The Books Briefing: How to Build a Family Legacy

Tracking how we got from there to here: Your weekly guide to the best in books

How is a family legacy built? Through novels or memoirs, authors puzzle together the myths and realities of their family history to help readers think through that question—and to process it for themselves.

Writing her novel, The Turner House, which traces the history of a family home over 50 years in the city of Detroit, helped Angela Flournoy learn more about the gutting transformation of the place where her father grew up. Janny Scott explores the life of her own father in her memoir, The Beneficiary, where she parses his many diaries to uncover the hidden details about who he was.

The title character in Juliet Grames’s novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, becomes the subject of her granddaughter’s exploration, which raises questions about who has the right to tell someone’s personal story. And in Strangers and Cousins, by Leah Hager Cohen, a series of rapid life changes, including the sale of their house, leads the members of a large family to reflect on their roots.

Questions that Mira Jacob’s son asked her about race and identity as a 6-year-old reminded her of similar conversations she had during her own upbringing, and inspired her to document these tricky discussions in her graphic memoir, Good Talk. The Social Life of DNA, by Alondra Nelson, also grapples with race by considering how ancestry tests can be used to recover valuable pieces of family history lost through enslavement.

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


Reconstructing the memories of aging matriarchs
“Though the characters’ attempts to piece together the stories of their elders read in part as a way of recognizing these forgetful and forgotten women, the process affirms the identities of the younger generations even more, by endowing them with a history—whether imagined or not—that can guide their present.”

📚 The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, by Juliet Grames
📚 Strangers and Cousins, by Leah Hager Cohen

(Mira Jacob / Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Illustrating the messy reality of life as an interracial family
Good Talk is a series of honest but not always conclusive conversations with various family members at different stages in [the author’s] life: as an insecure high schooler, an aspiring writer in New York, and a mother trying to figure things out as she goes.”

📚Good Talk, by Mira Jacob

(v.Gi / Shutterstock)

A daughter explores the dark secrets of a family legacy
“The mystery [Scott] probes is her father, entranced yet also trapped by his inheritance.”

📚 The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott

(New York Public Library)

Subverting the rule of ‘write what you know’
“Moving back and forth through a 50-year period, Flournoy portrays a family against the backdrop of a quickly changing city, asking how we got from there to here.”

📚 The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

(Associated Press)

How African Americans use DNA testing to connect with their past
“[Nelson] argues that DNA is more than a molecule that defines our identity; it also takes a social life beyond its influence within individual bodies.”

📚The Social Life of DNA, by Alondra Nelson

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Gabrielle: “I was wondering if you all have any book suggestions for stories about emotional vulnerability?”

The protagonist in Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, is challenged by her close friend to be less emotionally detached and open herself up to the idea of love. Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams explores the stigma and sense of shame that can come with displaying emotion, and interrogates how people choose or don’t choose to examine those feelings. Advice for how to embrace vulnerability can also come from unexpected sources: The author John Wray describes how a guide to surviving bear attacks helped him face his fears of being unqualified to write his novel Godsend.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

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