Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I Read You, I See Me, Part 2

Continued from yesterday....

Much of Powell's book makes me cringe from a certain, palpable recognition, but I won't go so far as to beat up Powell for her issues surrounding her husband. I was especially annoyed with the female reviewers who claimed that Powell treated her husband like crap. Well, perhaps so, in some ways, but the truth is - and I'm speaking from experience here - her husband stayed in the relationship out of his own desires for whatever it is that he gets from the situation.

I seriously doubt that Powell ever pulled a knife on him and told him that he couldn't leave so that she could continue to cuckold him and then write about it. No, there's more to it and I won't pretend, unlike those other reviewers, to know what it is. Powell's husband is a grown man with a mind of his own. If he were so unhappy, he would leave. Why doesn't he or why can't he? Perhaps he could write his own book and explain. Perhaps he doesn't feel the need.

All of this is to say that as I've plucked images, people, moments and bad actions from my own life to write my book, I have fretted over how my characters would be viewed because they, too, are incredibly flawed people. Not one of them is all good or all bad. Like most of us, each has their quirks and demons. Each of them can appear utterly normal while a river of ick runs below the surface. And each of them will just carry on, as people do, stumbling, picking themselves up and trying again. Some will even be kicked while they're down and the person doing the kicking might surprise the reader. But isn't that how life is?

So do I love the Powell book? Probably not.

Honestly? I'm reading it with the same self-absorption that Powell wrote it. I'm making it all about me. I'm skimming the butchery parts because I got dragged out to the slaughterhouse one too many times when I was a kid and reading those parts can give me an olfactory flashback that is most unpleasant. Nope, I'm a perfectly self-absorbed reader, searching for the words and passages that resonate with me, that reflect my own situation or that illustrate perfectly and quite eloquently the relationship MathMan and I have shared lo these twenty-two years. More embarrassingly, I cling to the bits that describe her obsession with her lover because it, too, reflects my own personal mismanagement that sent me skittering toward madness a couple of years ago.

Would I recommend it to you? Not without caveat. As one reviewer said, "If you believe in the sanctity of marriage, this book is not for you...." Oh, agreed. A big heaping helping of agreed. If you're a sanctity of marriage person, consider this my Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! moment. Do not bother yourself with this book.

But if you think that people get married for all kinds of reasons - known and unknown - and that each marriage is the sum of its parts, rather than some spiritual binding, then you might like this book.

The fact is - infidelity is but one way to hurt your spouse. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. No one ever wants to talk abut the damage done by withholding affection or love or intimacy. No one wants to discuss how marriages begun in one's twenties might just outlive their realistic shelf life when the couple reaches their forties, fifties or sixties. Perhaps the whole reason we've seen a cultural shift in the average age at which people marry for the first time is because the younger generations understand that who you are when you're twenty-two isn't the person you want to have picking out the person with whom you'll spend the rest of your life.

For my part, I'm going to finish my story the way I'd originally intended. Yesterday morning, as I was going over it with MathMan, fussing about what the moralists might think (fingers crossed they'll have their chance to moralize about it!), MathMan asked why I should care? I care, I guess, because I know that I will just as protective of my characters as I was of Julie Powell, a character of her own making. It irritates me that often the same people who can get totally insane about marital fidelity are the same people who would insist that people stay in unhappy marriages - kind of the 'you made your bed, now you must lie in it' approach to living. It's punitive and petty and unnecessary.

Of course, Powell puts herself out there for the attacks by the simple act of writing about her life - warts and all. I suspect she must have a relatively thick skin by now, but who knows? And besides, as someone once said, respectability is overrated. I'm sure Powell has heard that before...


  1. I'm making it all about me.

    I think we do that with every work of art, whatever the medium, that we attempt to understand/comprehend/enjoy/experience, even if just in a cursory way. Whatever resonates with me, might not with you, or Joe Sixpack down the street. I knew I should've gotten hitched later on, thanks for telling me now, muah.

    We're all currents of raging, rancid pus underneath, vile and contemptible. Except for Ned Flanders.

  2. Thanks for the realistic review. I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season. Hugs.

  3. What I find interesting about your book overview is that you have personalized in some detail the author and the story.

    Now, that's not wrong or terrible but it does minimize objectivity. And, I suppose, most popular movie, tv and book reviewers tend to be subjective about their reviews - it is part of our current cultural tendencies.

    The other way to look at this or any other book is strictly objectively or unemotionally. And I don't think that's a popular stance within the blogosphere.

    The counterpoint would be a comparison of this book to sociological and psychological studies concerning infidelity. And that too is way too boring.

  4. I think I'll just head on over to Amazon right about now. I need a new read over the holidays while my family is forcing me not to work--(a**holes!)
    And I'm certainly not a believer in the 'sanctity of marriage' in the way that reviewer meant it. I guess, if I were married, I'd believe in the sanctity of the journey as it unfolds. Good, bad and ugly.

    I, like you, will probably feel this one cut close to the bone. In fact, I know I will-- I'm not looking to read an instruction manual on how to get to Pleasantville. I like reading actual stories about actual people and their dilemmas, moral or otherwise.

    and a little extramarital sheet frolicking...

  5. Unlike fiction, which usually attempts to harmonize and make sense of things, a memoir like this one can confound the reader. I found it difficult to understand what attracted her to the lover, and even more importantly, what turned her off of the husband to the extent that she would hurt him (and herself) over and over. It just didn't "track," as they say.

    I feel a strange sort of admiration for JP, though, for being able to bare her soul and her flaws (and everything else) in this way; but I felt sorry for her husband. She wrote an eloquent forward to the book on this very subject. I think that one of the problems is that JP's readers fell in love with her marriage in Julie and Julia and didn't want to be disabused.

    What I liked best were the descriptions of her friendships in that butcher's shop! The butchery metaphor was pretty apt.

  6. Lisa -

    I picked up this book while I was at the bookstore today to thumb through it, having liked Julie and Julia (I read that the first week it was out).

    I put it back down.

    You know me, I'm not a moralist, I think if someone (male or female) wants to go out for a gang-bang, as long as all interested parties are up for it, of age, yadda-yadda-yadda, then go for it. No regrets, and no second guesses.

    My problem with the book is not adultary, it was that she was unlikeable. And that's quite a stunt to pull for someone who is in an obsessive relationship, she made it boring.

    Even by the end of the chapter I read, I didn't have the slightest bit of emotional connection. It also made me question what charm I found in the Julie and Julia book.

    For what it's worth, that's why I'm not buying it or reading more of it.



  7. You know, after reading the formal reviews in the Village Voice and elsewhere, I have absolutely no desire to read Powell's book. It sounds way too much like the product of someone who floundered about trying to find something -- anything! -- to serve as a topic for the Second Book and then along the way the project turned into something else. I'm not much for memoir to begin with, though, and for sure would never turn judgemental about Powell's life in general -- it's her life, not mine, and we all do stuff that looks pretty inexplicable (read: Stupid) to outside observers.

    As for your own book, it might help you to focus on whatever cleanup/revising/editing it needs by thinking clearly about who you picture reading it other than yourself and Mathman. Who's the audience? Once you've got that figured out, you'll know what to trim and what to expand.

  8. "Perhaps the whole reason we've seen a cultural shift in the average age at which people marry for the first time is because the younger generations understand that who you are when you're twenty-two isn't the person you want to have picking out the person with whom you'll spend the rest of your life."

    Seriously. I realize there's a biological component to it, but finding a life partner is a sufficient crapshoot without throwing the dice on the floor all the time..

    (I am so far behind the curve that I haven't even seen Julie and Julia yet.)

  9. Randal, Didn't Ned Flanders go to Vegas and elope with a woman of ill repute? I don't think the marriage lasted, but I'm pretty sure it happened.

    I'm positive that the butchery/abattoir aspect [of Powell's memoir] would turn me off most. I mean, I'm not a great fan of adultery and obsession, but still. I've seen it happen more than once. I don't believe that my job as a friend is to stand in judgment of others when they make mistakes. It's my job to be there to help them up [when they let me] and love them.

    Perhaps I will understand their choices after the fact when they write them down for me to read. :)

  10. Bingo on all counts - this post and previous. Life, people, and marriage are all complex beasts, and we don't really understand our own well enough to judge, much less other people's.

    I particularly loved your turn of phrase in, "Perhaps the whole reason we've seen a cultural shift in the average age at which people marry for the first time is because the younger generations understand that who you are when you're twenty-two isn't the person you want to have picking out the person with whom you'll spend the rest of your life." If your fiction is also full of this kind of twist and fold of language and idea, it will put a grin on my face.

  11. Oh - and what Nan said about your audience...

  12. I stand by what I said to you yesterday. Your characters are similar to our children. We raise our kids to eventually stand on there own. Your characters will stand on their own,too and can the critism.

  13. I'm buying your book. When your done, that is. Just so you know.

  14. For what it's worth, I can not understand why Eric stayed.

    But that's a separate issue, isn't it?

    And for the record, I am NOT a defender of the sanctity of marriage. If I left that impression in any of my comments, that's completely my error. I AM a defender in honesty and respect - neither of which Julie showed Eric.

    The fact that Eric sat there and took it (metaphorically speaking) doesn't diminish her cruelty.

    With great respect (and with great apologies if I left any other impression to readers/writers of this blog)


  15. Jody - I wouldn't worry about the impression that you've left here, but I noticed that you've both commented with the name calling at Julie Powell's blog and you've started up your own blog with the title "Julie Powell Is Despicable." Wow - really? Now I do have to question your personal axe to grind. I have to wonder why the venom and rancor? Defend away on honesty and respect, both noble causes, but good heavens - what impact do you have with starting a blog to point out how you think that one individual is "despicable?" You'd be far better off trying to demonstrate the ways in which you support being honest and respectful to others rather than writing to tear down one person.

    I think it would much better reading to see what you do to support you ideas versus how much contempt you have for Julie Powell.

  16. Lisa

    I have no personal ax to grind here beyond getting angry when people mistreat each other.

    And I think I am entitled to characterize Powell as despicable. She's dishonest, she's hurtful, she's cruel, she's disrespectful.

    Combine that all into one person, how's that NOT despicable?

  17. Oh, Jody. Go on then with the judgment if you must. I'm not going to defend Julie Powell any more than I can defend my own actions. Since you've only just found my while you were out googling "Julie Powell" despicable on Christmas day, you're not aware of how despicable I am. See - I have lied and cheated, too. And what's more, my husband has stayed with me, as well. I can't fathom it either, but there it is. Life is hard to explain, hard to put into little boxes of good and bad, hard to defend and hard to judge. That's why I try so hard not to do it when I don't have all the facts.

    Stop with the hate, Jody. It's pointless in the big scheme of things.

  18. Lisa;

    I apologise. I did NOT intend my comments to be taken personally by you or anyone.

    The book, though, got me very angry and I felt I had to vent somewhere - this blog seemed like a good place to do that.

    I apologise again if you felt it was at all directed at you.


And then you say....

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