Summer Books: That's Not Fair

As the memoir boom winds down, authors are training their sights on sis and bro.

Remember that night in the tent when you were five and really, really had to wee but were afraid to walk across the campground and your big brother convinced you—whispering, snug in his sleeping bag alongside yours—to just go in the corner, right there near the maps and stuff? That's where the grown-ups go, he said, and you believed him. Remember when your sister iced your birthday cake with Ajax? It's payback time. From a journalist's memoir about her junkie brother to a memoir written in tandem by sisters, one of whom was sexually assaulted and one of whom was not, to a novel narrated by Emily Dickinson's younger sister—What? She had one?—to another narrated by an office worker whose murdered sister was "diabolically beautiful" but was "a monster all her life" before becoming "a cheap whore," this is the year of books about siblings. If the past decade churned out increasingly intimate, pudenda-scented autobios and transparently personal fiction, then 2007 is when authors ran out of stuff to say about themselves and started in on the next best thing: their brothers and sisters.

Siblings are as close as they can be to us without being us. We shared wombs. They were there when Dad got fired and Mom committed suicide. Summer reminds us of them because, when the heat rises, it reminds us of home.

Siblings are our almost-us. Our other us. They are us but better-looking, as in Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque (Knopf, $24.95), whose nameless and sociopathically bitter narrator "knew I was by far more intelligent than Yuriko . . . who had nothing going for her but her hauntingly beautiful face," then heralds Yuriko's downfall with something like triumph. They are us but older, as in Ehud Havazelet's novel Bearing the Body (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), due out this August, in which the dead brother's left-behind snapshots depict Jerry Garcia, "a remarkably thin and young-looking Jesse Jackson in an Afro," and the brother himself, a Holocaust survivor's eldest son "holding a banner, walking behind two black men in army jackets and sunglasses, fists raised in salute."

photo: Ira McCrudden

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Featured books:
  • Da Chen, Brothers (Three Rivers, $14.95)
  • Lindsey Crittenden, The Water Will Hold You (Harmony, $22)
  • 50 Cent and Noire, Baby Brother (G-Unit, $12)
  • Steve Geng, Thick as Thieves (Holt, $24)
  • Ehud Havazelet, Bearing the Body (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)
  • Wendy Kann, Casting with a Fragile Thread (Picador, $15)
  • Paola Kaufmann, The Sister (Overlook, $24.95)
  • Natsuo Kirino, Grotesque (Knopf, $24.95)
  • Natalie Kring and Shannon Kring Birů, Sister Salty, Sister Sweet (Running Press, $19.95)
  • Lori Lansens, The Girls (Back Bay, $13.95)
  • Janine Latus, If I Am Missing or Dead (Simon & Schuster, $25)
  • Mary Loudon, Relative Stranger (Canongate, $23)
  • Anna Maxted, A Tale of Two Sisters (Plume, $14)
  • Stacey Richter, Twin Study (Counterpoint, $24)
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    Siblings are us, replicated: those strange creatures with whom one can "wake up to one's own double image, realizing you've just had the same dream," as Stacey Richter muses in the leading story of her collection Twin Study (Counterpoint, $24). Its identical sisters—one married, one single, both liking the married one's husband's aftershave—switch lives secretly. Siblings are us but unluckier, as in Baby Brother (G-Unit, $12), a collaborative novel by rapper 50 Cent and Noire (author of Candy Licker, Thug-a-Licious, and G-Spot), in which the seven sibs include a gambler, a cop, a born-again ex-pimp, twin drug lords, a prison guard, and a teen falsely accused of murder two days before he would have started Stanford on a full scholarship.

    Sibling books lend themselves to two-mints-in-one whimsy. Natalie Kring and Shannon Kring Biró wrote Sister Salty, Sister Sweet: A Memoir of Sibling Rivalry (Running Press, $19.95) in alternating chapters. In The Girls (Back Bay, $13.95), novelist Lori Lansens switches back and forth between the very different voices of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen.

    Writing about your almost-double is a gold mine. You've been researching this book all your life! Without even trying! You don't have to study old microfiches to capture the setting or interview strangers to discover whether the person in question liked peas. You could effect his or her vocal quirks with your hands tied behind your back. You already know half the secrets. In Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister, a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives (Holt, $24), Steve Geng skewers the boyfriend of his sister, New Yorker writer Veronica Geng, as being "devoid of affect." The author is a former professional thief. Recounting the books Veronica read when she was a star student, he invokes the "terrible mixture of pride and longing I felt for her" during one teenage summer when they enjoyed "an almost unbearable closeness" and she was into Ayn Rand.

    Are you what Natsuo Kirino's narrator calls "very ordinary"? While your sibs were stealing cars or hallucinating being held captive in Tibet—as, in Relative Stranger (Canongate, $23), Mary Loudon tells us her schizophrenic sister did—were you holed up with Saving Private Ryan and a box of Mystic Mints? Writing about siblings lets you borrow their epiphanies, their highs and lows.

    Just as they borrowed your favorite culottes.

    Talk about revenge.

    It doesn't always read that way: nothing quite so meta, in the memoirs at least. In the novels, sure. "I've not been good enough," Lavinia Dickinson sighs to her sister Emily's ghost in Paola Kaufmann's sensual The Sister (Overlook, $24.95), aswirl with magnolia perfume and moist New England gingerbread and swishy white skirts, "and yet I know, I'm certain, that I've given my entire life to looking after you. . . . I had disguised myself as your keeper, your guardian, without ever asking myself why."

    What real-life short-sheetings and favorites-playing parents fed Anna Maxted's A Tale of Two Sisters (Plume, $14)? In this latest from a chick-lit veteran, hot London lawyer Cassie disses plump, plain, pregnant writer-sis Lizbet, then aims to redeem herself after the latter miscarries. And surely someone suffered to inspire Da Chen's Brothers (Three Rivers, $14.95), in which abandoned bastard Shento seethes in a Chinese orphanage as luckily legitimate Tan gets groomed to follow in the footsteps of the military-hero father they share. It all turns topsy-turvy amid the usual Maoist mayhem.

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