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Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging

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A journalist travels the globe searching for answers to the mystery of her own ancestry, along the way raising deeper questions about the American experience of race, immigration, exile, and identity. The daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father, Alex Wagner grew up thinking of herself as a “futureface”—an avatar of a mixed-race future when all races would A journalist travels the globe searching for answers to the mystery of her own ancestry, along the way raising deeper questions about the American experience of race, immigration, exile, and identity. The daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father, Alex Wagner grew up thinking of herself as a “futureface”—an avatar of a mixed-race future when all races would merge into a brown singularity. But when one family mystery leads to another, Wagner’s post-racial ideals fray as she becomes obsessed with the specifics her own family’s racial and ethnic history. Drawn into the wild world of ancestry, she embarks upon a quest around the world—and into her own DNA—to answer the ultimate questions of who she really is and where she belongs.


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A journalist travels the globe searching for answers to the mystery of her own ancestry, along the way raising deeper questions about the American experience of race, immigration, exile, and identity. The daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father, Alex Wagner grew up thinking of herself as a “futureface”—an avatar of a mixed-race future when all races would A journalist travels the globe searching for answers to the mystery of her own ancestry, along the way raising deeper questions about the American experience of race, immigration, exile, and identity. The daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father, Alex Wagner grew up thinking of herself as a “futureface”—an avatar of a mixed-race future when all races would merge into a brown singularity. But when one family mystery leads to another, Wagner’s post-racial ideals fray as she becomes obsessed with the specifics her own family’s racial and ethnic history. Drawn into the wild world of ancestry, she embarks upon a quest around the world—and into her own DNA—to answer the ultimate questions of who she really is and where she belongs.

30 review for Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging

  1. 4 out of 5

    SundayAtDusk

    While reading the first 250 pages of this book, I must say I was bored a great deal of the time. I really wasn't looking for a history book. Ms. Wagner's writing tone didn't help the matter, either, although I'm not quite sure how to describe it. I want to say it was "cutesy" some of the time, but that's not really the best description. Maybe "pretentiously clever" would be a better description, or "precociously clever" could have been used if the author was an adolescent, instead of a middle-ag While reading the first 250 pages of this book, I must say I was bored a great deal of the time. I really wasn't looking for a history book. Ms. Wagner's writing tone didn't help the matter, either, although I'm not quite sure how to describe it. I want to say it was "cutesy" some of the time, but that's not really the best description. Maybe "pretentiously clever" would be a better description, or "precociously clever" could have been used if the author was an adolescent, instead of a middle-aged woman. I'm afraid I also don't buy the idea that Ms. Wagner was obsessed with finding out her ancestry, obsessed enough to go traveling to do so, and then decided to write a book about her experiences. My guess is she decided to write the book first, and then traveled to research it. Moreover, the idea that there was a "family mystery" to be solved smacks of a gimmick used in so many nonfiction books these days--tell the reading world there is a mystery to be solved and they will come and buy the book. There is really no mystery. For those readers interested in DNA testing, that part of the story starts after page 250. The author uses 23andMe, Ancestry DNA and Family Tree DNA for herself and some family members. She then talks to individuals who run those companies, as well as university professors about the credibility of ancestry genetic testing. Now, all of that was interesting. After that comes the author's conclusions about race and searching for one's own people or tribe. Once again, I found it hard to believe she had not reached those conclusions long before she claimed to do so, like maybe before she even researched the book. Believing anything else would have made her seem way too self-obsessed. (Note: I received a free ARC of this book from Amazon Vine.)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    The mixed reviews of this book set my expectations just medium. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, learned from it, related to it. I picked this up because I saw a few recommendations for it in a few places and having recently had my DNA read, thought it would be interesting. Ms. Wagner is just my age so our childhood references are the same (Saved by the Bell, etc.) but when she relays stories of being singled out, "what blood are you" because she looks different (although she feels 10 The mixed reviews of this book set my expectations just medium. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, learned from it, related to it. I picked this up because I saw a few recommendations for it in a few places and having recently had my DNA read, thought it would be interesting. Ms. Wagner is just my age so our childhood references are the same (Saved by the Bell, etc.) but when she relays stories of being singled out, "what blood are you" because she looks different (although she feels 100% American) I knew she would provide a unique viewpoint (in fact her dad is of Western European background and her mom is from Burma). Ms. Wagner tackles her background from several angles-- she researches her mom's Burmese background and travels to Burma to look for records and memories. She travels to Iowa where her father's family settled and prior to that, Luxembourg, where his family emigrated from. She addresses the family stories with, what she refers to throughout the book, a gimlet eye. And in fact she's thoughtful and debunks several family stories (although she's loathe to let go that she might be part Jewish). Finally she has her DNA tested and addresses the same questions/problems I have with it-- how does it address borders and who are the reference groups? She questions scientists and researchers and employees used to hearing, "but my great-grandma was part Cherokee so why doesn't it show up" type questions. I'm not particularly interested in my background (probably because I'm not part of a persecuted group) so I was curious about her journey and motivations and truthfully thought she was on a bit of a wild goose chase. But she does the work, learns to accept answers at a self-determined point and moves on. She is clear headed and erudite and although she doesn't come up with a single family origin story, neither does she come up with answers for the rest of us. Is race real? Maybe, maybe not, but that's for us to come to our own conclusions. Have we all done what we could do survive and have we all changed our history to reflect back a little more shiny? Yeah, probably. In this era of DNA testing and so much world wide social media connections, I wish this book was more read-- it's quite good.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    So I recently had a random memory that I was really embarrassed about at the time . My AP US History teacher in HS brought in this 1983 Time Magazine cover and spent a whole class period talking about how it looked just like me and how everyone would look mixed race in the future. I remember shrinking into my desk and going beet red because at the time, I was trying to blend in to my mostly white surroundings and did not want any attention drawn to my "otherness." Anyway, I just remembered it an So I recently had a random memory that I was really embarrassed about at the time . My AP US History teacher in HS brought in this 1983 Time Magazine cover and spent a whole class period talking about how it looked just like me and how everyone would look mixed race in the future. I remember shrinking into my desk and going beet red because at the time, I was trying to blend in to my mostly white surroundings and did not want any attention drawn to my "otherness." Anyway, I just remembered it and I looked up the photo. Then I came across this book that is basically another woman who was told she looked like that face! The book is well written and funny. I do have issues with the modern turn toward DNA identities and I thought her desire to be Jewish was weird. However, I loved the parts about Burma and how the memories she had crafter of her past were based on myths and that her ancestors were probably also exploiting Indians as they were also being exploited. History is really complicated as is identity.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

    A wonderful audiobook read by the author. Since this is such a powerful personal story, the fact that Alex reads it gives enhances the effect. I got so much out of this book on so many levels. On the micro level, Alex takes a deep dive into her own family's racial and ethnic and migratory history, and comes up with really interesting histories of her ancestors in Burma and in Europe. On the macro level, Alex comes up with profound truths that apply to many of us. For instance, if the land that he A wonderful audiobook read by the author. Since this is such a powerful personal story, the fact that Alex reads it gives enhances the effect. I got so much out of this book on so many levels. On the micro level, Alex takes a deep dive into her own family's racial and ethnic and migratory history, and comes up with really interesting histories of her ancestors in Burma and in Europe. On the macro level, Alex comes up with profound truths that apply to many of us. For instance, if the land that her ancestors from Luxembourg were given to settle on in Iowa was at some point stolen from other people (Native Americans) who lived there first, that must also apply to the land that my own Norwegian ancestors also settled on in Iowa. Alex also takes an additional deep dive into the "ancestry industry" that has become such a popular way for people to explore what their DNA reveals about their heritage. The picture she paints is not necessarily a pretty one. Buyer beware! Maybe we put more faith in these findings than they deserve. Another excellent book about genealogy: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro (2019). These two books, make a great pair!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    I feel like this was a bit more muddled than it really needed to be, but then again, that might be the point. Wagner sets out to find out where she belongs, which is a very human draw I think. But, in her telling it, all I could think about was how I didn't need an epic quest to know that I belong and am from where I am. That sounds weird right, but despite whatever roots I might have (like most people it's family lore and a bit unclear), I am a product of this American time and place. And, for I feel like this was a bit more muddled than it really needed to be, but then again, that might be the point. Wagner sets out to find out where she belongs, which is a very human draw I think. But, in her telling it, all I could think about was how I didn't need an epic quest to know that I belong and am from where I am. That sounds weird right, but despite whatever roots I might have (like most people it's family lore and a bit unclear), I am a product of this American time and place. And, for a left coast city dweller in the US in 2018, that's a complicated statement. Wagner goes on a genealogical quest to investigate her roots which I thought was actually the most interesting part. The book gets a little muddled in the long discussions of DNA and records research. It felt like half family history, magazine expose and it just got muddy for me. I didn't really ever feel the connection to the less personal passages in the book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Erin Lee

    I picked up this book because I just wrote a book about my family history, myself, and genealogy is my first love. I wanted to adore this book, and I do appreciate the passion, emotional turmoil, and searching—both literal and that of the soul—that the author undertook. This statement particularly resonated with me: "I was not alone in my decision to make a heritage voyage. All over the world,, (relatively prosperous) second- and third-generation immigrants were returning to their ancestral home I picked up this book because I just wrote a book about my family history, myself, and genealogy is my first love. I wanted to adore this book, and I do appreciate the passion, emotional turmoil, and searching—both literal and that of the soul—that the author undertook. This statement particularly resonated with me: "I was not alone in my decision to make a heritage voyage. All over the world,, (relatively prosperous) second- and third-generation immigrants were returning to their ancestral homes to hold what can best be termed an Experiential Séance, in which the ghost of ancestors past comes alive through the touring of homes, monuments, cemeteries, castles, distilleries, and the like. A veritable...expedition that [is] sure to return you back home with a keener, more tactile understanding of your left-behind blood," (pp. 197-198). I read this book during one such ancestral pilgrimage of sorts, to the home where my great-grandparents spent the latter part of their lives, and I sorted through about 150 years'-worth of pictures, documents, newspaper clipping, greeting cards, and other genealogical gems. This setting made me ripe for the picking, intellectually and emotionally, to read this book. Unfortunately, the end result of this book seemed to come in fits and starts, oscillating from congenial to clinical and clunky. The small nuggets of the journalist’s humor and wit were buried beneath the heavy-handed deliverance of the facts. It is, indeed, a noble calling to breathe life into the dashes between a birth date and a death date on a gravestone, to give credence to how people lived and loved and worked and died. This particular offering was well-researched but needed a different execution; ultimately, I found it difficult to invest in, emotionally.

  7. 4 out of 5

    LD

    Alex Wagner has an interesting family story extending from Burma to Luxembourg, yet she grew up feeling that she didn't quite fit into the blended American heritage/melting pot narrative nor the heritage of her parents. She sets out on both a genealogical research adventure and an actual adventure, returning to the homelands of her ancestors. While I was invested in learning her findings, the written story itself is feels prolonged and unproductive at times. I'd compare it to a research paper th Alex Wagner has an interesting family story extending from Burma to Luxembourg, yet she grew up feeling that she didn't quite fit into the blended American heritage/melting pot narrative nor the heritage of her parents. She sets out on both a genealogical research adventure and an actual adventure, returning to the homelands of her ancestors. While I was invested in learning her findings, the written story itself is feels prolonged and unproductive at times. I'd compare it to a research paper that had a minimum number of pages/words required. She does an excellent job of providing scientific explanations for DNA technology in an understandable way and she has an effortless quality in her writing style, which is peppered with a great sense of humor. *I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.*

  8. 4 out of 5

    Janilyn Kocher

    Futureface is a story about ancestry, exploration, discovery, and more research. Alex Wagner sought answers on both sides of her family backgrounds about who she really was. I enjoy reading about people's genealogical searches and what they discover. Wagner gets caught up in the minutiae, which clogs the story some, but overall, readers derive a sense of who she is. Thanks to NetGalley for the advance read. Futureface is a story about ancestry, exploration, discovery, and more research. Alex Wagner sought answers on both sides of her family backgrounds about who she really was. I enjoy reading about people's genealogical searches and what they discover. Wagner gets caught up in the minutiae, which clogs the story some, but overall, readers derive a sense of who she is. Thanks to NetGalley for the advance read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    I had a little trouble getting into the book, I'm not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma and her family's role in it or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting. Her dad was from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection. I had a little trouble getting into the book, I'm not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma and her family's role in it or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting. Her dad was from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Luke

    Fantastic voice, good food for thought

  11. 4 out of 5

    La'Tonya Rease Miles

    Somewhere along the way, I couldn't remember why I was reading this book, and I so I just stopped. It's actually well-written, but it just feels drawn out. Good premise though. Somewhere along the way, I couldn't remember why I was reading this book, and I so I just stopped. It's actually well-written, but it just feels drawn out. Good premise though.

  12. 4 out of 5

    CJ

    What I enjoyed most were the questions or reframing statements that most chapters ended with: “America was the beginning, but in a weird way, it was also the conclusion of a story that had begun long ago [the sabers and cannons of Western Europe],” “we had left, therefore we [thought] were exempt from examining whether we too might have harbored some of the same exclusionary misguided ideas about Burmese superiority,” “both [parents’] sides had crafted an identity that buried the uncomfortable t What I enjoyed most were the questions or reframing statements that most chapters ended with: “America was the beginning, but in a weird way, it was also the conclusion of a story that had begun long ago [the sabers and cannons of Western Europe],” “we had left, therefore we [thought] were exempt from examining whether we too might have harbored some of the same exclusionary misguided ideas about Burmese superiority,” “both [parents’] sides had crafted an identity that buried the uncomfortable truths of the past... we were storytellers, revisionists, liars. We built our future selves on deceit and half-truths, we plastered our cracks with omissions - as well as genuine courage and smarts and will. In this act of recreation we became Americans. And, I guess, there was some kind of belonging in that.” Alex Wagner ends with the definitive “after looking so hopefully to the past, the present was the only community I would and could ever know.” Inspiring language about finding belonging not in “lost cities” but “my blood is gushing through ... and my people were the hordes” - the living. Forces me to consider how I would frame the idea of still finding belonging with past communities, but in the more unvarnished way - to use her language when she said her story was being “part of a community of upheaval and ecstasy” - to look in the face of the aspirations and the abuses that shape the past of an identity I try to claim, particularly religion.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I actually hated the process of reading this book. I found the narrative voice so obnoxious. It was like a really long episode of Who Do You Think You Are, where a person explores their genealogy, and while I think this was interesting and valuable for the writer, I don't think there was any reason to make this a book. The end did talk about the science behind commercial DNA tests, which was actually quite fascinating. I was all prepared to give the book a three star rating because it was okay, I actually hated the process of reading this book. I found the narrative voice so obnoxious. It was like a really long episode of Who Do You Think You Are, where a person explores their genealogy, and while I think this was interesting and valuable for the writer, I don't think there was any reason to make this a book. The end did talk about the science behind commercial DNA tests, which was actually quite fascinating. I was all prepared to give the book a three star rating because it was okay, I just didn't like it. But then the author came out of nowhere for a long discussion on the importance my religion places on family history research and why, and I felt that it was unnecessary and very flippant in tone. I read this because it was one of Barack Obama's top reads of 2018, and I usually find his recommendations of high caliber, this book broke from that trend.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

    I don’t understand the lower rating that this book has on Goodreads. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I also found the writing style very engaging. It was fun to learn the ins and outs of the dna home testing and see the differences between the companies and why they differed.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    Well. I MOSTLY enjoyed this story of a daughter of a Burmese immigrant and a man from Iowa with European ancestry. The story of her investigations into her family history was pretty interesting. I enjoy family history very much, and I have also had DNA testing done, which the author takes up later in the book. I guess what keeps this from being a 5 star for me is . . . the author somehow expected first family history, then DNA testing, to sort of explain her life. She seems to have put so much i Well. I MOSTLY enjoyed this story of a daughter of a Burmese immigrant and a man from Iowa with European ancestry. The story of her investigations into her family history was pretty interesting. I enjoy family history very much, and I have also had DNA testing done, which the author takes up later in the book. I guess what keeps this from being a 5 star for me is . . . the author somehow expected first family history, then DNA testing, to sort of explain her life. She seems to have put so much into finding out something specific, which she never seems to find. Nothing is enough. She does learn about many of her ancestors, but she's dissatisfied with her Burmese results because of lack of documentation in Burma and because she thinks her family might have been imperfectly nationalist. And she thinks she wants to discover that her father's family is Jewish. That doesn't turn out to be true. She's DISAPPOINTED about this, and also she then seems to want to turn up more info, or at least emotionally charged stuff, than is there. She finds lots of interesting information! But again she seems dissatisfied. Then she spends a bit ranting about the LDS church, oddly. The usual accusations of "they keep all this stuff locked up in a mountain" after she mentions USING THEIR INFO. Which we provide. For free. FREE. She seems especially upset that Ancestry gives memberships to church members, like this is some kind of mafia deal or something, and not merely the payment for using info that we voluntarily indexed and provided . . . FOR FREE. Also, she hates DNA testing. Again, she puts SO much weight on it. She seems to expect it to provide some kind of life meaning---and she is wildly upset at the differing percentages you can get from different sites. She seems to be under the impression that it was all a lot more precise when she bought the kits, and feels gypped that it's not so precise. Which I find odd because if you read the info when you do it, which I did--I just did not feel that way myself. I knew that I would only be getting general pictures and possibilities, and I understood about the test populations, before I plunked down the money. ALSO she bought ALL the kits, when you just have to buy one of them and then upload the data to other sites if you want. She is REALLY REALLY bothered that she and her dad have Scandinavian heritage, like that should change their whole view of who they are as people. When LOTS of people with Western European and British heritage also have Scandinavian heritage. Um . . . spoiler alert . . . sometimes people in neighboring areas moved. Met each other. And . . (gasp) reproduced. Why is this so hard to understand? Anyway. Still pretty interesting.

  16. 4 out of 5

    S

    I tried this book because I heard Obama had liked it. But I found that its about as shallow and self absorbed as you should guess from a subtitle ending "the secret to belonging". The book begins (on the audiobook version) with an exhausting hour long introduction in which the author repeatedly (and repeatedly) outlines the need for her quest ("who am I", "what tradition should I follow as a mixed descent person", "who AM I", "no really who am I"). I was glad to get through the Intro, which is t I tried this book because I heard Obama had liked it. But I found that its about as shallow and self absorbed as you should guess from a subtitle ending "the secret to belonging". The book begins (on the audiobook version) with an exhausting hour long introduction in which the author repeatedly (and repeatedly) outlines the need for her quest ("who am I", "what tradition should I follow as a mixed descent person", "who AM I", "no really who am I"). I was glad to get through the Intro, which is the worst part, because the author comes across as extremely self introspective (and privileged). However, the rest of the book is only the second worst part. The author first travels to Burma to try to find out about her ancestry- what her mother's family was like. From there its mostly mundane, super boring little anecdotes about her close and distant relatives, interspersed with an all too brief history lesson into the source of the Rohinga genocide. This was the only part of the book of interest, and it was not much more detailed or subtle than a Wikipedia article. I kept trying, but really found no interest in the author's family stories. They are just. so. boring. There are one or two moments of introspection, such as "maybe we're all actually a little too obsessed with our historical roots and tradition because that always seems to lead to violence", but this quickly devolved into some scoffing about "Trump country". Another reviewer described the writing style as "pretentiously clever" alternating with a "dry delivery of facts." I couldn't agree more. I rarely abandon books but am glad to put this one down. Maybe the book gets better but I made it a third of the way in and couldn't go further. If it gets much better, someone let me know.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Harini Rajagopal

    Wanted the research into her background tell her she is a jew. Didn’t happen. Appreciate that she accepted defeat but it did look like she was obsessed about it throughout the book No judgement just a observation Loved a consolidated view of what all the ancestry websites do and for the farce they are. As a data analyst I can understand undersampling and overcompensating results Best part was her granny’s last words were “nice watch” before she passed. One that brought out her love for material thin Wanted the research into her background tell her she is a jew. Didn’t happen. Appreciate that she accepted defeat but it did look like she was obsessed about it throughout the book No judgement just a observation Loved a consolidated view of what all the ancestry websites do and for the farce they are. As a data analyst I can understand undersampling and overcompensating results Best part was her granny’s last words were “nice watch” before she passed. One that brought out her love for material things until death and her devil may care attitude on what others thought about her. Appreciated that honesty Book research was super expensive. Especially this one cause she travels so much. Nobody in their right state of mind would try to do that unless the cost is being borne by someone else. Well tha’ts the middle class in me talking Not belonging to something is a true state of depression. FOMO is just the beginning. Her parallel to not belonging to one of refuges makes sense to me. Struggle with such emotions is very true. I am a immigrant, makes sense to me. My understanding of her conclusion is that she belongs in the US where anyone can choose to belong. Thats the true American dream. Didn’t I move for that as well? (Yes) Future Face = Beige. Reminds me of a Russel Peters joke ” I see the audience some white, some black but in the future we’ll all be beige” haha Russel there is a whole book on it now! She is a women and is accomplished and thanks the strong women in life for that achievement (Mom and Grand-mom) . I can relate to that. Absolutely. And so can most other women in this generation.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    Alex Wagner sets out to delve into her family history. And her family history is a bit more intriguing than the average bear. Her mother is Burmese and her father is an Iowan now living in Washington, D.C. She dives first into the Burmese story, even traveling to Burma to trace roots and look for old houses and schools. Wagner discovers how difficult that journey would be after a country had been overtaken by people who sought to obliterate the past as well as people who held a different underst Alex Wagner sets out to delve into her family history. And her family history is a bit more intriguing than the average bear. Her mother is Burmese and her father is an Iowan now living in Washington, D.C. She dives first into the Burmese story, even traveling to Burma to trace roots and look for old houses and schools. Wagner discovers how difficult that journey would be after a country had been overtaken by people who sought to obliterate the past as well as people who held a different understanding of keeping organized records. Wagner then turns to her Iowa roots. I liked her discussion of how the "free land" her ancestors had been promised was not free really. This land belonged to someone else before the United States government forced the Native people off of it. I enjoyed Wagner's quest to discover whether she was secretly Jewish as I think many of us want to be surprised by who our people are. When she discovers the true story (or what story she can discover after 150 years), it is less exciting and does not produce a secret Jewish connection, she pauses to ask why it is so important to know every detail of a past rather that turning the focus on the future. The concluding section on the spit tests to determine ancestry point out the very real limitations of these tests. It makes me realize what I want from such a test is probably not possible. This book made me think.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gautam Prasad

    This felt fresh, funny, and was really interesting. It was an honest dive into the journey of the author understanding her roots. I really appreciated the author recognizing and critiquing the racial superiority she started to feel when she realized her ethnic group in Burma did better historically than most others and how enticing that sort of mindset was. Or her discussion about how so many Americans like to build up their ancestors and say they come from greatness. She also summarized the rel This felt fresh, funny, and was really interesting. It was an honest dive into the journey of the author understanding her roots. I really appreciated the author recognizing and critiquing the racial superiority she started to feel when she realized her ethnic group in Burma did better historically than most others and how enticing that sort of mindset was. Or her discussion about how so many Americans like to build up their ancestors and say they come from greatness. She also summarized the relatively complex history of Burma in a way that made me understand all of the influences that have contributed to the genocide there. It was fascinating to understand her European roots and alternative reasons why people immigrated to America. And she put into context all of the illegal immigration in the past to America and the key factor that decided the government's reaction. In a way this book made me feel much closer to my American story and made me want to investigate my ancestry because for most people it's probably radically different than the stories we've been told by our family. And it might not be malicious or untrue, but the stories we've heard from our family or generalizations of peoples have their own objective and their own tight views on what happened. My take away from the book was that by understanding the context of your ancestors path to you, you'll need to reconcile class and ethical issues that are universal, uncomfortable, and maybe even freeing.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    I have to say that for the most part I didn’t like the book. What I did really like what what the author was attempting (I think?). An epic conversation about identity, ethnicity, race, and genetics and the us vs. them that seems to plague our world. But the book I wish I had read focused more on the sociology and psychology and anthropology of where we are today. To lament the us vs. them mentality and not mention psychology once seems shocking. The ongoing discussion of race (is it constructed I have to say that for the most part I didn’t like the book. What I did really like what what the author was attempting (I think?). An epic conversation about identity, ethnicity, race, and genetics and the us vs. them that seems to plague our world. But the book I wish I had read focused more on the sociology and psychology and anthropology of where we are today. To lament the us vs. them mentality and not mention psychology once seems shocking. The ongoing discussion of race (is it constructed? Is there some genetic difference?) while great, seemed to come in place of an equally important conversation about ethnicity being equally constructed. I appreciated learning a lot of the histories of Burma and Luxembourg and doing it through the lens of a personal family saga. But I do think it was unnecessarily stretched out. And finally, as an Eastern European Jew myself, I found myself getting annoyed at being reduced to an exciting ethnicity the author might find mysteriously hiding in her paternal family’s past. A key to her feeling that she belongs. At the end I felt this book was scattered and would have done well to focus on one thing: the author’s own search for identity, a discussion of genetics, ethnicity, and race, a commentary on the state of the world today.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chrissy Adams

    The first three chapters read like a casually written philosophy paper. The first two chapters alone are repetitive statements on what she thinks, feels, or hopes her history is. Chapter three digs a little bit deeper but could still be reduced in length. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is it so important to find out? This goes on and on. It takes until chapter 4 to get interesting. Here, she finally provides actual information about Burma and their history - in great detail, repeatedly. The first three chapters read like a casually written philosophy paper. The first two chapters alone are repetitive statements on what she thinks, feels, or hopes her history is. Chapter three digs a little bit deeper but could still be reduced in length. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is it so important to find out? This goes on and on. It takes until chapter 4 to get interesting. Here, she finally provides actual information about Burma and their history - in great detail, repeatedly. But it is interesting as she discusses her struggle with her family’s place in that history. As the book goes on her tone and language become more and more casual. I’m not sure I mind, she writes the way I speak with many side comments (parenthetical or with an asterisk). But it does start to feel more like I’m reading her diary. The feeling that you’re reading a diary only continues when she finally gets to the actual DNA part of her story (chapter 11) as she goes on for pages about how her 23andMe test (and multiple others) lay out her genetic makeup and that of her parents. Overall, it’s an okay look at genealogy and Burmese history but I already understood enough about research methods and genetics for anything to be amazingly interesting.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mary Jo

    I liked the pacing of this one. I enjoyed the historical context that Wagner provided and the sheer amount of research she did on her own family tree/genes, as well as the environments her parents came out of, was impressive to say the least. I thought her obsession with maybe being Jewish was weird and I didn’t fully understand it, though. I also really enjoyed the way she discussed the pros and cons of getting a DNA test and the inherent flaws with the “pure” population samples those tests are I liked the pacing of this one. I enjoyed the historical context that Wagner provided and the sheer amount of research she did on her own family tree/genes, as well as the environments her parents came out of, was impressive to say the least. I thought her obsession with maybe being Jewish was weird and I didn’t fully understand it, though. I also really enjoyed the way she discussed the pros and cons of getting a DNA test and the inherent flaws with the “pure” population samples those tests are pulled from, as the fallibility of these kinds of things aren't often discussed in a neutral way (meaning people seem to be anti-DNA tests because of these inaccuracies or they tend to scoff at the idea that the tests could be flawed). I also thought the authorial tone made the subject matter extremely digestible and made this book flow really well. I did get a little bored with some of the repetition of the author’s personal theories (like maybe she's Jewish?? Because of the type of wine her grandpa drank?). She also tended to repeat the same information in different words, so I often found myself skimming passages for any new content. But overall, I found this to be an enjoyable and interesting exploration of the self and the personal history of the author.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    I added this to my list last year when Obama recommended it, and have been disappointed to find it duller than dull. The author failed to make me care about the her search for a sense of belonging, and I didn't understand why she thought she was more likely to find it in the countires of her ancestors than around the kitchen table with her flesh and blood family. Her logic was confusing, at best. She desperately wanted to see the room a Burmese politician was shot in, but failed to explain how se I added this to my list last year when Obama recommended it, and have been disappointed to find it duller than dull. The author failed to make me care about the her search for a sense of belonging, and I didn't understand why she thought she was more likely to find it in the countires of her ancestors than around the kitchen table with her flesh and blood family. Her logic was confusing, at best. She desperately wanted to see the room a Burmese politician was shot in, but failed to explain how seeing it would be, "a reflection of who I was, indelible proof of my belonging." She oddly thought Burma should have frozen in time after her family left. "It was, in the end, somewhat devastating that all the things I'd hoped to find...had been lost or repainted or thrown out on the street or papered over." Is the United States frozen in 1965? What rational adult would expect anything different? I made it a full half-way through this book before deciding it was alright to abandon, which is more than I think this book deserved. I usually find the examination of identity interesting, but not this time.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Staci Grimes

    I enjoyed this piece from start to finish. Alex Wagner’s impressive command of the language, her intrepid sharing, and a tale of personal and world discovery all intersect in this book to lead would-be genealogists through the ins and outs of research. The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is that I had a hard time with her judgement of her ancestors who probably did not make the most socially-correct choices based on our standards today. We have more knowledge than any humans eve I enjoyed this piece from start to finish. Alex Wagner’s impressive command of the language, her intrepid sharing, and a tale of personal and world discovery all intersect in this book to lead would-be genealogists through the ins and outs of research. The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is that I had a hard time with her judgement of her ancestors who probably did not make the most socially-correct choices based on our standards today. We have more knowledge than any humans ever have before, and the bar has been raised through the evolution of social norms (that’s a good thing). To measure the personal family decisions of folks from 150 years ago against what we’d do seems unreasonable. All that said, her path through discovery and her own story of evolution through the process of discovery are worth reading, especially if you are looking for some of the same answers in your life and family.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I really liked this book, especially since I'm my unofficial family historian and could relate to a lot of her experience searching for family records, doing DNA tests, etc., and she shares it a very relatable and often humorous tone. I listened to the audio version which was narrated by Wagner herself. I always prefer to listen to memoirs in audio form if the author narrates because I think it adds something, and this as no exception. I especially appreciated the whole part about the mystery Sca I really liked this book, especially since I'm my unofficial family historian and could relate to a lot of her experience searching for family records, doing DNA tests, etc., and she shares it a very relatable and often humorous tone. I listened to the audio version which was narrated by Wagner herself. I always prefer to listen to memoirs in audio form if the author narrates because I think it adds something, and this as no exception. I especially appreciated the whole part about the mystery Scandinavian heritage in her DNA results and her research to figure out what that was all about. I imagine that could have been a little dry for the average reader but I found it fascinating since I also have mystery Scandinavian DNA results and this helped me to know that I'm not alone (apparently this is a common thing), why my results show that, and...that these results probably aren't accurate (which was actually kind of a bummer).

  26. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Being an amateur genealogist myself, I found this book fascinating. At times the writing style was a bit too flippant, but that did not bother me. Found it rather amusing. I identified with the author's search as I had the same "aha" moments and dead end experiences, too. I was disappointed to learn that DNA tests are probably useless. Probably only other genealogist new to the field would enjoy the whole story. And story it became when the author talked about her own ancestors. did feel she was Being an amateur genealogist myself, I found this book fascinating. At times the writing style was a bit too flippant, but that did not bother me. Found it rather amusing. I identified with the author's search as I had the same "aha" moments and dead end experiences, too. I was disappointed to learn that DNA tests are probably useless. Probably only other genealogist new to the field would enjoy the whole story. And story it became when the author talked about her own ancestors. did feel she was a little too determined to find skeletons in the closet. Also, it certainly would be nice to have the money to travel all over the world in search of original documents. I do wonder if Wagner had some serious personality distress because of her frequent reference to loneliness and to finding out where she belonged.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    3.5 stars Alex Wagner takes us with her on a search for identity. She seeks understanding of her own story and identity by tracing her Burmese roots on her mother's side and her Luxembourg roots on her father's side. For me, the best parts were learning some history about both these countries and the circumstances that drove her ancestors to flee to the US. I also think she has some powerful things to say about race in America and how as a culture we send messages about who belongs and who doesn' 3.5 stars Alex Wagner takes us with her on a search for identity. She seeks understanding of her own story and identity by tracing her Burmese roots on her mother's side and her Luxembourg roots on her father's side. For me, the best parts were learning some history about both these countries and the circumstances that drove her ancestors to flee to the US. I also think she has some powerful things to say about race in America and how as a culture we send messages about who belongs and who doesn't. I didn't enjoy the part about her forays into DNA testing as much. I don't think she understood what these tests could and couldn't tell her when she dove in and therefore was overly excited and then disappointed with the results. I could tell that she still doesn't quite grasp the science. She does tackle some interesting ethical questions about DNA genealogy services in general.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lina

    I found this book's first chapter to be wonderful -- I can't think of the last time I connected so strongly to something. But most of what came afterwards was somewhat of a wild goose chase through dusty records offices. I think I expected to hear more about the author's own experiences, her time growing up and being both a part of and apart from American culture. In the end, it was more about searching her parent's ancestry -- though at times it felt more like an interrogation of their ancestry I found this book's first chapter to be wonderful -- I can't think of the last time I connected so strongly to something. But most of what came afterwards was somewhat of a wild goose chase through dusty records offices. I think I expected to hear more about the author's own experiences, her time growing up and being both a part of and apart from American culture. In the end, it was more about searching her parent's ancestry -- though at times it felt more like an interrogation of their ancestry. She brought such a skeptical, paranoid eye to this quest. As a narrator, she continually seemed to poke fun at her naive self of a few months ago, and it got old fast. The most valuable parts of this book were the beginning and end chapters, which would make a lovely essay.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Shannon Hong

    Meh It’s a story about finding yourself in America. Looking back at the past and realizing that you’re, instead, in the present and the future. Honestly, didn’t find it too insightful. I didn’t really care to read her adventures through archives and continents, but I stuck through it and found her quiet acceptance of being American and metropolitan. Okay. Sure, I guess. Read it because Obama said it was “a thoughtful, beautiful meditation on what makes us who we are and the values and ideals that Meh It’s a story about finding yourself in America. Looking back at the past and realizing that you’re, instead, in the present and the future. Honestly, didn’t find it too insightful. I didn’t really care to read her adventures through archives and continents, but I stuck through it and found her quiet acceptance of being American and metropolitan. Okay. Sure, I guess. Read it because Obama said it was “a thoughtful, beautiful meditation on what makes us who we are and the values and ideals that bind us together as Americans.” I found it more a rambling book about research methods, she’s grasping for more and there’s nothing there. Nonetheless, she talks about things I’ve been thinking about recently, and her prose is good.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kimberley

    Thanks for sending me this interesting read. I often read aloud interesting factoids to my family and found myself smiling with Ms Wagner's humor . I thought the thesis , body and resolution were well shared. It does describe many of my North American peers with the quest to discover roots and heritage. As discussed , many other cultures really have no need to delve into the past ! The references to the current DNA revelation companies and their ambiguity to reveal definite roots were most inter Thanks for sending me this interesting read. I often read aloud interesting factoids to my family and found myself smiling with Ms Wagner's humor . I thought the thesis , body and resolution were well shared. It does describe many of my North American peers with the quest to discover roots and heritage. As discussed , many other cultures really have no need to delve into the past ! The references to the current DNA revelation companies and their ambiguity to reveal definite roots were most interesting . Ms Wagner has a delightful writing style and is very humorous ; an enjoyable summer read!

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