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Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession Hardcover – Bargain Price, December 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Powell flounders in her latest cooking-themed memoir. Trying to end an affair, the married Powell leaves town and seeks distraction in a butcher shop. She explores her obsessions with meat and with her lover—but listeners will quickly tune out. Her sarcastic inflections, flat tone, and nervous voice that worked reasonably well with Julie and Julia sound supercilious and affected here. The clunky performance cannot redeem the uninspired prose, and Powell—who compulsively cheats on her saintly husband—is difficult to empathize with. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
The author of the charming, riveting, thrilling—and successfully filmed—Julie and Julia (2005), in which Powell recounted her year spent cooking all the recipes in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has turned to butchery! As she relays in her new memoir, after her “year with Julia,” she apprenticed in a butcher shop in upstate New York and learned the trade from the inside out, from sinew to steak. Another prominent theme here is the stress placed on her marriage to the understanding, even noble Eric (as he was depicted in the previous memoir) by their mutual infidelities. It’s a grim book. Powell’s fans happily voyaged with her through Julia Child’s cookbook, but taking the journey through her learning the “art” of butchery is another matter. Graphic, even gross, detail about “breaking down” a beef or pig carcass and about her adulterous sex life (Do we really want to hear about her phone sex with her lover?) blocks any sunshine from emerging from these pages. The previous book made “foodies” of us all, but this book may convince us that vegetarians have had the right idea all along. --Brad Hooper
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Butchery descriptions are pretty brutal yet I am not a vegetarian yet.
Her second book, which has gotten some scathing reviews and many personal attacks on its author, promised more of the same. Fortunately, it breaks that promise.
It's another memoir. This time, unable to stop being unfaithful to her husband, Powell tries to distract herself by learning the art of butchery. She gets an unpaid apprenticeship at a butcher shop run by people she calls "meat hippies." She forms intimate friendships with her bosses and colleagues, and she learns how an animal's flesh gets from the farm to the kitchen table. When her lover refuses to see her, she has a series of anonymous sexual encounters, while hoping to hold her marriage together.
This could have been self-indulgent or turgid or gimmicky, or all three. But there is little about this book that isn't good. Powell knows how to write narrative, and, however painful or shameful her confessions, she never slips into narcissism. Whether she's describing butchering an animal, making dinner, stalking her ex-lover or having bad sex with an unattractive stranger, she writes with honesty and wit that makes the reader care. It goes on slightly too long, losing some momentum, but not to the point of becoming dull.
Unlike its predecessor, this a serious book, not an exercise in attention-seeking. Powell emerges as a decent person trying to figure out how to live, and as a writer of depth and nuance who may have great books ahead of her.
Something that doesn't seem to occur to Powell, though, is that she isn't the problem. What's causing all the pain and confusion is an unquestioning acceptance that monogamy is a virtue. Powell clearly loves her husband; indeed, she finds life without him unthinkable. She doesn't seem to mind when he has an affair, since it doesn't make her doubt that he loves her and wants to be married to her. She just doesn't seem to be a sexually monogamous person, and I can't see that there would be any problem were it not for the (perhaps self-imposed) expectation that she should be, or should be perceived to be.
Perhaps she has a better claim to the pun, as she alternates vignettes of apprenticing at a butcher shop and the near-destruction of her marriage. But what is the point of all these boudoir to abattoir smash cuts? They lose their shock value fast. If she has some spark of an idea about meat being meat, or butchery resonating with infidelity, it is nothing more than a spark: gone in an instant, yielding neither light nor heat. Nothing connects the disjointed elements of the book except that they all happened to the author. As Churchill is supposed to have said, "This pudding has no theme." The education of a butcher, the confessions of an adulterer, the bizarre lurch into travel writing late in the book...nothing binds it together into an appetizing whole. You'd think she'd have gotten the point of stews after making all that Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin in the last book.
Oh, and the recipes, randomly strewn in there because...well, why not, I guess. We had pork chops that night so here's a recipe for them. It makes no more sense than anything else in here, but at least it makes no less. (To see this kind of thing done right, try John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure.")
The details of the craft of butchery--reducing things that are still recognizably animals into those lovely steaks and roasts and so forth--are interesting. There might have been a good magazine article in there. But it's nothing to really ponder or ruminate on or share with a friend: no David Foster Wallace reporting from the lobster festival. (And I regret spending my time on this when more than one person has recommended to me Bill Buford's 2006 memoir "Heat," as an example of _this_ kind of thing done right.)
And as to the murky reaches of the human heart, how two people can inflict such pain on each other, live in such misery, and yet be unable to just call it off, well, I sure hope you weren't looking for any kind of insight. Stuff happens: that's about as deep as it gets. An old flame calls up and a two year affair begins, because...well, it just does. Powell moves out for a while, and moves back in. The flame: breakup, reunion, breakup, and round we go. At one point, pork chops are cooked. Then things seem to more or less work themselves out. The trouble is that there's far more to profundity than honesty. Powell doesn't seem to have an idea of why she or anyone else does anything--everything takes place in a foggy land of the passive voice. Perhaps there's no way to expect her to have a perspective to share: it's all too fresh, too traumatic. But that leaves us with nothing much in the "affair" passages but the catharsis of unloading it all...and the primal scream therapy is just wearying long before even the halfway mark. There is one moment that comes close to something important, in what has already become an infamous scene of the author having sex with a stranger, but then the moment is gone. A paragraph or two hinting at what could have been a far more disturbing, but also profound and meaningful work. Not for the sex--for the glimpse into the author's psyche. But a glimpse is all you get.
I would like to say that even though I don't think "Cleaving" is a very good book, it has received a lot of unwarranted criticism, largely from people who wanted this to be a sequel to the feel-good biopic largely based on Julia Child's "My Life in France" (which is a really _good_ memoir), but taking its title and most of its popcorn-break moments from Powell's "Julie and Julia." These people seem to think that "Cleaving" is a bad book because Julie Powell is a bad person. I don't think they could be any more wrong on that point. Does "Othello" fail as art because Iago is a bad person? No. "Cleaving" fails because it, ultimately, has nothing important to say.
Just sound and fury, people. Sound and fury.