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Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

There's something powerful about confession. Maybe it's because of the latent Catholicism of the European enterprise, but a common cultural meme in this country, in this century, has been to pour out your deepest secrets on the Internet in the hopes of absolution, of normalizing behavior and in search of like-minded--or at least sympathetic--souls. Or maybe blogs are just the natural next step in the evolution of American exhibitionism, and any sincere confessing, or absolution, is accidental.

Whatever the reason, we all blog now. Well, not all, but so many of us expose ourselves on the Internet in one way or another. Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter...even my mom's on LinkedIn, a professional networking website. The thing about blogs is that nobody knows quite what their potential is; the Internet and its news aggregators certainly appear to be killing print, but is website advertising ever going to be worth what print ads used to be? Hell if I know. What I do know is that the people who stand to lose from the swiftly dominating bulk and brute of the Internet volley back and forth between denial of its importance and desperation to control it, all of which, of course, stems from fear.

Thus was born the blog-to-book deal. It seems as if every week there's another announcement in the trades about a blogger who is walking out of the virtual jungle, slinging their words on a page and entering the respectable world of paid writing gigs. Sometimes, these books fail, miserably. Sometimes, they thrive. Some of my favorite writers launched their careers with blogs: Pamela Ribon and Jen Lancaster are two such examples. Lancaster, whose fourth hilarious memoir, Pretty In Plaid, just took her on a multi-city book tour (people don't do those much anymore, unless they're worth it). And Julie Powell, one of the first blog-to-bookers, author of Julie & Julia, is about to see herself played on the silver screen by Hollywood darling, and pretty damn good actress, Amy Adams.

Julie Powell used to want to be an actress. It's what she studied at Amherst College. It's what she came to New York to do. But Julie Powell is one of those people. They claim to want to do something, they talk about it a lot and when people ask them at family gatherings "What is it you want to do?", they say it with sincere gusto, but they don't want to work at it. They want all of the success with none of the work. After several years living in New York, Julie Powell had failed to go on one audition, and so she became a temp.

That kind of life, however, has enormous pitfalls, mostly of the existential variety. At twenty-nine, Julie was married but childless, stuck in a worthless, dead-end job that meant nothing to her and wasn't even lucrative. She was miserable and frightened, prone to hysterical meltdowns for no damn good reason, and people were getting tired of it. So Julie decided to do something about it. While at home in Texas trying to get a hold of herself, she stole her mother's old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, and The Project was born. The Julie/Julia Project, in which Julie Powell, secretary, attempted to prepare all 524 recipes in the landmark book by Julia Child, legend, in a tiny Long Island City kitchen, nearly ruined her marriage, but it saved her sanity, banished her ennui, and jump-started what has evolved into a very cool career.

I love books about cooking. It took me only six hours to race through Kathleen Finn's The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, about her experience at Le Cordon Bleu, and I thought Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, about her time as a food critic for the New York Times, was completely fascinating. Julie Powell's book stands up grandly with the memoirs of other gourmandes, even though it's a little less, erm, sophisticated. Powell's fondness for the f-bomb gets a lot of laughs out of me, and her frequent diversions to talk about the love lives of various friends who figure prominently in the story are interesting, but they earned her no love from her namesake--Julia Child apparently considered Powell "unserious" and disrespectful.

Disrespectful? Maybe a little, although I disagree. Unserious? This woman pried the marrow from beef bones, ate more aspic than anyone else would be able to keep down, gained twenty pounds of butter weight, and killed more than one lobster alive--and not all by boiling. Powell worked hard at this project, and she deserves the kudos for that. She also writes about it in a humorous, engaging, entertaining way, which is no small feat, either. She was brave enough to reveal herself, first on the Internet and then in a book and now in a feature film, as not always so nice, not always such a great friend or wife, sort of a grump, and a bit of a basket case. As someone who endeavors at all times to put her best face forward on the Internet, knowing it's going to be around for time eternal and I'd better not leave anything up I'd die to read 50 years from now, that's courage.

It's especially weird because Julia Child herself was pretty unserious at Julie Powell's age. The paperback edition of Julie & Julia* has a list of books Julie recommends, and of course she includes Julia Child's memoir My Life In France. As well she should--it's a hoot! Published in 2006, after Child's death in 2004 at nearly ninety-two (b. August 15, d. August 13), it's a recollection of the time Child spent with her husband, Paul Child, a high ranking member of the US Foreign Service. France was Child's spiritual home. She learned to cook there, at the famous Cordon Bleu (which, at least to hear Child tell it, was not nearly as glamorous as it seemed), she began to give lessons, and she entered into a long-term partnership with Simone Beck, with whom she co-wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume I of which saved Julie Powell's sanity.

I confess, I didn't know very much about Julia Child when I started Julie & Julia (in fact, I only picked the book up in the first place because I want to see the movie, and I try very hard not to see movies based on books before reading the book, it's a steadfast, almost stalwart, policy of mine). I remembered hearing that she was a spy back in World War II (not technically true, although she did work for the OSS--Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA--"registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" in Asia). I knew she was a famous chef, that she had a TV show. What I wasn't aware of was what a personality Julia Child really was.

My Life In France is stuffed with personality, especially given that Child had a ghostwriter. Well, maybe that's the wrong terminology for someone like Alex Prud'homme, who is a journalist and also happens to be Julia Child's grand-nephew through her husband, Paul.** It's hard to tell what his fingerprints on the book are, because it seems like pure Julia, through and through.

The memoir is full of exclamations and pronouncements on the beauty of la belle France, as she loves to call it. It reconstructs many important meals Child ate while living in Paris and the progress of her cooking skills. It tells of her frustrations with Le Cordon Bleu, leading to the formation of L'Ecole des trois gourmandes--les autres being, of course, her Mastering coauthors Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck. It comments wryly on the vagaries of the publishing industry (and it's only gotten worse since then), during the times when she and her cowriters were trying to get "The Book"--Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which suffered through many revisions--published.

It's possible that Julia Child turned into a humorless old crank in her later years (after all, she was in her nineties when she made her crack at poor adoring Julie Powell, who sobbed when she got word of what Child said about her), but I doubt it. My Life In France is just too sweet and funny for me to believe that. But Child never seemed to suffer fools gladly, and at the end of the day I really don't think she would've liked the wobbly, melodramatic Powell much at all--she was way too put-together. But none of that matters to me, because I like them both. Love them, in fact. They're two of the most entertaining women to ever write about cooking, and to someone like me, who doesn't really cook but loves to read about it, that makes them worth their butter weight in gold.

Bon appetit!

*Side note: Julie Powell's full first name is Julia, and Julia Child's husband and friends called her Julie. What I mean is, Julie Powell and Julia Child have the same name. FREAKAY!
**To answer a question my dad asked me, which I answered incorrectly because, like my dad, when I don't know the answer to a question I decide what a reasonably correct answer might be and then give it as confidently as if I actually knew such a fact, Alex Prud'homme is, as far as I can tell, NOT related to Paul Prud'homme, who is also a chef, like Julia Child, whose husband, Paul Child, is Alex Prud'homme's great-uncle. Got it?

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  1. Blogger Brigitte | 1:10 PM |  

    great review--i really want to read the book now!

  2. Anonymous OHD | 2:49 PM |  

    Um, whoa, apologies Blogulators. This was supposed to go up on Sunday, so either I can't do math, or somebody put it up sooner...? If it's me, I totes apologize, but I suppose I can't take it down since Brigitte commented on it, making it legitimate! Sort of like when a teenager gets pregnant and then marries the baby daddy, that kid becomes legitimate. Actually, it's exactly like that. Except not at all.

  3. Blogger chris | 2:55 PM |  

    Haha nope, Sean's new cartoon got delayed so I threw yours up sooner while he'll post his this weekend...no worries!

    And I have little to no interest in Julia Child or Meryl Streep, but I kinda wanna see this movie.

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