Saturday, March 22, 2014

Patrick Allitt

Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. He was an undergraduate at Oxford in England, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. At Emory since 1988, he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, on Victorian Britain, and on the Great Books.

His new book is A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism.

Recently I asked Allitt about what he was reading. His reply:
All my own writing is non-fiction but I love to read fiction for pleasure. Mrs. Allitt and I, over the last thirty years, have read aloud to one-another almost every day. We’ve made our way through twenty or more of Anthony Trollope’s massive novels, everything by David Lodge, everything by Nick Hornby, and nearly everything by Ian McEwen, William Boyd, and many others.

Our most recent book has been Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, which is in equal degrees painful and delightful. Its central character, Edie Middlestein, is an intelligent Jewish lawyer with a serious weight problem. Alternate chapter headings throughout the book mark her increasing heft: “Edie, 56 pounds,” “Edie, 220 pounds,” “Edie 300 pounds,” and so on. In these chapters we see the world from her point of view. We learn that her husband, in his late fifties, has left her, that she is diabetic, that she’s had one serious operation and must soon have another, that she’s morbidly obese to a life-threatening degree, and that she sneaks off to McDonalds and to a new Chinese restaurant to gorge herself at every possible opportunity.

The other chapters are views of her situation from those around her: the angry daughter, the devoted son, the helicopter-parent daughter-in-law, this couple’s twins, the Chinese restaurant owner who loves to cook for Edie and has a crush on her, and the now-absent husband, who’s struggling to come to terms with the mid-life dating scene. There’s even a bravura chapter by eight people together, the four couples who are their long-time friends at the synagogue, cleverly written in the first-person plural. They give a satirical account of the twins’ b’nai mitzvah at a fancy hotel, and the half-suppressed battles they can see raging among the temporarily-reunited family members.

Is Edie actually going to eat herself to death? Who is supposed to do what on behalf of suffering family members? What are the rights and wrongs of leaving a disabled spouse who has made your life hell for several decades? Attenberg’s genius is to give everyone’s point of view equal weight. There are no heroes and no villains—as the reader you occupy each character’s shoes for a while and see how it all looks from his or her point of view, before moving on to the next one.

I can’t speak highly enough about this book—it seems to me an instant classic of American suburban life, managing to blend dazzling comedy with painful home truths on almost every page.
Learn more about A Climate of Crisis at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Conservatives.

--Marshal Zeringue