Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dear Jami Attenberg,

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins

I pushed away a container of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered almonds before I got to chapter two of your terrific novel The Middlesteins.  It’sMorbid Obesity Help! a wrenching read, an up-close and personal look at four generations of a Midwestern Jewish family, the decisions they made, and the choices that remain to them. I loved ex-attorney Edie Middlestein’s wit and warmth, and the kindness she extended to friends and the less fortunate, but I didn’t want to be her. That’s because she deals with losses─ her beloved father, her faith, her role as do-gooder, her law career, and, finally, her husband─ by bitching at said husband and overeating until, at sixty, she is a full-blown fat lady needing vascular surgery twice in one year. If this sounds like I think your book is a late-night commercial for diet pills or gastric surgery, I don’t. In this novel you join the exalted ranks of authors who chronicle the Jewish mother’s metamorphosis from overprotective immigrant Sophie Portnoy to the very American morbidly obese, diabetic Edie Middlestein.

Kale

Kale

Like a skilled tightrope walker, you go backward and forward in time, showing the reader how each of Edie’s relatives copes with her refusal to reform her eating habits. We see Edie’s adult kids struggling with her legacy of addiction and the burdens of taking care of someone in its grip. We see her daughter-in-law as another version of the modern Jewish mom, force-feeding her family kale and carrots in lieu of chicken soup. We see Edie’s husband Richard who opts for self-preservation and a search for love and life rather than for staying the course with Edie. We meet their twin grandchildren preparing for their slightly over-the-top b’nai mitzvah while their family is in chaos. We also see Edie and Richard reaching out for the love they no longer feel for one another and we know the deep satisfaction of an ending that is both unexpectedly nuanced and inevitable.

            This ending, involving, among other things, second chances, reinvention, and ethnic diversity is thoroughly American and thoroughly contemporary. And food plays

Fast Food Signs

Fast Food Signs

a big part in it as it does in the entire book. But this is not primarily a novel about food replete with lo-fat recipes. Food is only one of the lenses through which you let us look at our lives today. I say “our” lives because who among us has not struggled with addiction, either a relative’s or one’s own? And who among us has not wondered how our suburban landscape became a series of strip malls full of fast food joints pushing their poison on us and our kids? And who among us has not regretted a disastrous first marriage or career choice?  Or not looked ahead to a shortened life span with friends gone missing, a body gone creaky or worse and then felt a new appreciation for this life, however imperfect? So the story you tell is a familiar one, but the way you tell it, from the perspective of each of Edie’s relatives, young, old, alive, and dead, is what makes it both heartwarming and insightful. You make sure that we come to know these Middlesteins. And each of them is human with flaws and virtues unique to him or her and yet again, familiar to most of us. All these changes of perspective could be confusing but they aren’t. In my next book I hope to shift from one perspective to another as effectively as you do here.

Greek Chorus

Greek Chorus

There are two perspective shifts I especially enjoyed. The first is near the end when Edie and Richard’s old friends describe the b’nai mitzvah. They’re like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action from the sidelines, bearing witness to the coming of age of the youngest Middlesteins while mourning the seemingly inappropriate divorce of the oldest along with the many changes in their once beloved Edie.  The second is earlier when Robin, their alcoholic single daughter, a lapsed Jew who fears the love she feels for Daniel, her neighbor and boyfriend, reluctantly attends

Family Seder

Family Seder

a Seder at his parents’ home. It’s a fairly typical, crowded, jovial Seder with children participating, too much food, and only Manischewitz to drink. The sole sign of tension comes at the end of the evening when Robin overhears Daniel’s parents arguing loudly in the kitchen and gets upset. On the way home, Daniel reassures her that occasionally his parents fight but that their fights do not lead to divorce. His family’s benign dynamic contrasts with the fraught one of the Middlesteins.

            Part of what enables you to make this tragic story go down so easily is the conversational nature of much of your prose. Often I felt as if I were chatting with you rather than reading. This tète á tète we were having began right on page one under the chapter title, Edie, 62 pounds. “How could she not feed their daughter? Little Edie Herzon, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh.” The questions and the informality of much of the grammar give your words the drama of shared confidences and, to me anyway, a trace of an inflection I associate with folks who grew up around Yiddish speakers.

            I was sad when our chat was over and I put the book down. Thanks for a great read and an important lesson in writing voices.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Shawn Vestal,

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho

Godforsaken Idaho became my primer on Mormonism as practiced by folks not running for president. Your stories of missionaries, marriages,

Idaho Potatoes

Idaho Potatoes

ranches, rehab, relatives, robbers, and religion also introduced me to Idaho, a part of the Northwest I’ve never visited. In fact, Idaho itself was once so remote to this New Jersey native transplanted late in life to a Seattle suburb as to seem beyond godforsaken. Sorry, but your native state was never on my radar except when I was buying potatoes.

And Mormonism? I’m a secular Jew with a carefully cultivated ambivalence towards people of any faith who seek to evade modernity, and I was shocked to see how prevalent the followers of LDS are in the Northwest. But their prevalence didn’t

make them interesting; your stories do. Those same stories also took me inside the psyche of midlife males, a species I’ve neglected in much of my own writing.

Aging and often out-of-work Boomers, they didn’t interest me all that much before I read Godforsaken Idaho. Now thanks to your wild imagination, your keen sense of humor, and your accessible, powerful prose, I’m making room in my head for all of these phenomena.

Take Idaho. It’s huge and empty compared to New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union. Nobody goes to Jersey for the solitude. But a lot of folks come to the Northwest because they crave seclusion, and many of these wannabe hermits find their way to Idaho. Others are born and raised in The Gem State and, like

many of your characters, feel quite at home driving those long highways from farm or ranch or mine to small town and on and on to forest or mountain. I want to

Middleage 2013

Middleage 2013

write a novel set in Eastern Washington, and it will feature at least one such character from Idaho. He wasn’t from Idaho before I read your book, but now he is. He may even be a lapsed Mormon, a literally godforsaken midlife white guy whose own less than perfect parents and bad habits along with the changing times have conspired to strip him of all that he feels entitled to, a good job, a tolerant family, a paid for house, the possibility of a gracious retirement, and, of course, a fulfilling afterlife.

Your original vision of an unfulfilling afterlife in Godforsaken Idaho’s lead story, “The First Hundred Years Following My Death” opens that tale.  “The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There’s nothing to do with your hands.” This is how the lapsed Mormon who has predeceased his estranged son greets this son when he arrives in the hereafter. This description did not impress the dead son, but it hooked me at once and for good. “It turns out that the

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

food is meals you order from your life,” presumably meals that you enjoyed. You stay the age at which you died and eat with those your own age from many historical periods. There is no peace in this odd heaven except what you can find by reliving favorite moments from your own life. Like those meals, these moments don’t always hold up to such close and repeated scrutiny. In fact, “…you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment.” There is much wit and plenty of pathos here and not a trace of angels or saintly gatekeepers or fire and brimstone. How refreshing! And as a bonus, we meet several of the characters who turn up later in stories all their own.

Rulon, a young vet just home from World War I, suffers guilt for having killed enemy soldiers and for having had sex with a prostitute on his return. Mormon teachings do not guide him through or shield him from the sins inherent in war and prostitution and even masturbation. Killing and all sex outside of marriage are sinful in The Book of Mormon and his guilt gives him no peace. Rulon’s story is narrated by a long dead lapsed Mormon fighting to protest a law forbidding the then polygamous Mormons to vote in Idaho and he was killed by a posse as he fought. This dead man attempts to soothe the younger man’s conscience and guide him to a more active and aggressive stance, but cannot reach him at first. The ending is dramatic and meaningful, especially in view of the troubles we know returning vets face today.

Looking at the Northwest through Mormon eyes changed my perspective on the place and many of the people. Just as not all of us east coast natives share the values and life styles of Manhattanites, so not all Northwesterners embrace the liberal politics, advanced technology, good beer, and better coffee that many Seattleites do. In your stories, characters recall how the early followers of first Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young gradually made their way west fleeing persecution. It’s fascinating to look at America as they see it, as a place like the Middle East where ancient sacred biblical texts can be unearthed, translated, and interpreted, where miracles can occur, where credos can be changed, and where, if you go back far enough, all people are connected by blood.

Pocket Dog

Pocket Dog

Your characters talk like, I suspect, real Idahoans talk. Here’s your dissolute womanizing drunkard in “Pocket Dog” describing an attractive gal shedding her clothes before entering a hot tub.  First he tells us, “I believe firmly in watching such a woman.” And then he treats us to this: “She stepped out of that skirt and bent over, ass up like an autumn doe. . . . and something started flopping inside me like a fish on a riverbank.” “Pocket dog” is not a happy story, but the narrator, telling it after rehab, enlivens it with lines like these. They make me like him even while I disapprove of his drinking, drug use, and cavalier attitude towards women including his grandmother who is determined to get him into treatment. How can you hate a guy who sees the miniature dog belonging to the woman described above and says, “She held a purse in the crook of her arm and from the purse emerged the tiny head of a creature with a furious puff of Einstein hair. Like a rat being born. The rat barked and hung a tongue the color of a pencil eraser. Out here, we’re bound to feel a dog like that is just wrong.”

The next book I write will pry me a little further out of my coastal comfort zone, and, after savoring your wonderful stories, I may be empowered to venture into yours. Thanks for such an inspiring read.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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