Sister Act

Remember that night in the tent when you were 5 and really, really had to wee but were afraid to walk across the campground, yet your big brother persuaded 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 grownups go, he said, and you believed him.

Remember when your sister iced your birthday cake with Ajax?

It's payback time.

This is the year of books about siblings — 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 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."

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."

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 aftershave of one's husband — 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 goldmine. 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 affect 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.

By contrast, sibling memoirs spin subtler tangles of backstory and memory. We feel as if we're eavesdropping on therapy sessions as, in The Water Will Hold You (Harmony, $22), Lindsey Crittenden reminisces about choosing a name for the baby boy her parents adopted when she was 5, how little daredevil Blake became a junkie who flunked out of rehab, robbed their folks' house repeatedly, fathered and neglected a son, then took up tree-trimming before being shot to death. In Thick as Thieves, Steve Geng might be transcribing his own 12-step mea culpas as he eulogizes the "girl who'd watched over me since the cradle . . . my hero, full of endearing contradictions — so fragile that she seemed to go through life teetering on the brink of tears." She cut him off forever when, HIV-positive, he went back on drugs once too often.

Crittenden's and Geng's memoirs are mirror images: One is by a straight-edger straining to understand why the smart, sensitive sib with whom she shared Tang and secret nicknames became a heroin addict who stole. The other is by a heroin addict who stole.

That both authors, sick risk-taker and relative square, are the ones who survived is another of those stranger-than-fiction ironies. Blake Crittenden was arguably doomed. But Veronica Geng, after finally casting out Steve out for endangering his health, died of a brain tumor. He found out while recovering from frostbite at a halfway house. Describing her wake, he namedrops Jamaica Kincaid and Philip Roth.

You'll have noticed a pattern here. A lot of these siblings are dead. As recounted in the lyrical Casting with a Fragile Thread (HoltPicador, $2315), Wendy Kann's beautiful sister Lauren experienced a car crash that in another country she might have survived but, in Zambia, did not. In If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation (Simon & Schuster, $25), Janine Latus details curly-haired thirtysomething Amy, who survived lymphoma only to fall in love with an ex-con who called her fat, refused to have sex with her, trolled for other chicks while using her AOL account, and drained her credit cards before killing her. Now an anti-domestic-violence activist, Latus devotes most of the memoir to her own awful marriage to the husband who coerced her into getting breast implants and strong-armed her into wearing thongs.

If the object of our study is deceased, we can conjecture and investigate, condemn and eulogize with less ethical muddle. Loudon is excellent at this in Relative Stranger, spinning a real-life mystery from her meetings with people who knew her long-estranged sister during the last dozen years of Catherine Loudon's life: an era the latter spent living as a man. "It's too bad if this annoys her," the author muses while wading through dead Catherine's flat, sorting through reefs of keepsakes. "I never disputed her right to disappear . . . but I never disputed my right to care about her."

Applying spotlights 'n' speculums to one's closest relatives is an almost certain way to stoke bad blood. Books have such a permanent quality, like slaps that keep on stinging. But, hey, ain't no lawsuits in heaven or hell.

Although they can still tell Mom on you.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anneli Rufus

Latest Stories