Monday, December 21, 2009

I Read You, I See Me

MathMan and I lay in bed this morning doing what we do when the day stretches ahead of us with no work, no plans for anything in particular. Talk, snuggle, fight over the blankets, bemoan a sore back (me), spoon, talk some more. I know, it's almost embarrassing in its wholesomeness, and you thought I was going to tell you something much more risque, didn't you? Admit it. You thought it was Thursday.

Anyway, as we lay there in the new morning light, I told MathMan some more parts of the story that I planned to write today. Sometimes I actually do try to work out the action before I put the words on paper. Thank goodness for MathMan. He's been my sounding board on so much of this story, he's been key to any of it that's actually gotten finished.

I told him how I'd finally decided to keep the story as fiction, partly because I was so brought up short by the reaction to Julie Powell's book Cleaving. I saw some reviews of it via a couple of online resources and I was a naively surprised at the rancor and venom directed at Ms. Powell for what is likely her pretty straight forward telling of an extramarital affair that was more like an addiction.

Mind you, the complaints were not about Ms. Powell's writing, although one person noted that even though she may have been a "good blogger," that doesn't make her a good writer. Noting that all the reviewers I read yesterday evening were women, I felt a bit protective of Ms. Powell. I was pretty huffy after reading one from a woman who spent lots of words to tell us all what a "despicable" creature she believed Julie Powell to be.

For those of you who've been around since the PoliTits days and who remember the Drama of Golden Manor Part XI aka UnGlued, you're hardly expressing any shock to yourself or your cats right now that I was a wee bit stung by the sanctimonious moralizing of people - okay women - who think that Julie Powell is a piece of trash because she admits to cheating on her husband, being a weak individual and generally using sex and alcohol as her guiding lights when all else failed.

Of course she's flawed, but isn't that the point?

As for those reviewers who noted that Ms. Powell is self-absorbed, I have to wonder how they missed the fact that the book is a memoir? People who aren't a least semi-self-absorbed don't write memoirs. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most of us, even the most ardent of those reviewers, don't want to read a book about a life that is entirely without conflict, drama or an occasional bad thought.

Would you go to the library or bookstore and pick out the book that sells itself like this:

Lisa Golden lives a clean life. She never does anything wrong. She is a good mother who never falters, never yells, never lets fast food cross the threshold of her perpetually tidy and sanitary home. She has never been guilty of letting her kids stay up late and she's never bought a single thing to simply make a kid shut up. She loves her husband completely, but with just the proper amount of reserve to retain her respectability. She never questions authority. She consumes a healthy, balanced diet and gets just the right amount of exercise. She's never been hospitalized for anything other than giving birth. She is a solidly adequate daughter, sister, and employee. She wakes up happy or at least mostly so every day and never thinks about the bad things that happen to good people or any of the world's injustices. She knows better because that kind of thinking only leads to unhappiness. And Lisa has no room in her life for unhappiness. Furthermore, Lisa has never knowingly physically harmed anyone, been a party to a international incident, invented anything, solved any mystery nor won any big jackpot or major award. She has never driven in a NASCAR race, ran for office, found Jesus, developed a method for helping herself, interviewed a wildly famous person, slept with anyone of note, or climbed the Eiffel Tower wearing a Spiderman costume. She's usually on time for things and has not starred in any production of anything. She's never jumped out of an airplane, rescued anyone or run any kind of marathon. She hasn't cured, created nor destroyed anything. She is not a spy. Her life has been remarkable in its absolute mediocrity, steadfast adherence to all society's mores and a belief that average and safe is everything it's cracked up to be. She is the epitome of never doing anything that would make the neighbors talk.

What? You're waiting for the "but," aren't you? You're expecting the dust jacket text to finally tell you where the story really starts. Yeah, yeah, Lisa is living this happy life and all is well. But..... but nothing. That's it. That's all there is to the story. There is no "but."

Would you buy or borrow that book? Hell, you wouldn't even steal it. Not even to use to even out the legs on a wobbly table.

See - the story is the but. The story isn't the ho hum drum of a perfectly ordinary life. The story is what happens that makes it different - not good or bad, but different.

Now, does this mean I'm recommending adultery, selfishness and a serious lack of impulse control to anyone? Of course not. Is Powell self-absorbed and self-serving, hell yeah. But, frankly, who isn't on some level? Even the most altruistic people get some sort of satisfaction from giving without any expectation of receiving.

Powell's book, well-written in my estimation (that means easy to read, the prose not too overworked), is a memoir. It's not a bloody how to, although there are some recipes scattered throughout. I understand from some of the reviews that there a sort of travelogue in the last third of the book. I'm not there yet, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts that it will make me seethe with jealousy that Powell had both the financial resources and the familial freedom to just up and travel and I'll probably start hating on her, too. Only I'll hate on her for her success, not her moral "failings."

So far, though, here's what I'm getting from the book: It's the story of a flawed woman who is honest enough to write about it and who can make me both laugh and want to strangle her because I see myself in her. As she describes both her relationship with her husband and her (former) lover, I am struck by how very close to the bone she gets. (No pun intended.)

I keep reading because I want to see how Powell might or might not resolve things with her husband. I want to see if and how she figures out how to banish her lover from her head. Although her situation is far more flexible than mine (she now has some financial freedom due to the sale of her first book Julie and Julia and there are no children involved), I want to see how she uses the crazy in her life to move forward or not.

As I've been reading in fits and starts (kind of like my writing these days), I can tell you that it's clear that Powell is not making this shit up. There are some passages that make me worry that she's used some crazy military-grade tapping system to see inside my psyche and memory banks. Her flaws and predilections are so much like my own, I have to put the book down sometimes to clear my head.

To be continued tomorrow.....


  1. Or read Erica Jong's novels. Or any number of other authors out there. If you can read and relate to the author than the author has succeeded in his or her purpose. That is the sign of a good writer in my opinion and you can't ask for more than that.

  2. And who are the complainers of book content? In this day and age of retro thinking and intolerance ... I don't have interest in what pin headed book reviewers are whining about.

    I bet they're same people who have long lists of classical literature they want removed from schools and libraries.

  3. "Of course she's flawed, but isn't that the point?"
    it is not only the point of writing (or reading the writing as you point out) but aint it the point of being here when you get down to the most common links that make all of who we are.

    We're flawed. Sometime we learn. Sometimes we dont.

    But the sun still comes up the next day.

  4. It's the dark, forbidden 'wrong' that makes the story. If you EVER write the 'happily ever after' crap you satirized in this post, I will drive to GA and beat you myself.

    Keep it honest, and I'll just bring you a bottle of wine. :)

    Just be YOU, and let us back you up.

  5. I always marvel at how women can and will go after women-- stay at home moms after career moms, career moms after stay at home moms... you know the kind of thing i mean. The rancor! What are we so afraid of? Of people who make different choices than we made? Ridiculous. "Cleaving" sounds hard and fascinating. Have you read "Smashed"? Another memoir about a woman making really shitty choices. And I was riveted (not as riveted as to "The Liar's Club".... but I digress.)

    I agree. The story is in the "But..." That's the story we want to read.

  6. "Solidly adequate" is really damning with faint praise. I actually read the description of an "ordinary life" as "obituary life" the first time around. Glad you are telling the story. I hate it when people refuse to be interesting. They force me to make up stories for them, and I always sneakingly suspect that my version is more interesting than whatever they're hiding. Which is sad.

  7. I get so tired of the sanctimonious musings of "perfect people." We all have made mistakes or will someday and the ones who say they don't are in denial: period--the end! I know some will never actually act on their impulses; but they covet those thoughts just as sure as the next guy. It's human nature; bully for them that they are strong enough not to act out. I guess I'll acheive that in the next level! I just am trying to not inflict any more harm in this lifetime: and maybe have a leg-up on the next one that way!

    None of us are perfect, and the sooner we all quit judging and just try to see the ways we are the same; the better off we'll all be.

    Okay; no more soap-box (for now!)


  8. Absolute mediocrity

    does sound like a funny book title to me....
    but of course the actual story needs twists & turns, flaws & incidents to capture our attention.

    Enough with the comments!
    I need to go to bed so I can go to my underpaid boring job in the morning, then come home & cook dinner.....

    stay tuned for the next exciting episode!!!

  9. Not even to use to even out the legs on a wobbly table.

    Of course I'd use to even out the legs of a wobbly table if it was that boring. Don't sell yourself short, for if the world is in dire need of anything, it's uplifting banality.

    You can do it!

  10. Same shit, different day, nobody would read a book about that. People want to read about something more exciting than their own mundane lives.

  11. I can't wait to read the book. What do people think memoir is?

  12. "The story is in the 'but'"...that is so great, and true. I read part 2 of this post before I got to part 1.

  13. I have read most of Jong's work and also, I agree with Liberality.

  14. There are mistakes and then there are mistakes.

    Yes, we're all flawed. But how many people would be as cruel as Julie Powell?

    How many people would let her lover crash on her couch while he was visiting her and her husband (and remember this was the guy she cheated on Eric with in college)?

    How many people, after letting the lover crash on her couch would slip out of bed to MAKE OUT with him while her unsuspecting husband sleeps in the next room? Her description of breakfast the next morning is a must read in silent cruelty.

    And on top of all that private humiliation, how many people would brag about it in a tell-all book for the whole world to read?

    She's just despicable.

  15. Jody - I understand what you're saying about Julie Powell appearing to be heartless and cruel regarding the treatment of her husband, but I would be a huge hypocrite to call her names like "despicable."

    And I'm glad you felt free enough here to voice your opinion. I hope you'll return to read and become an active commenter here when I write things of interest to you, but I can't help wondering about the personal axes to grind possessed by someone who found my blog via a google search on the words "Julie Powell despicable."

    In that light or any, I suppose, perhaps going so far as labeling any individual who has not done a public harm "despicable" is going a bit too far.

  16. Lisa;

    A couple of points--

    I am not sure how it would be hypocritical to call her despicable. It's a personal opinion of mine.

    And I am not the first person to use the word "despicable" to describe Ms Powell's actions. I do think it's completely fitting, however.

    And I found your blog with those keywords because I was trying to track down some of the reviews that also used the word.

    And Ms Powell humiliated her husband in public by including it in a book. How isn't that "a public harm"?

  17. Jody - I wrote that I would be a huge hypocrite to call Julie Powell names. I did not write that you are one.

    I just wonder why the need to call names? Of course, that's your right to call anyone what you want, but despicable seems awfully harsh.

    As for Julie Powell doing a public harm? I meant that she may have harmed an individual in her life, but she did not commit a public harm like sending people off to an unjust war or robbing pensions. That, to me, constitutes a public harm.

    The truth is, as I read more of the book, I like Julie Powell less and less. I think she could definitely use professional help. As she stalks D, I want to both ask why and scream at her to stop.

    Thankfully, we're all capable of developing and voicing our opinions. I hope that you'll enjoy the rest of your day.


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