Between Them is a sweet remembrance of the author’s parents, who had him late in their marriage, after many years of driving all over the South, visiting his father’s clients. They were regular folks, so this is not a name-dropping memoir, and they loved each other and him, so no drama, although sometimes their bond seems so strong as to exclude all others, even their son.
The book is written in two parts, one about his father and the other about his mother, so there are repeats that may have been avoided but the book is short enough that it’s not a serious annoyance. It’s refreshing to read about normal people.
So this is the good book of the week: Priestdaddy, the unlikely memoir of the daughter of a Catholic priest (yes, it is possible to be a Catholic priest and be married and have children; read the book to discover the loophole). Be warned that it starts a little slowly, with the author and her husband reluctantly but gratefully moving back into the rectory where her parents live, after a ruinous health scare. And because it’s the rectory, there’s also an awkward seminarian living there, whom she likes to terrorize (it does not take much!) The story picks up speed — and old memories — and pretty soon we find ourselves swimming in stilted dinners with the bishop (helped along with some Mountain Vodka Dew), picketing abortion clinics as a young child, and perusing liturgical-supplies catalogs. It’s David Sedaris meets Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, sweet and hilarious and complicated like large families can be.
Before the War is a delightful comedy featuring a wonderfully self-centered and monstrous mother, a distracted father, an oddball daughter and her new husband, who must be wed and accepts so he can share in the wealth. What follows are lots of secrets about babies with doubtful pedigrees, which baffle most of the main characters to the very end. Well done, in a come-in-my-parlor style that manages to be cosy and cynical at the same time.
The Strays paints a brilliant picture of a willfully bohemian family that draws in the best friend of the middle sister, who is dazzled by the unlikely goings-on of artists, so different from her own poor and conventional family. Of course, not all is well in bohemia and the family (and the girls’ friendship) will eventually explode and destroy some of the players. The separate world of children and teenagers is perfectly captured. The part of the book that does not work is the present day musings of the main character, which read like a cheap novel with canned feelings. Fortunately it’s a small portion of the story.
In Rise: How a House Built a Family, a thrice-divorced mother of four somehow conceives that building a house (herself, with the help of her two teenage children) is a realistic goal and a good way to escape both schizophrenic husband #2 and memories of abusive husband #3. What follows is the incredible story of how she did it, starting with convincing a bank to lend money to a DIYer with no experience and continuing through injuries bad enough to take her to the emergency room (and, ironically, summon a counselor to probe for partner abuse), a fainting spell after she applies floor polish without a respirator, and disputes with various subcontractors selected for their low rates rather than their competence. And yes, in the end the house is finished. The story is certainly gripping and you will likely find yourself for the builder — but I kept wondering about the wisdom of the whole enterprise.
Commonwealth is the story of a complicated family that makes it way into a novel and eventually a movie, creating uncomfortable moments for the various family members who feel variously betrayed, forced to revisit awkward moments of the past, and exposed in ways they had never imagined they would be. The book within a book idea is clever, but the strength of the story is the imaginative, deeply felt family saga with complicated characters and relationships.
If you were disappointed by State of Wonder, as I was, give this one a try: it’s a keeper.
Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families is a brave book for daring to tackle the topic of color bias within families. Sadly, the book does not rise above a series of anecdotes and casual chats, which certainly give interesting insights on how family members treat those with different skin tones in a society that is hyper-conscious of color — but it’s very difficult to see any kind of strong pattern without a more detailed analysis.
The author quotes Far From The Tree multiple times, a book that focused on raising children very different from oneself. I would suggest reading Far From The Tree instead of this one.