What follows is a review of Julie Powell’s new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. Disclosure: what I have is the advance copy, so I’m actually reviewing a late draft of the book. Also, I have yet to and probably won’t finish it, so I’m actually reading a late draft of I book I’ve only skimmed.
Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, is really, really lucky. She started a blog, got a book deal, the resulting book was made into a (pretty good) movie, she met Meryl Streep, knows the answer to everyone’s favorite fantasy question (Who would play me in the movie of my life?) and got a Wikipeida entry. And why? Because the timing was right. Julie Powell started blogging before even technophobic grandparents with mild Alzheimers had a Blogspot. Her blog isn’t even that interesting. Let me paraphrase a recent post: “It’s New Year’s! I should lose ten pounds.” Compare this to my New Year’s post: “It’s New Year’s! I’m going to see if I can get to my low weight of six pounds, eight ounces by eating Capt’n Crunch until the insides of my cheeks are so torn up that the only food that doesn’t cause blood to pool in my mouth is distilled water. Also, work out more.” Who would you rather go to a strip club with? Someone whose dream is a dinner date with Julia Child or someone whose dream is a temp job as a census-taker? Bad example. Point is, her new book, Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage, and Obsession, is less fun than accidentally swallowing beer with a cigarette butt at the bottom.
The fundamental problem with Cleaving is that, after the success of Julie and Julia, Little, Brown, & Co. tried to capitalize on Powell’s new found literary and cinematic fame too early. Not a year went by since the movie’s premier when Powell’s sophomore attempt hit the discount bin. What happened in that time? Well, a lot. Namely, Powell got rich and famous, which is a story we all want to read and hopefully emulate. But did Powell chose to write From Minimum Wage to Meryl Streep: The Julie Powell Story? No. She chose to write about her unpaid internship at a butcher shop.
The premise: Julie Powell throws away her marriage for a lover named D. (This itself annoyed me. Why not give the adulterer a better pseudonym? At least call him Dick or something.) Her husband of ten years—who not only put up with her “year of cooking dangerously” when he just wanted some Kung Pao Chicken and a back rub, but was also portrayed as somewhat of a wuss in the movie—finds out, cries a lot, and is generally treated like a bad ant infestation by his famous wife. They stay together, but Powell moves to upstate New York to apprentice as a butcher for six months, all the while ignoring her husband’s efforts towards reconciliation because she’s waiting for a text from her former lover even after he’s moved on. And while I know what it’s like to obsess over someone else to the point of callous unconcern for the person you’ve made a life with, Powell almost seems proud of her adultery. I don’t care if you think that your fuck puppet is the love or your life, cheating isn’t nice. Just cut the fucker lose before you buy a time-share with the new guy.
Speaking of Julie Powell and her fuck puppet, reading about the author’s trysts was as comfortable as introducing your parents to your former professor/current lover. Every time Powell laid down some detail about her affair, I pictured Amy Adams, who played Powell in Julie & Julia and is cute but not sexy and also has a gummy smile, doing the illicit. Besides, reading about sex generally makes me uncomfortable. Although Mazog recently said this blog is about “raunchy gay sex,” I’m actually part Mennonite and part vanilla ice cream and thinking about Amy Adams ‘opening up like a grinning harlot flower,’ when D slaps her across the face makes me feel like I did five minutes ago when I saw my landlord manscaping through the window. I admit that after Google Imaging Julie Powell and seeing that she looks human as opposed to preternaturally sexless and gummy, my discomfort lessened a bit, but the sex scenes still made me squirmy.
And so, why I will not finish Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, in bullets:
- Terrible pop culture references. Various epigraphs include quotes from a Decemberists’ song, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and from Veronica Mars, a show beloved by teens throughout the middle states. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste as I’d rather have “Birthday Sex” stuck in my head for all of Spring 2010 than listen to a single Decemberists’ song, but why not use something that resonates with more than those still ruing the death of Buffy, a population composed solely of gay boys born between 1980 and 1985? While this may seem small, it speaks to a larger problem: this book is built with an expiration date. As much as I’d like to believe that the immediacy of blogs easily transitions to the printed page, it just doesn’t. Will a book that refers to Anya the Vengeance Demon, Little Feat, texting, and BlackBerries be anything but dated in 2011, when, instead of drunk dialing, we drunk time-travel? Yes, plenty of books are meant to be read right now (See: Sarah Palin’s American Rogue and Twitter for Dummies), but Cleaving was meant to last and it won’t.
- Product placement. I counted seventy-four references to Powell’s beloved BlackBerry, which is much like Season Two of Gossip Girl, in which even the cocktails are made with Vitamin Water. Even worse, I doubt BlackBerry ponied up any cash for this endorsement, which is free advertising I just can’t respect with the exception of the argyle sweater vest with a prominent Tommy Hilfiger patch that I’m wearing right now.
- It’s hard to read. I don’t mean Infinite Jest hard-to-read, I mean IKEA manual hard-to-read. Example: after reading a 476 word passage on Frenching rib ends, I know nothing about Frenching ribs or even what Frenching ribs is, but, even if I understood this passage, it seems like it’s only there to fulfill Powell’s minimum page requirement. I get that cutting meat is intense and dirty and maybe even sensual, but if I wanted to French a rib, I would Google that shit. Cleaving isn’t just full of “practical” information like this, it’s also full of recipes. Again, filler. No one reads memoirs for recipes. No one. Stop it. You’re lying. You read cookbooks.
- Terrible metaphors, especially for a book that is basically a 303-page-long metaphor (Butchering as catharsis? Redemption? Sex?). In the aforementioned 476 word paragraph, Powell writes, “The crown is about the same circumference a garbage can lid, the white rib bones splayed atop it, the eyes of the chops plumped out below like a muffin top over too-tight jeans, if muffin tops were to be considered lusciously attractive.” I mostly read this book in bed, making mental notes because the last time I tried to write in bed, I woke up with blue ink in my hair. Because of this, every time I found I passage that bothered me, I folded the page over, hoping I’d be able to identify the offending part the next morning. In this passage, it was obvious. Muffin top? Please.
- Julie Powell is dirty, and I’m not just talking about sex. Powell doesn’t shower after a shift up to her elbows in edible carcass. I’ve previously discussed my own tendency to be obsessive about cleanliness, but every time she mentions falling asleep splattered with the blood and juice and bits of bone, I can’t think of anything until I come across the sentence, “And then I took a shower.” It’s distracting.
- When flipping through the final chapters of the book, I came across a few emails written between Powell and D. The final one was signed with an actual name!!! I won’t spoil it for you, but remember the penultimate scene in the Sex And The City series, when SJP is walking down the street and her phone rings and it is finally revealed that Big’s name is actually John? That worked in SATC because viewers had wondered what the man’s given name was for about a decade. But here? No one cares about D and no one cares about his name and it’s a stupid way to end a book. Maybe they took it out in the final draft. Hope so.
I will, however, admit that Cleaving wasn’t a total waste of time, although when your plan for the day involves taking an online aptitude test and cleaning the litter box, very little can be considered a waste of time. But I did learn a few important things from the text….
- Left-handed presidents include Obama, Clinton, Bush the Elder, Reagan, Ford, Truman, Hoover, and Garfield (159).
- Pig skulls are so thick that when shot in the head, the bullet merely stuns the unhappy animal and it can’t actually be rendered into breakfast until after you’ve shoved a pick into its coratid artery (87).
- Various recipes, including Valentine’s Day Liver for Two, Juan’s Mother’s Blood Sausage, A Nice, Simple Way to Make Short Ribs, Taking A Boning Knife To Your Spouse, and Trading Self-Worth for a Little Hotel Strange.
It’s not just facts and recipes, however, that I learned from Julie Powell. She also makes me feel better about myself. Why?
- Since I have recently taken real and positive steps to curb my own excessive drinking, I’ve taken up judging other peoples’ substance problems. And you, Julie Powell, are a sloppy drunk (i.e. “Meathead Holiday,” AKA the chapter about Christmas. Don’t barf in front of your parents. It’s tacky.).
- I have never spent fifteen semi-naked minutes against a hotel wall with a stranger who called me a “pretty little whore.”
- Given the accolades Powell received after J&J, I’d write a riveting memoir about what it’s like to go from sleeping on my mom’s couch to sleeping in your mom’s bed. Give the people what they want.
Let’s skip to the end. Actually, let’s not. I’m not going to finish Cleaving now, but I’ll pick it up again the next time I’m feeling jealous of anyone who has been able to make an actual living doing the things they want to do: those who publish in books and magazines, those who leave the butcher shop covered in blood but still smiling, those who would give it away even if they weren’t getting paid. It’ll remind me that there’s only so much work you can do: sometimes it’s just luck and timing that gets you the book deal and the movie and the second home and the frequent flier miles. I’m jealous of Julie Powell, yes, but I don’t want to be Julie Powell.