Assignment Pick

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Sometimes the better a book is declared to be, the harder it can be for me to get into it. Did the book win a prestigious award? Did it win all the awards? Is it the stuff of doctoral dissertations and first-year seminars? These are the books I will often struggle with, knowing all the time that I should love them. Love them. And usually, after laying them down time and time again, I eventually do fall in love with them, though sometimes begrudgingly. Meanwhile, give me a piece of pulpy entertainment, the kind of book with zombies on the cover, or flying saucers, or sexy women pointing pistols at something, and I will devour it down like it was hand-delivered straight from Domino’s.

               I realize this is a personal failing and that the fault lies with me. I blame it on a sugar addiction. (Another confession since we are all friends here: I also watch reality TV while still complaining, along with nearly everyone else, about its harmful effect on our failing civilization. "It will be the death of us all!" I'II say soberly, out with my friends—knowing good and damn well that as soon as I get home, I’m going to flip on Amazon and watch the first season of Temptation Island in its entirety.)

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Case in point: I recently picked up Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Middlesex, a multigenerational saga of an immigrant Greek family and the mutated gene coursing through it. I’ll admit I am somewhat late to the party. By the time I had a copy of it thrusted on me by a zealous friend super keen on me having it (“Will? Will, you have to read this. Oh my God!”), the novel was already well over a decade old, an award-winner, on too many top-ten lists to count, an Oprah book club pick and certified bestseller.

               The delay was only further magnified by me. First, by taking my copy and lovingly placing it on my bookshelf, where it stayed, unopened, for an embarrassing length of time. (I had to stop speaking to the friend who gave me the book after I finally couldn't take the constant Did you read it? Did you read it? questions, along with the inevitable disappointed glare when I admitted that I hadn’t—like getting an after-school dressing down from the exasperated elementary school teacher who knows there is more to you if you would just apply yourself.)

               And then, once I did pick it up, I got only a half chapter in before I put it down. Only to pick it up a few weeks later. Up and down. Up and down. I didn't like it. I just didn’t. I didn’t and didn't. And then one day, after 100 pages or so, I did. This is what I realized: It wasn't the book. It wasn’t too slow or too boring, and certainly not badly written. No, it was me. I had a prejudice against it. I would stand there, book in hand, thumbing the pages and thinking: too sprawling, too chaotic. Too weird.  What did I have in common, I bemoaned, with some Greek family in America after the turn of the century?

                Something finally clicked. The story of the family Stephanides: the siblings who fall in love; their escape from Turkish forces and the horrific sacking and burning of the city of Smyrna; their new life, raising children in Detroit during the height of Prohibition and the heyday of the auto industry—I found that I did relate. Their story is an American story—something that in today’s talk of walls and cages and whatever Tucker Carlson is tripping on on a nightly basis is well worth remembering. It is the story of World Wars and Great Depressions, the birth of a nation and the Nation of Islam—all from the viewpoint of one family’s immigrant eyes. It is a funny, thrilling, tragic read.

And finally there is Cal—our protagonist—first named Calliope due to a rare 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency that produced certain feminine characteristics, causing him to be raised first as a girl, then later as a boy. He is stuck between two worlds, two identities, male and female, immigrant and American-born. His struggle mirrors his family’s broader search to find belonging in this strange land, this equally sinful and sanctimonious, noble and notorious, tantalizing and terrifying country, where sometimes we can all feel like foreigners.

— WL

Assignment Pick

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto

A while back, I started getting these bad dreams where I would watch helplessly as my teeth tumbled from my mouth like loose coins. In these nightmares I would stand there in front of some fun-house mirror, staring in horror at my gaping mouth, my red gums.

What do I do, now? I would wonder. Do I go get dentures? I’m too young for dentures, aren’t I? Do I stop smiling? Stop talking? Start handing out cards with my name printed on them like an Ellen Jameson?

One of my biggest fears—besides going blind or getting hit by a bus while crossing the street because I’m bopping along to headphones and therefore not paying any attention—is losing my teeth. I am more scared of that than Cancer. Because my insurance covers cancer. I think. And I personally know someone who has spent nearly eighty grand to get that perfect smile.

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And it was with these thoughts and worries rattling me that I picked up Studs and Ida Terkel Prize-winning author Mary Ottor’s extensive exploration of America’s Dental System, Teeth.

In it, Ottor traces the long history of dental care in this country, why it isn’t grouped together with most health insurance plans, and the myriad hardships this creates. She takes us through infuriating tales of people suffering with tooth decay and loss and the ways bad dental care has affected their lives—more ways than perhaps you may have considered. A sobering look at how our system again lets many poor and working-class people down.

—WL

Assignment Pick

Heft by Liz Moore

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The first of two dueling narratives found in Liz Moore’s beautiful and poignant 2012 novel, Heft, is of Arthur Opp, a former English professor who after losing his job goes into a kind of self-imposed exile by becoming a recluse and walling himself inside his childhood home. The second story is of Kel Kellor, a rising star high-school athlete and son of a former student and longtime friend to Arthur Opp. 

               These two protagonists couldn’t be more different in age and appearance. Arthur Opp has gained so much weight, isolated as he is in his inherited Brooklyn home, that he now weighs over 500 pounds. A shy and aging and heartbreakingly lonely man who communicates with people by phone or text or the occasional letter, Arthur hasn’t ventured farther than his front porch in well over a decade. The only people he now regularly sees are the delivery drivers who bring him his groceries and takeout and whatever else he may need—all the while never letting them in the house and waiting until they have deposited their deliveries and left before he even opens his front door. Kel on the other hand is a wildly popular kid at his new school—a preppy private school—far from the small apartment in Yonkers he shares with his mom. He is the star of two sports. He has attracted the attention of one of the more beautiful girls at his school as well as the attention from a scout from his favorite baseball team. 

               However, once the novel progresses and the two stories start to intertwine we begin to see the similarities of both characters. Both are suffering with similar feelings of isolation and loneliness. Both suffer from grief and regret. Yet, they are not the only outsiders in the book. Indeed, the novel is filled with lonesome, yearning characters, each of them dealing with their own tales of sorrow. 

               Written in alternating chapters of simple, beautiful prose that is honest and clear, devoid of any ostentatious language that attempts to draw attention to itself, Moore lets her characters shine. She writes characters who feel real, characters readers will both grieve with and root for. It is, of course, a cliché to say that any book will leave you “in tears" or “sad to see it end.” Yet, I can’t help but repeat these worn expressions. I didn’t want this book to end and was saddened once it finally did reach its hard-earned conclusion.

—WL