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My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is the story of Jane Takagi-Little, a documentarian who ends up directing/producing a tv show called 'American Wives' (a reality show focusing on 'wholesome' American wives and the major role of meat cookery in their lives; 'Meat is the Message!') which is sponsored/bankrolled by 'Beef-Ex', an American beef industry lobbyist group, filmed in the the U.S. for broadcast in Japan, and the literally life altering effect this show has on the wife of the Japanese businessman who is in charge of the Japanese branch of Beef-Ex. I really liked this novel, in spite of it's flaws. It is rather heavy handed and one sided in it's negative portrayal of the meat industry. Having worked in that business for 20 years I can tell you some of its assertions and depictions are incorrect. And there is not the depth of character development in the secondary and tertiary characters I would have liked. As someone pointed out on the thread for another of Ozeki's novels, these people are basically ideas. But they are very well done ideas! Surprisingly real characters for being rather two dimensional. And the two main characters, Jane Takagi and Akiko Ueno are well fleshed out. The story weaves between occasionally hilarious satire, horrendous accounts of 'scientific' engineering of meat production through hormones, feed additives and antibiotics for shady profiteers, and the really touching and often terribly sad stories of Jane and Akiko. But the weaving is impeccable and I never felt like Ozeki couldn't decide what kind of book to write. A very sure and even-handed effort in the structure of this novel. Good pacing, dialogue, and use of language. Elegant, witty and often beautiful prose, which nevertheless flowed very well. This was a quick and easy read, and I raced effortlessly through its 361 pages. But there is real depth here! Subtle yet profound insights into culture and human nature. If not for the obvious and somewhat preachy bias against the meat business ( much of which I agreed with however) I'd give this 5stars. But aside from that it is still a great novel so I give it 4stars.
A Tale for the Time Being is a very strange novel. Broadly, a lonely and isolated writer of Japanese heritage called Ruth (who could that be?) finds a diary washed up on the beach, wrapped up with a watch and some other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the beach in British Colombia. In equal measures, Ruth reads the diary (written in first person by a Japanese 15 year old called Nao) and has her own story told in third person narration. The story veers constantly between the very mundane of at school, poverty, loneliness through to questions of purpose, existence, suicide and time. At its core is the Buddhist idea of the butterfly flapping its wings – everything causes ripples and the ripples change history. There are multiple possible futures and, if so, there are multiple possible pasts. Until a future or a past is known, it can be anything. Ruth Ozeki plays mindgames with the reader constantly in this dense novel; but the reader only really catches on half way through. It is quirky and eccentric; also fairly difficult to get to grips with. This is not helped by digressions in Japanese and French that are footnoted. In amongst the philosophy, there are some excellent depictions of loneliness on the edge of civilisation in Canada, and social isolation for those who do not have career success in Japan. There are culture clashes as east meets west but Ozeki drives home a pretty forceful message that the west is not the best. The two narratives interweave in ever less probably ways and the ending, when it comes – and it takes its time doing so – feels unusually satisfying for a text that has got so weird. I suppose that is because the weirdness is grounded in such everyday situations. The characterisation, especially in the Japanese sections, is deep and convincing. Information is fed to the reader to allow the situation to be constantly re-appraised and people to be seen in new lights. The people in Canada feel more like devices designed to allow ideas to play out – but as devices go, they are good ones. A Tale for the Time Being is not going to be a light read. Don’t take it to the beach – not even one in British Colombia – but give it room to breathe, just stick with it if it gets weird for a bit and all will be right in the end. Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist – hopefully it will last through to the shortlist. *****