Tuesday, January 5, 2010





Julie Powell
Back Bay Books, 2005

Jen Lancaster

1. Urbanite finds purpose in goal to recreate every recipe in legendary gourmand's cookbook within a year and blogging about it.

2. Urbanite finds insight in goal to lose weight, gain health, and discover how her own and other people's attitudes towards food and bodies help and hinder.

1. The current edition sacrificed the subtitle in favor of showing the actors portraying the characters in the movie, and is done in attractive green and gold tones. The cover that Apprentice Writer prefers is the original teal background with bowl of either whipped cream or egg white and a little egg beater lying down in exhaustion from the endurance sport that is whipping by hand. She also prefers the mathematical subtitle which captured the essential content of the book.

2. This is the author's third book, and the cover follows the precedent set by the first two of a cartoon-like color-blocked icon from the story on white background, with the title in what looks like hand-written cursive script. The pattern has become an eye-catching trademark for the author, as have the multiple subtitles.

What Works
1. The author was one of the first bloggers to get a book deal (followed by a movie deal). That is an accomplishment, but it was built on a bigger one - achieving the goal of recreating every dish in Julia Child's legendary cookbook. AW is a basic-to-lower-end-of-middling cook, able to mash potatoes from scratch, bake using live yeast and rolling pins, and invent her own soup recipes. But the sheer amount of technique, muscle power, and gross tonnage of plain old dishwashing this project involved was staggering. Also, bravery: though AW often felt hungry reading the book, some dishes - the lamb deliberately left to decay for a specified amount of time, for example, or anything involving aspic - called for just as much intrepid explorer sense as slashing through a jungle per machete. The author brought it all skillfully to life, weaving together a tale that was equal parts culinary feat of strength, reflection on the nature of marriage and friendship, and personal diary. Her timeline was interspersed with anecdotes from the life of her idol, a nice touch, and AW enjoyed many of the descriptions such as Julia Child being like '....an ebullient golden retriever'.

2. In contrast to Julie Powell, Jen Lancaster's story never once made AW feel hungry. This makes sense, given that the author's goal was to make food less alluring, more managable. She writes in a very easy to read, conversational style, detailing the environmental, philosophical, and psychological pitfalls a person trying to lose weight battles with. Her observations are by turns thoughtful, funny, exasperated, aware of the odd logic dieters may employ, and (for the purposes of the story) trapped in the odd logic dieters may employ. She tries and rejects a series of diets and weight-loss methods on the search of the one that will work for her, showing how different each dieter can be from another. The part that AW liked best was the author's decisive rejection of pressure on plus-sized women to feel badly about themselves due to weight, and her refusal to let her self-esteem sag because of her pounds. You go, girl. AW also liked the fact that loss motivation was health-driven rather than guilt- or appearance-driven. The author recognized that her 'healthy self esteem' might be contributing to ill health, and decided to do something about it. More power to her. Because thin does not automatically equate with healthy. No matter our weight, we can all do something to work towards a more healthy personal future.

The multiple titles hint at a stylistic idiosyncracy; current 'Rules of Writing' fashion dictates that parentheses are out, out, out, and that if something is not important enough to be included in the main body of the sentence, it is not important enough to be included at all. The author seems to have taken a tongue-in-cheek literal application of this 'rule', and spun it. She eschews parentheses - but it is a rare page that doesn't have a footnote or two. After AW got used to it, it became kind of entertaining.

What Doesn't
Writing a memoir is a brave thing to do. The writer is essentially allowing flocks of strangers to look into his or her mind, emotions, motivations, actions, choices, mistakes, etc. etc. and leaving him or herself wide open to after-the-fact backseat driving. So kudos to memoir-writers for their inherent courage.

Having said that - a person who chooses not only to lay their life open to public scrutiny, but wants other to pay for the priviledge of reading about it, should not be surprised if readers indulge in after-the-fact backseat driving of those lives.

1. At various points in the story, Ms. Powell describes herself as emotional, neurotic, weepy, and with the mouth of a sailor. At various points of the story, events support those descriptors. All of which served to throw the author's husband in high relief, as a person who seemed extraordinarily supportive and praiseworthy. In terms of 'mouth of a sailor' - cursing is something AW is not especially fond of, in real life or her reading material. She tolerates it in books on the basis of 'to each his own', and in recognition that it can genuinely contribute to characterization and mood setting. However, she didn't get why it wouldn't be obvious that speaking about literal and figurative excrement in the same context or sentence as FOOD is distasteful. Killed the nicely building appetite factor mentioned above in a right hurry.

2. The novel subtitle refers to 'narcissist', Ms. Lancaster signs email 'judgmentally yours', and refers to herself taking a long time to grow up. Again, events at various points of the story support these descriptors. Given the author's own upfront acknowledgment the reader can't be surprised they are there, nor fail to give the author credit for self-knowledge.

But the aspect that struck AW as bizarre was the oft-repeated refusal, with much hyperbolic and condescending variation, to consider moving out of the city and into the suburbs. AW has lived in a world-class city and understood the author's love of urban opportunities. But taking advantage of museums, art galleries, architecture, theatre, opera etc. is not how the author spent her time. Shopping at big-box stores, eating at fast-food outlets and coffee chains, watching cable television, surfing online, and going to the gym was. Does she truly believe these things can't be accomplished in the suburbs?

It is a rule of general social etiquette that new parents should stop themselves from discussing their babies' digestive process, since NO ONE else is interested. In AW's opinion, this is a good rule. In AW's further opinion, it applies JUST AS MUCH to pet owners. There is no reason on earth to inflict graphic information about pet digestive maladies on hapless readers. And in AW's strongest opinion yet, authors who talk about their own and sibling's penchant during adulthood for urinating in their parents' pool due to not being bothered enough to get out all day, every Fourth of July, should not be surprised when readers are disinclined to read futher titles.

But does the book make you laugh? YES and YES

Both authors have a keen sense of the absurd in everyday life, and are skilled in conveying their observations in a way that lets the reader share that appreciation. 'Julie and Julia' and 'Such a Pretty Fat' are entertaining looks at a part of life no one can escape.

Learn more about Jen Lancaster here . The fact that the website is titled 'Jennsylvania: Land of the Free, Home of the Bitter' gives a taste of what to expect.

AW could not locate a website for author Julie Powell, and the blog maintained for the duration of the Julie/Julia Project seems to be inactive. Learn more about her second book, 'Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession' here.

The Fine Print: AW checked one book out of the library, and won the other from a blogsite.


1 comment:

Wylie Kinson said...

I've seen and considered reading both of these books. Your reviews, as always, were nothing short of brilliant.


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