by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 6, 1998



IT'S NOT OFTEN THAT A LUKEWARM book "hottens up," as waitresses say about coffee ("can I hotten that up for you?"). While positive reviews in June didn't seem to trigger a strong beginning for MY YEAR OF MEATS by Ruth L. Ozeki (Viking; 366 pages; $23.95), this offbeat and wonderfully sage first novel seems to be building up steam in independent bookstores. Word of mouth, as they say, is cookin'.

And it's no wonder: This seemingly comic novel starts out with the kind of easy laughs that make you think you'll read it in one session. Then it turns serious and wildly sardonic, subtle and savage at once, at times hilarious yet carried by waves of sorrow, then tenderness, then a hint of renewal.

The story races along as Jane Takagi-Little, a documentary filmmaker who is barely making ends meet in her icy cold East Village tenement apartment, takes a job with a TV production company in Tokyo filming weekly half-hour episodes called "My American Wife!" Jane's job for each of 52 episodes is to find one "attractive and wholesome" American housewife who knows a "delicious meat recipe," is married to an "attractive, docile husband" and has "attractive, obedient children."

As Jane knows, the real "star of the show" is not the modern American wife whom Japanese women can emulate but the "featured meat" that is cooked each week so that the sponsor, BEEF EX (for Beef Export and Trade Syndicate), can introduce and promote meat to a largely non-meat-eating public. For many Japanese women, being "modern" is equivalent to being American, Jane is told, so the real-life American wife appearing on each show must herself be "appetizing and all-American," as Jane writes in a memo. "She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest."

Ozeki could have let this novel slide as a one-dimensional farce of cultures clashing and genders bending, but since she, like Jane, is a half-Japanese, half-American filmmaker, she is eloquent at peeling away the layers of complexity that nearly smother the TV project. Jane is under no illusion - she has been hired as "a cultural pimp, selling off the vast illusion of America to a cramped population." And she is perfect for it, "halved as I am," she tells us. "By the time I wrote the pitch for 'My American Wife!' my talent for speaking out of both sides of my mouth was already honed."

But since her first show features a smiling American wife dumping a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup on top of her "rumpu rossuto," as the Japanese refer to a rump roast, and on top of that a package of Lipton's Powdered Onion Soup, and all of it bathed in 1.5 liters of Coca Cola ("not Pepsi, Please!"), we figure that Jane knows how to market American culture pretty well. That's before she uncovers DES, the cancer-causing drug once used to fatten cattle and prevent miscarriages in human beings -- the same drug that was prescribed for her mother when she was pregnant with Jane.

Soon enough, as the "wholesome" story of each of the wives is dismantled, fictionalized, filmed and sent to Japan, Jane finds the artifice of her work intolerable. Soon she herself becomes increasingly subversive. No longer seeking "normal" American wives, she features such "stars" as vegetarian lesbian moms. She takes her crew to film the kill floor of a slaughterhouse that is truly and devastatingly "modern." Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, as the experience of one housewife named Akiko attests,

Japanese women are watching the show, and getting the message.

Like the works of Bharati Mukherjee, Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Gus Lee or Julia Alvarez, "My Year of Meats" draws from mixed nationalities and cross-racial experience to uncover a blurring of language and a fresh expression of classic truths about the human condition. That keeps it "hottening up" in the stores.


YOU JUST KNEW HE'D BE A BIT MOUTHY and self-promoting, as that's the image that has followed Harold Evans throughout his career as editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London (fired by Rupert Murdoch in 1982), and as publisher of Random House for most of the '90s (forced out, some say; left on his own, he says).

And you knew he'd be irreverent and maybe a little obstinate in his view of United States history in the just-released book it's taken him 12 years to write, THE AMERICAN CENTURY (Alfred A. Knopf; 710 pages; $50).

After all, Evans is the kind of razzle-dazzle publisher who became famous for whipping up a media storm (and runaway sales) for Colin Powell's autobiography without ever allowing the general to answer the One Question America Was Desperate to Hear (did he plan to run for President or not?). This is the same Evans who's remembered for paying presidential advisor Dick Morris an advance of millions before the world learned of Morris's sleazy doings and even sleazier phone calls (say! you don't suppose he was on the phone to Clinton when Monica . . . ).

But Evans is also the British writer who criss-crossed the country in 1956 with funds from a "program that sought to acquaint European journalists with 'the real America,' " he writes in the preface to the book. Driving "and sometimes sleeping in" a Plymouth that got him to Mississippi to cover the post 1954 Brown v. Board of Education backlash, he wound up at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, interviewing "the last surviving Apache who had ridden with Geronimo" (of course Evans doesn't name the guy until page 263, so you know the self-promotion starts with his own story).

"I was intrigued by what I saw in the South," he said in an interview a few days ago. "I couldn't work out in my own mind the ideals of America and the reality of places like the South. I met a wonderful woman novelist who told me, 'our Negroes are very happy' living in shacks. I lost all objectivity as a journalist when I found myself arguing with a member of the White Citizens Council who said that African Americans had 'smaller brains' than white people."

From then on, Evans says, he wanted to understand the "continuing contradiction" that he felt the United States had become - especially after rising to the top of Rupert Murdoch's editorial empire in London and plummeting to the bottom of the heap after "anger[ing] the Tory governments," according to the Columbia Journalism Review, "during a period when government decisions were massively enriching [Murdoch] the tycoon."

At age 53, "I was portrayed as an irresponsible business person who couldn't control a budget," Evans recalls. "Some of that mud stuck. I came to the United States to lecture at Duke University for a semester, then went to the Atlantic Monthly Press, then to Conde Nast [magazine editing] and later to Random House.

"So you see, I might have been rejected in England, but this country is used to taking in rambunctious strangers, and that's why I fell in love with it. I'm convinced that while the United States is by no means perfect, if you've got the ideals and battle your way through, it will work. I felt without those ideals, without your attitudes about freedom of the individual, the country wouldn't be anything like it is."

That's the point of view that dominates the inquiry of "The American Century," and thanks to Evans' flair for quick pacing and offbeat description (who else would call President Benjamin Harrison "dainty" or start a section on Richard Nixon with the former president lying naked on a Moscow massage table?), the book offers a blizzard of readable, absorbable, quotable and memorable details.

Some of the juicier surprises of American history, Evans-style:

John Kennedy gave Richard Nixon a thousand-dollar donation from his father, Joe Kennedy, to support Nixon's 1950 "Red menace" campaign for the U.S. Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas The CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro were initiated during Eisenhower 's presidency, not Kennedy's. The "Wag the Dog" impulse goes as far back as the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, who changed the time of his attacks for the benefit of a U.S. film company.

Only one person jumped off a Wall Street building during the 1929 Crash, says Evans: This was a female clerk who was disoriented by too many "sell" orders to process. Some investors did jump from buildings, but in other cities. During the Dust Bowl storm of 1934, 350 million tons of Montana and Wyoming were swept to the east, 12 million of which were deposited in Chicago. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped not to save the United States from a costly land invasion, Evans insists, but to stop Russia from grabbing land in the Far East.

The book is studded with such gems -- all provable, says Evans - but what separates this thick and massive (9½ x 12") photo-history from so many others (and ABC news anchor Peter Jennings' equally fat photo history of the 20th century is soon to compete with Evans') is the breadth and depth of information offered on every page. Open it in a bookstore to any section and you'll be hooked: That "Barnum & Bailey approach" for which Evans admits he is justly credited as a publisher just sinks away as his writer's penchant for substantive detail takes over.

Of course, some critics will say that Evans is as good a historian as he was a publisher -- obstreperous, sometimes outrageous and revisionist to the end. He doesn't care. "What is history except revisionism?" he asks not-so-rhetorically. "To me, revisionism is the challenging of established myths with new arguments and new insights." Obviously not one for false modesty, he grins rather than winces when reminded of his disruptive influence at now-famous publishing panels where he announced once that Random House lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on "the best books we publish," including bestsellers.

"It's still true, but people don't want to hear it," he says. "With 29 Random House titles named that year by the New York Times as 'notable books,' we lost $690,000. And yet I published two others, one by Marianne Williamson and one by Maya Angelou, that wiped out all the losses. I think the lesson here is that a publisher has a duty to publish something like David Remnick's 'Lenin's Tomb' even if it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a compulsion to find the books that make the Remnicks possible. Of course you should never think of only of 'year one' on a book: 'Lenin's Tomb' lost a lot of money the first year but eventually began making a profit."

But isn't Evans the one who paid huge advances that skewed the numbers in which losses showed up, thus ushering in the era of Big Buck Publishing because other publishers had to increase advances to compete with Random House? "That's a total myth and very irritating, actually," he says. "The only two books on which I paid large advances that didn't work were the Dick Morris and Marlon Brando memoirs. Any other publisher would have given his left arm for either. There was tremendous competition.

"But I produced more best sellers of quality than anyone else at Random House, and I brought in a record profit for the house in 1995. Last year was a bad year for me but other than that my financial record was excellent. Take 'A Civil Action,' for which the house paid $80,000 before I got there. I thought it was so marvelous that I went along with the idea you needn't do any hoopla. But the jacket was too dull, and the absence of Barnum and Bailey promotion meant that the book lapsed on publication. It never got to the bestseller list in hardback.

"So I decided that we were going to republish and rejacket it and put another $100,000 into it. Sales, which had finished by this time, went straight up, and as soon as we got it into a Vintage paperback, the book made money and continues to make money. My problem is that for this and other books that go into Vintage [the imprint is owned by Random House], the profits didn't go to me but to Vintage, which I thought was very unfair. The incentive, then, was to sell paperback rights outside -- so 'The Hot Zone,' for which I paid $360,000, made a fortune in paperback rights alone, which sold for more than a million dollars, and those profits came to me because I didn't sell to Vintage."

The Brando autobiography was "a genuine mistake," he says. "I should have delayed it because a very hostile biography came out that raised questions about Brando's treatment of his children. One of the conditions he'd set was that he was not going to talk about his kids. So he didn't answer the other book. We should have let all that come out and waited on Brando's book, because then two things could have happened: One, I could have gone back to Brando and persuaded him to answer the charges; or two, the other book would have been forgotten. But Brando would not fulfill his publicity obligations. I only wanted him on Barbara Walter, but he insisted on going on Larry King, which was a disaster. I watched it in total despair."

Evans thinks its "ironic" that he has become a lightning rod for criticism over big advances when other books have not-so-notoriously sunk on a grander scale. "I think of celebrities like Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg, or even Johnnie Cochran, who were paid millions and whose books didn't work, but for some reason no one ELSE thinks of them," he says.

What Evans would like people to remember of his book publishing years as he settles into running the Mort Zuckerman empire (Daily News, U.S. News and World Report, Atlantic Monthly) is that he started a series of literary breakfasts in New York that were widely praised, that the idea behind Modern Library's top 100 English-language novels originated with him, and that even a razzle-dazzle book publisher like the Rambunctious Stranger himself has his principles.

"When I took chances, I wasn't buying commercial brand-name fiction," he says. "I wasn't saying, ‘Here is $20 million for Robert Ludlum or John Grisham. I found and made big books. With authors like Carl Sagan or Jimmy Buffet, I knew what I was doing. Most of the time, I felt that the idea of big advance, huge profit, would work, and it did."


LAST WEEK, A FORMER BORDERS clerk explained here that he had witnessed a change in hiring practices at the two Borders stores where he once worked: Knowledgeable staff members who loved and read books either left the chain or attempted to organize unions, while new clerks were trained to enter/retrieve data in computers and point customers in the right direction, but not to read or have opinions or recommendations about books.

Now Sharon Griner, a former Waldenbooks employee, writes that this kind of change is nothing new in chain bookstores.

"I started working for Waldenbooks in 1983. There, they had an extensive customer service training program that trained the employees how to draw more information from customers to find out what their needs were. This training took a week or two weeks to complete.

"We were to take the customer to the section, put the book in their hands. We were encouraged to read more and know our stock. I had regular customers that knew that I read what they liked and trusted me to help them find more books.

"As the years passed, (I was there 7.5 years), the training changed to more of the cash register and less on customer service. Waldenbooks went from a soft-sell concept to a hard-sell concept with a big push on getting people to sign up for the Preferred Reader's Club. They also started hiring people who did not like to read. I did not like this approach, so I left. This gave them one less person who was trained to do good customer service and had knowledge of books.

"I would want the independent bookstores to stay in business. Personal attention and detailed knowledge of books helps in the process of making the customer happy and selling books. I had science fiction customers that would literally pull me away from the cash register to help them find books because they knew that I could point them in the right direction. After that stopped being the norm, my job became less enjoyable."


. . DID YOU SEE THE STORY in the Wall Street Journal about the British musician and organizer Billy Bragg, who arrived at Borders in Santa Monica to promote his new CD and "launched into a lecture in which he likened the need for having a union at a company to having a seat belt in a car"? He then referred to the employee at a Borders store in Philadelphia who was reportedly fired for attempting to organize a union.

While the Santa Monica manager was cool - "he's entitled to his opinion," she said; "it's a free country" - Bragg was given "thunderous applause from the 250 or so people crowded onto the third floor of Borders," reports WSJ, while "an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World handed out leaflets to the audience in support of the union drive." Reports that this was Harold Evans disrupting yet another book confab were never confirmed.


NEWS THAT THE MAJOR online booksellers are losing a great deal of money - reported a $21.2 million loss for the last quarter, $13.6 - are beginning to tee off Patrick Marks, buyer and opera singer extraordinaire at Cody's Books in Berkeley.

For some time now, word has trickled down (like a flood, actually) from the chains that independent bookstores are slow to act on customer requests, disorganized, spotty, unreliable and hanging by a financial thread.

As Barnes & Noble vice-chairman Steve Riggio told the San Francisco Chronicle (referring to Shakespeare & Company, the New York independent bookstore in that folded after a Barnes & Noble store located nearby), "we're not the reason for Shakespeare's demise, and you know how well documented it is that most of the customers really didn't like Shakespeare, [which was] not very good at service, not very friendly, and not really a great place to shop. Shakespeare could have parlayed their earnings into a large store - it had all these options that were open to any entrepreneur."

While the chains and online services promote themselves as streamlined, efficient, dependable and modern, stores like Cody's, says Marks, "are being painted as an anomaly, when we've been far ahead of Amazon or the chains in terms of customer service for years. But we find it hard to compete when it's Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not Cody's, that are running at a loss, because what they're selling is not tied to profitability in the marketplace of books."

But this is not Patrick's Pet Peeve. Nor is the fact that inventory descriptions have become such a "bizarre abstractions" that Amazon can claim to have the world's largest bookstore -- when it appears to have the largest database -- and everyone believes it. Marks points to a world map in Cody's office that is jammed with push pins all over Europe and Asia.

"That represents places where we've special-ordered books," he says. "We have someone here who will talk to you, locate books for you in foreign countries and do a lot of things Amazon says it does but doesn't. That's been our problem. For the longest time the chains have said they'd take special orders, and they would -- but they'd only go to certain wholesalers, not direct to publishers, and in a week call you back and say the book didn't exist. Meanwhile we find you the book. A lot of people are sending in little tiny checks, and in a way [special orders] are like a loss leader for us, but that's a misnomer because it's never a leader, only a loss. The one customer might be aware of it, but in general the climate is such that we appear to be old-fashioned and incapable."

But that's not Marks' pet peeve, either. "I'll show it to you," he says, pulling up on his computer terminal and clicking on the listing for "Turner Diaries," the notorious rightwing novel about a futuristic "race war" that Timothy McVeigh is said to have studied before bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Marks' pet peeve is the star system that Amazon uses to reflect its "customer comments" - mini reviews written by readers about the books on sale. In this case, the comments range from "pathetic, racist, anti-Semitic, delusional trash" by a customer who gives the book one star (the lowest rating) to "very enlightening," "A MUST READ!" and "a great book" by customers who give the book five stars (the highest rating). From the 56 customer comments available, Amazon has given "Turner Diaries" an "Average Customer Review" of four stars out of five. That is Marks' pet peeve.

"Actually, I find it fascinating," he says, "because it points out the difference between who we are and who Amazon is. We are servicing our community; we will do business with anybody. If you want 'Turner Diaries,' I:'ll special-order it for you. But in a certain way we reflect our community,:and we don't claim it to be a WORLD community. I'm not going to run:'customer comments' of the book, and if I had the possibility of giving it stars out of 5, I could not do it. That's not censoring, it's my job description. I decide the character of the store, which reflects whatever moral universe is here, and we tend not to do well with rightwing books. Our customers don't want them, so they don't sell."

But wait. Couldn't one say that readers submitting reviews to Amazon create a kind of raw democracy that you don't get anywhere but online? Certainly, says Marks. And isn't that of interest? "In a way. You could call it total selection," he muses, "but what does this rating system say, really, or do? In this example, Amazon ends up giving a four-star rating for a book about killing off African Americans and fomenting a race war."

Marks then clicks on "Mein Kampf," which earns an "Average Customer Review" of 3.5 stars out of 5. "You see, we carry this book, but we would never give it a 'review,' " he says. But why not? "Mein Kampf" is one of the most instructive books of the century. Shouldn't everyone read it? Marks, exasperated to the bone, clicks off his screen. If he could bury his face in his hands, he probably would, but he is too polite. "I don't think 'everyone' should read anything," he says wisely, and the conversation moves on to other matters.