Sunday, September 30, 2012

Barbara the book grouch (The Middlesteins) followed by falling in book love again (Cloud Atlas)

 End of September Sunday Salon (Sunday Salon is a Facebook group for book bloggers)

I am Barbara, the book grouch.  The parade rainer. I have just read another book I know others will like, maybe even love, and I don’t. I would have tossed it except it is an advance copy kindly lent to me by a librarian friend.
The Middlesteins is a middle-brow sitcom about middle class Jews in middle America (suburban Chicago).  Both the book and the family revolve around Edie and Edie revolves around food and fat. 
            So much so Edie’s family fears that she’s eating herself to death. Edie learned this behavior as a spoiled, pudgy toddler – who always wanted to be carried. Now an obese grandmother, she spends her time cruising the fast food chains where she doesn’t even have to leave her car to eat. To underscore all this her life events-- and the chapter headings – are often marked/ labeled in pounds.
Those within her universe include her not-so-devoted husband, Richard. He’s had enough of Edie and leaves her sending the rest of the family spinning into panic as they pick up responsibility while he begins dating again.
No one’s very good at dealing with Edie and they all have lives and issues of their own. Daughter Robin is also dating and drinks too much and son Benny smokes pot every night and has a wife who directs his life. That’s  Rachelle, part princess, part perfectionist,  she tries to solve Edie’s problem with a plan.  She becomes the food police patrolling Edie’s habits and enforcing good food on her two twins, Emily and Josh, who are busy preparing for their b’nai mitzvah.
            To complete the characters in this universe add a bunch of relatively indistinct friends, so indistinct they even narrate a chapter in first person plural (how cloyingly clever.)  And finally mid way through the book we get  some Chinese food to spice it up – as well as the waitress and her father, the owner and chef at Edie’s new favorite place to eat.
            I fought the book until nearly the last page tackling page after page with groans and thoughts such as: some will call this timely; I call it a tedious. I get that it’s about the decaying middle class and an American landscape overtaken by strip malls and fast food, but even that could be interesting. Description: bland; insights shallow i.e.:  a character understands why Edie eats: “Because food is a wonderful place to hide.”
The writing is about as tired and unappetizing as a day-old Happy meal.
Some will find this funny.  I find it flat. At one point a character “tries to muster up a joke about Jews and food. Jews and funerals, Jew and Jews, but nothing was funny.” That about sums up the book for me.

 I don’t like being a book grouch. Sometimes I think I’m just in a bad mood.  Particularly when I read the glowing cover blurbs:"A truly original American novel, at once topical and universally timeless. 
Or: "This Smorgasbord of a book about food, family, love, sex, and loss is like the Jewish The Corrections, yet menchier and with a heart -- and it's hilarious. "I admire and read Jonathan Franzen's works even if I don't necessarily "like" them.
  Even  Franzen praised this book. He’s quoted on the advanced copy’s cover: “The Middlesteins” had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until it’s final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling. (Barbara the book grouch also admits to finally softening towards the end and particularly on the final page, just not enough that she shifted her overall displeasure with what she considered the book’s artlessness.) The last book I read that annoyed me as much was also positively blurbed by Franzen. Guess I should learn:  Avoid books Franzen promotes.
            We have different tastes.

And then …..
I am walking on air. My head’s in the clouds.  I feel my heart beat. I have fallen in book love again.
With Cloud Atlas. With David Mitchell. With rich language. With layered interconnected stories.  With genius. I will blog about this book in the coming weeks.
        Where was I when this book came out? 2004. A year when I did not have the time to give this book the attention it needs. It’s not an easy read, but for me, it's full of rewards.  A long slow read, with lots of rereading.
Well, I may be late to the book party, but I’m just in time for the movie. Coming to Imax in late October. Tom Hanks. Halle Berry. Can’t wait.


  1. Well glad you reviewed the Middlesteins so now I dont have to read it. It sounded rather painful. But I will check out Cloud Atlas, which I havent read yet.

    1. Happy reading. You are in for a treat-- a complex treat.

  2. I just started Cloud Atlas too! Guess we are both late to the party.

  3. I think the first section was the hardest to get through for me. I had already read Mitchell's Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing resembles it somewhat. I am not sure which is my favorite section, but it might be the Luisa Rey or the Timothy Cavendish section. There's something for everyone here.

  4. Thanks for telling me that. I'm not having trouble, per se, with the first section, but I'm not feeling compelled to read either. I'm almost to the 2nd section now.

  5. Not sure if you are doing the read a thon or not but if you are up and reading for the read-a-thon I am here to cheer you on. Go Go Go!!

  6. Alas, I am not reading in the read a thin. Wish I were. Also wish all those that are are having a wonderful time. I'm working long hours all weekend -- but I have tomorrow off. Cheers to all the readers.

  7. I couldn't do what you did - carry on doggedly reading a book I wasn't enjoying. If a book hasn't grabbed me by the time I get to around page 70, I know its time to give up

  8. I sometimes put them down -- but often don't. I'm not sure why. When I worked as a theater critic (for a small newspaper) I had to write about plays I didn't care for -- and couldn't walk out of, but books are not like that. They take much longer to read. I think I fascinate even on my negative responses -- that I need to figure out why I feel as I do-- and process that. I sometimes don't write about the negative reactions or I keep them short. There is value in exploring what I don't like for contrast's sake, but dwelling is not healthy.

  9. Sorry to come to this post so late, Barbara. I read "Cloud Atlas" several years ago, gave it my highest rating, and immediately started recommending it to friends and strangers. My dentist's receptionist has taken an interest in my reviews, and of course one of the first books I recommended was "Cloud Atlas." I warned her that it has jarring changes - abrupt halts and jumps in the narrative, and she said, Okay, she would try it anyway. Six months later she told me she just couldn't get past that first change, and had given it up. I repeated my caution to her, and urged her to take it up, and on the basis of a couple of other recommendations (Molly Bloom's "Wild Life," and Julia Stewart's "The Matchmaker of Perigord") she said she would try it again.

    I really admire your literary taste, and think I always will.

  10. I felt that way about Cloud Atlas, too - love. :)