If this book won't turn you into a vegetarian (or at the very least make you seriously question your beef consumption) then I don't know what will. Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats can best be described as the fictional equivalent of Fast Food Nation; after reading it, your diet may never be the same again.
I myself am a vegetarian so my beliefs were simply buttressed by the novel's assertions regarding this country's various meat industries. The insidious practices of which the protagonist, Jane Takagi-Little, slowly discovers. Brash, off-kilter and fiercely independent, Jane is a struggling documentary filmmaker who gets a well-oiled gig as a producer on a show for Japanese television geared towards housewives sponsored by a lobbying and promotional group for the American beef industry, referred to ominously as "Beef Ex", in order to hype the consumption of beef and other meat products. Each episode of "My American Wife!" features a homemaker from the American heartland who shares her recipe for a, preferably beef, meat-centric dish.
While traveling around the country doing research and meeting different families, Jane begins to learn more and more about the industry for which she is essentially working. She uncovers the wide-spread use of steroids, hormones, and chemicals in the production of meat products and their devastating affect on both producers and consumers. She comes across men who have developed breasts, little girls who have the bodies of twenty-year olds and people who are befallen with cancer. Needless to say, her outlook on the meat industry as well as the country's carnivorous habits changes.
Just as the readers' very well may. Some might think the novel is too heavy-handed and "preachy" but I would disagree. Yes, Ozeki is making some very strong points but she does so in the context of the characters. Some may just want to read a book where the characters go through the drama of life and stray far away from the traditional taboo dinner table topics of politics and religion. But I don't mind a little politics with my fiction.
Filmmakers make political movies all the time, why not novelists as well? If you can go to the theater and watch Syriana about the oil industry or The Constant Gardener about the pharmaceutical industry or even see biopics like Good Night, and Good Luck about Edward R. Murrow and his struggle for freedom of speech, why is it so wrong for an author to write about the meat industry in a fictional context as well?
It should be noted that Ozeki herself comes from a background as a documentary filmmaker and it wouldn't be a far-fetching assumption to say that she was heavily influenced by this medium. The most striking, literal example of this influence can be found at the back of the book where she supplies readers with a bibliography of all her sources. This addition is both helpful, in that you can do some independent follow-up research if so inclined, and frightening because all those facts about the additives in meat that you wished were a part of the fictional element of the novel are all true.
I realize that I may think this way this because I agree with the points that Ozeki makes, but you can't dispute the facts that she brings up. She's not just whining or making wild accusations. The issues she raises are valid and whether you agree with them or not they are backed-up through thorough citation in the bibliography.
All this politics doesn't take away from the pure fictional enjoyment of My Year of Meats; it's an easy read rather than a dry, academic tome. It's funny and crass and you just might learn something new. And to me, that's a great balance.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
Paperback, 400 pages