Friday, September 28, 2012

Am I My Brother's Keeper?: Books about Family

The Western literary canon is full of heartwarming family tales: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Great Expectations, Flowers in the Attic. I could go on. Tolstoy was clearly onto something when he noted that happy families don't sell copy.*

If compulsive sharing in the age of Facebook, Dr. Phil, and Twitter has inured you to the beauty of well-told family saga, then I recommend three novels: East of Eden, Kristin Lavransdatter and Nobody's Fool. Each is guaranteed to remind you of why we were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and why we then promptly began murdering our family members. 

1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
East of Eden is very much rooted in the Cain and Abel story. It follows two generations of brothers (Adam and Charles; Cal and Aron) in Connecticut and California. The book has been criticized for being heavy handed in its symbolism and too much invested in achieving 'great American novel' status.
Fair enough. The C and A names do rather bludgeon the Cain and Abel parallel home, and East of Eden does have its 'look at me! I am a beautiful writer!' moments.
However, East of Eden is also the work in which Steinbeck created his most fully developed characters and convincingly explored his real interests: the impossibility of absolute knowledge, the irrationality of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence.

2. Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (Tina Nunnally, trans.)**
Kristin Lavransdatter is set in fourteenth century Norway. Kristin is a passionate and independent young woman who defies her parents to make a life with medieval bad boy, Erlend Nikulausson. The saga continues through marriage to Erlend, raising their seven sons, and Erlend's rise and fall from power. The backdrop to Kristin's story is the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of medieval Norway - of which I knew nothing before beginning this book and found utterly fascinating. 

I think we can all agree that her inclusion on ReadState is a far more powerful recommendation, but if you're into this sort of thing, Undset did win the Nobel Prize in 1928 "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages."

Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo
Sixty year old Sully is broke and broken. His elderly landlady's banker son wants him evicted; his horribly damaged knee keeps him from steady work; his ex-wife seems headed for a nervous breakdown; his son seems headed for a marriage breakdown, and Sully's own memories of his abusive father haunt him.
And Nobody's Fool is extraordinarily funny.
Nobody's Fool doesn't have black hatted villains or white horsed knights. There are no neat solutions to the problems that plague Sully, his family, or his depressed, post-industrial upstate New York home. But Sully is not unhappy and nor are his friends. 
Nobody's Fool precisely captures the normal dysfunction of real life and the everyday joys that balance it all out.

*I'm paraphrasing. 

**Those of you who pay attention to such things may have noted my penchant for tomes. I read quickly and so am not turned off by books that weigh more than my car, but for those of you for whom poundage is an issue, I might recommend purchasing Kristin Lavransdatter in its three separate volumes (The Wreath, the Wife, the Cross) rather than in the single, thousand plus page version that I favor. That having been said, Nunnally's translation is modern and elegant and I have been told that earlier translations are neither of those things. 


  1. I think you've convinced me to read a Norwegian epic saga. I'm so confused.

  2. Read Kristin Lavransdatter...Buy and mail me a peach pie...Read Kristin Lavransdatter...Buy and mail me a peach pie.

  3. Cristina, you might find Mary Ann Settle's O Beulah Land interesting if you have not already read it. It's one of 5 books in what is called The Beulah Quintet and I think it is the best.