Saturday, February 20, 2010
That Need to Know
Every now and then something catches my attention, and I am gripped by a need to know things that actually have nothing to do with my life. I referenced it a while back as being a desire to see both sides of a story before making up my own mind. That sounds terribly fair-minded of me, but I'm really not sure that's accurate. What it comes down to is this: my favorite dog breeds tend to run towards terriers, and there is no coincidence in that. I like tenacity in people, I tend to like it in animals too.
In other words, watch it when I get a hold of a bone, because I may not stop until such time as you wish to brain me with something heavy, only stopping when you are absolutely certain I've lost the ability to bring up the subject ever, again.
I know this about myself and sometimes, not often but sometimes, I will endeavor to stop myself when I find that I am teetering on that abyss. It's always something small that catches my attention. A doctored portrait, the mention of the role of early feminism in children's literature, or a line in a movie that contradicts something I already know.
Such was the case with Julie and Julia. See? There's no telling what the subject matter will be. Pop-culture, recorded history, people suffering the misery attendant to marrying someone they never loved; just something that catches me. In the aforementioned movie, I wondered why Nora Ephron and company weren't telling the level truth about Julia Child's reaction to Julie Powell's blog.
It bugged me that I somehow knew, through something I'd read, and forgotten the source on, that Child hadn't really been focused on the profanity in Powell's blog. Julia Child had not really gotten herself in a twist over flying F-bombs. No, somewhere in the recesses of my brain existed the knowledge that Julia Child had thought Powell did not love cooking. That she took no joy in food. That she was an opportunist who pulled a stunt, for attention, for fame, and that she had dragged Julia Child into the mix. Oh, and she wasn't thrilled that Julie Powell swore with wild abandon, either.
So it nettled me, and I wasn't sure why. I came home, I found the material that had led me to believe this in the first place, and I was right there, about to take the leap, about to do my regular swan dive into whatever inane thing had caught my attention when I clicked a link that brought me up short.
It was an interview with Julie Powell about her second book called Cleaving. The interview said it detailed her apprenticeship with a butcher, and her two year long extra-marital affair following the publication of her book. That little burning need to know was extinguished almost immediately, but for a weird reason, it wasn't revulsion, it was that it became screamingly clear at that moment that I had no clue what I was about to get myself into, and I was pretty sure that I simply didn't want to know more.
Which makes it sort of a pity that my son gave me a copy of the movie for Christmas. I watched it and was bugged again. Why hadn't the movie just dealt with it? It was a straightforward enough thing. Not addressing it just mystified me because I didn't believe Powell simply was an opportunist. I read a bit of her blog, after being told by a friend that I would love her sense of humor. I actually didn't, it's a little too close to my own brand of humor for me to find it particularly funny. I don't sit around endlessly cracking myself up, and the similarities in phrasing meant the Powell was unlikely to reduce me to a giggling pile.
So I listened to the commentary.
A word about that: Don't do it. I am the sort of movie and TV geek who listens to commentary. Lighting, camera angles, back stage difficulties, the writing process; I love it all. However, Nora Ephron should be legally banned from doing commentary because she has an almost fatal failing in doing it. She continually forgets that she's actually supposed to be speaking, and filling in details. There are long periods of time where, basically, you'd be sitting there watching a Nora Ephron film right along with Nora Ephron, and whereas you might start musing about the neat time-activity-parrallels, you aren't going to learn much. Unless you actually give a hang that the suitcase seen in the film belonged to the real Paul Child. Now that's the kind of stuff I groove on but I learned exactly two things of that nature in the course of the entire film. When Ephron uncorks it and actually remembers to speak? It's fun.
And then she got to the part about Julia Child's reaction to Powell's blog and, as luck would have it, said the only fascinating thing she said in the entirety of that commentary: She knew about Child's reaction, of what, and why her complaint was comprised and Nora Ephron quite simply decided that Julia Child would have changed her mind.
Well, that was me hosed. I had to know why, because learning that Powell had used her own affair to try and sell more books had not disabused me of the notion, that's for sure.
I read Powell's archived blog, and her book based upon that blog. I should have stopped there. I had my answer, after all. I agreed with Nora Ephron, it is likely that had Julia Child lived a few more years, and read Powell's first book, she would have changed her mind. Stunt or not, Powell had real affection for Julia Child, and whereas Julia might have been right about Powell having no true respect for food, she likely would have understood the quest to find something of her own. Something she was good at, something to ground her in her life, and provide purpose for her.
As I often do when considering a book, I go to Amazon and check the reviews of that book. I did so with a fair amount of trepidation because, no matter from which angle you view it, the subject matter of Cleaving is deeply uncomfortable. Not just the marital shenanigans, but the subject of butchery.
I really don't recommend perusing those reviews unless you want to be exposed to every negative descriptor that can be leveled at a person. Words like "despicable" as well as every known synonym for prostitute, or a woman of low moral standards were just flying free and loose in there.
I think that was the moment I decided I'd better read Cleaving before making up my own mind. It is one of the stranger books I've ever read. Beyond the skin-crawling subject matter of much of the book, it's not well-written. It lacks any cohesion, with long descriptions of the butchering trade, contrasted with the destruction Julie Powell brought down on her own life. Then, bizarrely, there are recipes simply inserted willy-nilly and in the final chapters of the book, Powell takes off traveling and tries to provide a humorous travel log. Nothing in the book works well, and for anyone that cooks, it's easy to spot that even the recipes are rather suspect.
I think it would be easy to say that Powell's self-depricating sense of humor turned on its ear, and that the book is about self-debasement. Possibly an act of contrition, or atonement. Powell doesn't defend her actions, if anything she sounds rather disgusted with herself. Yet, the other inescapable part is that she is seeking to profit from this often lurid tale. She's complicated, and frequently the architect of her own misery. She seems to understand this about herself, that she took the opportunities afforded to her, and proceeded to wreak havoc within her own life. Powell eventually finds her way back to her husband, and he to her but only after he has had his own longterm affair.
The situation is not remarkable, or unusual, but the choice in writing about it is on both fronts. Julie Powell's next book was going to sell, no matter what she chose to write about.
I said I like tenacity both in people and in animals, but this willful self-destruction is a form of tenacity that left me confused. Somewhere inside of us all exists the memory, the knowledge of the least admirable thing we've ever done. When we're being honest with ourselves, even the best people have something they regret, something for which they would like to atone.
I'm not sure that is what Powell was trying to do, but I do think there was an element of that in it.
Nora Ephron sounded sadly thoughtful when she said Julia Child would have changed her mind about Julie Powell. I think I understand why now.
This isn't really a book review. When I set out to find out more about something that caught my attention, whenever I do that, I am doing so to try and understand a situation.
I think I have that in common with Julie Powell. Cleaving seems to be about Powell's desperate quest to understand her own actions. That the book is a confusing mess of a thing is not surprising as the subject matter certainly indicates that's going to be the end result. So I have trying to understand in common with Powell, and thankfully, that's all I have in common with her.
On the day I finished reading Cleaving, I went to Powell's active blog and read the entry for that day. The entry was about her dog dying. Just an everyday event in a life. She talked about her reaction, and her husband's reaction to losing their treasured friend. Something to which most of us can relate. Something easy to understand. Loss, pain, love.
It was oddly fitting as an end cap to the strange experience of reading Powell's self-dissection. Most reviews of Powell's second book contain the words "more mature" which I found amusing. Julie Powell's flailing journey through butchery, infidelity and trying to understand herself seems anything but to me.
Sometimes it is better not to know.