Each Unhappy Family Makes for a Great Read in its Own Way

Annabelle Gurwitch on families, fiction, and that special kind of crazy reserved for relatives.

When I’m writing a book, I immerse myself in reading on that subject. While compiling essays for Fired!: Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed, I worked my way through Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. While working on You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, I took on Laura Kipnis’ Against Love: A Polemic. And with I See You Made an Effort, I lifted Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck more than a few times from my shelf. The funny thing is, with my latest book, Wherever You Go, There They Are, I just reached over to the stack on my nightstand, because I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t lost in a book about one family or another.

Like many young girls, I desperately longed to be Scout Finch. The head of her household, Atticus Finch, was dedicated to large ideals and important causes, while my dad pursued lap dances and lost my Bat Mitzvah money at a poker table. I still love to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have found less idealistic clans just as engrossing.

One of my favorite dysfunctional family books is Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst. Full disclosure, I know Jeanne, but ever since the time I invited her over and she sat on my couch where, unbeknownst to me, the cat had peed, she’s never come back again—you just can’t get over that kind of thing. The observations of her itinerant family life, her father’s unrequited literary pretensions, along with her mother’s Zelda Fitzgerald-esque trajectory from social register status to sloppy alcoholic are flinty, laugh-out-loud funny and unsparing. Darst’s portrayal of herself is so elegantly self-effacing, it sets the bar high for any memoirist. Darst has a singular way of cutting through things in all of her writing even in signage. I ran into her at the Women’s March on Los Angeles carrying a poster board that read, Pussies against Assholes.

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It was her book that gave me the idea to investigate family mythologies. My working title of Wherever You Go, There They Are is “Fiction Saved My Family,” as my father’s fabulist tendencies helped us get through some hard times. Jeanne, if you’re reading this: come over, I got a new couch, and please write another book soon.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple.  Ok, full disclosure, Maria is also an acquaintance but she’s never been to my home and I’d like to keep it that way.  I treasure her books and don’t want to inadvertently find out anything about the writing of them or who they are based on that might in any way change my relationship with her fictions. Trigger alert to my vegan friends: If I’m going to eat a steak, I don’t want to know its name, what the cow ate, or how it spent its days.

Today begins with that now familiar scorching Semple social commentary and conflicted female character just trying to make it through one day. I was prepared for a remarkable read set in the now familiar-as-conjured-by-Semple cultural landscape of Seattle when she abruptly shifts from the present and dives into the relationship of the central character, Eleanor Flood and her sister, Ivy.  She burrows into dark uncomfortable places. Her devastating portrayal of the ferociously volatile but deep bond between sisters in a fractured family reminded of my relationship with my older sister, who was a stand-in for our depressed mother. I sent my sister a copy and I recommend that this book be purchased in pairs because you’ll feel compelled to share it.

The Settlement Cook Book by Mrs. Simon Kander and Mrs. Henry Schoenfeld. Really, you say, is this a book about families? Yes. My grandmother gave me this book, and it is a reliable, fascinating, and inadvertently hilarious read written in 1903 by a Mrs. Simon Kander (her given name appears nowhere in the book). My copy happens to be the 23rd edition, leading me to wonder what the first edition is? A guide to ritual goat slaughter written in cuneiform?

Chapters include jellied salads, a compendium of jello molds, and a series of handy holiday menus for Washington’s Birthday Luncheons—there’s so much call for that these days. Mrs. Kander advises that food that you are transporting can be kept cold by wrapping items in layers of cold wet towels and then in many thicknesses of paper. This sentence explained the mystery of the care packages that my grandmother sent from Atlanta to my dorm room at NYU. Her trademark stuffed cabbage and sweet and sour meatballs arrived, wrapped in tin foil, then in wax paper, then foil again, then in towels. As you can imagine, I was extremely popular with NYU’s Weinstein Dormitory desk staff.

As a historical read on the early motivation behind the feminist movement, consider the chapter on family outings. For a picnic, the wife is expected to build a campfire, skin, clean and joint a rabbit, place it in kettle and boil, then pan fry. Directions are included for skinning squirrel as well. I imagine you were to (cheerfully) perform these tasks while your family swam in a lake, tramped through the woods, or dozed in a hammock that you hand-wove on your portable loom that same morning. The book paints a portrait of family life that will make you question, if you haven’t already, the notion of the phrase, “the good old days.”

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I turned to Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger on more than one occasion. This slim but powerful book has much to teach us about our innate need for community. Junger argues that bonds in chosen families can be as meaningful as with blood relations. Before reading Tribe, I was unaware that a number of early American settlers who found themselves enmeshed in Native American society, some through kidnapping, declined to return to “civilization” when given the opportunity. The close quarters living and distribution of responsibilities built self-esteem and a sense of belonging, amongst other values included in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that went unfulfilled in the solitary pioneer existence.

Junger sees contemporary living, marked by long hours spent alone—something unheard of in the ancient world unless something had gone terribly wrong—as the source of numerous modern woes including depression and suicide. He persuasively portrays the vacuum in which members of the service find themselves upon returning to normal life after being a valued part of the military family. I related to this book, having thrown in my lot with the show business family. Comedian Bill Maher and I acted in a film in which the budget was so low that we shared a dressing room. We worked such long hours that we sometimes took naps sleeping end to end on our one tiny cot. That was twenty-five years ago, and we are still friends, which is absolutely nothing like fighting in the trenches, but an enduring bond, nonetheless.

Historian and anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is about the craziest crazy family of all, the family of man. I often refer to myself as a C-minus science student and I have no aptitude for anything involving numbers or math, but I love a good story and he’s got the most epic one imaginable. In this highly entertaining book, Harari expands our knowledge about those relatives of ours that we’d prefer not to claim as our own—and our own human nature as well.

Harari draws upon recent research that indicates that Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals co-existed and were not much different from us. Neanderthals had the capacity to hunt together, craft adornments, and participate in ritualized behaviors, just like us.  Our future paths diverged when early Homo Sapiens developed the brain capacity to create myths, to believe in things unseen, which allowed them to organize around principles. In the past, we assumed that the Neanderthals died out from diseases or the lack of good diet, but it appears that the nicks on the skulls of these ancestors came from blows delivered by Homo Sapiens. We’re essentially violent creatures. Yay, us.

Since I read Sapiens, I’ve marveled at our ability to band together to form even as imperfect a world as we live in now and the book made me feel a lot better about the time my sister and I found ourselves pummeling each other as we divided up our mother’s collection of sterling silver ice tea straws.  Yep—yay, us.

I love David Sedaris as much as everyone, but I am always looking for other writers outside of the one person who comes to mind when one thinks of spinning comical family yarns. Bonnie McFarlane’s memoir You’re Better Than Me surprised me. Anyone who has seen her perform knows her timing is great—she was featured on the TV series “Last Comic Standing”—but her writing is winning as well. Her hippie parents raised her in a shack on a farm in the frozen tundra of Saskatchewan where everything was homemade, only it wasn’t considered artisanal and fashionable, they were just poor. She and her siblings slept in a basement with mice, worked the farm, and had no running water in their house. Showers were rare, new clothes unheard of, restaurants beyond the reach of the family budget. Through all of that, I have to admit, it sounded like fun—kind of a hostage situation—but also fun. I wonder if being a member of that family might have made it much easier to deal with challenges of a career in comedy. Not getting the biggest laugh at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Hut on a Tuesday at midnight must pale in comparison to the day your parents announced it’s time to eat your pet chicken. 

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I am probably the last person I know to have read The Nest, Cynthia Sweeney’s deliciously redemptive tale of siblings squabbling over a shared inheritance. Because I inherited a piece of an island with four other relatives, I was immediately sucked into the narrative, but one of Sweeney’s great achievements in this novel is that the resolution as to the division of the nest (egg) isn’t a complete surprise. It’s the circuitous route the characters take toward—dare I say without sounding cliché—maturity and wisdom that keep the reader engaged. 

I was particularly struck by the way the Plumb siblings gauge their passage through the world in relation to each other, something I suspect many of us do, as the measuring stick of the sibling is often misleading but seductive. I found myself not only riveted by the book but pondering that most bewildering of mysteries in the random universe: the accident of birth that plops us into the family that becomes our framework for seeing the world.


Featured image: Zoya Kriminskaya/Shutterstock.com

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and the author of the forthcoming essay collection Wherever You Go, There They Are; I See You Made an Effort (a New York Times bestseller and Thurber Prize finalist); You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up (coauthored with Jeff Kahn), and Fired! (which was also a Showtime Comedy Special). Gurwitch gained a loyal following during her stint cohosting Dinner and a Movie on TBS and years as a regular commentator on NPR. She’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter. Gurwitch was the new anchor on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News and hosted WA$TED on Planet Green network. Her acting credits include Seinfeld, Boston Legal, Dexter, and Melvin Goes to Dinner. A veteran of many lauded and even more misguided theatrical productions, she regularly performs at arts centers around the country. Gurwitch is a Jewish mother, a reluctant atheist, and an ardent environmentalist. She is empty-nesting in Los Angeles.

About ANNABELLE GURWITCH

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and the author of the forthcoming essay collection Wherever You Go, There They Are; I See You Made an Effort (a New York Times bestseller and Thurber Prize finalist); You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up (coauthored with Jeff Kahn), and Fired! (which was also a Showtime Comedy Special). Gurwitch gained a loyal following during her stint cohosting Dinner and a Movie on TBS and years as a regular commentator on NPR. She’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter. Gurwitch was the new anchor on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News and hosted WA$TED on Planet Green network. Her acting credits include Seinfeld, Boston Legal, Dexter, and Melvin Goes to Dinner. A veteran of many lauded and even more misguided theatrical productions, she regularly performs at arts centers around the country. Gurwitch is a Jewish mother, a reluctant atheist, and an ardent environmentalist. She is empty-nesting in Los Angeles.

  • Oh my gosh – dysfunctional family memoirs are the best! I loved Fiction Ruined My Family years ago when I read it and still recommend it often. I’ll have to try Bonnie McFarlane.

    Another one I loved is Still Points North by Leigh Newman.

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