In a picture-perfect suburb that resists any change, a war is brewing against those who dare to transform the historical, small houses with mansions. Neighbors plot against neighbors while their neglected children suffer intractable headaches, skip school, and generally wonder what the adults are up to.
If you enjoy reading about the (mild) angst of midlife affluent white folks, this book is for you. Despite dozens of chopped-down trees, a fire, and a kidnapping, I felt I could have taken a nap and missed nothing.
I’ve lost count of how many memoirs Dani Shapiro has written, but I know it’s a terrifying number already (and I liked some, not all). Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love is the sign of things to come, I imagine, as it springs from her chance encounter with an unexpected first cousin after she had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.
Her father is not her biological father, and although she quickly identifies who is, she needs to know how it all happened (very decorously, by the way, following the now strange logic of early artificial insemination programs). She takes us with her as she navigates websites, her crumbling relationship with the woman she thought was her half-sister, her tentative contacts with her biological family and, very deliciously and kindly, the loving support she gets from her husband and son. (Her teenage son provides the most hilarious moment in the book, when he happily surmises that his new grandfather may well give him the gift of a full head of hair!)
A great reminder that family secrets can cause a lot of pain, even when the outcome is pretty good, as it is here.
Unsheltered presents twin stories of two struggling families, in different centuries, living in the same house, or so they think, in what was created as a utopian subdivision (but probably “utopian” mostly for the pockets of the developers). The contemporary family suffers from multiple ills, from the lack of good academic jobs to an ailing grandfather and the sudden death of a young mother, and the story is well told, but still strange in parts. Why would loving parents, even distracted by a job loss, not ask their young adult daughter why she returned abruptly from a year abroad? Why would they not at least guess about her predicament? And why would a young father, even distraught, casually abandon his baby to his parents? There are no good answers in the story.
The other story is of a fascinating woman who pursued a learned correspondence with Darwin (of On the Origins of the Species fame), and clearly the book was crafted to highlight that story. I kept finding that the handoffs between the two stories felt a little overdone, so the book did not quite come together as it could have.
If you go looking for your ancestors, you may find a racist grandmother, a corrupt banker great-grandfather that helped create an economic meltdown, another great-grandfather who was the bastard son of a miner and who hitched his star to that of his employer — but perhaps not the Jewish great-grandfather from your family’s legend, as the author of Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging discovered. She undertakes research on three continents to accomplish her search, and surprises herself when she finds that knowledge of the local language and customs is pretty much required for success (duh!). The third part of the book, when she delves into DNA analysis, is more predictable and was, to me, less interesting.
The Bible of Dirty Jokes is hilarious! Don’t make the title scare you–although it may not be the best book to read on public transportation, if you know what I mean. It stars a recent widow (whose now deceased husband was compiling a book of dirty jokes) who goes searching for her brother in Las Vegas, helped by a long-time friend, and not helped at all by her brother’s spendthrift wife. Along the way, she uncovers a child pornography ring, her family’s mobster ties, and unsettling truth about her dead husband. It’s fast, entertaining, and at times surprisingly sweet and deeply felt. The most risqué dirty joke is very mild, if you are worried about that.
Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip is a pleasant romp through the golden age of family road trips in American, from the time families were able to afford cars through the advent of cheap airline tickets. Along the way, the author points out the creation of family-friendly hotels and restaurants, the possibilities afforded by the intersection of cavernous cars, no seat belts, and annoying siblings — as well as the tyranny of the driver, often only one, dad. It’s all good family fun, of course.
My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South is a messy book, perhaps proving that, much like physicians should not treat family members, journalists should not write about their families. But the story is stunning, even if the exposition is convoluted.
The author’s brother went to prison for a senseless act of murder, and several other family members did time as well, whereas he did well for himself. Many reviews of the book present it as a story of racism, which it is, but it’s much deeper than that. The most interesting character in it may be the mother (of the author and the disgraced brother), who cares for all her many children (and many non-children to boot), regardless of their position in the world. I feel for her most.