Read this on Thursday; an odd read but a good one, hard to explain. It's a portrait of two contemporary women, Jane (of Japanese-American background) and Akiko (a Japanese housewife), and it also manages to be an expose and an indictment of the feedlot meat industry in America. That's a juggling act for sure, and author Ruth L. Ozeki manages it skillfully, even incorporating into the book extracts from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon in true postmodern fashion.
Jane wants to be a documentary maker and so she accepts an offer to work on a program sponsored by Beef-Ex, called American Wife. Aimed at Japanese homemakers, she must film a different American wife each episode, detailing her life in general and her favourite meat recipe ("Pork is possible but beef is best!") in particular. Akiko is married to the bullying producer of the show who requires her to watch each episode on a Saturday morning, fill out a questionnaire with ratings for Authenticity, Wholesomeness and Deliciousness, and then cook the featured meat that night.
As Jane begins to discover more about Meat and how the hormones used in meat production have affected her own life, she begins to subvert the aims of the show in her choice of wife, even featuring a lesbian, vegetarian family at one point. Akiko, watching, begins to think about her own life and choices, culminating in revelation of brutal circumstance.
The Year of Meat brings changes, sorrow and awakening to Jane and Akiko. Ozeki casts a critical but compassionate eye over American and Japanese society and their various forms of denial, which are contrasted with the painful honesty of The Pillow Book, read in secret by Akiko.
The only problem with this book is that exposure to Sei Shonagon's form of observational list writing is addictive. Since Thursday I haven't been able to stop thinking of my life in lists. Shonagon's are better.
Surprising and Distressing Things
Things that give a Pathetic Impression
Things that are Near yet Distant
Things that Gain by Being Painted
Things that Make One's heart Beat Faster