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Posts Tagged ‘Ignorance’

When I read A Tale for the Time Being I knew I’d want to read more of Ruth Ozeki’s work. The friends whose house I’m staying at this week happened to have My Year of Meats on their shelves, so I decided that was sign. Also, the protagonist is a documentary filmmaker, which sort of segues from the previous two books I read, which both had something to do with the contemporary art scene.  Looking at the rest of the pile of books I’ve brought I’m not sure I can keep spooling out these connections, but we’ll see.

Anyway, My Year of Meats was Ozeki’s debut novel, and it’s stunning in more ways than one. Jane, the protagonist, is a Japanese American who is hired to film a series of programs promoting American beef, called “My American Wife!” The series will feature “real” American families and their beef recipes. Jane and her Japanese crew set off across America but Jane’s documentarian streak rebels at her remit and she keeps veering slightly off course, in ways that annoy the beef promotion syndicate’s boss, Joichi Ueno (“You get it? ‘John Wayno’!” Ueno asks in a Mississippi church). For example, Jane features lesbian vegetarians from Northampton in one of her episodes.

In the course of the story, Jane hears from Ueno’s wife, Akiko, who asks her about another issue that came to light in Jane’s research: whether hormones in the meat industry are contributing to lower fertility rates. This deeply impacts Jane, as she is a DES daughter — someone whose mother was prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage. when Jane realizes she has come across a feedlot in Colorado that is using the banned hormone, she risks everything — her job, her relationship, and even her health — to get her crew in to film before Ueno can arrive from Japan to foil her plan.

The book has a second set of storylines as strong as that one. Jane’s relationship with a musician named Sloan and her own fertility issues, and Akiko’s relationship with Ueno and parallel issues. Both Jane and Akiko are fans of Shonagon and her Pillow Book, which Ozeki quotes between chapters. The women make contact, initially, via faxes, which others read with various complications. It is charming and a little strange, to think that a few short years after the time of this novel, intercepted faxes would no longer be a viable plot twist.

This is in some ways a brutal read; there are horrible domestic violence scenes and the final filming Jane and her crew do in a slaughterhouse is awful. But despite the brutality the book is about truth and is also in many ways a celebration of love, and about the strength of these to overcome ignorance and pain. It’s also a philosophical study of collective ignorance.

Ozeki writes in Jane’s voice, “. . . 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. I would like to think of my ‘ignorance’ less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing, that characterizes the end of the millennium. If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even.” This in a book written in 1998, set in 1992. Look where ignorance, and our cultural cultivation of it, has taken us.

Anyway, this isn’t a light read, but it’s a page turner. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Jane, to Akiko, to the women in My American Wife!, to Jane’s crew and her mom and Sloan, so I tore through it. If you’re looking for a smart, challenging beach read this summer, this would be a good choice!

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It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks around here, with more to come. I ended one job and will be starting a new one in a couple of weeks (more to come on that, over at Nocturnal Librarian). This week, the man formally known as Teen the Elder graduates from college. Teen the Younger is a senior too, with the semester wrapping up, a senior trip to NYC, prom, finals, and more.

Also, the Computer Scientist and I decided to completely update our living room. An epic trip to IKEA ensued (our multiple carts and carriages attracted attention; one woman in the next line actually came around to see what the damage was when we paid — I kid you not). But before that, I decided to weed our books. And that felt so good I weeded the entire rest of the house. I sort of applied the Marie Kondo method, with a few of my own twists (see my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up here). Instead of thanking my stuff I mostly railed “Why have I been dragging this around for years?” At any rate we are feeling lighter and more organized. And the books — well, now we have room for more!

Which brings me to today’s actual topic: I took my mom to Asheville for a few days, and that involved a) selecting vacation reading and b) visiting four bookstores and the Pack Memorial Library’s “Frugal Friday” sale, where all the books were $.25. I enjoyed all the stores we visited. I didn’t get any $.25 bargains, nor did I find anything at the Friends of the Library shop, inside the library. At The Captain’s Bookshelf I bought Calvin Trillin‘s Travels With Alice. More on that in a moment. At Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, I bought Educating Our Daughters by Lynn White, Jr., published in 1950, partly because I had just visited the aSHEville Museum‘s “100 Years of Sexism in Advertising” and was primed for this book and partly because I want to read bits aloud to Teen the Younger and watch her alternately snort and be indignant. I also partook of a literary cocktail, the “Fahrenheit 451” — sparkling wine with cayenne, spicy chocolate, and a cherry. At Malaprops, it took three tries but I finally got a “Blind Date With a Bookseller” book I hadn’t read.

Blind Date Book

Revealed blind date

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could not resist reading Travels With Alice while traveling. I finished that book and loved it — I think Calvin Trillin is a wonderful writer, funny and observant, and this book is charming. I wonder if I can convince the Computer Scientist to refer to me as “the principessa” if we ever visit Italy together?

Trillin’s delight in the world around him and his wry wit make this book fun, but his affection for his friends, family, even the strangers he meets in his travels, make it a soulful read. His family’s preferred method of travel — hanging around, he calls it — sounds just right. “In the subtle negotiations that occur when time is up for grabs rather than strictly allotted, Alice had got her share of scenic drives and the girls had got their share of swims and I had got my share of fish soup.” Well before the concept of “being present” was trendy, Trillin practiced it. Travels With Alice is just the thing for reading in tumultuous times. Or while traveling.

On the way down on the plane I read Ignorance by Milan Kundera, which is decidedly not just the thing for a tumultuous time, but worked well as an airplane read because I could give it my full attention and read it in one sitting. It’s the story of Irena, a Czech emigre living in France who returns to Prague for the first time after her partner opens an office there. She’s not happy about returning, but on the way she meets Josef, a man she had a brief flirtation with before she left for France. The novel is framed around their re-encounter, as well as Irena’s and Josef’s seeing other Czech friends and relatives during their visits.

The narrator not only tells us their stories, but also lectures us on the lessons of exile and return in The Odyssey. Don’t get me wrong, this analysis of Homer’s themes is relevant to Kundera’s story. The narrator focuses on the irony of Odysseus’s constant longing for home culminating in a return that was confusing, jealousy inducing, and violent. Irena and Josef don’t have to fight anyone, but their returns cause them psychological struggle. I think that would have been clear without the lengthy discourse. Kundera’s narrator also muses on Czech poet Jan Skácel and Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg; interesting but I’m more of a fan of the narrative.

Ignorance is otherwise efficiently told, but it’s a book that stays with you. Passages like this one require some mulling over: “All predictions are wrong, that’s one of few certainties granted to mankind. But though predictions may be wrong, they are right about the people who voice them, not about their future but about their experience of the present moment.”  Hmm. It’s a novel ripe for discussion if your book club likes literary fiction.

Stay tuned for more on the other books I bought!

 

 

 

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