Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Report: (A Blogger's Take on) Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

I had been wanting to read Julie and Julia for a long time. Partly because I saw the movie when it came out last year, partly because I'm a fellow blogger. Last Friday I finally got around to finishing it. There were things about it that I really liked, and things about it that I really didn't. Although the movie was very similar to the book, the book had an undeniable dark streak running through it (as books often do) that was much diluted in the movie.

So, things that I liked. As a writer and blogger, I could relate to Julie. Right from the get-go. I particularly liked this excerpt on page 11:

"When I was a kid, my dad used to love to tell the story about finding five-year-old Julie curled up in the back of his copper-colored Datsun ZX immersed in a crumpled back issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He told that one to all the guys at his office, and to the friends he and my mom went out to dinner with, and to all of the family who weren't born again and likely to disapprove. (Of the Atlantic, not Z-cars.)"

Here Julie establishes herself as a reader. It sort of sets the tone for the rest of the book, because it lets us know that she wants to do something with that, and that that something, of course, is to become a writer. But finding ways to do that prove kind difficult because of, well, life, and all its mundane daily trials. Enter the Julie/Julia Project, in which Julie will spend 365 days cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, chronicling every misstep and triumph in a daily blog. As a springboard for a writing career, it's an odd choice. Julie spends a small fortune on unappetizing ingredients such as beef marrow, kidneys, and cow brains, spends hours preparing them, and then sits down with her husband, Eric, to actually eat them, often at the mind-boggling hour of midnight. I found it very, very hard to understand why she forced herself to eat cow brains. But then, this is supposed to be the part about the stuff I liked . . .

Fast forward to the whole blogging thing. At the start of the project, Julie doesn't know what a blog is. Her husband tells her, and it's with a certain tentative technical unsavviness that she ventures to write her first post, an excerpt of which is, "Too old for theater, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia Project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats' well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment. 365 days. 524 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer-borough kitchen. How far it will go, no one can say . . . " (26). And she's off. The blog becomes popular relatively quickly, garnering Julie the kind of readers who comment daily and write near-tearful missives if she disappears for too long. She begins to depend on hearing from them, telling her husband that she can't stop the project because her "bleaders" (as she begins to call them) are expecting to hear from her. Julie becomes so immersed in blogging that she questions the point of blogging itself by analyzing the seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys (you may remember this character from high school English class). Here was a guy who jotted down every detail of his life, both the shocking and the run-of-the-mill, solely for his own enjoyment. Julie ponders this, writing, "What I think is that Sam Pepys wrote down all the details of his life for nine years because the very act of writing them down made them important, or at least singular. Overseeing the painters doing his upstairs rooms was rather dull, but writing about it made overseeing the painters doing his upstairs rooms at least seem interesting. . . . " (110). It's true, what Julie says. Writing stuff down does make it seem more interesting. That's why we read, after all. Sitting on your porch and slipping into someone else's world is almost always preferable to whatever you've got going on in your own. I guess that was what Julie herself was doing when she blogged: adding interest to an otherwise (by her own confession) uninteresting life. I chose to view this as a positive move, a way for her to reclaim her own destiny.

Now, on to the things I didn't like. Or rather, the things that troubled or confused me. Julie has a very nice husband. He helped her with all aspects of the project and hardly ever complained. He was her high school sweetheart, and they'd married at the age of 24, together moving to New York seeking intellectual and artistic adventures. To me, this seemed romantic. But Julie seems kind of ashamed of it, a state of mind she reveals in various parts of the book. Consider this (graphic - I warn you) section from page 21: "Please understand - I love my husband like a pig loves shit. Maybe even more. But in the circles I run in, being married for more than five years before reaching the age of thirty ranks real high on the list of most socially damaging traits, right below watching NASCAR and listening to Shania Twain." It seems like maybe Julie doesn't want to be married. (I got a little of this from the movie, but the overall message was that they were happy despite Julie's neuroses. A Hollywood spin, I suppose). And I'm not really sure why. It's not as if her husband is some Neanderthal, you know? A Google search revealed even more upsetting news. After publishing Julie and Julia, Julie wrote another book called Cleaving, which is about her adventures as an apprentice butcher away from home and all the affairs she has. (Part of me wants to read it but knows I can't. The butchering descriptions would be the end of me. I'm very squeamish about blood and had to skim several of the more graphic cooking scenes involving organ meat and butchery in Julie and Julia.)

At the end of Julie and Julia, you sort of hope that Julie is finally fulfilled. (At least I did.) That writing a blog that turned into a book that turned into a movie was what she was looking for. But once I heard that she'd run off and cheated on her husband I began to question her capacity for any kind of happiness. Maybe she wasn't just another frustrated writer. Maybe she was a woman with issues with a capital I. And I think this was what bothered me the most. Because for all its wittiness and David vs. Goliath sensibilities, Julie and Julia lacked that essential ingredient of the kind of book that you want to reread and remember -heart.

All of this having been said, I couldn't help but ask myself, "Why do I blog?" The easy answer would be that I love to write. I've always loved to write. Even during the few times in my life when I told myself I was done with writing, I found myself creeping back to it, almost unconsciously, jotting down snippets of things on scrap paper. I like to weigh the rhythms of sentences, adding and subtracting words until they sound perfect. I like to describe things: people's expressions, clothes, meals, houses. I like to make up characters (which applies to writing fiction, not blogging, but still). So, blogging is a fun, easy way to write about stuff that interests me. Why not just keep a private journal, then? The best answer I have is that blogging provides a way for me to join the conversation of the world, which is important to me because I feel like I have something to say. True, it's a mostly one-sided conversation, but to be honest, I prefer it that way. If I had a ton of commenters, then I think that would make me feel nervous and accountable and would take the fun out of it.

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