Saturday, 19 March 2011

"Julie and Julia," by Julie Powell

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Julie Powell has lived the blogger's dream. Her blog found an audience, a publisher and her experience has been made into a film starring Meryl Streep with a screenplay by Nora Ephron (writer of maybe the best romantic comedy ever, "When Harry Met Sally"). Julie herself was played by Amy Adams - a good actress with an excellent first name - so she could have done a lot worse. I doubt that I'm likely to get that lucky.

The book starts during a low period in Julie's life: she was an actress in New York with an aversion to auditioning; therefore, instead of acting, she worked as a temp. She loved her husband, but hated her job, her flat, and the gynaecologists who advised her to start trying for a baby because she was nearing 30 and had a "syndrome" that was likely to affect her fertility. She needed a project to add meaning and focus to her life.

She found this focus when she visited her mother and rediscovered a book that her mother had: Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (which she refers to as MtAoFC). The project was that in 365 days she would cook the 524 recipes from Julia Child's book in her tiny apartment kitchen. The blog - which at that point was not has commonplace as it is now - was her husband's idea.

This took place against the backdrop of post 9/11 New York, which gives her book an occasional extra level of poignancy. She took a permanent job working in a government agency that supported the grieving families of those lost in the Twin Towers, and she had to filter suggestions of what to do with the hole left by the buildings (suggestions of varying profundity or, more often, insanity). Her writing sometimes brings up images of what it was like in New York in the immediate wake of the tragedy; of seeing office memos floating in the wind and knowing that they probably came from the destroyed buildings.

In her book, she writes about some criticism that her blog received for bad language. And, indeed, she does swear a fair amount. This is one of the aspects of her writing style that I find a little bit annoying on occasion. But then, perhaps it would not be an accurate representation of how much she hated her job, and the frustrations that she faced in completing her project, if she didn't swear. I know that I find it very hard to do housework without copious swearing.

Her book made me very glad that I chose to write about books I have read for my blog - it is a lot easier than her project was. I read her book with relief that I don't have to search my locality for bone marrow, I don't have to kill lobsters, and I certainly don't have to boil calves' feet to make aspic. The worst thing I might have to do is read "Tess of the D'Urberville's"(although, admittedly, that is pretty bad).

I have a number of cookery books - what Gordon Ramsay has referred to as cookery porn, as I like to flick through them when I am relaxing but rarely have time to try a new recipe - so I enjoyed her book from this angle. However, if anything, some of her rather grim experiences with offal, brains and feet have inspired me not to explore French cookery (I tend to prefer Italian or Indian).

Her confessional writing is engaging, although there were elements of her writing style that I occasionally found a bit annoying - but not often. In keeping with the food theme, I have been trying to think of a food analogy for this book. My best shot at this is to compare it to one of her first recipes, Boeuf Bourguignon - an odd comparison for a vegetarian, I know, but bear with me - warming, rich but with the occasional bit of gristle.

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