Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I hate writing bad reviews. I'm always afraid the authors will go after me.

Oh, bleargh. I'm sick. (Sing to the tune of "Raining on Prom Night": I'm sick on/Thanksgiving/I want chicken sooooup/My throat, it/Is hurting/I might have the croooooup....wa wa wa wa...)

I retired early to bed last night with Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell. This book is totally fascinating to me because it's the realization of a dream not-so-secretly held one or two or a thousand bloggers: someone at a crossroads, bored with her life/job/apartment/kids/lack of kids, has an idea one day and starts a blog, which becomes wildly popular, resulting not only in a lucrative book deal but lots of press, television appearances, and a new career as a writer. It's a Cinderblogging story!

In Powell's case, not only was she possessed of a strong, inscousciant voice, but she had a terrific hook: she determined (stop me if you've heard about this already, i.e. if you haven't been living in a cave for the last year or so) to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of a year. She wasn't an especially experienced cook, she had a small and inconvenient kitchen, and she continued working at her "crappy government job" for the whole year, cooking far into the night and writing blog posts each morning. And thus she transformed her life.

It's such a great story that I wanted it to be a great book. I even felt a tiny bit of "I knew her when"ism when I first heard about Julie and Julia, having arrived at this worldwide blogging party just in time to catch her last post, a lovely and graceful eulogy written the day after Julia Child's death. So I bought the book--in hardcover!--the other day, thinking to read it myself (carefully, without cracking the spine) before giving it to a foodie relative for Chranukah.

But now I think I might have to return it. Or maybe just keep it, as a cautionary reminder. Because...I didn't like it that much. Here's what I think, not that anyone asked: It has many of the flaws of most blogs (including this one)--repetitiveness, sketchiness, lazy description, confusing chronology--without the immediacy. Because the book is partly about the Project and partly about the phenomenon that Powell's blog became, I sometimes felt like I was missing the best part; I wanted to yell at her, "Just quote what you wrote that night, already! Don't just tell us about it!"

I started to wonder if she was that good a writer after all. Then this morning I looked up some food articles she's written since, and they were really good! There was a thoughtful and eloquent one about sauce-driven French cooking vs. the cult of fresh, local ingredients, among others. So what was up with the book?

It must be a hell of a project, turning a blog into a book. Because a blog is essentially a serial: it draws you in, post by post, until you feel like you know the blogger. Then you get hooked on the story: will she take the new job? Will he be okay after the surgery? Will the adoption go through? J took on a huge and exciting and definable project, and her readers were rooting for her the whole way. But by the time I picked up the book, I knew the end, I knew she'd done it. And even if I didn't know exactly what happened, I knew it was over. Because there it was at the bookstore: Not a living, glowing, changing collection of pixels, but a finished object, between hard covers, in a green dust jacket. A whole different creature.

So now I'm pissed at her publishers. Because my guess is, they figured they had something hot on their hands, and they rushed it. It's such a great story, and she's a good enough writer, that it could have been a really good book. Where was the editor who could have gently suggested, say, that she find some alternative adjectives to "crappy," or who could have yanked the time sequence into alignment and eliminated the confusing mini-flashbacks? There were times where I could feel the lusciousness in the book, the obsession and terror and love that made her start the project in the first place, and I wanted to tug at it, like pulling a loose thread on a sweater; pull away the sloppiness and the mess and reveal the book it could have been.

This is coming off kind of condescending, I think, and I don't mean it to be. If Powell or any of her die-hard fans happens across this site, they'll probably be hurt and mad (if they care at all). So, I should say, because it's true: I loved parts of the book, especially the core of it, the food writing itself. I didn't care so much about the friends and their love lives, but some of the work stuff was funny. I was in love with the Project from the time I heard about it. I'm in awe that she took it on kept at it, and that then she went and wrestled with all that material again and made a book out of it, that she had that kind of courage and determination and focus twice over. (Note how I have no book to my name, good, bad, or mediocre. It's easy to critique, yes? Harder to do.)

Now I want to read her next book and see if it's better.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mel said...

I read an article in Reader's Digest that Julie wrote about cooking lobsters --it was hilarious and perfectly written. Only after that, did I hear the whole story of the blog and the cooking project. So, thank you for your review. It will save me from reading the book.

By the way, did you hear about a school in Tacoma pulling "The Geography Club"? It might be a blogworthy topic for you. :)

9:10 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Thanks for the tip, Mel! I did vaguely hear about that and have been wanting for some time to write something about censorship.

And Julie-Julia has gotten good reviews all over the place; apparently I'm the only one who couldn't stand it, aside from the NY Times reviewer. But it really did drive me nuts, reading it.

8:10 AM  

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