Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat + Obsession by Julie Powell.

Let’s start with the obvious:  I’m a blogger and a writer and a lover of food and dogs and Julia Child, and sometimes I can be deplorably unpleasant.  This is what is called a character flaw, but I think that — when combined with my devotion to my friends and my knack for color-coordination, let’s say — it adds depth to, well, my character.  As readers, we don’t need to like the characters we encounter; what we do need is for those characters to have some sort of humanizing trait that make us care about them.  For example, a huge part of what makes Neil Gaiman‘s iconic Sandman comic book series so incredibly readable is the fact that the major players are terribly flawed.  Their losses wouldn’t cut as deeply if we the readers weren’t invested in them; the same could be said about their gains.

In other words, likable characters are boring.

That said, I hate the Julie Powell portrayed in Cleaving — A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, a memoir written by the blogger herself.  I don’t say I hate this portrayal because I wanted the perkier, Amy Adams version; I’m putting it like this, in a vaguely diplomatic way, because I kind of feel as though I need to give Ms. Powell the benefit of the doubt.  I’m fully aware that the way we describe ourselves via our own writing is ineffably skewed… but maybe that’s my problem.  Maybe I read this memoir while banking too much on the dumb hope that Ms. Powell would eventually reveal herself to be — well, more fully realized.  I don’t care that she comes across as utterly unlikable, but she needs to throw me a bone or two in regards to the rest of her character.  And yes, that was an intended pun.

I’m getting completely ahead of myself.

Cleaving picks up a few years after Ms. Powell finished writing Julie and Julia 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (why the chronic need to subtitle everything?), as she’s tangled up in an affair with an old boyfriend that she refers to coyly as D.  Her husband learns of this and has a revenge affair of his own, but ultimately he doesn’t want to leave Ms. Powell, who herself feels no inclination to either end her affair or her marriage.  Instead, for reasons which are never adequately explained, she heads out of Queens to become an apprentice butcher in Kingston, New York.  When her apprenticeship comes to its end, Ms. Powell, still floundering, hits the road again, this time stopping in Argentina, the Ukraine, Japan and Tanzania; supposedly she’s traveling in order to learn more about meat, and how different cultures kill, cook and eat it, but really, she’s running from her husband, a fact Ms. Powell acknowledges.

Ms. Powell acknowledges a lot more than just this, though.  She depicts in great detail her escapades with D: bondage, biting and banging, oh my.  It doesn’t bother me that Ms. Powell loves being tied up, it just bores me; each so-called sexy scenelet seems to have been written strictly to provoke and show off.  It’s as though Ms. Powell is gleefully nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Did you get to the part where he throws me down so hard he bruises me?  What did you think about the part where we strip each other?  What about when we dry humped while my husband slept in the adjacent room?  Isn’t my sex life so hot?”

This self-satisfied aura pervades the entire book, and the frequency with which Ms. Powell congratulates herself in one fashion or another was utterly fascinating to me.  She describes herself as sexy, as alluring, as inviting.  At one point, when explaining why she so loves the text message, Ms. Powell writes, “With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce.  My words are what make me desirable.”

Not so, I say.

Ms. Powell’s words are interesting only when she’s writing about butchery and Fleischer’s, the butcher’s shop in which she apprentices.  Here the writing is almost lovely and at times quite fine, but once Ms. Powell leaves the shop behind…  the word self-absorbed comes to mind first, with masturbatory stepping on its heels.  Do we need two hundred odd pages of utterly dull, completely abrading twaddle about Ms. Powell stalking D after he’s dumped her, about Ms. Powell complaining that she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has to break up with someone she doesn’t want to break up with, about Ms. Powell forever checking her BlackBerry to see if D has sent her yet another racy SMS?  Not only that, do we need Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation after quotation?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Buffy fan — I’m rewatching season two on Hulu right now, and I still laugh at the bitca scene — but do I use the show as a touchstone for my life?  And if I did, would I really write about it at length, knowing that the possibility existed that a good portion of my readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about?*

Ugh.

Basically, what I’m trying to say rather poorly is this: a well-constructed story — whether it’s told on the page or on the screen, and regardless of if it’s fictional or factual — entices the audience.  Its characters must somehow impress themselves onto that audience, and the narrative must purposely propel itself forward.  Ms. Powell’s characters, though they are effectively real people, fail to enrapture, and her wandering wallowing is absolutely aimless.  Inertia is something that I can understand, as is engaging in contentious behavior, but I want to stress that I don’t think Cleaving‘s fault lies in Ms. Powell’s having had an affair, or for being torn between her husband and her lover.  Affairs make for great drama — would The Great Gatsby even have a story if it were not for the infidelities of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle?  The difference is that Cleaving is made up of melodrama, none of which is at all great.

* This is one of the first things that Steve Almond told me, as my college writing instructor, when I wrote a terrible, god-awful and humiliating scene referencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coincidentally also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze.
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Five Things About Me: 56 57 58 59 60.

56. My favorite Mr. Sketch scented marker in both color and fragrance was the turquoise/mango.  My least favorites were the brown/cinnamon and the green/mint.  The orange/orange (duh) always made my mouth water, even now .  If I think about it, I can remember their scents so clearly.

57. I obsessively watch television shows on Hulu.  At this very moment, I’m in the middle of a My So-Called Life marathon, and it’s kind of freaking me out that I now relate the most with Graham Chase (the charmingly bushy-eyebrowed Tom Irwin) rather than with Angela (a barely-adolescent Claire Danes).  Other shows I’ve been Hulu-hooked on include Friday Night Lights, Dead Like Me and Firefly.

58. I sew a lot, and make lots of quilts.  To amuse myself, I buy ridiculously-colored* thread and use it on the insides of my projects, where they’ll never be seen.  But I know they’re there, and what colors they are.

59. If it were considered socially acceptable to wear bathrobes out and about, as apparel, I probably would.  In the warmer months, anyway.  I love mine.

60. I have two tattoos.  I got the first at age nineteen in New York, and the second at twenty-one in San Francisco.  My parents didn’t find out about either one until much later, and they weren’t pleased when they did.  They’re still irked.

* I.E. “Enchanting Ginger,” “Pretty Flamingo” and “Sunny Summer.”

Six Random Food Related Facts About Me: A Meme.

A little while ago, Betty from Cuisine Quotidienne tagged me in a meme asking me to share six random facts about myself.  I do love a list or two, so here goes…

  1. I am absolutely terrified of yeast because it’s a) alive and b) grows, and yet wiggly, jiggly Jell-O is not a problem for me.  Most likely because Jell-O doesn’t double in size when left alone on the counter with a towel over its head.
  2. My favorite thing to snack on as a child were Chips Ahoy!  I would cram as many as I could fit into a beer stein, smoosh it down, and then douse it all in milk.  Then I would skim off the soggy dough and suck the chips until they turned into melted streaks in my spoon.
  3. I cannot listen to music when I cook — my mind needs to follow a storyline, so I plug my laptop in near the fridge and watch something on Hulu or pop in a DVD.  I get too antsy otherwise.  When I write, though, I absolutely must listen to music; I can’t think about it too much or else I’ll start to obsess over my playlist, so I put iTunes or Pandora on shuffle and skip songs only occasionally.
  4. When I have a sore throat, all I want to eat are milkshakes and baguettes.  Milkshakes to soothe the burn and baguettes to scratch the itch.  Ideally, the milkshake will be strawberry or maybe even orange-vanilla, and the baguette must be as fresh as possible to maximize its effectiveness as a scratching tool.
  5. I want so desperately to move.  While a lot of my friends are in Boston, I still think about what it would be like to live in a different city, walk down different streets, find new places to eat and shop.  Particularly the eat…
  6. The dish I like to prepare the most is the easiest I know: pan-fried and broiled rib-eye steak.  I just love the smell of the meat cooking.