Books: Burgers and the quest for a larger truth

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The Independent Culture
My Year of Meat

by Ruth L Ozeki Picador pounds 9.99

There are not many novels that can justify the label "extraordinary", as this one claims to be. The plot - two women brought together through a set of coincidences - is not new; the scenery (rural America and downtown Japan) aren't particularly novel; and the subject matter is meat. How mundane can you get? The depressed-looking cow skewered between two blood- red chopsticks on the book's front cover seems its only eye-catching feature.

Nonetheless, this novel is extraordinary for several reasons. It grapples with a quite astonishing pantheon of themes: the nature of love, courage and strength; vegetarianism; big business versus integrity; female friendship; power-struggles between the sexes; the deceitful world of film-making; and the contrasts between East and West. Despite hopping across continents and lifestyles, it maintains a cohesive and involving narrative flow. And the writing is witty, intelligent and passionate, inching between comment and emotional involvement without once losing its foothold. But then its mixed-race heroine, Jane Takagi-Little, does take her calling as a "documentarian" seriously.

Leaving a failed marriage behind her, Jane is employed to co-ordinate a new Japanese TV series, My American Wife, which is sponsored by the American meat industry. The idea is to present wholesome-looking women cooking nutritious, meaty meals in traditional family homes. "I honestly believed I had a mission," Jane tells us. "I had spent so many years, in both Japan and America, floundering in a miasma of misinformation about culture and race, I was determined to use this window into mainstream network television to educate. Perhaps it was naive, but I believed, honestly, that I could use wives to sell meat in the service of a Larger Truth." But as she discovers, that truth is grotesquely at odds with her own convictions.

American wife Suzie Flowers, for instance, is devastated when her husband reveals to camera that he's had an extra-marital affair. Texan housewife Bunny Dunn finds that the hormones fed to cattle at her ranch have a terrifying effect on her daughter. Jane herself is looking for depth rather than surface glitz, and expands the programme's remit to include lesbian vegetarians and mixed-race families, much to the sponsor's displeasure. But as she travels around the States, she embarks on her own traumatic and revelatory emotional journey.

Meanwhile Akiko, married to the brutal series promoter, "John Wayne", cowers at her home in Japan, forced by her husband to cook the recipes she watches on the programme and score each episode out of 10. Like Jane, her horizons are broadened through the programme, although she records her perceptions and we watch her grow not through editing film but in poetry-style lists inspired by an ancient text, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book.

Jane is typically uncompromising in her judgments, but her conclusions by the end of the book are damning, both for herself and the discerning reader. "Of course I knew about toxicity in meat ... but I needed a job. I chose to ignore what I knew. Ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live ... maybe this exempts me as an individual, but it sure makes me entirely culpable as a global media maker."

This is a disturbing, humorous and intelligent book, all the more extraordinary for being its author's debut.

Fifties cookbook Wild Raspberries (Little, Brown pounds 14.99) is a delicious oddity, featuring Andy Warhol's drawings, recipes from his friend Suzie Frankfurt and hand-lettering by Andy's mum, Julia Warhola. Jaime Frankfurt, Suzie's son, sees the Factory method in embryo: '[Andy] would create the art, then direct an assembly line of assistants to put it together.' Recipes advise 'Run down to Dick Camp's and buy an old wire wisk (sic)' and 'serve a wole (sic) calves head to those unexpected callers'. Above: 'Salade de Alf Landon ... very popular at political dinners in the 30s'