My Year of Meats follows the lives of Jane Takagi-Little, a mixed-race documentary filmmaker in the U.S., and Akiko Ueno, an abused housewife in Japan. Jane is shooting a documentary series titled My American Wife!, sponsored by the American “Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, or, simply, BEEF-EX” (9). The purpose of the show is to bring the “heartland of America into the homes of Japan,” and in the process sell beef to the Japanese; i.e. “Meat is the Message.” In the process, Jane clashes with her Japanese boss, Joichi “John” Ueno, who objects to her featuring families with adopted children, African Americans, working-class people, and – horror of horrors – a lesbian, vegetarian couple. And Jane learns about the horrific effects of synthetic hormones and other chemicals, which affect both animals and humans very badly for generations, as well as the inhumane conditions of producing meat (suffice it to say that I’m off meat for a while). Meanwhile, Akiko cannot get pregnant or keep food down (the two being related), but does appreciate the better of Jane’s shows. Things go extremely downhill for both Jane and Akiko, but I won't spoil it; this intro synopsis doesn’t do justice to the subtlety, complexity, and surprisingness of the novel.
All Over Creation is set in Idaho, potato country, and it’s all about generation, both in sense of families as well as of creation. Yumi Fuller returns with her three children (different fathers) to Liberty Falls, where her Japanese mother is suffering from dementia and her white father is dying of cancer. It’s the first time she’s returned since she was 15, when she ran away after an affair with a teacher (not good). Her neighbor and former best friend, Cass Quinn, is now married and a potato farmer, and she has been trying unsuccessfully to conceive. Amidst the awkward family reunion, the Seeds of Resistance, a group of environmental activists protesting genetic engineering in crops, show up. Trust me, it’s not as crazy as it sounds; Ozeki is always subtle, fair, gentle, believable. And she makes potatoes and the politics of genetic modification fascinating.
Despite their topics, neither novel is ever preachy or didactic. A large part of this, I think, comes from Ozeki’s sure touch with characters – everyone is as complex and as part-good/part-bad as real people are. Not that realism is a requisite for good writing, but Ozeki is just really good at capturing how well meaning yet messed up most of us are.
A Tale for the Time Being is more formally experimental than the previous two novels, but they also tie together characters from far corners and explore how our degradation of the environment also degrades us. It was previously reviewed by obongo on March 12, 2013.
Buy Ozeki's books here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_nr