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Book Review: Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

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A long time ago, a young man was asked to read at a club from his journals about his day-to-day life. They were hilarious and started drawing crowds. They eventually caught the eye and ear of Ira Glass, producer of NPR’s This American Life, who asked the young man to be a guest on his show. This eventually led to a book deal for the young man. His name is David Sedaris.

(Note: This is a much-abbreviated, detail-deprived version of the story, but fairly accurate based on interviews and reports.)

Talk about living the dream life of a writer. You just jot down your thoughts in a journal and all of a sudden people are shelling out $25 for your book (not to over-simplify the work Sedaris puts into his writing or anything)? What young writer doesn’t want that to happen for themselves?

Cut to 2002, when a young woman decides to share her own personal journal, only this time it’s a virtual one. And she decides that her day-to-day life is going to have something happen, something big. Julie Powell starts the Julie/Julie Project as a 29-year-old “government drone” – secretary by day, amateur chef by night. She blogs about her attempts to create all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s classic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in one year. It immediately becomes an internet hit, attracting a large audience and media exposure (CBS, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, etc.), and culminates in an “obscene” (her description) amount of money to turn it into a book.

Quite the life, right? As many bloggers would love the same fate (which, ironically, supports the literary industry’s feelings that blogging isn’t worthwhile writing in and of itself, something bloggers have been fighting since day one), very few have made it happen (Dog Days – by the original Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox – is another example).

So what does a blogger do when they get a book deal? Do they just transcribe their blog entries on to pages, thereby charging people for work they can just get for free online? Do they write about their blog, without copying any of the blog’s text? Do they do what Cox did, which is write about the same subject as their blog (politics, in her case), to appeal to the same readers, but create a whole new piece of work to compel people to pay for it?

Powell somehow manages to borrow a little from all those ideas. She takes the great premise of her blog, cuts out the daily details that people can read for free anyway, repeats some of the best blog material (almost like a greatest hits), summarizes some of the overall patterns, adds filler, and voila! You have a 300-page hardcover.

The foodies in her audience get stories about murdering lobsters, flambeed crepes and soaking calf’s brain. The bloggers are shown the important relationship between blog writer and blog reader (or “bleaders,” as Powell calls them), especially when Powell provides whole comments left on her blog, some from friends, some from crazy strangers. And the cosmo-sipping Bridget Jones fans get a fun girlfriend who’s a great story-teller with an apartment dirtier than their own. Actually, we’re told about practically everything in Powell’s life for that year, making us wonder how a lowly blogger got carte blanche to include whatever she wanted in her first book. (Powell has said in interviews that the editors were surprisingly hands-off during the publication process.)

However, it makes sense that Powell would get a book deal because frankly, she’s a good writer. (She did win a James Beard Award for food journalism). Witty, observant, and original, she’s fun to be around. She’s also a bit nuts, but self-aware enough to acknowledge such. Her usual response when something goes wrong? It’s almost always along the lines of “FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!” Give or take a few “FUCKS!”‘, of course.

Strangely, the editors should have been more involved. While she attempts to let us know why this project means so much to her (she hates her job, she might not be able to get pregnant, she’s almost 30, etc.), her incredibly over-dramatic reactions to failed recipes seem ridiculous even if she is exaggerrating for dramatic effect. The importance of the blog versus her reaction to its obstacles never connected for me. And she goes in to such detail about her girlfriends and family, digressing into all sorts of irrelevant information, that I couldn’t help but wonder if the book could be a good 20-30 pages shorter (hell, even Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is only 227 pages, and that’s about her husband’s death and her daughter’s chronic illness).

It’s a wonder how her husband Eric demonstrates the patience he does, considering Julie frequently comes off as a hysterical, over-dramatic mess (albeit a witty, hysterical, overdramatic mess. Note to self: temper craziness with clever phraseology). In fact, her whole support system is pretty, well, supportive. If I went over to my friend’s place for dinner, and she served poached eggs suspended in gelatin, I think I’d have a herniated disk all of a sudden and have to go home. Wouldn’t you?

In the end, it’s not so much about the food (don’t expect any recipes), it’s about…cue violins…the journey. Powell inserts fictional accounts of Julia’s life as a 30-something woman learning to cook in Paris based on real letters and biographies. By doing this, she creates a parallel between Julia discovering food and Julie discovering Julia. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how much experience you have, it’s about joy, and applying it to whatever you choose to do.

Since getting the book deal, Powell has been on Martha Stewart’s daytime show, written op-ed pieces for the New York Times and hovered in the Top 30 of the New York Times best-seller list. On top of all that, she’s still blogging. She’s turned her blogging experience into a real writing career, something many bloggers aspire to (myself included). But she didn’t do it just by listing a bunch of links to other stories, a typical blog format that’s never really appealed to me. She gave herself a fun, slightly crazy project – a gimmick, sure, but an entertaining one – and has turned it into literary gold.

And, as somewhat of a foodie myself, I was addicted to this book even with the extraneous information. I don’t always have the patience to read long blog entries (I don’t like reading any long documents on a computer screen as it hurts my eyes), so I was glad to have the book. It may not have all the little details about each of the dishes, but there was enough to satisfy my vicarious cooking experiences through her. I may not wrap an entire duck in pastry dough and I’m pretty sure I won’t be making anything with “aspic” in the title, but Powell has encouraged me to crack open my own untouched copy of MtAoFC. Roquefort turnovers, anyone?

(For more on Julie and her book, click here to watch a cute video where Powell reads about splitting open marrow bones, click here for her piece in the NY Times, or click here for her new blog.)

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About Don Baiocchi

  • Great review, Don! I may be crazy, but I think “blooks” may be the upcoming trend (and glimmer of hope) for at least a few aspiring authors–especially since the traditional publishing route is so tough to crack, even for the most talented and ambitious writers. I’d never heard of Julie, but I found your review to be very entertaining in and of itself! Thanks again for this.

  • Thanks, Elvira. It’ll be interesting to see if these “blooks” (love that) take off. This one received a lot of publicity so it’s done pretty well. I’m not so sure if other blooks have sold well or not.

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Nik

    Great review, I’ve been curious to check out this book. If anything it really shows the way blogs can bleed successfully into other mediums.

  • Thanks Natalie, that’s great news! And thank you Nik for the kind words. I agree; it seems as if blogs are becoming more of an acknowledged influence on pop culture.