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Albany Park, and The Middlesteins

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Albany Park by Myles (Mickey) Golde (AuthorHouse, $17.99)
In the 1940s, Chicago’s Northwest Side was thriving. The bars were alive with cigarettes,  never-ending drinks and dancing, and the postwar era boasted an economy which allowed for teenagers to spend their seemingly unlimited allowances.
This is how Myles Golde brings to life the Chicago he knows and loves in his debut novel, Albany Park, a love letter to the novel’s namesake, the Jewish and Polish neighborhood he grew up in. The novel covers the lives of Victor Wayne and Shirley Siegel, two Northwest Siders, from their teenage years in the mid-1940s through their adulthood into the early-2000s. Characters are shown in detail, described to the fullest extent so we know who each character is, what their hair looks like, how they dress, and how certain facial expressions show what they’re feeling.
The story takes place mostly in Chicago and Ft. Lauderdale, so we’re constantly seeing the differences between the two. When Shirley is an adult and she, her husband, and son move to Florida to a home described as “nothing like anything one would see in Chicago. The exterior is light cream stucco with pale wood trim and a red tile roof.” Some people don’t know Chicago well, but for those who do, he brings to life postwar-era Chicago in his descriptions of the cars (a light grey 1940 Ford Sedan is acquired by Victor’s father), the clothes (when collared shirts and pleated skirts were casual wear), and even the etiquette, such as the abhorrence of swearing. Victor’s brother Frank, a soldier discharged from the  war, manages to silence a room with the word “bullshit,” and then apologizes. “In the army, we cuss about everything... I’m really sorry.”
With all of the novel’s successes in character development, place and setting, there are issues lying within the structure, mainly in the transitions of point-of-view and tone. The book has a steady flow, making it a fast and swift read that never drags. With that said, in times of transition when the writing needs to be slowed down, the writing keeps going at a steady pace and gives us no time to settle into what’s happening. The novel begins with Victor’s point-of view the day of the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the end of World War II. It stays with Victor for four chapters, but once we get to chapter five, we are thrown into Shirley’s point-of-view for a split second, then tossed into that of her mother, Molly. In chapter 12 we begin with Shirley and her family perusing around the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus and Greek Street, most of the description focusing on Shirley and her interactions with her environment such as “a small wave” to one girl, or bending over to “adjust the cuff on her jeans,” but by the middle of the chapter, her future-husband Howie has taken over and we see him at the Green Mill Lounge, where he, “tossed his cigarettes on the bar and ordered a seven and seven.” The descriptions of physical appearance, setting and gesture stay constant, but the point-of-view switches can be harsh. The settings and characters show significant growth and change over the years. They wise up, learning from their experiences as they go along, keeping in mind their humble beginnings the whole time. Despite structure shifts, the novel achieves a nostalgic and loving portrayal of a Chicago that now can only be seen through photographs and heard through the telling of those who remember it.—Lisa Mrock

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing, $15.00) 
If you happen to be looking for a novel about eating disorders, here you will hit the jackpot with a family saga set in north suburban Chicago,
Grandmother Edie, a former lawyer who is much sharper than her pharmacist husband, is rapidly digging her own grave with a fork, piling through bags of chips, doughnuts, and exquisite meals of “plush pork buns” and “sticky brown noodles paired with sweet shrimp and glazed chicken” in her favorite Chinese restaurant.  She is diabetic and weighs over 300 pounds.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle, a pampered and groomed North Shore stay-at-home mother, is so appalled by Edie’s behavior that she subsists on a few crudité, hold the ranch dressing, and starves her family.  Is it any wonder that Rachelle’s thirteen-year-old daughter Emily and Edie’s own adult daughter Robin, “a former fat girl,” have no idea what to eat? The catalyst for most of the plot action in this novel is the decision of Richard, Edie’s husband of many years, to leave her.  He recognizes that he, too, is being dragged down by her death wish, and that it’s not too late for him to establish a new life.  His children, Benny and Robin, are not supportive of his choice, and for a time daughter-in-law Rachelle denies him access to Emily and her twin brother, who are about to be called to the Torah and whose party Rachelle is actively planning. The novel is satiric—yes, yes, North Shore bar/bat mitzvahs are an easy target—sometimes bitingly so. It is tight and deftly written, with well-drawn characters who are both realistic and absurd.  As the narrative moves forward inexorably to its dramatic finale, a reader sees clearly how the pathologies of one generation damage the next.
But when the American diet is so much in the news—it’s regrettable that this novel doesn’t leave the confines of the Middlestein family to make some sort of larger cultural statement.  For example, what does it say about a land of plenty when high numbers of its women and young girls are starving themselves?  What does it say about us as a society that binge eating is rampant?  Attenberg may have hoped that by honing in on one family—she could illuminate a larger picture—but the novel misses attaining that broader significance.  For the small sphere it delineates, however, it is spot-on.—Julie West Johnson

Published: October 12, 2013
Issue: November 2013 Issue