Monday, November 2, 2009

Cannonball Read #1: Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen

I picked up Sweet and Low from my roommate's bookshelf because it had an interesting cover, and I think I recognized the author's name, Rich Cohen. The cover and the back is illustrated like a comic book with each panel showing a highlight from Cohen's story. The "comic strip" – if read from left to right, up to down – seems a little disjointed, weaving personal family history in between general factoid-y facts, and it ends with a cartoon character Rich Cohen with a talk bubble that says, "To be disinherited is to be set free!"

The inside of the book very much reflects the spirit of the comic-cover in the sense that readers will not only get the family history behind Sweet N' Low, a substitute sweetener that can be found in just about any dine, but also a good knowledge of post-war Brooklyn, the history of sugar and saccharin, sugar's eventual usurper, and lots of politics. Cohen has taken a personal family history and tacked on facts, facts, facts. Though it complemented his narrative, the real interest (for me) lies in the family tension and the reasons for Cohen's mother's disinheritance from the Sweet N' Low fortune.

In the beginning, there was Ben Eisenstadt. Grandfather Ben (to Cohen) had The Eureka Moment while pouring sugar out of those canisters atop diner tables, and then followed that idea through by building a machine that stuffed sugar into little packets. After that idea was stolen by a company (he didn't get his plans patented), Ben came up with a sugar substitute by combining saccharin and cyclamate, stuffed it in a pink-colored package (because pink stood out) and sold them to diabetics at first, then later to people who just don't want to get fat. Sweet N' Low became a huge hit, and it created a market for something that people didn't know they wanted until they had the options.

Ben was married to Betty – who seems to have the most depressing childhood ever because Cohen tells us readers that she came away from it believing that love is finite and is never unconditional – and they had four children: Marvin (Uncle Marvelous who later ran Sweet N'Low's factory), Ira, Gladys, and Ellen - who is Cohen's mother. Throughout the book, Ellen seems to be portrayed as the black sheep of the family: as the daughter that moved from Brooklyn to Illinois, the daughter that had absolutely nothing to do with the factory or the business, the daughter that left her "real family" to be with her husband. Of course, this was also written by his son (who dedicated the book to her) and she was disinherited from Ben and Betty's wills.

I felt like Ben and Betty's problems with Ellen was the driving force in the story. After all, if Ellen had gotten a nice inheritance, Cohen would not be writing the book right now. Why she was included so little in Ben's will compared to her brothers and sister (who got property and the company, and hence, the fortune of the company), no one will ever know and Cohen does not really speculate. The real drama happens when Betty left Ellen absolutely nothing (not even a necklace) and the words on the will seemed to have an intent to hurt. The readers could guess that it's because Ellen had introduced Ben to the cardiologist who operated on him, and Ben eventually died (the family blamed the doctor, as well as Ellen); Cohen allowed speculations of his aunt Gladys manipulating her mother's will by whatever sort of coercion (Gladys oversaw her mother's medication and then the woman – Cohen made sure to let us know that he thought she was batshit insane – installed a fucking camera to her mother's bedroom just so she could watch her); and maybe it was because Ellen was a girl and the youngest, and to Betty, love was finite and love was never, ever without conditions.

I realized that I have written a lot, but I really only covered half of the book. The middle of the books dealt with the embezzlement scandal in Sweet N' Low and the indictments of two key employees, and also how closely connected the company was to Alfonse D'Amato (former senator of New York who is like a lightning rod for scandals) and the mafia. That was interesting, but I think I could have gotten those from reading loads of old newspaper clips and court documents. Cohen just helped us put all the pieces together in one place, and then tried to connect them with some family story or other.

I wish there had been more Gladys-Ellen-Betty drama included because I felt like nothing was really answered. Cohen had interviewed his Aunt Gladys for the Sweet N' Low history, but her voice seemed absent during the Ellen-got-disinherited-because-of-crazy-Gladys part of the book. Instead, he got the dialogue from depositions to highlight the hypocrisy and insanity of his aunt, yet he didn't ask her during their interview, "Hey Aunt Gladys, why did you say that about your sister if it wasn't true?"

But then again, writing your own family's history is difficult, and it may be even harder when everyone is so at odds with each other. While reading this book, I kept picturing my mother's family (they had an inheritance problem too, though it's really not at all similar to the Eisenstadt's) and I remembered that knowing all the back-and-forth between the family members did not answer any of my questions (this happened in my childhood.) If anything, it made me more confused about her family, about our place in her family, and what it meant for the future (Weddings? Funerals?) . So honestly, I have to give SERIOUS props to Rich Cohen for going to estranged family members who don't like his mother and interviewing them, and then coming out with such a well-written, humorous (he's very dry, like when he tried to illustrate Gladys' hold of reality by telling the readers that she always believed that OJ did not do it), and relatable book.

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