Families: Fiction & Memoir

by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

“Families are like fudge — mostly sweet with a few nuts.” — author unknown
The Gift of the Magi

As the holiday season draws near, many of us make plans to get together with our families, have a festive meal, catch up on news and exchange presents. The latter might not be essential, but we sure give it a lot of thought — and a lot of money. In fact, buying a present can be an act of sacrifice, as it is in O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” (originally published in 1906). This short story, a must-read for everybody who wants to get in the holiday spirit, is now available at your library as a graphic novel, too. Whether you want to refresh your memory of the classic tale or read it for the first time, check out “O. Henry’s the Gift of the Magi” by artist Joel Priddy (HarperCollins, 2009) and enjoy his contemporary rendition.

Another notable rendition of an old tale is a story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother — not Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” but David Guterson’s “Ed King” (Alfred Knopf, 2011). Guterson uses the old plot to create a world in which the Greek classic intersects the 21st century. The result is more comedy than tragedy, and its author’s ironic edge will keep readers hooked, even if they don’t sympathize with the characters.

The Family Fang

As we all know, not every family is as sweet as O. Henry’s Della and James. “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson (Ecco, 2011) chronicles the dysfunctional family of Caleb and Camille Fang, performance artists known for their ostentatious acts. Their two children, Annie and Buster, also have taken part in their parents’ performances. As they mature, the children make unsuccessful attempts to break away from their parents — until Caleb and Camille disappear. Is it a stunt or a tragic accident? Even Annie and Buster can’t say for sure. Filled with humor and melancholy, this novel about art and family is guaranteed to arouse readers’ interest. A movie version has been optioned by Nicole Kidman’s production company, with plans for her to star.

Twisted and broken family bonds also are the subject of Hillary Jordan’s meditation on the fallen South in “Mudbound” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). Jordan sets her narrative in the rural Mississippi Delta in the immediate post-World War II period. Laura, a former schoolteacher, marries late in life and moves to a rough Delta farm without electricity, indoor plumbing or medical care for her children. Worst of all, she has to live with her racist, misogynistic father-in-law. Catastrophe is inevitable when two World War II veterans — Laura’s brother-in-law, Jami, and the son of the farm’s black tenants, Ronsel — arrive at the farm, both battling nightmares and both unable to live according to the racist rules of their home state. Jordan’s story, written from the point of view of six narrators, will reverberate for its readers long after they put the book down.

The Magnificent Medills

Now let’s talk about real people and real families. “The Magnificent Medills” by Megan McKinney (HarperCollins, 2011) is a sweeping saga of the first American media dynasty, the Medills of Chicago. Among its vibrant characters are Joseph Medill, founder and owner of the Chicago Tribune; his grandson, legendary publisher Col. Robert McCormick; Joseph Patterson, founder of the New York Daily News; and Patterson’s daughter Alicia, founder of Newsday. A colorful collective biography, McKinney’s book gives an overview of the rapid evolution of the American newspaper industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also offers bits of journalistic lore — from Patterson’s invention of the sex-and-sleaze tabloid formula to circulation wars in which rival Chicago papers hired gangsters to gun down each other’s vendors.

My Long Trip Home” by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is a story of the unhappy interracial family of Syl Whitaker, a grandson of slaves who became a prominent African studies scholar, and Jeanne Theis, a white refugee from France whose father helped rescue Jews during World War II. Their marriage, complicated by Syl’s infidelity and alcoholism, lasted for six years and ended in a bitter divorce and depression as Jeanne raised her two sons alone. Young Mark struggled to forgive his father’s absence, and it took him a long time to understand and make peace with the complicated man. Whitaker’s memoir is a moving history of family relations and racial identity.

The Sugar Barons

The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies” (Walker and Co., 2011) by Matthew Parker traces the social, political and economic history of the sugar trade in the British West Indies. The book tells stories of several family dynasties that ran vast sugar plantations with an iron fist from 1630 to 1830 — first with indentured whites and then enslaved blacks. Parker reveals the luxury and indulgent lifestyle of the planters, the appalling conditions of their workers, disease, race relations, slave rebellions and rivalry. Sprawling, harsh and complicated, this book will satisfy any history buff.

For something without a bitter aftertaste, check out “Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories From the Chef Boyardee Family” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Anna Boiardi, the granddaughter and great-niece of the company’s founders. While the name Chef Boyardee might bring images of canned ravioli and Beef-a-roni to readers’ minds, the recipes Boiardi includes here are authentic Italian comfort food: from antipasti and pasta to seafood, poultry, meats and desserts. The book is generously peppered with colorful photos and reminiscences of the culinary traditions of a family dynasty, and it provides just the right balance of nostalgia and home-style Italian recipes. Buon appetito, and happy holidays to you all!

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