Book Review: It’s All Relative by A.J. Jacobs (4/5)

9 Jun

I adore A.J. Jacobs. I’ve often said he’s my favorite non-fiction writer. His subjects are well selected and his wit and humor always go over well with me. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a while and was excited to run across an audiobook version of it narrated by Jacobs himself! I sped through this one and had a blast with it.

Cover image via Goodreads

It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs

Other books by Jacobs reviewed on this blog:

Drop Dead Healthy

Summary from Goodreads:

A.J. Jacobs has received some strange emails over the years, but this note was perhaps the strangest: “You don’t know me, but I’m your eighth cousin. And we have over 80,000 relatives of yours in our database.”

That’s enough family members to fill Madison Square Garden four times over. Who are these people, A.J. wondered, and how do I find them? So began Jacobs’s three-year adventure to help build the biggest family tree in history.

Jacobs’s journey would take him to all seven continents. He drank beer with a US president, found himself singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and unearthed genetic links to Hollywood actresses and real-life scoundrels. After all, we can choose our friends, but not our family.

One of the things I love about Jacobs is how he throws himself into his projects 100%. Whatever the project is, he lives it and it consumes his life. This project was no different. Of course, Jacobs couldn’t develop a hobby in genealogy; he had to try and break the record for the largest family reunion. It’s the steps along the way that Jacobs took that make his story even more fascinating. I loved the small things he brings up, like family rivalries, blended families, and Mila Kunis. These anecdotes bring the story to life in a way that only Jacobs can.

Jacobs was very honest about his family and roots which I loved. It was fun to hear him talk about the gems and bad apples of his family tree. I felt that he may have held back some things that were particularly damming, but was still able to illustrate what he found about his past. He was respectful using pseudonyms for people who didn’t want their details revealed so he could tell real stories and not hurt anyone.

Jacobs always appears as a character in his own stories. He’s not afraid to talk about his own faults and make fun of himself, usually through the eyes of his family. He realizes when he embarrasses his sons or is not a perfect husband to his wife. He sees the times that he falls short of the person he wants to be. I like how honest he is with himself and how much you see him grow through his research.

I tried poking into genealogy once, rather unsuccessfully. I created a Family Search account and I’ve taken the 23 And Me analysis. But it wasn’t something I decided to invest too much time in and that fizzled out. However, I had a really cool moment a few years ago. I was visiting my parents and I got an email from a 23 And Me user who said he thought we could be related and asked me if a list of last names meant anything to me. One was my grandmother’s maiden name. I asked my dad if he knew the name and he recognized that this was the child of one of his cousins. I wrote back and was connected to my dad’s cousin, who is the family historian. We now get annual updates (via Christmas card) about the new relatives my cousin-once-removed has added to our family tree and the family documents she’s been able to find. I’m always shocked by the documents and records she has translated from Danish that show a relative in the 1600s giving birth or being baptized. It’s cool to think about my family members from that long ago.

A..J. Jacobs
Image via Goodreads

I liked learning how Jacobs connected people to himself. It was cool to see how we’re all related to Beyonce or Ted Bundy. It made me interested in going onto one of the sites he listed and creating another account. Though I doubt I’ll be able to keep up with it, as happened before, and it will fizzle out.

I found his account of the actual family reunion a bit of a letdown. After building to it the whole book, his description of the day was a bit rushed. I know it must have felt that way to him as well, but I think the chapter could have been twice as long to give us a feeling of the size of the day a bit better. It was a huge accomplishment and it would have been good to see it that way.

Jacobs narrating his own audiobook was great. I loved his humor even more hearing the way it was intentioned to be read straight from his lips. I always like when authors narrate their own non-fiction because I think it gives it a much stronger story-telling element. I hope Jacobs will do this again. I’m almost tempted to listen to some of his backlog if he’s done it before. I always enjoy revisiting his stories.

Family is never simple and Jacobs story shows that. He has examples of family secrets, non-traditional families, fights, and failures. I think a great example is his relative who he was so excited to find out served in the Civil War, only to find out he lasted less than a week in the service. There are great and terrible things in each family. And if you look broadly enough, we’re all one family anyway. So any terrible thing you hear is about your family as is every great thing you hear.

Writer’s Takeaway: Jacobs’ humor is what has always made him a favorite of mine. Even in stressful situations (like arguing with his brother in law), he finds a way to make fun of the situation, to find some humor. It often points toward him, but he’s great at looking for it and finding a way to make you laugh, especially when you might have been cringing otherwise.

A great read with some wonderful Jacobs humor. Four out of Five Stars

Until next time, write on.

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Related Post:
It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs | Joplin Public Library


5 Responses to “Book Review: It’s All Relative by A.J. Jacobs (4/5)”

  1. Rae Longest June 10, 2020 at 1:25 PM #

    I love his books, and your review was spot-on. You’ve captured this author.


    • Sam June 10, 2020 at 3:21 PM #

      Thank you! I’m a huge fan and I can’t wait for his next project. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Katie June 14, 2020 at 3:51 AM #

    I haven’t heard of him before but this sounds interesting!


    • Sam June 14, 2020 at 7:47 AM #

      The Year of Living Biblically is great, that would be a good one to start with if you’re interested. Happy reading!



  1. Challenge Update, June 2020 | Taking On a World of Words - July 2, 2020

    […] It’s All Relative // A.J. Jacobs (4/5) The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits // Emma Donoghue (3/5) Stories of Elders // Veronica Kirin (4/5) Fiction Writer’s Workshop // Josip Novakovich (3/5) Semper Fidelis // Ruth Downie (4/5) The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes // Suzanne Collins (4/5) […]


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