My Year of Meats

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Overview

Jane Takagi-Little, by trade a documentary filmmaker, by nature a truth seeker, is "racially half," Japanese and American, and, as she tells us, "neither here nor there..." Jane is sharp-edged, desperate for a job, and determined not to fall in love again. Akiko Ueno, a young Japanese housewife, lives with her husband in a bleak high-rise apartment complex in a suburb of Tokyo. Akiko is so thin her bones hurt, and her husband, an ad agency salaryman who wants her to get pregnant, is insisting that she put some ...
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My Year of Meats

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Overview

Jane Takagi-Little, by trade a documentary filmmaker, by nature a truth seeker, is "racially half," Japanese and American, and, as she tells us, "neither here nor there..." Jane is sharp-edged, desperate for a job, and determined not to fall in love again. Akiko Ueno, a young Japanese housewife, lives with her husband in a bleak high-rise apartment complex in a suburb of Tokyo. Akiko is so thin her bones hurt, and her husband, an ad agency salaryman who wants her to get pregnant, is insisting that she put some meat on them - literally. Ruth L. Ozeki's novel opens with two women on opposite sides of the globe, whose lives cannot be further apart. But when Jane gets a job, coordinating a television series whose mission is to bring the American heartland, and American meat, into the homes of Japan, she makes some wrenching discoveries - about love, meat, honor, and a hormone called DES. When Jane and Akiko's lives converge, what is revealed taps the deepest concerns of our time - how the past informs the present and how we live and love in this "blessed, ever-shrinking world."
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Editorial Reviews

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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.

Sincerely yours,

Akiko Ueno

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.

Nina Mehta

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 consumerism.

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

Lise Funderberg
. . .[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
Entertainment Weekly
Juicy...
Library Journal
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
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786191987
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged - 9 CDs
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. She is the award-winning author of three novels, My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her critically acclaimed independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been screened at Sundance and aired on PBS. She is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City.

Visit www.ruthozeki.com and follow @ozekiland on Twitter.

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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Each chapter of My Year of Meats opens with an excerpt from Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. Consider the interplay between these quotes and the narrative's trajectory. How does this interjection from the past enrich the novel? How does the Shonagon voice shape your relationship to the characters?
On the surface, Jane and Akiko appear to be opposites. Jane is physically strong while Akiko is frail. Jane is fiercely independent while Akiko is submissive to her husband. Are there any similarities between the two? How do they complement each other?

In the beginning of chapter 3, Jane makes this comment: "One requisite for a good documentarian: you must shamelessly take what is available." What does this assertion tell you about Jane? At the end of Jane's year of meats, do you think that she still believes it? If not, at what point in the novel do you think she changed her mind? Do you think that "shamelessly taking what is available" is a necessary part of being a documentarian or a journalist?

Our exposure to the media has reached a fever pitch. Increasingly, we are bombarded by instant information via television, print, radio, and the Internet. Is this a positive development? What is your own "screen" for judging information received in the media? Has your reading of My Year of Meats suggested any new possibilities for your own relationship with media sources?

How does this novel treat the question of cultural, ethnic, and gender stereotypes? Did it challenge any of your own perceptions or biases? Consider, too, how the media perpetuates and/or dismantles stereotypes.

Chapter 2 begins with this quote from The Pillow Book: "When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands, women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe they are happy, I am filled with scorn." Akiko and Jane, as well as the women featured on My American Wife!, reflect the different roles women play both in Japan and within America. Of all of the women featured in the novel, with whom did you most identify? Were there any that you upheld as models for what women should aspire to be?

Think about some of the male characters in My Year of Meats. There is Suzuki, who has a "passion for Jack Daniel's, Wal-Mart, and American hard-core pornography"; Oh, who is Suzuki's drinking companion; and Joichi Ueno, Akiko's violent husband with a fondness for Texas strippers. Do these characters' affinity for pornography reflect the way that they relate to women?

Early in the novel, Jane says, "All over the world, native species are migrating, if not disappearing, and in the next millennium the idea of an indigenous person or plant or culture will just seem quaint." Do you believe that this is true? If so, do you perceive it as a step toward a more peaceful, accepting world, or as a step away from a diverse, well-textured world? Is it possible to maintain cultural diversity without prejudice?

Consider Jane and Sloan's relationship. It seems that the same qualities that make Jane successful in her career-strength and control-become obstacles in developing an intimate relationship with Sloan. Have you encountered this problem in your own relationships? At any point did you find yourself impatient with Jane or Sloan? Were you surprised to see them together in the end? Do you think that the novel is optimistic about intimacy? Are you?

Truth lies in layers, each one thin and barely opaque, like skin, resisting the tug to be told. As a documentarian I think about this a lot. In the edit, timing is everything. There is a time to peel back." Consider the way the novel plays with the notions of "truth" and "authenticity." What do these words mean to Jane? To Akiko? To John Ueno? To the Wives? To the author? What forms of denial of truth do the various characters practice, and how do they "peel back"? What does the novel imply about denial in our world today?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 17 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 23, 2011

    Really Compelling

    I read this book years ago and still think of it and reference it from time to time. It is a very thought-provoking book and I look foward to reading it again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2006

    caricatures and didacticism

    Don't you hate it when a really cool, hot chick wholeheartedly, and I mean without reservation, recommends a book that turns out to suck? Well that's what happened to me with the book My Year of Meat (as it was published in the UK) by Ruth L. Ozecki. The main problems with this novel are A) the poorly concealed lesson it's trying to teach - that meat is bad - and, B) most characters are actually caricatures. The 'characters' who were either lesbians or men were particularly galling. This is a decent first effort for a new writer, but reader, I ask you, why waste your time on cliches and didacticism? Finally, I'd like to note that there are no apartments in the location one main character is described as moving into at the end of the novel. So there.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2002

    good, not great

    If Ozeki's goals were to (1) change attitudes about meat and the meat industry and (2) tell a good story, then she succeeds. The problem is that the story is also about race, intimacy, fertility, Americana, families, the media, consumerism, and a few other big things. The story suffers somewhat under all that weight. Ozeki's time in film and television shows though. The book reads as though she drew up story boards in her head, shot the scenes mentally and then spliced them toghether to tell the tale. The movie-like way in which she constructs the story may seem out of place or overly-managed to some readers. (If they do make a movie out of it, the screenwriter would have a pretty easy time of it.) My book club (predominately women) felt that the male characters were a bit like cut-outs. 7 out of 10.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2005

    Everything old is new again

    A new perspective on an issue that's been around for a while. Good idea, sometimes good-storytelling, other times clunky narrative with too much going on. Worth the effort overall, and will make you think -- but for something full tilt try Sinclair's _The Jungle_.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2001

    Disturbing yet incredible literature

    I picked up this book, having been told by several friends that it was amazing. Two days later, after laughing aloud in public, struggling to read through my tears, and fighting naseau more than once, I finally put the book down. This book will amaze you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2000

    'Twas disappointing

    Ruth Ozeki's first novel starts off with a bang then ends in a whimper. The beginning of the book has scintillating annecdotes drawn from her experiences working in Japan as a mixed race Japanese American. The beginning is awfully funny as it contrasts social / economical / business differences in corporate culture. But as she delves further into the meat industry, she writes outside of her experiences, and so it gets really dull and too 'term-paper'-ish with predictable plot. Furthermore, why did she have to emphasize the US stereotype of Asian (Japanese) men as buffoonish comic relief or impotent sadists? (this is straight out of Hollywood!) I kept waiting for her to introduce a likeable Asian male character, but they never materialized. This is a disservice to the Asian community, especially since it comes from a Japanese-American author. (Actually all her male characters were stilted.) This is definitely not a beach read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2000

    Four stars from me

    This book was great. I liked the way it told the story of each family that was being featured in the book. The way two cultures were being incorporated into one another really sparked my inter

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 1999

    Not your average novel

    Ruth Ozeki's novel starts out as a parody of 'American' culture but soon takes a dark turn. I found most of the characters believable and interesting. Her writing style is spare but very insightful. I may never eat beef again. Definately something different to read.

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