Saturday, March 6, 2010

Books, Babies, Butchery

I've been binge-reading memoirs over the past week of stuck-ness. Reading becomes sort of a fraught endeavour when I'm not feeling in top emotional shape, since the joy tends to get sucked out of almost everything, and it feels wrong to be reading grimly and compulsively, but it's a step up from staring at the walls, so I still do it.

The last two I read were Paradise Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock and Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell. Peacock is a poet, and this book is touted as an exploration of her decision not to have children. Julie Powell is the author of Julie and Julia, which was made into the movie starring the deliriously delicious Meryl Streep who embodied Julia Child-ishness, and Amy Adams, who was totally the wrong actress to play Julie Powell, in my opinion (WAYYYYY too sweet).

I tend to read memoirs, at the outset at least, in a very cynical manner -- I could meet you on a street corner and have you tell me a sad life's story and I would weep and embrace you and take you home to feed you borscht, but when it's a print I can be a real bitch. About halfway through Molly Peacock's book I suddenly thought, what the hell is my problem? She had a hellish childhood, her father should have been chemically castrated at puberty and damned straight she wouldn't want to have kids. What still irks me (and funnily enough it showed up in Julie Powell's book too) is the assumption that woman who decide to be childless have that we who procreate are blissfully, blithely unconflicted about it -- as if they're the only ones who have to constantly question whether they're fulfilled and leading the best possible life. It seems that the mothers these women know are all self-satisfied, slightly dim people who sit around beaming at their snot-nosed screaming brats and soliloquizing about how womanly and fertile and at-one-with-nature they feel. I may be exaggerating slightly, but not a whole lot. I know that some people think it's selfish to choose your career over having a family. I used to say it's more selfish to have children, before I had them. The truth is, either choice is selfish in different ways, and self-sacrificing too; it's a plain fact that nobody can have it all, and no matter which way you go, some days you will think "I was insane to think this was the right choice" and some days you will feel the deepest pity for anyone who chose differently.

Molly Peacock had a turbulent childhood and the resultant trauma led to other crap in her life that would not have accomodated a child well at all. She's an artist and a teacher, and when she says she needs to be able to leave those children and go somewhere at the end of the day where there aren't more children, I think that's perfectly legitimate. How many authors or musicians or artists have been revealed (in yet more memoirs) to be horrible, abusive parents that probably never should have had children? Maybe if your art means that much to you, you ARE better off deciding not to try to be a mother too. Some people are okay putting the art aside until the children are grown, or trying a mish-mash of being both, with variable results. I do agree with Molly Peacock that the decision is one that likely needs to be made more than once, and I sympathize with the tendency to second-guess oneself, but lord knows that isn't solely the province of the childless. I second-guess myself six times before breakfast.

Molly Peacock is quite likeable; Julie Powell? Well....

I don't mean it to be quite as acid as it sounds, when I say that I think both of these women have made the right decision not to have children (with Julie Powell I guess I'd have to add 'so far'), in Molly Peacock's case because it would have been a hardship for her, and in Julie Powell's case because it would be a disaster for the child.

One thing I kind of have to admire (?) about Julie Powell is that she really owns her shit. She doesn't try to sugarcoat her flaws. I know some people enjoy writing and reading vicious reviews, and this book fairly begs for them. I can't do them; I'm always too aware that there's a real person behind the writing. Julie Powell has definitely taken a heapin' helping of abuse or fifty for this book, and it's easy to see why. It's harder to see why someone would want to write this book and have it published. Or why I read it, I guess, since nobody forced me. I quite liked Julie and Julia, although even then I wondered at Julie's singular lack of shame and gratitude (but then, I'm a big sloppy mess of shame and gratitude, and not everyone has to be like me). In this book, (in which the subtitle should probably be reversed in order of priority), she explores the profession of butchery and delves in painful detail into an adulterous affair, much of which is carried on with her husband's knowledge, if not sanction. I did find the meat-cutting parts interesting, and her description of the butcher shop where she apprentices, and its remarkable owners and employees, is lovely. The parts about inviting her lover into her apartment as a 'friend', and having him sleep on the couch so they could fool around while her husband was sleeping? Not so much.

More than anything, Julie Powell seems to be really emotionally immature. She wants to have the sweet, soulful husband with whom she's 'like two souls in one body'(or something, I don't feel like looking it up), and the edgy, self-assured, self-absorbed lover who makes her feel badass. My take is more that you don't get to have everything, you pick your partner and work hard on your marriage and figure out a way to live with it -- or don't. She persists in trying to have it both ways, and romanticizing it even while professing to be tortured about it. When the affair sort of 'ends', it's because the lover dumps her, and then she cyber-stalks him and deluges him with calls and texts for months afterwards. These are not the actions of a well woman. She talks about both her mother and grandmother having the same dark unhappiness in them, and while she might be onto something, I do constantly have the impulse to tell her to try a nice SSRI and keep her panties on for a while. And that the fact that her lover likes to tie her up and hit her and was always absolutely sure that he was going to be able to seduce her doesn't make him deep and complicated -- it just makes him a crafty jackass who gets a lot of sex.

It bugs me (is this bourgeois and puritanical?) that the 'resolution' she comes to is that she has to keep seeing the lover (not sleeping with him) because he's a 'part of her experience', and she expects her husband to be okay with that. Her self-knowledge doesn't really seem to increase through the writing of the book (although she can break down a side of beef in much less time). If I took anything away from this book, it was to see the same tendencies in myself in embryonic form, and to be grateful that they haven't ravaged my life or my husband's life to the extent that they have hers. Maybe sometimes the best thing you can hope to think at the end of a memoir is "Crap, I'm glad I'm not her".

5 comments:

Mary Lynn said...

Yikes--all I know of Julie Powell is the portrayal of her in Julie and Julia, which was fine, so I've always wondered why so many of the mentions of read of her in other blogs and articles are so negative. I think I'm starting to understand.

Amber said...

I am not nearly as well read as you. I saw the "Julie and Julia" movie, but I have not read the book. So, honestly, it's a little funny to me to hear how off the mark my perception of Julie Powell may be. The only thing I know of her was how she was played by Amy Adams, so of course I thought she WAS sweet. It's interesting to hear how off the mark that is.

SuziCate said...

I'll have to check these out. I love memoirs. My all time fave is "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls.

Magpie said...

Glad to hear your take on Cleaving - she really does come off as a narcissistic bitch. Don't ask me why, but I found her facebook page one day, (she's "friends" with two of my "friends") - on which, her "about me" says, defensively: "I may be a narcissistic whore, a libidinous shrew, and a defiler of the institution of marriage, but other than that I'm really a very nice person."

Unknown Mami said...

Great now I want to read the Julie Powell book. What's wrong with me?