Sunday, June 6, 2010

'Cleaving' Butchers the Julie Powell of 'Julie & Julia' Fame

My brother is a vegan, and after reading Julie Powell's latest book Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, I must say I've now given it some thought. All that talk about meat in its original state turned my stomach. I mean, I find it difficult to eat chicken or beef that I've cooked, just remembering it so recently in its raw bloodiness. So I haven't given up on my eggs, milk, & cheese quite yet, but meat is the furthest thing from something I'm craving at the moment.

Cleaving is the story of Powell's journey to self-destruction, beginning just after her bestselling novel Julie and Julia was released and made into a major motion picture of the same name. Despite her new found fame and fortune, Powell remained desperately unhappy with herself and with her life. Her first attempt at finding a purpose in life was starting the blog that begat Julie and Julia. But even that success happiness did not make. Her second attempt at finding herself? Beginning an affair with an old college boyfriend and current mutual friend of hers and her husband Eric's. Known mainly as "D" in the novel, he represents to Powell a place she simply can't get to -- satisfaction. After their affair ends badly, Powell continues her downward spiral, all in the name of "finding herself." There is the ongoing stalker-style text message & email assault she continues on D, coupled with the constant emotional distancing from her husband.

Powell realizes a new obsession -- becoming a butcher. Conveniently, the only butcher shop willing to allow her an apprenticeship is more than two hours from her home in the city. Thus, Powell is forced to rent an apartment far away from her husband, so that she can learn the rapidly-dying art of butchery. When she finishes the apprenticeship, she then embarks on an around-the-world journey to various meat-centric cultures: the big-beef industry in Argentina, sausage-making in Kiev, and goat-roasting in Tanzania. All of this training and traveling really amounts to one thing -- a geographic distance from her husband, which is more effective than the emotional wall she has been building for months.

The most interesting parts of Powell's novel involve people other than herself. I found myself fascinated with the family-like team at Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats in upstate New York. They were an eclectic bunch I would read and enjoy a book about, sans Powell. Also interesting to me was Powell's husband Eric. What drives this man to stick by his woman's side, through thick and thin, good times and bad? That's a book I would like to read. Likewise, some of the best parts of the novel are during Powell's world tour of meat. She meets intriguing individuals whose stories could have filled tomes rather than chapters. Of course, most interesting to me was Powell's trip to Tanzania, where my brother and sister-in-law and baby nephew currently reside. Although Powell went nowhere near their small town of Geita, she did visit Arusha and safari through the Serengeti. I devoured every word of her experiences in East Africa, even the bad ones (and there are some).

All I can think is that Powell must be much more likeable in person than she comes across in the pages of this memoir. Rather than the self-deprecating character of Julie and Julia, the Powell of Cleaving comes across as self-loathing. She likes herself so little, it only makes sense that the reader also finds it difficult to empathize with her. But the people in her life hang on to her, making me believe that there is something within Powell to love. After all, Eric hangs around for more punishment; her family seems to enjoy spending time with her; the butcher team seems to have a genuine affection for her; and she's able to make friends the world round. If only some of that innate human-ness were present in this memoir, it might be more enjoyable for everyone.

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