New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

By Colm Tóibín

(Scribner, $26, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Colm Tóibín  (pronounced CULLum ToeBEAN) is too serious a writer and critic to have a book with such a teaser of a title, but if it helps to get readers to pick it up, that’s all to the good.

Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1955, and now lives in Dublin and New York, where he is Mellon Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written six novels, among them “The Blackwater Lightship,” about a family reuniting as a son dies of AIDS, “The Master,” a fictional look at the emotional life of author Henry James that won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and “Brooklyn,” about an Irish immigrant to America in the 1950s, which won a Costa Book Award.

What is this book about?

Jane Austen’s mum. Tennessee Williams’ mentally ill sister.  Thomas Mann’s deeply troubled children. They and many other relatives of famous writers appear in Tóibín s book, which explores how family members can affect a writer’s work and in turn, how a writer’s career (and fame) can impact his or her family. In tracing the often tragically bad relationships between these writers and others – John Cheever, Samuel Beckett, Henry James, J.M. Synge, Hart Crane, Roddy Doyle and more – Tóibín also gives us brilliant appreciations of their work.

Why you’ll like it:

Toibin’s essays of literary criticism are written in the same compelling and evocative prose as his novels, making them delightful journeys into the work of other writers that drier academics cannot hope to achieve. There are many stunning insights in this book that will help you to understand writers you may have admired for years without ever knowing what personal baggage they carried.

What others are saying:

“A consistently revealing look at how writers’ relationships with their families have influenced their work. …The result is a book that illuminates, startles and delights,” says The Telegraph.

“Unfailingly warm and compassionate,” says The Irish Times.

Says Publishers Weekly:

 “Through a series of accessible essays, lectures, and reviews that rove from Jane Austen to Brian Moore—many of which appeared in either the London or New York Review of Books— Tóibín explores the ambivalent relationships that many writers of the past few centuries have had with their families…The book is divided into two sections: “Ireland,” containing chapters about Irish poets, playwrights, and novelists, such as John Synge and Sebastian Barry; and “Elsewhere,” which roves from Jorge Luis Borges to Tennessee Williams. With essays that prove more informative than argumentative, along with useful mini-biographies of important authors, Tóibín excels when discussing craft…chock-full of biographic detail that will interest ardent readers… overall, given their figurative patricidal, matricidal, fratricidal, and infanticidal tendencies, one ought to be thankful not to have a writer in the family.”

 “Irish novelist and essayist Tóibín (Brooklyn, 2009, etc.) investigates how writers’ classic works were inspired by their families–and sometimes in spite of them. One line of critical thinking holds that a writer’s personal history is out of bounds when judging a poem, play or novel. …like all fine critics, Tóibín inspires readers to go back to the work, and he brings a human aspect to the works of seemingly deracinated authors like Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. Though there’s no truly coherent thesis here, it’s a pleasure to watch Tóibín rove through 19th- and 20th-century literary history,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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