Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blood and Guts

I think I was eight the first time I saw one of my father's many cousins chop off a chicken's head.  Immediately after the execution the decapitated body leaped up and ran in progressively smaller circles around the barnyard, flapping its wings until it ran down like a wind-up toy.  My initial unease was swallowed in a blaze of understanding - that's what it meant "to run around like a chicken with its head cut off!"  Moral qualms also did not stop me from consuming my share of the victim at lunch.  If anything about this description made you even faintly queasy, however, DO NOT read Cleaving by Julie Powell.

Powell is the author of the blog that became the book Julie and Julia, Now A Major Motion Picture starring Meryl Streep.  I saw the movie first and loved it.  I also enjoyed the book, although it's darker, and after reading it I looked for more by Powell.  I found that her blog had been discontinued with a last bitter note from the author, and the reviews of her only other book, Cleaving, were scathing.  Nevertheless, I picked it up at the library last week to check it out for myself.

Like Julie and Julia, Cleaving is autobiographical.  After the success of her first book, Powell inexplicably began an obsessive affair with a man whose attractiveness seems composed of equal parts rejection and rough sex.  Naturally, her supportive and handsome husband Eric was baffled and hurt and their marriage developed huge cracks.  Trying to distract herself from the failures of both relationships (and probably to work off some of her repressed anger), Powell became an apprentice butcher.  After learning the trade, she went on a globe-trotting expedition to witness meat-related scenes such as a water buffalo sale in Argentina and Masai blood-drinking in Africa.

After reading both  Cleaving and many other readers' reactions to it, I think this is a book in search of a target market.  Most of the women who would be interested in Powell's personal anguish and the torrid details of her infidelity would probably also be revolted by the graphic descriptions of slaughter and butchery.  (Her snide commentary on women who buy only boneless skinless chicken breasts certainly wouldn't win her many friends in that camp.)  Fans of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations would probably embrace the gritty travel scenes while rejecting the author's masochistic revelations with loathing.  Fans of Julie and Julia apparently freaked out en masse, particularly those who loved the first book's portrayal of Eric.

Julie Powell wrote this book when she was 33, describing herself as someone in "early middle age."  I found her confusion and self-loathing very sad.  I will copy some of her recipes and benefit by her descriptions of  how to cut up beef and pork, but I doubt that I'll read the book again.  I hope that the author's therapist (mentioned only in passing) can help her find the peace that meat processing gives her only temporarily.

"What Could Happen? - musings from a 'soiled and narcissistic whore'.'" ~Julie Powell, title of her blog at

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