Good Minds Suggest: A.J. Jacobs' Favorite Literary Family Lines

Posted by Goodreads on October 30, 2017

NPR contributor A.J. Jacobs has written four New York Times bestsellers about his quixotic and occasionally outlandish quests, including his attempt to be super-healthy and his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Jacobs is perhaps best known for his book The Year of Living Biblically, which is being adapted into a CBS prime time series starting in January.

His new book, It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree, charts the amazing transformation of the modern family, including the impact of DNA tests, unorthodox arrangements, and the construction of a family tree (or forest, really) that will one day connect all 7 billion members of the human clan. He also explores his own ancestors, which include everyone from illegal pretzel vendors and Civil War soldiers to promoters of bogus hemorrhoid medicine and feminist pioneers.

"Of course, along with everyone else, I was influenced by Alex Haley's Roots," Jacobs says. "It established the ancestor-seeking genre and is still possibly its best example (even with its possible detail-fudging). But here are five others I loved."

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen
"Rich Cohen's book is a funny-sad Jewish soap opera about the dysfunctions of an immigrant family. Cohen's ancestor, like mine, escaped the old country under a pile of hay in an oxcart. Unlike my ancestor, this man's descendants went on to invent Sweet'N Low—the saccharine powder in the famous pink packet. What comes next is lots of money, lots of feuds, and lots of wonderful characters, including Cohen's aunt, whom he calls 'Lady Macbethstein, plotting and planning, not among the Scottish royals on the bluffs and moors, but among the Jewish proletariat.' I won't say the book is bittersweet, since so many other reviewers have already, but you get the idea."

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
"Ondaatje, who is most famous for his novel The English Patient, wrote this gorgeous memoir/travel book about his ancestry in Sri Lanka. It's a fascinating country, a puree of ethnicities. As Ondaatje writes, 'Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood.' Ondaatje's book covers the travails of the upper crust—like his grandfather's ill-fated croquet game that was interrupted by gunfire—as well as the struggles of the lower class. And Lordy, the writing is exquisite, such as this line: 'I saw the mosquito nets stranded in the air like the dresses of hanged brides, the skeletons of beds without their mattresses, and retreated from the room without ever turning my back on it.'"

Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm
"I was hooked after the first two pages. Just take a look at Helm's description of his complicated grandfather: 'One day, after settling into his recliner with his glass of Scotch, he exclaimed with a soulful sigh: "The godammned Japanese." He believed that you could never really understand the Japanese so you might as well give up trying. It was an odd sentiment since Dad was half-Japanese.' Helm's family—originally from England—set up a cargo business in Japan way back in the mid-1800s. Helms tells the story of what follows, a stunning tale of intermarriage, commerce, and prejudice."

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
"The author, who grew up in China and immigrated to England as a college student, returns to her homeland to research her past. The details of Chinese life are so vivid, they can be hard to read, such as the description of Chang's grandmother's foot-binding, which involved crushing her bones with a large stone. But it's worth it because Chang's is a beautiful and moving tale—and a scary warning about despotism. It makes you appreciate our democratic freedoms all the more, while we still have them."

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
"Our former president got something like a $422 billion advance for his upcoming memoir. And judging by his first book, it might be worth it. He's a wonderful writer. This book is about Obama's unusual upbringing—his Kenyan dad and his WASPy mom, his schooling in Indonesia. My favorite part is Obama's trip to research his family roots in Kenya, where his grandfather was a tribal chief and 'made laws for all to follow under great-trunked trees.' I don't know your politics, but I miss Obama like hell, and this just made me more wistful."

Want more book recommendations from authors? Check out our Good Minds Suggest series.

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message 1: by Rachael (new)

Rachael I look forward to reading It's All Relative. I greatly enjoyed The Year of Living Biblically and have The Know It All on my to-read list. The sooner we learn to see each other as family, however conflicted or distantly related, the sooner this crazy world will find peace.

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