Reviews

How Should a Family Eat? 'The Middlesteins'

In this expert blend of grit, intelligence, humor, and heart, there's something very "ABC Family" about Benny and Rachelle's household, along with the grim reality and necessary criticism of the modern family.


The Middlesteins

Publisher: Grand Central
Length: 288 pages
Author: Jami Attenberg
Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10
Amazon

Eating should be simple. You have your whole grains, fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and lean meats. You eat to fuel your body and to commune with family and friends. You indulge in the occasional culinary art at the gourmet restaurant downtown. See? In print, it seems so simple. But in day-to-day life, obviously, it can be complicated.

Jami Attenberg gets that, as she proves in The Middlesteins, her new novel about a complicated Jewish family from Chicago. The Middlestein matriarch, Edie, is obese and diabetic, as hungry for life as she is about everything else -- work, life, love, justice. In response to her disorder, the rest of her family is just as crazy about each passing meal, although their insanity takes different forms.

Edie's daughter-in-law, Rachelle, feeds her family mostly vegetables, cut into the tiniest pieces and usually raw. Edie's daughter, Robin, counts her morning run as the highlight of her day, although it's probably really her evening wine binge. Edie's son, Benny, needs a nightly joint just to survive his wife and kids. Edie's husband, Richard, is divorcing her, searching for greener pastures on dating websites. No one knows how to save Edie, but they all feel a little bit better by despising Richard.

The group almost feels plucked from a Jonathan Franzen novel (and, as it so happens, the author's praise adorns The Middlesteins cover), but this family has a little more sweetness and relatability to it. They watch So You Think You Can Dance? on TV. They send party invitations in the form of magnets.

There's something very "ABC Family" about Benny and Rachelle's household, along with the grim reality and necessary criticism of the modern family. The whole thing is very appealing. It's almost as if Franzen wrote about America's food issues for Modern Family. In other words, it's an expert blend of grit, intelligence, humor, and heart. It's a must-read.

That's not an easy balance to strike, but Attenberg pulls it off exceptionally well. She also writes about obesity (a risky proposition) in a thoroughly clear-eyed, generous and likely accurate way. Edie has all the wonderful qualities you might expect from a fiery former lawyer, but also many of the downfalls. The pros: she's smart, open-minded, tireless, focused, persuasive, sensitive, and, when she's in a good mood, very charming. The cons: she's obsessive, stubborn, and impossible to argue with.

She's also sad and lonely. Maybe she stayed in a doomed marriage for a little too long. Of course, there's more to the story than just that.

Flashbacks are strewn helpfully throughout The Middlesteins, and in one, Edie is a young mother (210 pounds) eating with her kids at McDonald's. Edie has a Big Mac, McRib, large fries, Diet Coke, chocolate shake, chocolate chip cookie, and an apple pie to split with the kids. Robin and Benny each have Happy Meals. As she eats enough food for at least two adults, myriad thoughts swirl obsessively through her mind, prompting the narration, "Holy cow, she was thinking a lot about food."

She also thinks about her kids, and about how motherhood bores her sometimes. "Don't you guys have anything of interest to say?" she asks before feeling ashamed, like a bad mother. She also thinks excitedly about her food, particularly the McRib -- "because it was a new sandwich, and how often did a new sandwich come along?" -- and about the lovely components of the Big Mac, like the "salmon-pink special sauce" and the middle bun, "an extra layer of spongy pleasure." Her openness, passion, and voraciousness -- along with her boredom and guilt -- certainly get the best of her.

Then, she dips into extreme self-loathing: "Thirty years old, and she had failed. Look at the rubble, the empty fast-food wrappers, the mashed up plastic toy parts. She had no idea what her ass looked like anymore; it had been so long since she’d dared to look in the mirror. Edie, Edie, Edie." Then she remembers, "She had a husband. He existed." So she checked the marriage box off on her life's to-do list, even if that meant using food to fulfill her passions.

When Richard finally arrives to the McDonald's, two hours late, Edie explodes with anger, taking her food to a far booth to binge in private. She describes eating alone as "perfection". In this scene, Attenberg covers all the angles, giving just about every reason for why a brilliant but depressed woman might possibly eat herself to death.

Most of The Middlesteins takes place after Edie’s binging damage has been done, when she weighs well over 300 pounds. The aftermath is palpable. Her family watches stunned, unsure of how to save her, so they focus their attention on their own diets, obsessing about food like it's the only thing that can save (or kill) a person. Rachelle is so focused on diet that her own teenage daughter could literally fall out the window, and Rachelle would hardly notice.

But they're all okay; they do their best, and Attenberg blesses them with saving graces. Rachelle may be a lying housewife who shivers "like a small, expensive dog", and she may spin her accidental college pregnancy as an opportunity to one-up her girlfriends, but she ultimately loves her family, and she throws a very nice party to boot. Benny is supportive and charming, and the kids are all right. Robin doesn't hurt anyone as much as she hurts herself.

From beginning to end, though, The Middlesteins is Edie's story, from the flashbacks of rye bread with her immigrant parents, to the noodles, chili peppers, lamb, and popping cumin lovingly prepared by her new lover, a Chinese chef who memorizes poetry, cooks with heart, and sees Edie for the beauty she is, despite her disease. From start to bitter-sweet end, Edie is loved.

The Middlesteins is as smart as it is entertaining, as heart-felt as it is thoughtful. It will give readers plenty to consider, providing new ways in which to see food and each other.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image