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Rarely does one encounter a first novel so unique that it is impossible to compare it with other works or voices. But this is exactly the case with Ruth Ozeki's assured debut, My Year of Meats. Like the author, a half-Japanese former filmmaker, the novel reflects a melange of contrasting influences and multiple points of view. The result is a book that is both cinematic and diaristic, a book whose compelling fiction rests upon unsavory, often horrifying facts. My Year of Meats may just represent a new hybrid in the literary landscape -- documentary fiction, or docufiction, if you will.
My Year of Meats chronicles a year in the life of Jane Takagi-Little, a struggling New York City-based documentary filmmaker who is hired to produce a Japanese television show, My American Wife!, sponsored by a lobby group of the U.S. meat industry. The show requires Jane to travel to the American Midwest to interview "representative American" women about their favorite beef recipes, interviews that are later broadcast to an audience of Japanese housewives. But it soon becomes apparent that Jane's ideas for the show differ wildly from those of the Japanese executives producing it. Unlike the list of "Desirable Things" that the executives tell Jane to look for in her subjects ("1. Attractiveness....2. Wholesomeness...3. Exciting hobbies....4. Obedient children.....5. Docile husband"), Jane prefers to focus on the individuals she finds most compelling: a pair of vegetarian lesbians, for example, and a family of impoverished gospel singers.
Jane's inadvertent subversiveness, while incurring the wrath of her bosses, also touches the hearts of the housewives back in Japan who watch her show religiously. One of My American Wife!'s most faithful viewers is Akiko Ueno, the long-suffering wife of John Ueno, the show's head advertising executive and Jane's boss. At first, John forces Akiko to watch the show and perform the functions of a mini-focus group, filling out a questionnaire after each episode that rates categories such as "Educational Value, Authenticity, Deliciousness of Meat and Wholesomeness." But Akiko, who is bulimic, begins to look forward to the program for the glimpse it gives her of lives so radically different from her own. Jane's feminist viewpoint gradually seeps in, and Akiko begins to dream of dismantling the power structures of her marriage.
But power structures, whether marriages or industries as powerful as the beef industry, are notoriously resistant to change. Jane's bosses threaten to fire her from the project for her attraction to "unwholesome subjects." John's abusiveness toward Akiko for what he feels is her willful infertility becomes increasingly violent. During filming, Jane, who had believed herself infertile due to her mother's use of DES (diethylstilbestrol -- man-made estrogen) during pregnancy, also discovers she is pregnant. DES, she soon learns, is the same growth hormone used to enhance the beef she is being paid to promote. While the plot thickens on several fronts, a desperate Akiko reaches out to Jane after a particularly severe beating by John. In her letter she pleads for what she believes is the key to a happy life.
Dear Miss Takagi-Little,
You do not know me because I am only the wife of Ueno of BEEF-EX so I regret to bothering you at all. But I feel compelled to writing for the reason of your program of the Lesbian's couple with two childrens was very emotional for me. So thank you firstly for change my life. Because of this program, I feel I can trust to you so that I can be so bold.
You see, Ueno and I wanted to have the child at first but because of my bad habits of eating and throw up my food I could not have monthly bleeding for many years. But now I can have it again thanks to eating delicious Hallelujah Lamb's recipe from your program of My American Wife! so secondly thank you for that also.
But I am most wanting to say that I listen to the black lady say she never want man in her life, and all of a sudden I agree! I am so surprising that I cry! (I do not know if I am Lesbian since I cannot imagine this condition, but I know I never want marriage and with my deep heart I am not "John's" wife.)
I feel such a sadness for my lying life. So I now wish to ask you where can I go to live my happy life like her? Please tell me this.
As it turns out, Akiko is soon well on her way to defining her own happiness. In the hospital after the beating, she befriends one of the nurses, Tomoko, who offers her a place to stay. While at Tomoko's, Akiko begins to plan her escape to America. Jane, meanwhile, has miscarried due to an accident at a slaughterhouse, but has shot damning footage of the meat industry's corrupt practices, a videotape that will secure her future for a long while to come. Thankfully, Ozeki doesn't opt for the entirely happy ending. Although the meat industry ultimately gets its comeuppance (in the book's final chapters, Jane exposes the literal -- and emotional -- toxicity in one cattle ranchers' home), Ozeki never lets us forget how the beef industry's greed has scarred Jane and Akiko -- and countless others -- forever.
Throughout the novel, hard-nosed documentarian research provides the underpinnings for a compelling, inevitable story. Combining the personal, the fictional, and the political, My Year of Meats is an intoxicating hybrid and an explosive and courageous debut.
This first novel, written by a
young documentary filmmaker, describes the
production of a year-long series about red meat
broadcast on Japanese network television and
sponsored by BEEF-EX, a U.S. lobby group
looking for new markets for American meats.
Robust, funny and insistently educational in tone,
My Year of Meats deals with the
cross-pollination of people and values, toxicity in
meat, synthetic estrogens, camera angles and the
ever-pertinent issue of perspective and reliability
in the media. The only problem is that Ozeki's
novel sometimes feels as much like a Lifetime
movie as a complex, hard-hitting exposé.
Jane Takagi-Little, the tall daughter of a
Midwestern father and Japanese mother, is hired
to help produce weekly installments for a show
called "My American Wife." Each episode will
offer a tightly wrapped cameo of a traditional
American family, promote "authentic" values,
scroll through a recipe and culminate in the
attractive presentation of a meal of red meat by
the week's chosen wife. Despite the infomercial
aspect to the series, Jane sees this as
documentary work; she believes individual
episodes can be used to undermine pat notions
about what it means to be American. As she
learns more about meat production, feedlots and
the harmful use of artificial growth stimulants in
cattle, the camera also becomes a means of
countering ignorance and unchecked
When a mishap puts one of the visiting Japanese
directors out of commission, Jane is given
command. In a heartbeat, she's off making
episodes about people the conservative network
considers less than "wholesome": a Mexican
couple, a Louisiana family with a dozen adopted
children (many shipped over from Korea), a
vegetarian and biracial lesbian couple who cook
pasta primavera. Meanwhile, on the other side of
the world, a woman named Akiko prepares the
recipes (including "beef fudge") and rates the
episodes, as instructed, for her husband, the chief
drone at the ad agency representing BEEF-EX.
She's physically abused and mocked by her
husband and has become bulimic, perhaps to
avoid pregnancy through malnourishment. The
purpose and often conflicting aims of making a
documentary are highlighted by how Jane and
Akiko ultimately view the series: For Jane the
shows are about transcending demographic
divisions and going public with difficult
information, while for the book's Japanese
protagonist the shows offer a glimpse of some
otherworldly realm where relations between
people can actually be loving and pleasant.
My Year of Meats is compelling reading but
aggressively stage-managed; ultimately, it's too
subservient to the author's didactic zeal. By the
end of the novel everything has come full circle, a
dollop of self-consciousness is parceled out to all
(or most) of the characters, Japan is minus one
citizen and everyone knows more about
hormones and the horrific practices going on in
some feedlots. What's unfortunate here is that
Ozeki's compassion for her characters causes her
to pursue her list of causes so forcefully that
readers are liable to feel manipulated. It doesn't
help that doctors and other experts are paraded
through the novel to provide whatever
information is deemed necessary at the moment.
There are large and generous ambitions in this
novel, but in fiction as in documentaries, all is not
always well that ends well. -- Salon
. . .[T]he novel's characters. . .contend with infertility, infidelity and domestic violence. Often these concerns are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, at other times, Ozeka (herself a documentary filmmaker) allows her fiction to be overshadowed by her message.
The New York Times Book Review
As a writer, Ozeki draws upon her knowledge in documentary filmmaking cleverly to bring the worlds of two women together by utilizing the U.S. meat industry as a central link. Alternating between the voices of Jane (in the United States) and Akiko Ueno, the wife of Jane's boss (in Japan), Ozeki draws parallels in the lives of these two women through beef, love, television, and their desire to have children. Ozeki skillfully tackles hard-pressing issues such as the use and effects of hormones in the beef industry and topics such as cultural differences, gender roles, and sexual exploitation. Her work is unique in presentation yet moving and entertaining. Highly recommended for general fiction collections.
--Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Stanton, CA
A much-hyped debut from documentary filmmaker Ozeki proves well worth the fuss, as a tale both heartwarming and horrific of two women, one American, one Japanese, curiously allied in a struggle against the determination of the meat industry to make the world safe for hormone-laced American beef. For Jane Tagaki-Little, it's pay vs. principle; her production job in a TV series for Japanese housewives, "My American Wife!", sponsored by US beef exporters, takes her across America, in time giving her the director's role she covets. But with each segment her knowledge of doctored meat is more at odds with the corporate mandate. Meanwhile, in a Tokyo suburb, Akiko Ueno, wife of the adman in charge of the series, vomits routinely after dutifully preparing for her brutish husband the recipes given on the shows, starving herself and ensuring that she will never have the baby he demands. Only when Jane's episodes begin to appear, full of remarkable human touches and with nary a beef recipe in sight, does Akiko begin to hope, and to menstruate, again. She faxes Jane on the sly, seeking a way out of her abusive marriage, and learns that Jane plans to use newfound knowledge of feedlot practices to strip big beef to its chemical-laced core. Her husband, already furious with his director for a segment on vegetarian lesbians, discovers what's afoot and goes ballistic, venting his wrath on Akiko by hospitalizing her before leaving for the States to stop Jane. In turn, a now-pregnant Akiko leaves him herself to go see Jane, who, following revelations at the feedlot exceeding her worst nightmares, has had a miscarriage and lost her job, and stands to lose the love of a man she barely knows but badlywants. Character gems and exquisite plotting make this a treasure to read, but the real sizzle is in the take on beef: grilled between Oprah and Ozeki, every burger now deserves a long, hard look.
Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection; Quality Paperback Book Club selection.
From the Publisher
Praise for Ruth Ozeki and My Year of Meats
“Ozeki is one of my favorite novelists . . . bewitching, intelligent, hilarious, and heartbreaking, often on the same page.”
—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of This Is How You Lose Her
“In precise and luminous prose, Ozeki captures both the sweep and detail of our shared humanity. The result is gripping, fearless, inspiring and true.”
—Madeline Miller, author of the Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles
“Wonderfully wild and bracing . . . A feast that leaves you hungry for whatever Ozeki cooks up next.”
“My Year of Meats pulsates with passion. . . . Ozeki’s first novel detonates an attack on the meat industry that would make Upton Sinclair sit up and smile . . . yet all this energy doesn’t obscure the novel’s quirky charm.”
“Ruth Ozeki masks a deeper purpose with a light tone . . . A comical-satirical-farcical-epical-tragical-romantical novel.”
—Jane Smiley, Chicago Tribune
“An amazingly assured debut, My Year of Meats is a wonderfully irreverent novel, with wacky cross-cultural collisions and hilarious characters . . . a joy to read.”
“Ozeki offers a remarkably fresh view of the rocky road many women travel to love and motherhood . . . one of the heartiest, and, yes, meatiest debuts in years.”
“Romance, agri-business, self-discovery, cross-cultural misunderstanding—it takes a talent like Ruth Ozeki’s to blend all these ingredients beautifully together. My Year of Meats is a sensitive and compelling portrait of two modern women.”
—Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
“Canny, cunning, muckraking, and lusty, weaving hormones and corporate threats, fertility and independence.”
—The Village Voice
“A likeably odd and inventively imagined tale . . . Ozeki writes with the same over-the-top verve as fellow hyper-realist David Foster Wallace.”
—Detroit Free Press praise