“The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg
Weight is often discussed in American media, but less frequently in literature. Jami Attenberg’s new book, “The Middlesteins,” explores the effects of an overweight woman on her family and community with humor and sincerity.
Despite being 288 pages, the novel avoids flattening three generations of characters into clichés or stereotypes. The central character, Edie, is the matriarch of the Middlestein family. Attenberg traces her life and weight over decades, and shows us how her condition is caused by nothing as banal as genes or lifelong depression, but a series of small failures and false justifications.
Edie’s weight and failing health impact her family when Richard, her husband, divorces her after she undergoes bypass surgery. The family’s reaction is mixed, with some characters breaking off contact with Richard and others simply becoming closer to Edie. The family, and Attenberg, see Edie’s condition as a sickness, not something for which she can be directly blamed. Richard, in leaving a sick spouse, loses the respect of much of his family, and some of the most poignant scenes of the novel are those between him and his grandchildren.
Edie eats because she is incomplete — her eating is a way of compensating for the void between what one plans for life and how life actually happens. Her eating, in its obsessive nature, becomes an act that separates her from others, further placing her mental state into a self-contained area. The pleas of the people concerned about her health do not reach her, and she deals with that difference by eating more.
The Middlesteins’ family issues extend beyond the direct family into the Jewish community to which the family belongs. Judaism is used not as a theme, though, but as a way of organizing life and community. Edie’s grandchildren have bar mitzvah lessons to show that they are entering a part of life where adult issues that they are unequipped to handle will be thrust upon them. Characters go to synagogue services so we can see the difference between the intimate relationship of a family and the selected information shared with friends. “The Middlesteins” is a book of real substance — a story told with grace.
“The Onion Book of Known Knowledge” by The Onion
The deadpan style of The Onion’s sharp, cutting-edge satire has so far been chronicled in its print newspapers, online articles, videos and podcasts. It has also published 11 books, most of which anthologized its news articles.
“The Onion Book of Known Knowledge” presents the most new content The Onion has ever put in print. The book is a large, glossy-paged encyclopedia on every subject from “Aapanthera” (“previously unknown breed of African big cat that, by 2012, had eaten all of the world’s aardvarks and taken its place at the top of every alphabetically organized list”) to ZZ Top. The volume is packed with an amazing amount of consistently funny humor, including fun sidebars (such as “Toast, adult stage in the life cycle of bread”) and features (“Some Species of Animal and How to Kill Them”). At the beginning of each section, the letter of the alphabet under which the section is organized has an entry that explains that letter’s role in society.
Presented in an encyclopedia format, the book maintains The Onion’s tradition of sharply addressing the truth through satire. The “American Civil War,” for example, described as an “ongoing conflict between the northern and southern regions of the United States,” is dated as starting in 1861 and ongoing in the present. The format also allows The Onion to adopt the matter-of-fact tone it uses for news articles while stating falsehoods.
“Zweibel, T. Herman,” The Onion’s fictional “plutocrat, business magnate, former governor of his state, and most notably, publisher emeritus of The Onion,” is the penultimate entry of the book. From 1896 to 2000, Mr. Zweibel wrote influential columns for the paper. In 2003, he was launched into Andromeda Galaxy, but The Onion remains as funny as ever without him.