Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things the Grandchildren Should Know

Things the Grandchildren Should Know caught my eye on the nonfiction new acquisitions shelf of my local library. Something about the title made me curious but when I picked up the book I had no idea it was a memoir and, for all I knew, it could have been some kind of self-help, advice book. Frankly, I had no idea who Mark Oliver Everett was and had never heard of a singer called “E” or a band called the Eels. It’s only in the last few days, in fact, that I’ve sampled some of Everett’s music and I’m still not sure what to think of most of it. I was not overwhelmed by what I heard, but I enjoyed enough of the music to ensure that I will revisit it soon to see if it sticks.

That’s the music. The book, though, is definitely a keeper because it reads as one of the more honest family-story exposés that I’ve read in years. Memoirs are beginning to lose favor with the reading public due to the large number of “pity parties” that have been published in recent years and the fact that several of them have been exposed as complete frauds. Things the Grandchildren Should Know is no pity party on the part of Everett. He does not come looking for sympathy or seeking to impress readers by the amount of tragedy he has endured. Rather, he recounts his family history in such a direct, in-your-face style, a style that makes great use of irony and humor when least expected, that the reader often ends up smiling through even the saddest events of Everett family history.

By the time the ride is over, Everett has managed to explain how he became the person he is, where he finds the creative spark for his music and how that music has probably saved his life, and where he plans to go from here.

It is easy to see that Mark Oliver Everett is an extremely talented man, a prolific songwriter with the vision and musical ability to produce recordings that turn his songs into award-winning hits. But Everett grew up in a Washington D.C. suburb as one-quarter of a dysfunctional family headed by a brilliant father, a man who spoke so little to his children and never touched them that he was little more than a physical presence in their home, and a mother who paid little attention to him or his sister. Everett and his sister, Liz, came to rely greatly upon each other but were still emotionally scarred by the seeming indifference of their parents. But, sadly, while Everett was able to save himself through his songs, Liz decided to seek her own relief in whatever drugs she could find.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know is the story of a musician who achieved the kind of success that he hardly dared dream might be possible as a kid. The remarkable thing is that he achieved that success while his family was going to pieces around him to such an extent that one day, still a young man, he was stunned to find himself its only survivor. Eels fans probably know much of Everett’s background already through his autobiographical songs but casual fans, or readers unfamiliar with the music, likely will be surprised that so successful an entertainer can express such an unpretentious view of life – and make us believe him.

Rated at: 3.5

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