Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Jewish Book Month Post, Part 1: Jami Attenberg and "The Middlesteins" (at the JCC on November 7).

I love to read about all sorts of different kinds of people. Some of my favorite books have taken me to China, Mexico, South Korea, Italy, France, Nigeria, Lebanon, and well, this doesn’t need to be a post where I name a lot of countries, does it?

But some of the best reading revolves around shared memories and cultural identity. That’s why a lot of our Irish customers were so excited to be turned onto Sebastian Barry and our folks interested in their German heritage came out for Oliver Pötzsch.

So you can imagine that I do seem to be drawn to novels about Jewish families. I love Allegra Goodman, of course, and earlier this year, recommended Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You. And then there is Crossing California, by Adam Langer, which I’d so love to see in print again. Did I really mention Adam Langer in two consecutive posts?

There are the Roths, Philip and Henry, and Mordecai Richler, and Elinor Lipman and Cathleen Schine have both touched upon Jewish themes in their popular novels, and I still have fond memories of reading Charlotte Mendelson’s London comedy, When She was Bad. It’s out of stock from her American publisher, but I see that a Spanish edition is coming out soon, Cuando Eramos Malos. If I could read Spanish like I did in high school, I might try it again! But Zoe Heller’s The Believers is still around—that was the kind of book where the paperback jacket did me in. I just couldn’t explain to customers how the book they saw connected to the description I gave them. These things happen.

I’ve read all the above, but there’s still so much to go. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read a Howard Jacobson novel, even with him winning the prize, though I did read his memoir/travel lit title, Roots Schmoots, and that was before any of you knew who he was.

But today’s journey leads to Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, recently out from Grand Central Publishing, and the focus of our upcoming co-sponsored event with the Harold and Rose Samson Family JCC (6255 N. Port Washington Road*) on Wednesday, November 7, at 7 pm. Hey, just in time for Jewish Book Month.

The Middlesteins are Edie and Richard, an estranged couple in the Chicago suburbs, as well their two children. Their laid-back and eager-to-please son Benny is married to perfectionist Rachelle. Their kids Josh and Emily are in training for their b’nai mitzvah, where they are going to wow the attendees with not just a perfect haftorah reading, but some whiz-bang hip hop dancing. Josh takes after his dad, Emily after her mom, though a bit meaner.Richard and Edie’s daughter Robin is a city dweller, single, but with a kind-hearted drinking buddy And there’s a lot of drinking. Richard owns a slowly failing pharmacy, and has delusions that he might find a hot new girlfriend.

But it’s Edie whose story dominates the narrative. Told from the perspective from quickly increasing weight (she peaks above 300 pounds), Attenberg offers a shortcut for figuring out where you are in the time-shifting narrative by how much Edie weighs. She’s been brought up, like so many of us, to equate food and love, and despite a fairly successful career as a lawyer at a small firm, has not been able to negate the equation.

Some high profile fellow authors weighed in early on The Middlesteins. Grand Central was most excited about the quote from Jonathan Franzen (“It wasn’t until the final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling”) but acclaimed writers Jenna Blum (“hilarious), Kate Christiansen (“stunningly wonderful”) and J. Courtney Sullivan (“a rich family portrait…gripping”) liked it too.

Kirkus called it “A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life” while Publishers Weekly’s starred review praised the “wonderfully messy and layered family portrait." And while there are not a lot of trade reviews out yet (Hachette, Grand Central’s parent, still uses the old pub date program for releasing books instead of the on-sale date model that the larger publishers now employ, which is perceived as leading to straggling reviews), there’s a nice piece in O Magazine, and something in Grantland, which paired the book with yesterday’s featured title, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

There are lots of Franzen comparisons and hey, I used the kinder, gentler Franzen on the Joshua Henkin novel from several months ago. I wonder though, if the Cathleen Schine/Allegra Goodman comparison is a little fairer. Franzen is so tough on his characters, and it’s hard to find someone in The Middlesteins who doesn’t capture at least a little bucket of redemption. And who doesn’t know someone whose joy in life wasn’t food? There’s a little bit of that in all of us, no?

So originally this event was scheduled at Next Chapter in Mequon. There was talk of two, but I thought that for this book, a second event would chop up the sales. So then we picked it up, but by that time, we’d already booked something at the bookshop. I contacted our friends at the JCC, who did such a nice event with Steve Sem-Sandberg last fall, and we agreed to co-sponsor this event and host it on 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd.

So there we are. We also have Attenberg's previous novels and story collections available, including Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season. And while you are there, you can have a little nosh at Cafe B Data. It's a pun, get it?

*The JCC put together another great author event for Thursday, November 1. It’s for Mordechai Bar-On, author of Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero. I think it’s at 7 pm, but you can find out for yourself, by calling (414) 967-8200.My apologies, but I had a drop of brain freeze and I wrote the wrong address at one point. It's all corrected now, but who knows the reprecussions of a typo? But you know where the JCC is, right? It's just northeast of Bayshore Town Center.

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