Books: Mothers and Wives

April 2014 Home Column List 2

Books: Mothers and Wives

The Middlesteins: A Novel by Jami Attenberg. (Grand Central Publishing, 288 pp. $24.99 cloth, $15 paper)

Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins: A Novel, has structured this very Jewish but universal novel like a balloon: The major character keeps getting larger, literally and figuratively. It is a bittersweet development in a book that is satire, an exploration of life in a dysfunctional family, character studies of well-meaning but flawed individuals and a treatise on the relationship between love and food (“Food was made of love, and love was made of food,” Attenberg writes).

There is little overt drama in the narrative, set in the Midwest, yet the story moves along in a sprightly and nuanced way. Chapters unfold from the perspective of different characters, all trying to deal with a frightening oncoming train wreck.

At age 5, Edie already weighed 62 pounds. Who was responsible? Her mother who put food in front of her to gain her love, setting her up for a lifetime of confusing eating and love? Perhaps. But strong-willed Edie is more than that. She is a brilliant lawyer and a loving mother. Here is how Edie obsesses: “She cracked open the McRib box.... Suddenly she felt like an animal; she wanted to drag the sandwich somewhere, not anywhere in this McDonald’s, not a booth, not Playland, but to a park in a shrouded corner of woods underneath shimmering tree branches, green, dark, and serene, and then, when she was certain she was completely alone, she wanted to tear that sandwich apart with her teeth.”

While suffering from diabetes and facing serious surgery, Edie endures a new challenge. Her husband, Richard, a pharmacist, decides to leave her. Their children are outraged. Was Richard selfish, or did Edie, as he asserts, leave him before he left her? Their 31-year-old daughter, Robin, is a heavy drinker. Her brother, Benny, is married to Rachelle, who is so angry at her father-in-law she bars him from access to his twin grandchildren, who are preparing to become b’nei mitzva.

These characters are complicated but their situations are genuine, so the reader can easily identify with different aspects of their emotions and personality. Food addiction remains Edie’s ultimate obsession: “She ate on behalf of Golda, recovering from cancer. She ate in tribute to Israel. She ate because she loved to eat. She knew she loved to eat, that her heart and soul felt full when she felt full.”

Robin discovers a secret Edie when her mother takes her to a restaurant where a young Chinese woman rushes toward Edie “with open arms, and they quickly embraced.” When Edie introduces her daughter, the woman says, “What an honor to have you here. Your mother talks about you all the time. We love your mother. Just love her. She’s our hero.

“Robin was stunned.... ‘Why is my mother the hero of a Chinese restaurant?’”

By this time, the author is setting us up for a zesty dessert that embraces love and food, in a satisfying way. For the Middlesteins, sly on wry can make for a potent and delicious sandwich. —Stewart Kampel

Thera by Zeruya Shalev. Translated by H. Sacks and Mitch Greenberg. (Toby Press, 425 pp. $24.95)

What does it mean to say that, while there are no likable characters in Thera, Zeruya Shalev’s novel of troubled married life, there is ample reason for us to identify with them? It has everything to do with Shalev’s ability to portray convincingly the reality of family life, on the one hand, and the intricate complexity of the human psyche, on the other.

As in Love Life and Husband and Wife, the first two novels of Shalev’s domestic trilogy, Thera, narrated by a depressive female protagonist, becomes an interior meditation on the interplay between decisive action and profound self-doubt.

Ella Goshen encounters Amnon Miller, a prominent archeologist, at one of his digs. He initiates an idyllic romantic courtship—“I know you from Thera, you’re painted on the wall there in the Minoan site”—and trains her in his profession. Following the birth of their son, Gili, and the increasing professional prominence of Ella, the marriage begins to go sour. After several years of a contentious relationship with Amnon—he has become a crude, coarse bully—Ella decides that she wants “to begin again” free of marital constraints. Even as she makes the break, she questions whether she has done the right thing. She also reveals herself to be compulsive, needy, a maker of difficulties.

This last character trait is made manifest by Ella’s choices subsequent to the marital separation, as she takes up with Oded. He is a psychiatrist separating from his own wife and father of two young children. Oded, it turns out, is very Amnon-like—hard, blunt, brutal in speech, impatient, bothered by Ella’s quirks and sensitivity, always seeking to win every debate, not hesitating to rebuke her at every turn and disparaging Ella’s profession, asserting brusquely, “People who deal with stones don’t understand human beings.”

Possibly because Oded suffers a nervous breakdown, Ella decides to try to make a go of this new relationship. The way this story ends is less important than the reader’s recognition that all Ella’s choices, decisions and doubts ring true.

There are paragraphs in Thera that one wants to clip out and read over and over again. Every page seems to have a phrase that surprises the reader by its originality. Shalev has an uncanny talent—aided by her excellent translators—for finding le mot juste. Even her judicious use of military battle metaphors are apt, avoiding clichés of Israeli reality.

And this is where Thera (the city) comes in. It would be too facile to compare a volcanic explosion whose destruction radiated throughout the ancient world to the ravages caused by the destruction of a family, and Shalev does not go there. Where she does go is to Jewish history, sprinkling throughout the book biblical references and cultural markers. She even rehearses a theory—largely discounted—that nature’s destruction of Thera triggered the destruction of ancient Egypt at the hands of the Jewish God, recounted in the story of the Ten Plagues in Exodus.

But let us not forget that in all this textual and psychological analyzing there is the consistent beauty of the prose, its near-perfect vocabulary and its pitch-perfect rhythm and pacing. —Joseph Lowin


We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy. (University of Nebraska, 288 pp. $19.95 paper)
At first this book seems all too familiar. An American journeys to Eastern Europe to search for her family’s past before or during the Holocaust. She visits the villages whose exotic names she has heard all her life; she finds and meets the surviving neighbors; she gains insight into her family, into the larger historical context that shaped their experience, and into herself.

We Are Here, though, is a better read than most such books and films: It is more focused and more dramatic. The main reason is that Ellen Cassedy’s quest is so specific. By its nature, that quest leads her to questions of responsibility, guilt and morality. (The book jacket reveals that before she embarked, her Uncle Will “made a shocking disclosure about his wartime experience,” but it does not give that disclosure away, and neither will I.) The same questions arise for Lithuanians as for Germans, Poles as well as Serbians and Hutus. What did an individual do when horrific crimes were taking place? What did he see? What did he know—manage not to know? How does he feel about it years later? For Cassedy, the questions spread inexorably to the behavior of Jews. She finds herself meeting and interviewing Lithuanian Jews and non-Jews and delving into archival documents from the wartime ghettos of Vilna and other towns.

At the book’s end Cassedy goes home to New York and lays out her findings in Aunt Manya’s kitchen. By then the reader really wants to know how Uncle Will is going to respond. I will only say that human beings are not simple, and neither are their reactions.

We Are Here is different in “sound” as well as structure. Cassedy planned her trip to Lithuania to study at Vilna’s summer Yiddish language program, one of the best and most demanding such programs in the world. She felt the language to be her link with her dead mother. The course itself—assignments, teachers’ comments, student life—serves as framework for her deeper explorations. Smatterings of Yiddish words, musings on grammatical issues and, above all, the Yiddish poetry she quotes have a subliminal effect. Deftly translated, they add a musicality to her clear prose and additional emotional resonance to her chronicle. —Nahma Sandrow

Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah Illuminations and Commentary by Debra Band. (Honeybee in the Garden LLC, 208 pp. $39.95)

With Arise! Arise!, her third visual and literary commentary on the Bible, Debra Band is firmly established as a scholar and artist who can enlighten and delight. In Arise! Arise! she looks at five strong women—all of whom lived in the 12th-to-11th-centuries B.C.E. Three texts are printed twice—in Hebrew and English calligraphy complementing colorful illuminations, and in Hebrew together with the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation. Band’s commentary is an appreciation of the art as midrash; Arnold J. Band, her father-in-law and a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, adds a literary commentary.

The first woman is Deborah (Book of Judges 4-5)—prophet, judge and leader—whose military acumen brought 40 years of peace to the Israelite tribes. Yael, a non-Jew, fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would kill the enemy general Sisera (she drove a tent pin through his temple).

Naomi and Ruth’s courage is a different sort. Once rich, Naomi returns to Israel bereft of husband and sons; they died in a foreign land. Only daughter-in-law Ruth remains. Grief turns to joy when Ruth marries and becomes the progenitor of King David. Ruth’s adherence to Judaism is paralleled with the Jewish commitment to God at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot, which is when the Book of Ruth is read.

Finally, there is barren Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2:10), who prays for a child. When God answers her prayers she dedicates Samuel—her son and future prophet—to God. Hannah’s is the first example of silent prayer and, Band says, shows that God hears our innermost thoughts. Her story is read on Rosh Hashana.

Band’s images are both realistic and kabbalistic: Broken vessels are symbol of grief and loss.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Band’s husband, David Louis Band, who inspired her to create this work. One illustration shows a sky with the constellations that were visible over Washington, D.C., at the moment he died. —Zelda Shluker
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