Six Degrees of Separation: From Ruth Ozeki to Ruth Padel

This month we begin with The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It happens to be my least favourite of her books that I’ve read so far, but I was pleased to see her work recognised nonetheless. (See also Kate’s opening post.)

#1 One of the peripheral characters in Ozeki’s novel is an Eastern European philosopher who goes by “The Bottleman.” I had to wonder if he was based on avant-garde Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Back in 2010, when I was working at a university library in London and had access to nearly any book I could think of – and was still committed to trying to read the sorts of books I thought I should enjoy rather than what I actually did – I skimmed a couple of Žižek’s works, including First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), which arose from 9/11 and the global financial crisis and questions whether we can ever stop history repeating itself without undermining capitalism.


#2 In searching my archives for farces I’ve read, I came across one I took notes on but never wrote up back in 2013: Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed (1993), an academic comedy set at “Jack London College” in Oakland, California. The novel satirizes almost every ideology prevalent in the 1960s–80s: multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feminism, affirmative action and various literary critical methods. Reed sets up exaggerated and polarized groups and opinions. (You know it’s not to be taken entirely seriously when you see character names like Chappie Puttbutt, President Stool and Professor Poop, short for Poopovich.) The college is sold off to the Japanese and Ishmael Reed himself becomes a character. There are some amusing lines but I ended up concluding that Reed wasn’t for me. If you’ve enjoyed work by Paul Beatty and Percival Everett, he might be up your street.


#3 “Call me Ishmael” – even if, like me, you have never gotten through Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851), you probably know that famous opening line. I took an entire course on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville as an undergraduate and still didn’t manage to read the whole thing! Even my professor acknowledged that Melville could have done with a really good editor to rein in his ideas and cut out some of his digressions.


#4 A favourite that I can recommend instead is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011). It’s just the kind of random, wide-ranging nonfiction I love: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical musing on human culture and our impact on the environment. In 1992 a pallet of “Friendly Floatees” bath toys fell off a container ship in a storm in the North Pacific. Over the next two decades those thousands of plastic animals made their way around the world, informing oceanographic theory and delighting children. Hohn’s obsessive quest for the origin of the bath toys and the details of their high seas journey takes on the momentousness of his literary antecedent. He visits a Chinese factory and sees plastics being made; he volunteers on a beach-cleaning mission in Alaska. (I’d not seen the Ozeki cover that appears in Kate’s post, but how pleasing to note that it also has a rubber duck on it!)


#5 Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir, it’s about a trip to Nepal in 1973, with Matthiessen joining a zoologist to study Himalayan blue sheep – and hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. He had recently lost his partner to cancer, and relied on his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance and transience.


#6 Ruth Padel is one of my favourite contemporary poets and a fixture at the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year. She has a collection named The Soho Leopard (2004), whose title sequence is about urban foxes. The natural world and her travels are always a major element of her books. From one Ruth to another, then, by way of philosophy, farce, whaling, rubber ducks and mountain adventuring.


Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is a wildcard: use the book you finished with this month (or, if you haven’t done an August chain, the last book you’ve read).

Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?

18 responses

  1. Interesting set of links. I may have to investigate Japanese by Spring given your Percival Everett comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With the caveat that I’ve not read Everett’s fiction, but all three authors are known for their racial satires.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to “like” twice for your Zizek connection!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am so tempted by Moby Duck! In fact I’ve just found a second hand copy, online, so … job done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of my absolute favourites, and a book hardly anyone seems to know about. My work here is done 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, if you’re going to retire rich and happy, so be it!


  4. I read about half of Moby Dick, enough to write an adequate paper on it in college, ha ha! That was enough for me. 🙂 What an interesting chain you have this month. I would like to read another Ozeki sometime. I ‘ve only read Tale for the Time Being, which was very good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t remember how much of Moby Dick I got through. I probably skimmed or skipped over a lot of the sections where he goes into details of whale anatomy and processing.

      A Tale for the Time Being is one of my all-time favorites!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Moby Duck! Hilarious and sounds fun. Good chain!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, I couldn’t help laugh when you linked from Moby Dick to Moby Duck! Lovely chain!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to provide a laugh 🙂 Everyone’s heard of Moby Dick, but more people need to read Moby Duck.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. (A couple of the above comments initially went to the spam folder because I’d blocked the word d*ck with an i!)


  8. I’d not heard of Moby Duck, but it does sound like a really fun story that the author uses to get into lots of interesting topics. Definitely my kind of nonfiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you’d especially enjoy the science aspect of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Moby Duck sounds like so much fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is! I’m glad several people have discovered it through this post.


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