The Middlesteins – Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins – Jami Attenberg

Jewish humour.

I just don’t get it.

This isn’t me being anti-Semitic, I just don’t find maudlin, self-pitying and bitter black comedy stories funny. I also don’t find eating disorders funny. So yep, you can probably guess that I really didn’t enjoy this book.

When I read Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” a few years ago, I could not, for the life of me, understand how it won the Booker Prize.

It was dull…

It had no plot…

It was pure Jewish humour…

Now I’m sure I’d probably love “The Middlesteins” if I ‘got’ the whole Jewish family quirks, the religious rituals and the self-loathing, but being a dyed-in-the-wool half-Irish Catholic boy I just could not, for the life of me, make sense of it – probably in much the same way Jewish people generally don’t “get” the humour of Father Ted!

So I’m probably approaching this at a biased angle, but allow me to elaborate…

Jami AttenbergI wanted to love “The Middlesteins”, which is a highly-praised story about a large Jewish family living in the suburbs of Chicago, and part of the Waterstones Book Club, but I just couldn’t – primarily because I could not relate to any of the characters whatsoever.

The leading player in this book is Edie, the mother Middlestein, who has been a binge eater since childhood. Clocking in at an impressive 330 pounds, she can’t stop eating, and the more she eats, the more her family try and stop her.

The dad, Richard Middlestein can’t take Edie’s henpecking ways or her eating disorder and so leaves her, after 30 years of marriage, much to the the dismay of their son Benny and daughter Robin.

So as the story unfolds, readers are invited to discover how Robin, Benny and his wife Rachelle cope with the disintegration of the Middlestein marriage, what it means to them, their futures … and their time—because now, who is going to keep Edie from feeding herself to death?

And that’s the book in a nutshell.

You’ll follow this dysfunctional family from start to finish. You’ll be bombarded with descriptions of food and emptiness as Edie keeps shovelling it in, and see why the Middlestein kids are so “messed up”.

But here’s a newsflash for you, Ms Attenberg.

First off, I did not find your story of obesity appealing in the slightest. You do write well, don’t get me wrong, but I detested each and every one of your characters.

The mother Edie steals chips from her grandkids.

The father Richard turns to internet dating and gets, (how do I say this politely?) a “hand shandy” from a woman looking for a sugar daddy….And don’t get me started on the kids themselves!?!?!

I mean just what message were you trying to portray? Gluttony is repulsive? People with eating disorders are control freaks? All families are crazy in their own special ways? Or were you trying to make some super-special point that people look for happiness in food and feel empty even when their bellies are full?

This is one of the most repulsive and downright insensitive portrayals of what it feels like to suffer from an eating disorder. It’s not a story about a family in meltdown, it’s one woman’s attempt to justify her own feelings towards those who overeat, with a Jewish “twist”.

Give this self-indulgent book a wide berth and don’t invest a minute of your time with it. If you want a really good and charming story about obesity and loved ones I cannot recommend Liz Moore’s “Heft” instead.

Awful.

The Book Boy Rating – 1/5

PLEASE READ MY RESPONSE TO THIS BOOK REVIEW HERE

21 Comments

  1. I “get” Jewish humor and still didn’t like this book. Although I definitely go about my days wallowing in self-pity so maybe I’m just Jewish. Stereotypical Jewish humor, like other cultural stereotypical humor are just that: stereotypes. So maybe you aren’t “anti-Semitic” but it’s clear you have a level of ignorance that is, based on the way this review is written, is too high and evident for someone who would probably consider themselves intelligent and open-minded.

    • thebookboy
      Oct 15, 2013

      Right, listen up. I am not an anti-semite, not at all. My uncle lives in Tel Aviv on a Kibbutz. He’s gay, and his partner is called Itsik. I have been to Jerusalem, I have been to Bethlehem, I have been to Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen… I get the Jewish culture, but not the humour! I don’t know why you guys are giving me so much hatred for me not liking this book.

      • Had you called out the author for relying too much on stereotypes, that would be understandable. But by defining “Jewish humor” as maudlin and self-pitying, you are placing a narrow view on a certain culture. There are plenty of wallowing non-Jewish humorists out there. There is plenty of “Jewish humor” that is not self-pitying and maudlin. So the “Jewish twist” to which you refer, is indeed steeped in ignorance.

        By explaining away why you didn’t like a book based on you not getting “Jewish humor,” by even having to say “I’m not an anti-Semite…” these are clues. You are allowed to not like a book by a writer of any stripe, about any topic. But stereotypes are generalizations that are not always true and are definitely not true of every single person in that culture, religion, or race. You have based a review on a stereotype that you are perpetuating. Does that make sense?

  2. Nathan Rabin
    Oct 15, 2013

    News flash for you: your review reads as both anti-Semitic and deeply ignorant. It’s sweet, I suppose, that you like books but it’d be nice if you could channel that impulse into something less hateful and embarrassing. I should probably mention that I am a Jewish humorist myself and advise you to steer clear of my work, as it’s full of the kind of Jewish humor and Judaism you clearly find so stomach-churningly repellent (but not in an anti-Semitic way!)

    • thebookboy
      Oct 15, 2013

      Right, listen up. I am not an anti-semite, not at all. My uncle lives in Tel Aviv on a Kibbutz. He’s gay, and his partner is called Itsik. I have been to Jerusalem, I have been to Bethlehem, I have been to Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen… I get the Jewish culture, but not the humour! I don’t know why you guys are giving me so much hatred for me not liking this book.

    • Oh Rabin, I’d be happy to check out your work!
      Also – UW graduate too, eh?

  3. Joselin
    Oct 15, 2013

    OMG I LOVE Father Ted!! (And I had a Bat Mitzvah – so that’s weird.)

    • thebookboy
      Oct 15, 2013

      Right, listen up. I am not an anti-semite, not at all. My uncle lives in Tel Aviv on a Kibbutz. He’s gay, and his partner is called Itsik. I have been to Jerusalem, I have been to Bethlehem, I have been to Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen… I get the Jewish culture, but not the humour! I don’t know why you guys are giving me so much hatred for me not liking this book.

  4. alex
    Oct 15, 2013

    i am jewish — happily so, raised in the conservative movement, jewish day school, etc — and i can totally understand not getting the jewish humor. while i do “get it” all myself, i find it incredibly self-indulgent. i haven’t read The Middlesteins, but i had this feeling when i read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. in the end, i enjoyed the book for its pure inventiveness, but i felt kinda embarrassed that Chabon would imagine a broad population could be taken in by such insider stuff that no average non-jew (not to mention most jews!) would ever really understand. self-indulgent really is the term.

    • thebookboy
      Oct 15, 2013

      thank you thank you thank you thank you! AT LAST – someone who speaks sense.

      • Nathan Rabin
        Oct 16, 2013

        I know! These fucking Jews, right! So exciting to find one that doesn’t entirely condemn your bigoted idiocy!

      • thebookman
        Oct 17, 2013

        EXACTLY. It *is* very indulgent to foist one’s ethnicness on others. GROSS! Ewwww! People who have experiences that are uniquely different from mine? NO THANKS. Good points, guys.

        Right, listen up. You need to stop digging yourself deeper.

  5. LY
    Oct 15, 2013

    Oh dear.

  6. LY
    Oct 15, 2013

    Mostly people don’t say they’re not being antisemitic unless they suspect that actually they are. Also, ‘Jewish people don’t get Father Ted’? On what evidence? I;m not Jewish, not Catholic, ove Father Ted, loved this book. Perhaps because I like views in all kinds of cultures and types of humour that are not . . . hmm… ‘ mine’. IE, I’m open-minded.
    But then again, maybe they are mine. Maybe we’re all human, and donlt need to stereotype each other. Just a thought.

  7. GavReads
    Oct 17, 2013

    I’m curious how this review differs from this review in The Inde? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booker-prize/8063053/Booker-Prize-Its-a-funny-old-thing-Jewish-humour-….html – apart from one liked the book they were reviewing and one didn’t.

    This line sums it up:

    • GavReads
      Oct 17, 2013

      ‘And yet, Howard Jacobson has pulled off a seemingly unique feat. In a country which still doesn’t quite “get” Jewish humour’

      • thebookboy
        Oct 17, 2013

        Dude.. who fucking knows…. I hate Jews. So….

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>