The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing • $24.99 • ISBN 9781455507214
On sale now
At the heart of The Middlesteins is Edie, the matriarch of a Jewish family in Chicago. When we meet her, she is a child who has discovered her complete love of eating—a love that just might kill her, as she ages and comes to weigh more than 300 pounds and must undergo various surgeries related to her size. Entwined with Edie's story are various family members—like her two adult children and her daughter-in-law, a woman so obsessed with healthy eating that she'll hardly let her kids use table salt on a bland piece of salmon.
During the holidays—a time so filled with family togetherness—I love a good novel that portrays family dynamics in all their messy glory. Even better if the book makes me laugh and tugs at my heart. The Middlesteins does this and more. It's also quite short (less than 300 pages) and zips along quickly, so it would be perfect for a plane ride home.
Here's a short excerpt from the beginning of the book, when daughter-in-law Rachelle—a woman whose mission in life is to "keep her family happy and healthy"—goes over to Edie's house for an intervention. She's supposed to be talking to Edie about getting healthier, but she dreads this task. Here's what happens when she stops in front of Edie's house.
The front door to the house opened; it was Edie, wrapped in her enormous mink coat and matching hat, an inheritance from her own oversized mother. ("I am morally opposed to fur," Edie had told Rachelle once. "But since it's already here, what am I going to do? Throw it away?" Rachelle had fingered the coat delicately with her fine, manicured hand, and imagined having it taken in—dramatically—someday for herself. "You can't waste mink," agreed Rachelle.) Edie got into her car, and before Rachelle could get out of her own car to stop her, drove off.
Rachelle didn't hesitate. She followed her mother-in-law, past the high school—a digital marquee in front of the school flashing GO TEAM! again and again—until she pulled into a McDonald's parking lot. She made it through the drive-thru swiftly and then pulled out onto the road back to the subdivisions, but instead of heading home she went in the other direction, and Rachelle still followed her—she was morbidly curious at this point—this time into a Burger King, again through the drive-thru window, pausing before she exited back onto the main road in front of a garbage can in the parking lot, into which she tossed her now-empty, crumpled McDonald's bag through her window. A half beat later, she hurled an empty plastic cup. Perfect aim.
When we last checked in with Leila Meacham she had just published Roses, her epic novel that spans 70 years in the history of the Toliver family, owners of a cotton plantation in Texas. That soapy saga had it all: death, love, backstabbing, a marriage of convenience, twists. I distinctly remember spending an entire Saturday on the couch in my PJs while I lapped up all the delicious drama (then wrote about it on the blog).
It's been two years since the publication of Roses, and I just learned some exciting news: Meacham has a new novel coming out on June 19! (You can go ahead and add that to my personal most-anticipated books of 2012 list.) The novel's called Tumbleweeds, and at 480 pages, I expect it to be just as juicy as Roses. Here's the plot description from Meacham's publisher:
Tumbleweeds is the story of three young friends—the saint, the sinner, and the angel—growing up together in the sort of small Texas Panhandle town that lives and dies by its Friday night football games. A fateful event casts a long shadow over these three intertwined lives and leaves the reader turning the pages desperately to see how it all plays out.
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing • $14.99 • ISBN 9780446573658
On sale now
I decided to read this novel because a) Father of the Bride is one of my all-time favorite movies, b) our reviewer compared Martin to Henry James, Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald in her review (yes, really), and c) I like art.
Well. First of all, I loved this book, and I ingested it in one sitting—seriously. I actually listened to the book rather than read it—I was driving home after Thanksgiving (I highly recommend the audiobook from Hachette), and for once in my life I wanted I-40 to stretch a little bit longer so I could keep listening from behind the wheel. (I opted to finish it while lying on my couch and listening to the stereo, instead of circling the neighborhood.)
The story is about Lacey Yeager, a young woman who joins the art world in the 1990s at the bottom of the latter in Sotheby's basement, then eventually works her way up to owning her own gallery. She has affairs, has questionable morals, learns to schmooze and make huge deals. Martin describes the beautiful people, places and art that fill Lacey's world, and it all feels something like a dream—until it comes crashing down, of course.
Here's an early excerpt, from when Lacey's perspective starts to shift as a young employee at Sotheby's:
At Sotheby's, she started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth. Auction records were available in the Sotheby's library, and when a picture of note came in, she diligently searched the Art Price Index to see if it had auction history. She factored in condition, size, and subject matter. A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman. An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee. If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being "burned." Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.
Got any audiobook recommendations for my next drive home?
Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
Grand Central • $27.99 • ISBN 9780446584975
on sale September 13, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has written more than 15 books, worked for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967 and been on television for 40 years. While his memoir Life Itself covers every major moment in Ebert's life, it is more than anything an example of why he has become such a preeminent cultural voice.
On the set of the show, between actually taping segments, we had a rule that there could be no discussion of the movies under review. So we attacked each other with one-liners. Buzz Hannan, our floor director, was our straight man, and the cameramen supplied our audience. For example:
Me: "Don't you think you went a little over the top in that last review?"
Gene: "Spoken like the gifted Haystacks Calhoun tribute artist that you are."
"Haystacks was loved by his fans as a charming country boy."
"Six hundred and forty pounds of rompin' stompin' charm. Oh, Rog? Are those two-tone suedes, or did you step in some chicken shit?"
"You can borrow them whenever you wear your white John Travolta disco suit from Saturday Night Fever."
Buzz: "Yeah, when are you gonna wear it on the show?"
"He wanted to wear it today, but it's still at the tailor shop having the crotch taken in."
Buzz: "Ba-ba-ba-boom !"
Will you be reading Ebert's memoir when it comes out in September?