Fat-camp memoir is light without losing its weight

As an obese tween attending weight-loss camp, Stephanie Klein looked forward to Shabbat — it was a chance to steal away to temple and get some extra carbs from the challah. When not gorging on the Jewish holidays, she was dieting — she fasted on Yom Kippur, not for religious reasons, but because she was “so fat.”

Klein, a successful blogger, relays these amusing anecdotes and hundreds more in her most recent literary endeavor, “Moose,” which was published in late May. The memoir shows Klein bonding with the “skinnier fat girls,” eating every meal with chopsticks so as to savor morsels (including slippery tofu) and developing crushes on slightly overweight boys.

Overweight or not, anyone who went to summer camp can relate. Reading “Moose” is an all-American summer experience.

Playing the role of the relatable woman is nothing new for Klein. Her blog, Greek Tragedy, has seen an onslaught of hits and comments since its 2004 inception. Fans have followed Klein through bad dates and social missteps as she transitioned from a hip New York divorcée to a remarried Texan caring for twin toddlers.

A few years back, when Klein became pregnant with the twins, her doctor informed the svelte writer (yes, times had changed) that she must gain 50 pounds in order to have a healthy pregnancy. Klein describes this traumatizing conversation in the intro to “Moose” as a way to impress upon the reader the lasting effects of childhood obesity.

As Klein writes in “Moose,” eating was always an important issue in her household. Born to a caring-but-clueless Jewish father and extremely self-conscious Puerto Rican and Greek mother, Klein learned to deal with body anxiety and boredom by opening the fridge. Klein proves to have the stomach and the ear for food, describing food and hunger in deliciously dead-on terms.

“Mom stuffed cherry tomatoes with crabmeat, but religiously, for the Jews, she set out a crystal bowl lumped with chopped liver and flanked it with Carr’s Table Water Crackers,” Klein writes.

“Moose” follows an 8-year-old Klein as she attends basement meetings with a nutritionist and a roomful of middle-aged, overweight Jewish women. At Fran the nutritionist’s house, Klein learns tricks to lose weight.

“Upturn your plate and let the cake flop out into your garbage. Let the frosting stick to all those garlic skins, onion peels and carrot shavings,” Fran says.

Despite losing nearly a dress size after a few meetings, she gets shot down by her father. “Yeah well I wouldn’t get too excited — you’ve still got a long way to go,” he says.

No chapter better explains Klein’s thorny relationship with her father than the one about the origin of her dreaded childhood nickname. After being taunted at school and dubbed Moose for the first time, Klein rushes home crying, seeking solace from her father. He laughs it off.

In “Moose,” Klein is sent to weight-loss camp at the fictional Camp Yanisin. In reality, Klein spent five summers at Camp Shane, a weight-loss camp in the Catskill Mountains. The book is a composite of those summers, but Klein assures readers that she’s not doing for obesity what James Frey did for drugs — all of the events happened.

In describing what took place at summer camp, Klein inevitably turns to her food issues at home. She drops gems about a close relative referring to underarm fat as the Hadassah Wave, her aunt beating her mercilessly for calling her a “pig” and her uneasy mother cooking to impress her Jewish mother-in-law.

Throughout the memoir Klein looks at how family and background can affect eating habits. “My upbringing didn’t make me fat, it played a part in shaping my priorities,” she writes. “Poppa thought he was doing me a favor by telling me no man would want me if I was fat.” Despite these stories, Klein insists she always knew she was “fiercely loved” by both parents.

Klein’s quippy style is amusing because it’s honest, though it can sometimes read like a blog. Brief embarrassing tales are mixed with dry wit, but that’s what is ultimately appealing about the book — while light in tone, the content is quite heavy.

“Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp” by Stephanie Klein (320 pages, William Morrow, $24.95)

Stephanie Klein will appear at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco at 2 p.m., July 20.