Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History 

By George Howe Colt

(Scribner, $30, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

George Howe Colt is the second oldest of four brothers, and his authorial specialty is writing compelling nonfiction. His best-selling “November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide” was widely praised, and “The Big House,” a personal account of his family and the house his great-grandfather built in 1903 on Cape Cod, was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. Colt was a staff writer at Life magazine and his journalism has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Civilization and Mother Jones. He and his family live in Western Massachusetts.

What is this book about?

Brotherly love – and brotherly envy and brotherly competition – is the subject of George Howe Colt’s latest book. Seeking to understand the dynamics of his own family, he mixes personal memoir and the history of famous and disparate sets of brothers, from the actor and the assassin in the Booth family to the artistic and empathetic Van Goghs to the anarchic and inimitable Marx Brothers, as well as the Kellogg family of cereal fame and Henry David Thoreau and his deceased older brother, who influenced HDT’s  life and writing. Colt alternates between his personal experience and those of the famous brothers he has researched. In this book, he is indeed his brothers’ keeper, and that is all to the good.

Why you’ll like it:

Colt is an evocative writer, and although he is making a serious analysis of how brothers interact, he doesn’t take an academic approach. Instead he does it with verve and vivid examples. Here is a sampling of the easy flow and entertaining quality of his style:

“If the handful of black-and-white snapshots that remain from my childhood is any indication, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a permanent crick in my neck from literally and figuratively looking up to my older brother. Harry was born twenty months before me, and I worshiped him with an intensity that must have been both flattering and bewildering to the worshipee. I didn’t want to be like Harry; I wanted to be Harry. I cocked my coonskin cap exactly the way he did when we played Daniel Boone; I made the same pshew-pshew sounds he did when I pulled the trigger on my silver plastic six-shooter; I punched the pocket of my baseball glove every time he punched his. When he woke me in the middle of the night one Christmas Eve and invited me downstairs to open presents while our parents slept, I followed. When he said he could help me get rid of my loose tooth, I let him tie it to the playroom doorknob and slam the door. He was my older brother and I would have agreed to anything he proposed; I would have followed him anywhere. And so, one spring evening not long before I turned six, as we lay in our matching twin beds, when Harry suggested that we run away from home, I said yes.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The brotherly counterpoint between fierce rivalry and stalwart affection is teased out in this absorbing meditation on family dynamics. [Colt] presents vivid accounts of famous fraternal sagas, including the tragic path of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the mutual martyrdoms of the tormented Vincent Van Gogh and his tenderly supportive brother Theo, and the endless, anarchic scrimmage among the Marx Brothers. Colt is a superb biographical sketch artist who incorporates a wealth of vibrant, entertaining detail and subtle analysis into these illuminating portraits; as his subjects squabble over parental attention, dinner-table scraps, women, and status, their relationships are a maelstrom of tyrannizing, thwarting, nagging, and suing mixed with admiring, teaching, sustaining, and protecting. Alternate chapters recount the author’s quiet but intense memories of growing up… —his depiction of postwar suburban kid culture is piquant and evocative—torn between hero worship, jealousy, resentful infighting, and a sense of loss as the brothers go their separate ways. No one writes better than Colt about families and the strange alchemy that binds them, and the way siblings make each other what they are even as they become distinct, even estranged, personalities.”

“Anyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Colt’s previous, National Book Award-nominated work, “The Big House” (2003), will know his delicate, detailed, ironically self-mocking way with prose, and his lucid, affectionate fair-mindedness…Though some of these cases may seem at first overly familiar, Colt has done a prodigious job of research and synthesis, and his skill at storytelling is such that each of them is transformed into something fresh, dramatic and emotionally piercing,” says Phillip Lopate in The New York Times Book Review.

“A captivating blend of historical anecdote, personal revelation, and psychological insight, this lively and imaginative book will serve up a great deal of wisdom (and just as much fun) to anyone who has ever been a brother or had a brother. In fact, maybe all you have to do to derive pleasure and nourishment from Colt’s book is simply to have once met a brother—it’s that appealing,” says author Daniel Okrent.

When is it available?

“Brothers” is on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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