“A Tale for the Time Being” is Ruth Ozeki’s newest novel, it came out in 2013 and I read it that same year and was simply mesmerized. I loved it from beginning to end and was expecting great things from her in my further reading. So of course I was excited to read my second novel by her, My Year of Meats. Honestly, I was quite disappointed.
The story focuses on two narratives – Jane, half-Asian, half-American, documentarian living in New York, and Akiko, a japanese housewife. The main themes in the book are the meat industry, food, family, women’s position in society, wives, and motherhood. The premise is interesting, the themes too, and they were actually part of what peaked my interest in the first place. It sounded like something I would find interesting.
The beginning was slow for me. There was never really a moment where I felt like I was hooked, it was more me ploughing on and occasionally finding parts I enjoyed but more often than not ploughing through parts that I would call “dull”. The first half of the book was in my opinion, overall, boring. I found Akiko’s narrative rather interesting, but I felt like Jane’s parts were often so tedious to read. Most of this is probably because of the next problem I had – the social commentary.
Now, I don’t mind social commentary in books. I actually like it! I enjoy learning about new things through fiction and stories, I enjoy being challenged in my way of thinking, having things spark thoughts and generally affect me. However, there is I believe a way to do this so that it’s well blended into the story. In this case, I felt like Ozeki failed to do this. Instead, the social commentary (in this case the discussion on the meat industry and especially factory farming) took up long sections of text, a large chunk of the entirity of the book, and I felt like it was really thrown in your face. It’s not that I don’t think the things she talks about are important, I do. I became a vegetarian myself half a year ago for this reason. But when I read fiction I don’t want to feel like I’m reading course literature or an essay or just plain and simple, non-fiction. If I wanted to learn about the meat industry in detail I would pick up a non-fiction book on the topic, actually I’ve already done so in the past – highly recommend Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer for those interested. But I repeat, when I read for pleasure I don’t want to read long sections of the innergoings of the meat industry, in excruciating detail. As I said, the bottom line is that it could’ve been done more blended into the story so that it wasn’t so damn tedious to read.
Then there’s the last point that took away from my enjoyment of this book, the abuse. There are graphic sections on human abuse, and animal abuse, and they made me incredibly uncomfortable and nauseous. Eventually I had to start skimreading because I just couldn’t, didn’t want to, read that. Now this isn’t necessarily a “problem” with the book, it’s just one of the reasons I didn’t like it so much.
I will say, the last 50 or so pages were pretty good, as is often the case with many books I’ve felt lukewarm about – they’ve gotten better towards the end. I will say it almost ended a bit too “neatly” for me, but on the other hand it might be better to end on that note with the rest of the story being so, well sad/crazy/however you want to put it. Although Jane isn’t exactly an uninteresting character, I much prefer Akiko. I like her character and I enjoyed following her more than anything else in this novel.
It might seem like I really hated this book, and that’s not quite the case but I’ll say I was disappointed (especially in comparison with A tale for the time being). I think Ruth Ozeki’s writing generally has also improved in A tale for the time being (published three or so years after My year of meat), so I’m still planning on reading the next novel she publishes, but on the other hand I’m not interested in reading her older novel. I’d say if you’re planning on picking this up be aware of the abuse (human & animal abuse), and be ready for a lot of detailed discussion on the meat industry.
Until next time, Happy Reading!