The Books Briefing: How to Tell the Story of a Family

Feuding brothers, possessive aunts, and honest discussions: Your weekly guide to the best in books

photograph of a family
Bettmann/Getty

The poet Marianne Moore had a deeply close—perhaps too close—relationship with her mother, Mary. This idiosyncratic bond intrigued Moore’s contemporaries and her biographer Linda Leavell, who trains her eye on it in Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore. As Leavell writes, the poet’s mother could be cruel (she made marriage impossible for her daughter and even poisoned her cat), but she was also a unique mental match for Moore, serving as a confidante and an attentive editor.

Family relationships are often hard to grasp for those who are not a part of them. Memoirists can offer a glimpse into these normally hidden dynamics. Janny Scott, a reporter who has investigated family secrets, focuses on her own father’s past in The Beneficiary. In The Mighty Franks, the author Michael Frank writes about his relationship with his aunt—one that veered from devotion to possessiveness. The writer Mira Jacob takes a deceptively simple approach in her graphic memoir about life in an interracial family, sharing conversations she’s had about race with different family members. Rather than promise any solutions, Jacob instead directly—and often uncomfortably—depicts the messy confusion of these discussions.

Fiction can also offer meaningful family insights. In his debut novel, The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma revisits the classic Bible story about feuding brothers Cain and Abel, setting it in 1990s Nigeria. He blurs the line between fact and fable to tell a morally complex story about four brothers, a dreadful prophecy, and fratricide.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

illustration
OLIVER BARRETT

“Mon dieu, what a mother!”
“The symbiosis of Mary and Marianne Moore created its own melodies, and it’s hardly imaginable that Moore’s poems would have sounded the same—as wonderfully original—without it.”

📚 Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, by Linda Leavell

The Beneficiary
RIVERHEAD

A gilded cage
“[Janny Scott’s] father, having promised Scott in her 20s that she would inherit his many diaries, made her hunt long and hard for them after his death in 2005. The bequest was brilliant: A man in unhappy thrall to a place lured his daughter further and further in—and she escaped with priceless insight into its, and his, hidden depths.”

📚 The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott

The Mighty Franks
FSG

A primal and eccentric family drama
“[Michael] Frank brings Proustian acuity and razor-sharp prose to family dramas as primal, and eccentrically insular, as they come.”

📚 The Mighty Franks, by Michael Frank

illustration from Mira Jacob's memoir
MIRA JACOB / COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Illustrating the messy reality of life in an interracial family
“We have moments of tremendous love, and we have tremendous dissonance. We have moments when we get each other, and moments when we’ve really failed each other. That’s what that love looks like. It’s complicated and it is real.”

📚 Good Talk, by Mira Jacob

Chigozie Obioma
ZACH MUELLER

Cain and Abel, without the moral clarity
“[Chigozie] Obioma does more than transplant a familiar biblical story to 1990s Nigeria. He also does away with its moral clarity, along with any clear sense of justice, responsibility, and blame.”

📚 The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

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