Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.

*

middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.

*

Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.

*

Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.

 

Advertisements

One response

  1. Once again, I have not read the items you mention. I am especially intrigued by the relatability article in The New Yorker. I always have several books going. Most recently I finished a fun escapist novel by Alexander McCall Smith in his Ni. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series. Reading the newest book reminded me how much I love the characters in that series. Here is my post on this author and his series: http://learnmoreeveryday.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/the-no-1-ladies-detective-agency-a-review/

    Thanks for the series–good titles to explore and a reminder that I can occasionally write about what I a reading too. Now that I am teaching part time online, your usual topics will be even more engaging for me.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: