Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"Julie & Julia" - Skip the Book

I enjoy reading cookbooks like others read fiction or non-fiction books. They frequently tell stories of the history of foods and why different techniques are used versus others. I learned to cook from cookbooks, not having the benefit of a mother who particularly enjoyed cooking much less offering to teach her daughters how to cook. I firmly believe, from my own experience, that if a person can read then a person can learn to cook.

Just follow the directions.

I love a good biography more than just about any other type of book. The stories of the lives of people have always interested me. One I read not too long ago was the story of Julia Child. Now there was one fascinating life story. Not only did she launch a very successful cooking career in the latter part of her life but in her earlier years she was a part of the foreign intel service. Talk about forging her own paths in life, that would be the lesson to take from her life story.

So, when I learned of a book that was published from a blog about cooking by Julia Child's French cookbook, I thought that would be a terrific summer read. A movie from the book will open Friday across the nation.

"Julie & Julia" is written by blogger turned author Julie Powell. Powell, originally from Austin, Texas now lives in a borough of NYC and worked for a government agency in Manhattan located directly across from the site of the 9/11/01 attacks. She came up with the idea to take the Julia Child cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and set a goal of making every recipe in the cookbook within the time frame of one year. She was 29 years old and a bored secretary at the time. She was looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

So far so good. Interesting idea. She began a blog to record her experiment and came to realize the benefits of writing and receiving feedback from complete strangers. To say it all rapidly went to her head is an understatement.

Like many who are raised in small communities and move to the big city, Powell was determined to let the reader know how cool she is, to a fault. She is married to a good guy, by all accounts, who was her high school sweetheart. Unfortunately, she felt the need to insert politics into her book about cooking from a cookbook. Weird, very weird. I guess it has to do with the trying to be cool mindset.

She felt the need to bash Republicans at every opportunity - usually from out of thin air. There was never any reason for the side notes but it was how she decided to write. She was not at all happy with her job at a "government agency" and that some of her co-workers were Republicans. She belittled those who called Sept 11, 2001 "9/11" since she thought it sounded "like a deodorant or something" (pg 68) and wasn't comfortable with the emotions produced by those of the public with whom she interacted, whether in person or on the telephone. "Besides, the place was lousy with Republicans, so genuine emotion wasn't such a big commodity, anyway." (pg 68)

The head of the agency for which she worked was described as "he probably looked a little piggy to me only because I knew he was a Republican." (pg 69) Her friend Sarah comes in - "She stopped and grabbed my shoulders, staring into my eyes like a hypnotist. "Julie," she asked, "are you a Republican?" " (pg 70) And, from Nate "Are you kidding? Republicans don't wear vintage". (pg 70) That was after she interviewed for a job while wearing a vintage shop find. On the first anniversary of 9/11 she writes about manning the "Family Room" which was set up in her office to accommodate grieving spouses, children, parents and friends. She doesn't understand the comfort these grieving people sought by returning to the site of the attacks. She complains that only women, at the junior staff level, were handing out tissues and bottles of water. "Maybe, being Republicans, the senior staff had some family - values sort of notion that women possess inherent delicacy and sensitivity - despite the abundant evidence to the contrary within their own organization." (pg 77)

Powell uses vulgar language and sexual references for shock value. There is no other explanation. This was suppose to be a book about her experiment that was begun as a way to shake up a boring life. As she saw it. She insults other bloggers - they aren't as cool or smart as her - "Today, when we blog about our weight-loss problems and our knitting and our opinion of the president's IQ level, we do it on the blithe assumption that someone gives a sh** - even though there's a guy stuck in Baghdad who blogs, and a Washington DC staff assistant who gets paid by Republican appointees for sex who blogs, and our own jottings must be dreadfully dull by comparison." (pg 110)

When her friend, Gwen, refers to comedian Jimmy Fallon as a "fuc***g retard", "to his face" she opines it must "have felt pretty good." (pg 138) How progressive.

She brought in a dish made the evening before in her kitchen to her co-workers. Her kitchen is described for the filthiness of it. This dish, Charlotte Malakoff, was victim of an unfortunate accident en route to the office. Powell dropped the ceramic souffle dish and it shattered on a Manhattan sidewalk, during a freezing rain. Undeterred, she set it out for her co-workers, with a note to "Please Enjoy!". "I had to go to the six Democrats in the office and tell them they might want to take a pass since there might be ceramic shards or antifreeze in it." (pg 197)

I could go on with the political references, but it's too much. This is why the book was such a disappointment to me, as the reader. Did Powell assume only Democrats would read her book? Or the non-political readers? Why is she so insecure?

Her experiment is an interesting read - the parts she talks about actually cooking and the techniques she learns. It is also interesting that she learns of Julia Child's death as her year comes to an end. She learns Child is not supportive of Powell's project. Child is insulted by the stunt aspect of the project. Powell is offended by that.

Powell finishes her project within her time frame. She completes the mission. She learns so very little as a human being, though. Maybe it is her age - she turns 30 as her year of cooking a la Julia Child progresses. Maybe it is just the faux sophistication she presents to the world.

The book was difficult for me, a political wonk on the Republican side, to get through. It was offensive to me. I pushed through as an exercise of persistence. I was very disappointed.

I will, however, see the movie. I want to see Meryl Streep portray Julia Child.

I watched Cybill Shephard portray a "forty something" divorcee in a made for TV chick flick over the weekend. If Cybill can play someone 20 years her junior, Streep can certainly portray Julia Child.

Save your money on the book. Go see the movie.

The page references noted in this post are from the paperback edition of the book.


Carol ReMarks said...

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean but I just chalk it up to being a silly little book and I don't get all riled up about it. I mainly bought the book to read when I saw the previews to the movie. I am very much looking forward to the move. Even if it was transformed by Nora Ephron - who you know is a liberal as well. Hopefully she left the silly petty politics out of it. :-)

Karen Townsend said...

Despite her politics, I enjoy Ephron movies - esp the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan ones. I'm a sucker for the chick flicks.

Carol ReMarks said...

Me too!!!

Martha said...

I agree that Julie is trying to hang out with the cool kids by insulting Republicans. No surprise that she is from Austin. I notice she accepted her government paycheck from the agency, however. Guess it didn't occur to her she might want the royalty checks from Republicans who bought the book, now that she's got a reason to get out of bed and all. I'm glad Julia saw through Julie. I'll see the movie with you and for the same reason.


Hi, Karen, just discovered your blog and I really like it. I *started* reading that blasted book a few years ago. Not long into it, she described how disgusted she was by some (homeless, maybe?) woman laying out on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. ZERO compassion. It was all about how it made her feel disgusted. Then I waded through a bit more filthy language and selfish observations, hoping to see more about Julia Child. About 1/4 of the way through, I closed the book and took it back to the library. Then I went on amazon and gave it the review it deserved. Apparently the author has a whole herd of bleating followers, because they jumped all over the people who left bad reviews. So, I'm really torn about the movie. I so love Julia Child, and Meryl Streep! I hate the thought of putting one penny in the pocket of that *other* Julia.

Martha said...

Texas Monthly has an interview with her. She was only at the filming for part of one day. Had lunch with Nora Ephron a couple of times. That's it, except for getting paid, of course.

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