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Sweet and Low: A Family Story Paperback – March 20, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Sweet and Low by Richard Cohen bills itself as "the unauthorized true story of one Brooklyn family." And what a family. Cohen, the disinherited grandson of the artificial sweetener Sweet 'n' Low's inventor, combines two parts Horatio Alger-memoir, one part cultural commentary and three parts personal criticism into a fascinating snapshot of American life, immigrant experience and a broad sermon on the perils of fortune. Cohen's maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, a mid-grade inventor and Brooklyn restaurateur concocts the idea of selling sugar in individual packets--a revolutionary concept in the age of crusty, unsanitary sugar dispensers. His idea stolen by the big sugar companies, Cohen squeaks out a post-war living selling his packets in their shadow until he and his son, Marvin, invent the formula for the saccharine sweetener and catch the first big wave of the American diet craze. Those little pink packets create a vast fortune soon tarnished by interfamily squabbles, Mafia influence, FDA edicts and, mostly, the baser aspects of human nature--greed, jealousy and pride. Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, among other publications, weaves a compelling and often biting narrative about his mother's family. Using those pink packets as metaphor, he paints a dystopic portrait of the American Dream, that, in his family's case, was as devoid of nourishment as any artificial sweetener.--Jeremy Pugh --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Disinherited from the family fortune built by his maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, who invented the artificial sweetener Sweet'N Low, Cohen mines a wealth of family history in this funny, angry, digressive memoir. Ben worked as a short-order cook during the Depression and conceived of but failed to patent the sugar packet before he and his son Marvin hit pay dirt in the 1950s with the saccharin formula for Sweet'N Low. Today a distant third to Equal and Splenda, Sweet'N Low is run by Marvin's son Jeff, who took over after Marvin and several other chief officers were charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy in 1993. This story of the family-owned, Brooklyn-based company is, at its heart, a tale of immigrant strife and Cohen's fractious Jewish clan, including his grandmother Betty, for whom "love is finite," and his hypochondriac, housebound Aunt Gladys ("a tongue probing a sore"), who connived to eliminate her sister (Cohen's mother) from Betty's will. Though Cohen often dollies back in a self-conscious if breezy effort to pad his memoir with big ideas—the history of artificial sweeteners, the post-WWII weight-watching craze, etc.—the real grace of his writing (seen in Tough Jews) lies in the merciless, comic characterizations of his relatives. Photos. (Apr. 11)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (March 20, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312426011
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312426019
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #225,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Zeke Wagner on May 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book is large. In it, the writer, Rich Cohen, disinherited from the vast sweet n low fortune, comes to see the history of his family, and the history of our time, in the little white granules that sweeten our coffee, but leave a bitter aftertaste. It is told with panache and humor, and also with a great deal of compassion, even toward those who did his side of the family wrong. It is an American story as old as the west, or as old as the Great Gatsby. It is the story of the American dream, and what happens when that dream comes true. It is a be careful what you wish for story, or, as my grandmother used to say, "We were happier when we were poor."
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By MountainEcho on May 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
What a great read! You almost can't put it down long enough to think, "What if my grandparents had a hundred million dollars and left me nothing?" But that's just as well, because by the end of the book, you know exactly how that kind of thing turns out.

The fulcrum of the story--both in terms of the dynamics of the family and also as their most neatly distilled image--is Aunt Gladys, who lives reclusively in her frigid brooklyn bedroom (she keeps it at meat locker temperatures) and, though partially crippled, still waits on her emotionally withholding mother; amid Cohen's delightfully comedic descriptions, Gladys is a ghoul who wanders in off the heath: Gladys, who ties up and strikes her own mother; Gladys, who in her frigid inner-sanctum has recreated the conditions of the womb that bore her.

Gladys and her mom are worth many tens of millions of dollars, but, as the saying goes, there are something things that money just can't buy.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the scandal that the Sweet & Low company got caught up in. Cohen shows that money is just as corrosive to the brain as it is to the soul, as he chronicles how his uncle "Marvelous" Marvin Eisenstadt brought an organized crime figure into the business, was raided by the FBI, and nearly lost the whole kitty.

Cohen writes that the one benefit he has derived from being disinherited is the ability to write this book (and it is a great story), but his real fortune is in having been delivered from the influence of these people at an early age, and thus, having been given the ability to lead a happy and normal life.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on April 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Rich Cohen's new book "Sweet and Low" is a breezy and fun-filled romp through the broken fragments of a family that has more ditzy characters than an offbeat novel. The author states on the back cover, "to be disinherited is to be set free" and in his liberation the readers of his book have much about which to cheer. Cohen is wickedly humorous and spares no one and no detail. He gives "dysfunction" a new name.

Ostensibly a story about the discovery of the first widely used sugar substitute, the Cumberland Packing Corporation which packages it and the company's successes and failures, "Sweet and Low" is really about the men and women in the Eisenstadt/Cohen family and what life was like under the surface. Patriarch Benjamin Eisenstadt, the hard luck/good luck founder of the company is the rock that holds the family together. Beyond that, look out. There's the agoraphobic, housebound Aunt Gladys, Uncle ("marvelous") Marvin, the eternal man-child son of Ben, vitriolic grandma Betty and suicidal great-grandma, Bubba. Reading "Sweet and Low" is like watching a tv variety show without the tv. Yet it is author Cohen who really puts everything in perspective. What makes this book so enjoyable is the writing and it is, indeed, very good. Cohen has a way of not only grabbing the reader's attention, but holding it, then guiding it through the twists and turns of his family's "behavior". It is a tour de force. While the author allows himself some bitter feelings (perhaps more wistful, had everyone gotten along) he nonetheless has some nice things to say. His ability to stick the knife in cleanly is balanced by a notion that while people may have bad attributes they aren't necessarily bad people.

"Sweet and Low" could have been just a kiss-and-tell book about a family gone awry. It's much better than that and it's due to Rich Cohen and his marvelous way of telling the family story. I loved "Sweet and Low" and encourage readers to purchase a copy and enjoy it.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By B Davis on May 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Almost every decade a work is published that rivits our eyes to its pages and feeds an urge for more. Such a book is "SWEET AND LOW" by Rich Cohen. What makes it so appealing is that at its core is the nucleor Eisenstadt family.

The titular head is Benjamin Eisenstadt who gave us the sugar substitute SWEET N' LOW. The real power in this matriarchy, however is his wife Betty who believed that love is a scarce commodity that could be depleted and so should be doled out sparingly.

Author Cohen has taken hard facts (uncovered through research and interviews) and made them come alive, giving us memorable portraits of Ben and Betty's children: the reclusive yet controlling Aunt Gladys, Unknowing Uncle Marvelous, morally constipated Uncle Ira and finally his caring and naive mother Ellen, who is an easy mark for her greedy siblings.

After Ben died, his wife inexplicably changed their will disinheriting Ellen and her issue, one of whom is Rich Cohen. Ah ha! This should explain the author's motive, but surprisingly his prose is even handed, objective and supported by concrete evidence.

Above all, "SWEET AND LOW" ia a ripping read that is not only funny, but provocative. At the end you find yourself wanting more -- especially the answers to these questions:

1. Why was Rich's Mom and her children "really" disenherited?

2. Why did Uncle Marvelous compared to Martha Stewart and Leona Helsley, get off so lightly?

3. What else did the author find out that he left out or was edited from the book (page 12, "No, no. It's fine. He's not asking about that.")?

Having listened to Mr. Cohen on NPR bemoan the loss of his extended family and re-reading the end of this book, I believe there's more to be told. So perhaps he can give us "the rest of the story" with a sequel, "SWEET AND LOW - PART II."

Very highly recommended.
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