This week I finished two books, The Woman at the Washington Zoo by Marjorie Williams (non-fiction, edited by Timothy Noah, copyright 2005) and The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (fiction, copyright 2012), selections that could not be more different from one another if I tried. (I did not.) I enjoyed them both and recommend them.
The author of the first book, Marjorie Williams, passed away in 2005 at the age of 47. In spite of knowing this sad outcome, The Woman at the Washington Zoo is not a morose or depressing book. The book compiles editorials, essays and profiles the author wrote about Washington, D.C. and the people she met and covered there. Some of the profiles and essays had previously been published in publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate, and Talk and some of her editorials appeared in the Washington Post. Even eight years later, every one is as sharp and witty as the day they were published. Time has not detracted from her work but enhanced it.
Williams writes about politics, personalities and egos; after her cancer diagnosis she wrote about her illness, the medical profession and facing her own premature death. She was a precise and detailed writer, an astute observer with great instincts and insights. The profile of Barbara Bush goes deeper than any other I had read. My favorite piece in the book, “The Halloween of My Dreams,” chronicles Williams helping her daughter get ready for a Halloween outing. It was her last column in the Post and she died two short months later. In June 2011, that column was later listed as one of the top 15 newspaper columns in American history by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
The second book, The Middlesteins, is about three generations of a Chicogoland Jewish family that is splintering apart. Edie and Richard Middlestein are parents of two children and grandparents to twins. Richard’s pharmacy is hanging on by a thread and he is completely kowtowed by his wife. Edie, a bright and ambitious attorney in earlier days, stays at home and is eating herself to death. Their high-strung, controlling daughter-in-law Rachelle is planning the twins’ b’nai mitzvah, their son Benny has started losing his hair, and daughter Robin–sullen, angry, single–with an unambitious boyfriend. The family tries to help Edie lose weight and prepare for necessary surgery, until Richard abruptly leaves Edie and asks for a divorce. Like a match tossed on a pile of old newspapers, this action sets things in motion as Attenberg (who grew up in Buffalo Grove) weaves back and forth to earlier generations and into the future, somehow making sense and telling a cohesive and compelling story. The last few chapters were especially rich as momentum gathers for the ending one can almost anticipate. Food plays a critical role in the story, Chinese food in particular, but it is the family dynamics that make this a universal book regardless of one’s religious or cultural background.