and physical works of art; an Eastern European "hobo" (as Benny calls him) who also lives on the streets and has a salon of sorts among the disenfranchised, initiating conversations about topics ranging from history to politics to the need to embrace everything, including garbage; a Japanese Zen nun who has become internationally known after writing a book on tidying up one's life; and a psychiatrist with an always-perfect manicure and a serious lack of imagination, who is treating Benny. The crucial scenes in the last third of the book are set at the time of Trump's election, which threatens to turn complexity into chaos.

The Book of Form and Emptiness has one additional important character: the Book. The Book tells Benny's story, interspersed with regular, brief commentary from Benny. The book has an omniscience that Benny pushes against. It tells parts of Benny's story he doesn't want to share, and Benny feels the book forces him to take actions he feels ambivalent about, though the book insists that's not true.

Ozeki takes her time telling stories, which I think is one of the reasons her cast of characters comes across as so "real." The first third of the book, when few of the central characters have been introduced moves slowly, but that pace is part of what makes Ozeki's novel feel so very "real" (caveats again about questions of reality). As more characters enter the story, Ozeki weaves a fabric that is fine, but not restrictive. Yes, there are moments of coincidence, but Ozeki makes them feel like the coincidences of ordinary life, not like an author's manipulations.

I absolutely recommend this book, whether or not it seems the sort of thing you like to read. Enter it with patience, work through it steadily, and see the way the world of The Book of Form and Emptiness comes to shape in all its detail and untidiness.

I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley; the opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Elizabeth George.
Author 99 books4,899 followers
April 8, 2022
This is a most interesting book. At first, I didn't care for it. I'd read the recommendations and quotes from the authors on the cover, and I didn't understand why people were calling it "compassionate", along with other strongly positive comments. I bought it on the strength of these recommendations and comments, and for the first 50 or so pages, I was completely in the dark, asking why anyone would recommend it so strongly. (Full disclosure: I know and like Ruth Ozeki and have appeared at conferences with her). But as I continued, I began to see the challenge she had set out for herself and the beauty with which she'd met that challenge. In the simplest way of looking at the novel, it's a book about a boy who hears voices coming from inanimate objects (think chair leg, teapot, or anything unliving, with neither a soul nor a voice). In the more complex way of looking at the novel, it's a book about learning what lies beneath the surface of people, and how the most frustrating aspects of their behavior contain a beauty that often goes unnoticed or is feared by other people. The book is filled to bursting with characters who are both real and memorable. Its sense of place is extraordinary and its open-hearted acceptance of people's vulnerabilities is heart-warming and exceptional. I wouldn't call it a book for casual reading, but I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
632 reviews350 followers
July 22, 2022
4.5 📚📚📚📚
A favorite author has written a fairly long tale that had me engaged start to finish.
Volumes to ponder within and narrated by a book, much of its setting takes place in that home away from home we all want to go to when we die and reunite with loved ones — the library.
This story is a treasure trove of characters, ideas, beliefs, challenges, and other worlds to explore, just what you would expect and hope for from a good book.
Bookmarked with reading friends added extra hi-lights. Thanks Buds 🥰
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