We’re heading into a season of major family dynamics, with holidays and time together and everything else that involves.
People are so complex, and the relationships that we are born into (or perhaps, join in marriage) make for some of the most fascinating fodder for fiction and memoir alike.
I am always very reluctant to recommend anything I have never read, but the truth is, I’m not particularly well-read, and I often recommend the same favourites! #sorrynotsorry! (Though, there is not a single mention below of my oft-mentioned books Dinner: A Love Story, or The Glass Castle. I'm mentioning them here instead 😂)
You may pick up one of these books to feel better that your family isn’t so bad after all; or, to experience communion with others whose families are just as crazy; or, to wish that you were one of the Marches, just for a while. Or, perhaps you just need an excuse to retreat into your own room with a good book ;)
Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is, to me, solid reliable fiction. Rarely have her books been at the top of my faves list, but neither do they disappoint. Commonwealth exceeded these expectations, as a decades-long interweaving of two families (by infidelity and subsequent remarriage).
The Dinner – Herman Koch
Sit down at a schmancy, overpriced restaurant for several courses of fascination. Two adult brothers and their wives meet to discuss one's impending political rise and how their son's corporate sins will bear into account.
Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry
A family drama in Mumbai explores suffering of a family member — in this case, the patriach — and the discomfort, love, irritation, and every other emotion that arises in generational family matters.
Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
I suppose this book is a journey of one man, but the interplay of Marion and his twin is at the center. I've always been fascinated by twins, and the identity struggle here is powerful.
My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok
Dad, I want to be a painter. This is not well-received news when the family are devout, Hasidic Jews, and when Asher's immersive training involves nudes! Brooklyn, art history, dad/son wrestling, and love for a missing mom... this book is a must.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
This thriller is not for everyone, but the tension is written with such fine-tuned excellence that if you can cope with dark content, it is a must read. Don't read too much about it, but it is fiction from the eye of a mother whose son has committed a heinous act.
On Beauty – Zadie Smith
Aging academics losing their lustre, their adult children coming to their own beliefs, politics, and identities, and what happens when one deigns to fall in love and bring another messy family into the mix.
Franny & Zooey – J.D. Salinger
Boost your literary cred and check a modern "classic" off your list with this one, which is actually two short stories, originally published by Salinger in The New Yorker. Franny & Zooey are siblings in the Glass family. The second story, Zooey, takes place in the family's Manhattan apartment, where we, the readers, are the fly on the wall to the intricacies of mom/son and sibling dynamics.
Matilda or Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is notorious for writing untrustworthy adults into his books, outrageous in their characteristics and unbearable to imagine. Matilda's parents fall in this category, whereas Danny's dad is “the most marvelous and exciting father a boy ever had.”
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
A nice book! Nothing dark here, only beauty. A perfect read going into the chilly months.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
Get a glimpse into life on a reservation from indigenous author Alexie. It is funny and heartbreaking and full of tension: my favorite kind of book.
Born A Crime – Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah, current host of The Daily Show, was born in 1984 to a black mom and a white dad: literally, a crime in apartheid-era South Africa. This is not a comedy book (though it is funny), but an exploration of his childhood and personal history in his home country. I thought of it as a SA history lesson, meets Gilmore Girls! That sounds absurd, but it really was a love letter to his mother; the details of his relationship with his single mom were hilarious and fascinating.
This was one of the best things I've "read" in ages — I recommend listening to it on audio (exclusive to Audible; I used their 30 day free trial), read by Noah himself.
The Tender Bar – J. R. Moehringer
Another boy/mom narrative, but this one is interspersed with influence from the men in the local bar, as J.R. navigates life on Long Island (and beyond, into adulthood) without a dad.
The writing is so excellent, and Moehringer went on to write (without author's credit) Andre Agassi's Open, one of my other all-time favorite memoirs (with plenty of its own crazy family dynamics!).
Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me – Ian Morgan Cron
Cron has gotten more recent attention for his new book on the popular Enneagram personality framework, but this book relives his complicated relationship with father, an utter mystery unto his death.
He explores the tensions of relationship with someone unrelatable, and what you do with all of that unresolved-ness, when that person leaves the picture.
The Sound of Gravel – Ruth Wariner
The 39th child of her father's 42... enough said? This is a no-self-pity memoir from the eyes of a child in a poor (they're always poor) polygamist sect, displaced to Mexico. The writing is riveting, and the love between siblings is beautiful, even as they wrestle with their mom's longing & unhappiness.
And if you want even more of the excitement, pick up The Polygamist's Daughter, written by Wariner's cousin, Anna LeBaron.