Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Friday, 5 April 2013

'The Middlesteins' - and how overeating can affect your family

Whenever little Edie Herzen was out of sorts, especially when she hollered, her mother found the perfect antidote - food. 'Food was made of love and love was made of food and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.' As a result, Edie became known to the neighbours as 'just that fat child from (apartment) 6D...'

Quite why I read this book with an American accent twirling around my head, I have no idea, except that the length of the sentences probably dictated it. Is 16 lines long a record, I wonder? I could hear a New York Jewish torrent of words hurling themselves onto the pages, always with that singsong tone and nasal twang so beloved of the Jackie Masons and Bette Midlers of this world; hence the humour.

It's a funny book with a serious sub-text and author Jami Attenberg cleverly blends the two to prevent her tale becoming maudlin or, for some readers, too close for comfort. I first heard 'The Middlesteins' on 'Book at Bedtime' on BBC Radio 4 but as I missed a huge chunk of it, I decided to read it for myself.

Edie's father - '...at meals he ate and ate...' had justifiable reasons for doing so, having starved eight years before on his long journey from the Ukraine to Chicago, where the family now live. So no wonder that, as an adult, Edie now suffers from obesity in a big way and has associated, life-threatening health problems. At 59, she weighs over 300 pounds.

When Edie's husband, Richard Middlestein refuses to take any more and leaves her after 40 years, he is reviled by his children and grandchildren, cast out as a 'coward' and no longer included as a family member. Well, you would, wouldn't you? But is that cowardly, or is it brave? I felt sorry for this guy, who has spent most of his married life being bullied and picked on by his wife. Nobody seems to mind about that (except Richard). But why would anyone want to remain in a situation that makes them unhappy? And he's had no sex for a long time. My only surprise was that he hadn't left her earlier. Her health problem is of her own making. She is given every opportunity to save herself but she has no desire to do so and listens to nobody's advice. So why should her long-suffering husband be expected to hang around, taking more abuse when he could be doing something for himself for a change. There comes a time when we have to say 'enough' and begin thinking about ourselves. I think he did the right thing.

The importance of family is highlighted here. We see a coming together of a family that didn't seem that close at first, in an effort to help Edie, who after all loves eating and doesn't want to be helped. '...her heart and soul felt full when she felt full...' She relates a pack of crisps and a tub of onion dip to '...waiting for her like two friends who had come over for coffee and a little chitchat.'

Some cutting back and forth for back stories tends to confuse but it's worth pressing on, it's well written and thought-provoking; sad too, not only at the outcome but by the predicaments this middle-aged couple experience after the breakup of their marriage and family. Loneliness can be, well, lonely and dating on internet sites can be daunting after a certain age, so I'm told... And secretly, he would like Edie back but only if she loves him again. So he chases his past in an effort to capture something wonderful that he's lost. But he knows she will never love him again.

The children's own lives are threaded through the main theme with some credible characterisations. Daughter Robin, now 31, has had a mixed up childhood and son Benny smokes a lot of pot. His controlling, perfectionist wife, Rachelle (who lives on veg and tofu) becomes obsessed with his mother's eating habits and takes to stalking her, which is how we find out what Edie is up to and how she meets the new man in her life. By page 146, Benny is worrying about everyone and in particular, his balding pate. It touches on themes that are pertinent to us all. This is about everyday life in a dysfunctional family. Nobody conforms. Everyone is affected by Edie's situation, except possibly Edie. Granddaughter, Emily, nearly 13, meanwhile is filled with hate. She hates her mother and everything else and operates a Things That Suck list. Her twin, Josh is a bit of a wimp. Emily's attitude towards her grandfather is so disrespectful, you will root even more for him.

And every so often, Jami Attenberg throws in something so profound, out of the blue, that you have to stop and think about it. This is a great story and how inventive to highlight one of the biggest health issues of our time - obesity, the dangers of junk food and the problems of persuading people to eat more healthily - not to mention the destructive effect on the lives of the people around them that obsessions create.

Jami has written three books and contributed to the 'New York Times' and many other publications. She lives in New York. You can visit her website at jamiattenberg.com or follow her on Twitter @jamiattenberg

'The Middlesteins', by Jami Attenberg is published by Serpent's Tail (Profile Books) 2013.

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