Monday, May 31, 2010

Simplicity Itself

From the looks of my research interests, it's clear that I engage with a lot of traumatic issues in my teaching and scholarship.  This is a bit of a contradiction in that I often tell my writing students that they do not need to focus on the most traumatic events of their lives to write a compelling essay.  No student have ever called me on the fact that I say one thing but so often teach and study something else.  Now, if they do call me on it, I have an answer.  I just finished Julie Powell's Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, and it's pretty damn amazing considering that it's a somewhat ordinary story.

Yes, cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year is pretty remarkable on a lot of levels, but it's not heroic or traumatic.  And one of the cool things about it is that it is a somewhat ordinary thing to do, so ordinary that most people don't think of doing it.  Anyone can pick up a cookbook and make it all, but no one does.  No one does because there's no reason to do it.  She didn't know that it would make her famous and provide her with an income that would enable her to quit her government drone job.  At the time, she just cooked food and wrote about.  She just lived her life with all of its quirks and ordinariness wrapped up together.

But she wrote a pretty compelling book, and it's compelling not because of what she does but because of how she writes about it.  I just love her use of language.  I adore how she connects events in her life with the food she's making.  I'll just keep repeating that there's nothing especially compelling about what she does, but she composes a narrative that is compelling.  Her friends are contemplating affairs and ending their marriages, and Powell reflects on that while cooking really detailed meals in a cramped kitchen.  She has a mother her loves her and annoys her, and that relates to the food.  Her pipes freeze.  Her power goes out.  She experiences what we all experience, but the way she tells that story is unique and special.

Powell makes a point in her first chapter that Child uses the phrase "simplicity itself" to describe a potato soup recipe, and Powell realizes that simplicity does not mean easy.  Yes, the recipe is quite simple on a lot of levels, but it does take care and effort to make.  The same can be said of this book.  It looks simple, but I doubt writing it was easy.  I couldn't write this way, and I've been studying writing for years.  I almost didn't pick up the book because I really didn't think it could be as good as it actually is because it didn't look that amazing on the surface.

I was wrong.

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