Pros: Revelations about love, the human heart, and the world of meat.
Cons: Depending on how you looked at J&J, you might be disappointed at this one.
When I found out that Julie Powell, who chronicled her culinary adventures in Julie and Julia was busy writing her second memoir about cooking, I was pretty excited. As with most foodies, the next best thing to eating a great meal is to read about someone else's time with great food. So I put in a pre-order with Amazon for Cleaving and waited.
Picking up some time after Julie and Julia, we first meet Julie as she is working in an upstate New York butcher's shop. She's busy cutting down beef liver, and noting the textures and sensuousness of raw meat as well as her fellow co-workers, all male. It's quite a change from her previous book, and as we see in the chapters to come, a far darker world for her.
For one thing, life at home in New York City is getting a bit crazed. Her marriage with Eric has gotten disjointed and rocky, and her own obsession with a man known as only 'D' putting on enough strain that she's taking on a near four hour commute in order to be an unpaid apprentice at Fleishers, a butcher's shop on the other side of the Hudson. But she's also drawn to the art of butchery, the art of taking a dead animal and turning into the cuts and steaks and chops that we're so used to buying at the market. For Julie, it's a revelation into how people fit together as well, and as she muses on that, especially when she is not working at the shop, she discovers her own dilemmas in her marriage and the clandestine affair that she is having with D.
It was not just the interactions that Julie has with her fellow butchers that I found interesting, but also her very real problems in her marriage, where things are coming apart at the seams, and yet, she just cannot let go of the other man. (Personally, I couldn't see what she found in him -- with someone like Eric, there wouldn't be any room for any one else in my book. But that's me.) And I found her tormented affair to be heartbreaking to read at times. She knows better, and she tries, but the allure of D is just too strong to ignore at times.
When her apprenticeship is ended, Julie takes another daring step. This time, she travels to various points around the world, looking at the butchering industry and food in three very unique spots in the world. First is Argentina, then the Ukraine, both places where she learns a great deal about people but it is in the third location that she has the greatest insights. But as with learning anything, there's some troubles as well, when she is attacked in Tanzania one night...
This was quite a different read than Julie and Julia. Where the earlier book had a touch of both mayhem and whimsy to it, this one is darker and more primal. I found myself disturbed and occasionally distressed over Julie's predicaments, especially when it came to the trip in Tanzania. The tone here is darker, and the humour much more mordant and not at all funny at times. Given what I've said here, you'd might think that I hated this read. Actually, I didn't -- I found it very insightful, and while painful to read at times, very intense emotionally, and a way for me to look at some of my own darker moments in the past.
I feel that it was rather brave of Ms. Powell to lay out her story, and a very personal and private one at that, in this volume. It's hard to admit that one's own private, romantic life isn't just right, but that it's spinning out of control, and be able to look at one's own mistakes in setting it on that path. While Cleaving isn't a book that I would recommend to anyone -- it's pretty much for the foodies out there -- it is a very good read, and while not everything is resolved by the end, Julie has made progress into becoming a wiser, more mature person.
Along with the narrative, told in Ms. Powell's snarky, there-you-are style, there are recipes themed in with every chapter, and they tend to be simple and delicious. (I tried the one with beef liver, and swooned with delight) It's not a very long read, and took just an evening or two to get through. And of course, there are plenty of Buffy the Vampire Slayer references.
Overall, four stars. If you've read the previous memoir by Julie Powell, this one won't be a hardship at all. I do recommend that one first, as there are some references back to it in this one, and it would help to make the relationship between Eric and Julie much more comprehensible.
Other books by Julie Powell:
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Cleaving: A story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession
2009; Little, Brown and Company