Sunday 23 December 2012

REVIEW: Julie and Julia - My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell (4*)

(Penguin Books, 2009)

"There was something about all this familiar work - the kneading and rolling and flouring, the Book beside me, Julia in my head chortling quietly to herself like a roosting pigeon in its cote... It made me philosophical - or maybe just hungry."

This book centres around one woman, Julie Powell, and her impulsive decision in 2002 to give her life focus by cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.  She set up a blog to record her experiences, and christened her attempt The Julie/Julia Project.  This is an expanded account of that project, drawing on her daily cooking battles, her working life as a secretary for a government agency, and her growing infamy as a food blogger.  She has also scattered a handful of cookery- and MtAoFC-related quotes throughout the book, as well as semi-fictional vignettes about Julia and Paul Child's relationship concocted from the material found in their letters, journals and (auto)biographies.

When I first started reading, I must admit, I thought Powell was going to be far too neurotic and self-obsessed for me, and that this might even end up as a rare DNF.  Fortunately it didn't take long for things to pick up: as the Julie/Julia Project begins in earnest, Powell's attention is drawn outside of herself and away from her own hysterical personality, and the book really takes off.  I wasn't a big fan of Julie when she was trying too hard to demonstrate her own kookiness - she came across as far more likeable, honest and yes, quirky, when she turned her pen towards other people and other things in her life.  This, for me, was where her writing felt the strongest and most enjoyable: when she was enthusing about food, sharing her cookery experiences, talking about her friends and family, and exploring the way her project brought her closer to the people she loved.

I think my favourite section of the book was "They Shoot Lobsters, Don't They?", a hilarious chapter about her first foray into cooking lobster.  I've never done it myself, but I've heard the horror stories, and Powell's experiences lived up to expectations in that regard!  The image of her sitting in her car after buying her first ever lobster, anxiously listening for the rustle of the paper bag that might signal a crustacean escape attempt in the back seat, is just wonderful.  From there it only gets better as she has a total freak-out in the kitchen, manages a successful couple of kills, and finally arrives at The Big One - the dismemberment of a live lobster for Homard √† l'Am√©ricaine.  By this point she's almost like the Lady Macbeth of the kitchen, blood on her hands, worrying that maybe she'll actually enjoy this last kill, getting in touch with her culinary dark side.  Call me sadistic, but I loved every moment of it!

I also really enjoyed reading Powell's thoughts on blogging: her intrepid beginning, the first flush of excitement as she realises she has a mini readership all her own, and soon afterwards, her devotion to her 'bleaders' (her rather unpleasant term for blog readers), the feeling that she has to keep going for them, and the encouragement she draws from their feedback.  Later, she shares her thrill as her blog really takes off, as well as her worry that if she isn't 'the Julie/Julia woman' she will go back to just being a secretary with a lot of neurosis and two cats.  The project begins to give her a purpose, and to define her as an individual, and it made me think - what would all of us, we book bloggers, do without our own little empires?  She really reflected the stages of being a blogger, and the feelings we all have about it sometimes away from our carefully tended homepages.  I know I've sometimes wondered who I'd be if I wasn't 'the Bookshop Girl' any more, so it was interesting to see my thought processes put into words so honestly!

If there was anything that really flattened my enjoyment of the book, it was the moment when I was idly Googling around the subject and found out that Julia Child was actually very dismissive and uninterested in Julie Powell, intimating that her project was a stunt, and that she wasn't a serious cook.  I find that sad.  Powell may be quirky and neurotic, but I don't think you could NOT call her a serious cook, given how determinedly she followed through with her plan, cooking complex meals almost every night, using methods and seeking out ingredients that really aren't that common these days.  Her affection and reverence for Child shines out of her writing, and I'd imagined Julia as a kind of genial larger-than-life Ma Larkin figure who'd be tickled and perhaps flattered by the project.  It was her masterpiece, after all, that brought Julie, her husband, her friends and other Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotees together.  It must have been devastating for Powell, like a kid being snubbed by their favourite celebrity when they asked for an autograph.  I can't help but think that perhaps if Child had survived to read the book, rather than just part of the blog, she might have felt differently; as it is, Powell's reaction to Child's death and her tribute at the end were so moving they had me in tears! 

That blow aside, I really enjoyed this book.  I'll admit that there were occasional moments that began to drag, and little sections where Powell veered back into self-obsessed territory and began to lose me a bit, but these moments got fewer and farther between as the pages went by.  There was plenty of food-and-cookery writing to satisfy my taste for good mouthwatering prose, but there was also real heart, real smarts, a real individual, a real voice behind that prose that I ended up appreciating more and more as the book went on.  Of course, I have the DVD awaiting me now that I'm finally finished with the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Powell's kooky style translates onto the screen.  Knowing it was in the capable hands of the late, great Nora Ephron (and really, who does kooky better?), I'm expecting to be in for a lovely girlie evening of giggling and eating popcorn sometime over the winter!  Cautiously recommended for amateur foodies, hopeless cooks and people who can't resist another helping of dessert.  You'll be in good company here!

Notable Quotables:
  • "Sally and I have managed to remain close friends ever since living together in our freshman year of college even though I'm the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, either drinks myself into oblivion or cooks very unhealthy things; Sally is the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, goes jogging or cleans the bathroom with a toothbrush."
  • "You know that dejection that comes upon you when you realize that the person you're talking to might as well be from Jupiter, for all the chance you have of making them get what you're saying?  I hate that."
  • "I tore open the bag to let in some air - so this underwater creature could breathe better? - before putting him in the freezer.  Suffocating is worse than freezing to death is better than being steamed alive?  Perhaps anticipation of my evening of bloodletting had addled my brain, but the philosophical intricacies of lobster murder were proving too much for me to rationally negotiate."
  • "I knew I had to write something on my blog...  I wanted to write Julia the best, funniest, greatest in memoriam ever.  I got to work on it, and I was on fire, let me tell you...  I was on a roll.  And then I wrote this sentence: "I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it's the claim one who has nearly drowned has over the person who pulled her out of the ocean."  And I started crying so hard I had to stop writing."

Source: I nabbed this book from a bag of incoming stock.