Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Jersey and Julia

As a pot of Potage Parmentier simmers on the stove, it seems appropriate to pull, from my ever-growing List of Things to Write About, my thoughts on Julie and Julia. I finished reading this book yesterday morning.

My first thought was going to be, where the heck did the italicized stuff about Paul and Julia Child's lives come from!? What book was that from!? What letter?! Then I realized it's spelled out for me, in plain English in the Author's Note, that it's Julie Powell's semi-fictional writing based on letters and biographies of the two Childs. Whoops.

I started this book with expectations. It's hard to say if they were high or low. I had heard a lot about the book from friends, my mother, and book critics. I've also heard about Julie Powell's second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, either from people who hadn't read the book or from a review in BUST magazine.

I just need to interject here that the soup is off the stove. Holy crap! Potage Parmentier is good. How can something so simple be so amazingly good!? Something without any olive oil? Something made with water and not vegetable stock?! Something with just salt and pepper - no fancy spices, not even garlic!?

Anyway. So, from various readers and critics, I had heard mostly unpleasant things about Julie Powell and her writing. As I read the book, I found myself agreeing with some of what I'd heard, and yet, I felt that if I were to write this and she were to read it, I'd feel terrible. In some ways, I identified and agreed with her. I felt as though if we were to meet, we'd probably get along, maybe even be friends. Overall, I enjoyed reading Julie and Julia. Not as much as My Life in France, which I read a year ago, but I still enjoyed it.

Let me list some of the things I'd heard. 1) Julie Powell is not a good writer. 2) Julie Powell writes "fuck" too much. 3) Julie Powell is too negative and doesn't "get" the positivity, the love of life and living itself, with which Julia Child approached the world. 4) Julie Powell is a bitch and her husband, Eric, is a saint. How could she have cheated on him in the second book!? 5) Julie Powell in the book is NOTHING like the Amy Adams character in the movie!

I'll start with #4. Now, I'm not saying I disagree with this statement. But I don't agree, either. I don't actually know Julie and Eric. Although Julie and Eric Powell are real people, the Julie and Eric presented in Julie and Julia are characters in a book. They are as fictional as the Julia and Paul in the italicized sections of the book--merely based on real people. Julie wrote Eric as a saintly husband; we don't know what he's really like (although I am sure he is very nice.) Julie wrote herself as an occasional cranky bitch. We don't know what she's really like, either. These characteristics may have been exaggerated for the sake of a bitchy wife/angelic husband dichotomy. Who knows? It's one thing not to like reading about it, but let's not judge these poor people. In general, I mean, let's keep in mind that "characters" in nonfiction are still characters, edited down like a reality TV show. As for the cheating thing, according to BUST's review of Cleaving, Eric had an affair, too. The reviewer, Sarah Norris, does write, however, that it is "[i]n revolt." Yet Norris also writes that "together they weep, drink themselves to sleep in front of their television in Queens...", so while it's not exactly a model of polyamorous morality, this implies they were communicative about it to some extent. Note: I am not an expert on polyamory. Moving on....

Let's jump to #2. "Julie Powell writes 'fuck' too much." Yes, I agree. Profanity would be more effective if she used it more selectively, though I wouldn't recommend cutting it out completely. (That would be hypocritical.)

On to #1. Julie Powell is a bad writer. This is what I'd really like to talk about, because I disagree and, as a fellow writer, I feel the need to defend her. I don't think she's the world's best writer, but I found Julie and Julia to be pretty well-written. I think some reviewers are getting their dislike of Julie the person (or rather, the character) mixed up with Julie the writer. As I read Julie and Julia, the following line from a review of Cleaving kept popping up in my head: "Instead of a hardcover book, Powell's black-and-blue mess of confessions should never have left her hard drive." That was from a review of a different book which I have not read; still, I found myself thinking this about parts of Julie and Julia. There were thoughts of Julie's that felt too confessional, too much, usually too negative or gross. Or they weren't led up to appropriately; they seemed to crop up out of nowhere in a jarring, unsettling way.

Or maybe I just can't handle that kind of negativity. Maybe I need to get over the fact that I don't agree with her, rather than say, "She's wrong!"

Sometimes, I simply felt that the confession/negativity could have benefited from some editing, a smoother transition. That's all.

Finally, #3 - that Julie Powell doesn't "get" the message of Julia Child. Well, as soon as I realized that Julie and Eric from the book aren't completely real, I realized, with a bit of horror, that neither is Julia Child I know from My Life in France. To put it simply, that semi-fictional (for lack of a better term) Julia is in love with life, adventurous, optimistic, and energetic. She views life as a source of pleasure and looks for the good in all things. Julie Powell, the semi-fictional/literary version, is cranky. She writes things like, "bureaucrats are assholes." She tells lost tourists, "Lady, you are hell and gone from fucking New Jersey." I didn't find it pleasant to read, either, but in her defense, she's writing from New York City--a cranky place. Whereas Julia Child writes about the pleasures of food and its creation, Julie Powell often describes cooking for The Project as a chore. There are whole chapters where she doesn't seem to enjoy it at all, and this is why people feel that she doesn't "get" the message. I'm not sure if she does, either, but I am reluctant to write her off so quickly.

Despite the negativity and the lack of transitions, passages from Julie and Julia stood out, as though floating from the page on a heavenly cloud, as being so true to me. I would want to yell, "Yes! You are so RIGHT!" First of all, I understand her adoration of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I'm not sure if we adore it for the same reasons, but here are mine. In addition to the positive, life-loving approach to the world that is represents for me, it's also a representation of excellence. It might be the scientist in me, or my secret inner capitalist, but I appreciate any example of thorough work, of excellence--from well-made food, to well-written literature, to Olympic athleticism. It's beyond appreciation; it's a thrill.

This passage, too, indicates to me that in some way, Julie gets it--it's the part about the bone marrow (page 76-7). "The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly-too-much way. [...] What it really tastes like is life, well lived. Of course, the cow I got marrow from had a fairly crappy life--lots of crowds and overmedication and bland food that might or might not have been a relative. But deep in his or her bones, there was the capacity for feral joy. I could taste it." It's dark and a little unsettling, but the focus on life and joy is there. She gets it.

She may not write it in the way that Julia or I would. Her choice of words and images may make me uncomfortable. (Like "bone rape," also on page 76.) But I just don't think she deserves all the criticism she's been getting. She may be cranky about life's everyday annoyances, but who isn't? Maybe she just writes the things we think, deep down, and know better than to make public. Maybe some people need to write or read those things. She's not the Amy Adams character, she's not Julia, and she's not perfect. But she put herself out there, and that's more than can be said for a lot of people. Lots of people are cranky, and no one is perfect.

In other news, this Potage Parmentier is wonderful. I just ate the whole four cups by myself.

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