It's all relative Adventures up and down the world's family tree

A. J. Jacobs, 1968-

Book - 2017

Traces the author's three-year investigation into what constitutes family, describing how, after receiving an e-mail from a stranger who claimed to be a distant cousin, he embarked on an effort to build the biggest family tree in history.

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Family histories
New York : Simon & Schuster 2017.
Main Author
A. J. Jacobs, 1968- (author)
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
Physical Description
xiv, 336 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Eighth Cousin
  • Chapter 2. The World Family Tree
  • Chapter 3. DNA Sharing Is Caring
  • Chapter 4. A Great (or Possibly Terrible) Idea
  • Chapter 5. A Pandemonium of Genealogists
  • Chapter 6. Historical Voyeurism
  • Chapter 7. Genetic Jambalaya
  • Chapter 8. Groundhog Sam and My 2, 585 Southern Cousins
  • Chapter 9. Embracing Failure
  • Chapter 10. Should Family Be Abolished?
  • Chapter 11. The Good Cousin
  • Chapter 12. Adam and Eve
  • Chapter 13. Kissing Cousins
  • Chapter 14. The Greatest Generation (and the Upside of Cigarettes)
  • Chapter 15. Thank You for Having Sex
  • Chapter 16. Biological and Logical Families
  • Chapter 17. Ellis Island
  • Chapter 18. Our Neanderthal Cousins
  • Chapter 19. Family Feuds
  • Chapter 20. Who's Your Father?
  • Chapter 21. Son-in-Law of the American Revolution
  • Chapter 22. The Mega-Tree Revolution
  • Chapter 23. Our Animal Cousins
  • Chapter 24. Big Love
  • Chapter 25. The Other Side of the Dash
  • Chapter 26. Privacy
  • Chapter 27. The Genius of Isaac Newton
  • Chapter 28. Fathers and Sons
  • Chapter 29. Twins and Twins. Also More Twins
  • Chapter 30. Five Mothers
  • Chapter 31. Black Sheep
  • Chapter 32. My Presidential Cousin
  • Chapter 33. Tradition!
  • Chapter 34. The Kevin Bacon Delusion
  • Chapter 35. The Pilgrimage
  • Chapter 36. An Ocean of Cousins
  • Chapter 37. Cheers to the Dead
  • Chapter 38. My Celebrity Cousins
  • Chapter 39. 51 Percent of the Family Tree
  • Chapter 40. The Melting Pot
  • Chapter 41. The FBI and My Grandpa
  • Chapter 42. The Great Surname Challenge
  • Chapter 43. Awkward Family Photos
  • Chapter 44. Brother Versus Brother
  • Chapter 45. The Global Family Reunion
  • Chapter 46. We Are, Without a Doubt, Irrefutably, Family
  • A Note from the Author
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Brief and Subjective Guide to Getting Started on Your Family Tree
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

IN A REGULARLY best-selling way, A.J. Jacobs writes stunt books. Or quest-stunt books, is more like it. Or humorous queststunt books is most like it. "The Year of Living Biblically," for example, described his efforts to abide by the over 700 rules he finds set down - by, well, Whom? - in the Old and New Testaments. In "The Know- It-All," Jacobs told of his 18-month effort to read the entire "Encyclopaedia Britannica," using its abecedarian entries as prompts for reflection and anecdotes. Etc. Jacobs's new endeavor, "It's All Relative," explores the territory of genealogy and kinship, with the professed aim of contributing to the idea of global unity. He tells us what he learns about cousin marriage, his own forebears, others' shameful and worthy ancestors, polyamory, our recently expanded definitions of the word "family," the Hatfields and McCoys, the Temperance movement (because he's trying to decide whether there should be alcohol at a family reunion he's planning), and so on. Each of the 46 short-take chapters is loosely organized around a single topic, such as the Mormons' genealogical research and the author's efforts to involve celebrity cousins, however distant, in his project. And at the end of each chapter come differently fonted progress reports on this book's humorous quest - Jacobs's efforts to organize that Guinness-worthy biggest family reunion ever. Most of "It's All Relative" is a mixture of narrative, research, reflection and ofteneffortful wit. Its factual and documentary aspects are frequently both fascinating and seemingly improvisational, almost adlibbed, in a cheerful way. Item: Henry Louis Gates Jr. says of his grandfather: "He was so white we called him Casper behind his back." Item: In 1923, a magazine called The American Hebrew ran a piece about a man whose last name was Kabotchnik. He changed it to Cabot. The magazine deplored losing "Kabotchnik," with "its rich, sneezing tonal effects." Item: The Rutgers anthropologist Robin Fox estimates that 80 percent of all marriages in human history were "between first and second cousins." Item: Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "When I talk with a genealogist, I seem to sit up with a corpse." But the bulk of "It's All Relative" is colored by Jacobs's offhand-sounding efforts to amuse and entertain the reader. From time to time they work. We're seeing more and more gay and trans parents. Open adoption. Surrogate moms. Group homes with multiple parents. Sperm donors. There's new vocabulary: "diblings" have a single sperm donor father but different mothers. And in a chapter about twins and their annual celebration, Twins Day (in Twinsburg, Ohio), Jacobs describes the theme of the Twins Parade he attends - the 1960s - in which the participating monozygotics are required to dress in identical '60s-style costumes: "The parade is a stream of double flower girls, double Barbies, and double Jimi Hendrices." "Hendrices"! How excellent is that! And it's leftalone, uncommented-on, and all the better for it. But unfortunately, for some readers, a lot of Jacobs's attempts at amusing commentary and bumptious riffs will fall recumbent or all the way to flat. "In the Bible, it's even commanded that a widow marry her late husband's brother (not that I approve of mandatory weddings)." And "My parents had to have sex - something I've known from the age of 8 but have tried to keep buried in the Siberia of my subconscious." This kind of snappy writing has worked well for Jacobs in the past, to the tune of many, many thousands of fans, and "It's All Relative" will probably enjoy similar success. Senses of humor vary so widely that it's hard to pass any kind of objective judgment on them. But "It's All Relative" works best, this subjectivist thinks, when the author's voice butts out, and the research oddities and genealogical wonderments speak for themselves. Paradoxically, too much funny self-effacement can come offas self-centeredness. Jacobs's wife, Julie, makes cameo-like appearances throughout the book, contributing forbearing, sometimes antidotal remarks about the project and the reunion. "That's just weird," she says when Jacobs tells her that the two of them are distant cousins. (We all are, by the way, which is in a way what this book is about.) And after he tells their kids about a disturbing part of the medical examination of immigrants at Ellis Island, Julie says, "You're coming on a little strong." The Global Family Reunion - which was held at the New York Hall of Science (site of the 1964 World's Fair) - took place in June of 2015. Jacobs's account of the high and low points of the event, at the end of "It's All Relative," is modest and honest. Bad weather. Grounds too big, making turnout seem small. (Sort of like the 2017 inauguration.) Author's own speech anxiety, resulting in muffed consonants. Guinness hopes dashed. Sister Sledge, meant to sing "We Are Family," litigiously missing one sister. On the other hand: Simultaneous global reunions around the . . . globe - Mauritius, New Zealand, Mexico. Money raised for Alzheimer's research. Random, congenial meet-ups, like Samantha Power and Morgan Spurlock. Over all it sounds as if the reunion may have suffered a little from the same improvisational amorphousness with which your 81st cousin who-knows-how-manytimes removed, A.J. Jacobs, has written this book. DANIEL MENAKER is the former editor in chief of Random House and the author of seven books.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 30, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* From the author of The Know-It-All (2004) and The Year of Living Biblically (2007) comes this very entertaining exploration of one of the weirdest things to have come out of recent breakthroughs in genetic mapping: the idea that all of us, if you track back far enough through history, are related. We're all descended from individuals known as Y-Adam and M-Eve, whose genetic code, diluted to varying degrees, is present in everyone. The author's adventure begins in a typically fortuitous way: he receives an e-mail from a dairy farmer in Israel, claiming Jacobs is his wife's eighth cousin. Moreover, the fellow claims he has mapped out generations of his family tree and that he has a database of more than 80,000 other people who are related to Jacobs. So, after some research, Jacobs does what anyone would do when confronted with the idea that he might be related to millions of other people: he decides to hold a family reunion for 70-odd million people. Whimsical but also full of solid journalism and eye-opening revelations about the history of humanity, the book is a real treat.--Pitt, David Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Esquire contributing editor Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) muses on the nature of family and the interconnectedness of humanity in this entertaining introduction to the world of genealogy. The book follows along as Jacobs, inspired by the World Family Tree project-an effort by a group of historians, genealogists, and scientists to create a family tree of all humankind-attempts to orchestrate the largest family reunion ever, the Global Family Reunion. Along the way, he charts his efforts to contact celebrities, politicians, criminals, and his other distant relatives. He looks at unconventional notions of family, attending a polyamory family support group and "nonpaternity events" for people who learn from DNA testing that they are not directly related to their fathers. With short, lively chapters and an easygoing voice, Jacobs keeps the story flowing as the Global Family Reunion approaches. While Jacobs's event, which was held in New York City on June 6, 2015, didn't set the record for the largest family reunion ever, a total of 3,800 people showed up to the simultaneous reunions held in 44 locations around the world. He infuses humor throughout the book but relies too heavily on the same gimmick of his unexpected relations (he's 14 steps removed from Joseph Stalin, and George H.W. Bush is his second cousin's husband's eighth cousin three times removed). The result is a somewhat amusing and educational account of the science and culture of families. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The tree provides a perfect analogy for an adventure in genealogy. With its many roots, twisting branches, and enumerable leaves, a family tree offers the intrepid genealogist researching his or her ancestors inevitable challenges and surprises. This is Jacobs's (The Year of Living Biblically) account of his own attempts to discover his hereditary foundation. The story is filled with ample doses of self-deprecating humor and delightful and often comical observations about the practice of genealogy. His ruminations on the nature of family and the ways we are all connected are on occasion profound. The book is read by the author in an easygoing style. VERDICT If genealogical research can be described as an adventure, then Jacobs should be commended for conveying something of the wonder and joy that those who practice the discipline experience. ["Fans of Jacobs's previous work, as well as anyone interested in a nonacademic look into the world of genealogy and family trees, will find this account engrossing, funny, and optimistic": LJ 10/15/17 review of the S. & S. hc.]-Denis Frias, Mississauga Lib. Syst., Ont. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The bestselling immersion journalist embarks on a world-spanning journey of family and genealogy.For years, Jacobs (Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, 2012, etc.) has built a significant following at Esquire, where he is a contributing editor, with articles that mix serious inquiry with laugh-out-loud humor, usually featuring the author as his own main character. He used the same formula for his bestselling books, in which he tried to absorb more miscellaneous knowledge than anyone else alive (The Know-It-All), live daily life according to biblical commandments (The Year of Living Biblically), or sculpt his body into its best possible shape (Drop Dead Healthy). In his latest book, Jacobs delves into his own genealogy and that of his wife, Julie, and he chronicles his plans for what he hoped would become the largest "family" reunion in history. Along the way, the author provides a cornucopia of information about genealogy and ancestry: how males often dominate family trees while females remain in the background, the impact of American slavery on family histories, his own Jewish heritage, the complications of working with the Mormon archive ("every year, more data is added to this vault than is contained in the entire Library of Congress"), how nonhuman animals fit into the equations, the reliability of DNA testing as a genealogical tool, and the reliance on the story of Adam and Eve as the beginning of humanity. Some of the short chapters are almost entirely entertainment, as when Jacobs and his wife travel with their twin sons to a large gathering of families with twins. But whether the author is being ruminative or rollicking, he is consistently thought-provoking in his "adventure in helping to build the World Family Tree," and his natural gift for humor lightens the mood of even the most serious discussion. A delightful, easy-to-read, informative book. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

It's All Relative CHAPTER 1 The Eighth Cousin My story begins three years ago with one of the strangest emails I've ever received. "You don't know me," it says, "but you are an eighth cousin of my wife, who, in my opinion, is a fine lady." Naturally I figure the next line will involve instructions on how to wire ten thousand dollars to a bank account in Togo, or inform me of the miraculous potency benefits of goji berries. But instead, the emailer says his name is Jules Feldman. He explains that he's a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel and has read some articles I've written. He wants to tell me about his life's project. For the previous fifteen years, Jules has devoted his time to building a family tree. A really big tree. More of a forest. "We have in our database about eighty thousand relatives of yours," he says. Eighty thousand. I try to wrap my head around that number. If he's right, my relatives could fill four Madison Square Gardens. The email gives me profoundly mixed feelings. On the one hand, as my wife, Julie, points out, I often feel like I have too many relatives already. I'd be happy to trim a few branches. I'm thinking of my cousin David, who, for his wedding, hired a little person dressed as a leprechaun to pop out from under his bride's dress and twerk with the guests. And then there's my brilliant but smug brother-in-law Eric, whose favorite phrase is the infuriating "I think what you're trying to say is . . ." The point is, do I really want to be part of this mega-tree? Plus, the email has some creepy NSA-like privacy-invasion vibes. How did this dairy farmer know all this about me? And why should I trust him? On the other hand, the less cynical hand, I'm oddly moved. Here I am, sitting in my home office in New York City, subjected to endless Internet headlines about our world's seeming descent into disaster--wars, racism--and up pops this startling news about how I'm connected to thousands of other humans across the globe. These newfound cousins would likely come in all shapes, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds: tall cousins and short cousins, white cousins and black cousins, carnivorous cousins and vegan cousins, gay cousins and straight cousins, cilantro-loving cousins and cousins who believe cilantro tastes like Satan's unwashed tube socks. All of us different, all of us linked. What I'm trying to say (as my brother-in-law explained to me later) is that I experienced a profound sense of belonging. I felt a part of something larger than myself. I glimpsed the Ultimate Social Network. The timing of the email couldn't have been better. During the last several years, I've become increasingly obsessed with family, which might be an inherited trait. When I was a kid, my dad spent years building a family tree. Not quite eighty thousand, but it reached back multiple generations. He'd show me the names of my Polish and Ukrainian great-grandparents. He'd tell me about their lives. How they were farmers and general store owners; one even found a niche selling peacocks to nobles. How some fled the Russian pogroms by hiding in a haystack on the back of a cart. How my great-grandfather was supposed to pick up his wife and kids at Ellis Island but missed their arrival because he was eating a second bowl of soup. How the wife and kids had to stay overnight in the detention facility, confused, ignorant, and anxious they'd be sent back to Poland. As a young man, I scoffed at these tales. I was an obnoxious little rebel who rejected all institutions, including family. I preferred to spend zero time thinking about my ancestors. Why should I care about these people, just because we happen to share some DNA by accident of birth? It's not rational. It's arbitrary. It's a relic of the past. But as so often happens to people, I got older, I had kids, and I magically turned into my dad. Now I spend most of my time thinking about family: How can I give my three young sons a sense of belonging? What kind of wisdom and ethics from my ancestors can I pass along to my kids? And then comes Jules Feldman's email. It stays in my mind the next day. And the next. And the week that followed. Excerpted from It's All Relative: Adventures up and down the World's Family Tree by A. J. Jacobs All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.