Projects with preset limits and deadlines are tremendously beguiling. Where else can something so risky and arduous as tackling the challenge of the new and maintaining motivation be leavened by the comfort of controlled boundaries? Girl Detective made a point in the comments last week about the effectiveness of clearly defined goals; I'd argue that clearly defined limits -- the negative space around a positive goal -- are just as vital.
This is one of the reasons I am so enamored of the Julie/Julia project: because there were limits, but what Julie Powell did within them is positively amazing. The idea of cooking everything in a cookbook -- of teaching yourself lord-knows-what techniques and eating the results -- is about as daunting to me as attempting every do-it-yourself project in a landscaping book.
I was a blog reader (or "bleader" as Powell calls us). I was also extremely curious as to exactly what sort of book she was going to wring out of her weblog. I am intrigued by these web-to-print transitions in general -- sometimes the writing's solid enough to skip across mediums and sometimes it's not -- and I wanted to see what kind of approach Powell would take in Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Kitchen.
The answer: one in which the book is a lot better if you're reading along on the weblog. The book is a memoir of personal transformation via cooking; it's a tidy inversion of the kind of writing Powell did on her weblog, in which the personal revelations were written between the lines of her cooking accounts. Taken together, the two have a tidy, interleaving relationship.
Separately, the book is a fun read for fans of memoirs. Powell puts her theatre background to good use with an ear for snappy phrasing and a great sense of how to tell a story for an audience. She wields adjectives with a skill and judiciousness that parallels Mrs. Childs' recipe composition. In short, pleasing parallels all around.
I wuld read Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Kitchen in tandem with the weblog, but I am also the type of nerd who listens to DVD commentary tracks because I find the creative process as entertaining as the final work. Those of you who are capable of appreciating a finished product without admiring the process will probably like the book just fine.
And on a follow-up note: I also read Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages this weekend. It was the epilogue to the women's-domestic-lives-as-comedy kick of a few weeks ago. It was funny, but wow, I kept waiting for the moment when the family members go through the ritual of drawing slips of paper out of a bucket and stone the unlucky winner of the lottery. Thank you, eleventh grade English, for forever dipping that author in menace.
Jackson's funniest pieces in the book are those in which she manages to convey how unreal the worlds inside her children's heads were by matter-of-factly recounting them as if they were perfectly ordinary. The results are both hilarious and chilling. Hilarious: recalling daughter Jannie's insistence that she was the second Mrs. Ellenoy and all seven invisible Ellenoy girls were going shopping with them. Chilling: little daughter Sally dreamily sing-songing how she sleeps in the river, and it's wet in her bed.
Thrumming underneath anecdotes meant to be light-hearted is a sinister tension that Jackson parleyed into her other writing. Reading this, it's so easy to see how authors can find something evil in safe, everyday life; it's merely a question of looking at the quotidian from a slightly different angle.
Then again, isn't that all good personal writing?