This year, as we celebrate the holidays remotely to help stem the surge of COVID-19, my thoughts can't help but turn to the subject of family. Thanksgiving often evokes disparate images: of the warm family gathering and the contentious afternoon stuffing down mounds of mashed potatoes to keep from blurting what you really want to say to Uncle Ralph. But whether you miss them like crazy or will enjoy a little holiday quiet this year, our families — biological and created — are the foundations of our lives. In honor of that, here are some favorite books that celebrate what it means to be part of a family, in various, often hilarious, ways.
Enid Lambert is attempting to beg, borrow, and pressure her kids and their families into traveling to the Midwest from the East Coast for Christmas. This is easier said than done. The Lamberts' grown children are busy with their own failures, I mean lives — and no matter whether Gary, Denise, and Chip are living well or floundering and getting fired, Enid is always either disapproving or butting in. The kids can't stand their parents' old-fashioned ways and the parents don't appreciate their kids' modern lack of inhibitions. With Franzen's dry one-liners and cracking wordplay, this sounds like the recipe for the perfect dysfunctional family story, but The Corrections runs deeper — examining such diverse subjects as traditional values, modern cynicism, greed and instability in the financial markets, and the effects of debilitating disease (in this case, that of patriarch Alfred Lambert) on loved ones. This award-winning novel is a study of both family and society that is equal parts deeply sad, darkly funny, and warm.
Zadie Smith's On Beauty follows the Belseys, a mixed-race British American family living in a New England university town. Patriarch Howard, a professor of Rembrandt (who, by the way, doesn't particularly like Rembrandt) likes to think he knows exactly who he and his family are: liberal, unreligious, academic. But as the lives of the Belseys get twisted up with the lives of the Kipps, a conservative family headed by Howard's professional nemesis, all of their values get tested. With sharp, satirical wit, Zadie Smith takes on the divide between liberal and conservative, Christian and atheist, upper crust and working class, not to mention the many complexities of family, in this homage to E. M. Forster's Howards End.
Performance art is all well and good, but what if your parents are the artists and you are, through no desire of your own, the subjects? Annie and Buster Fang (credited in their parents' performance art films as child A and child B) grow up and out of their madcap art kid days and build their own, decidedly unzany lives — but when those lives fall apart and they retreat home, they find that their parents are planning one more wild magnum opus of a performance. Kevin Wilson's superb overabundance of imagination is the star of this nutty tragicomedy that explores the complexity of human interaction and the potent magnetism of art.
When five-year-old Claude starts wearing dresses and decides to be called Poppy, parents Penn and Rosie want to do all they can to support their budding daughter's wishes. They talk to Poppy's teacher, school counselor, and principal, they let Poppy grow out her hair. But there are more issues than just acceptance when transgender kids navigate the world. One day on duty at the ER, Rosie witnesses the aftermath of a transphobia hate crime and her fears multiply. Is it best to keep Poppy's old life a secret? Should the family move away, start fresh? And what happens, then, if her secret comes out? Laurie Frankel, who has a transgender child, writes deftly from experience, offering a compassionate, thought-provoking, at times heart-wrenching portrayal of the complexities of parenting a child who, no matter the best of efforts, is bound to get hurt by the world. And in the end, that's all of us.
Like Anne and Buster Fang, the kids in Meg Wolitzer's The Position would like their parents' art to just go away, please. In this case it's their mom and dad's bestselling book, Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment. When the mortified products of that fulfillment are all grown-up they have to deal with their own complicated, and yes, sexual, lives as they navigate the question of whether to reissue their parents' book. Wolitzer's wry, farcical writing makes this story a delightful, provocative escapade.
It's hard to talk about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving away a certain spoiler. In fact, what you should do is pick up this book, don't turn it over, don't read the back, don't read any reviews, just open the book up and start in. What you'll find inside is the incredibly engaging voice of narrator Rosemary who, as a child, used to live with Mom, Dad, sister Fern, and brother Lowell, until, one day, Fern disappeared. Not long after, teen brother Lowell took off. Okay, I'll give you that much of the plot and nothing more — but know that that plot is full of questions and surprises and the writing is cerebral, droll, profound, and page-turning. Shun the spoilers and sink fully and blindly into this thoroughly irresistible, unique book.
The highly maladjusted Plumb siblings have been waiting on "The Nest," a joint trust fund, to fix their many self-inflicted financial woes. Now brother Leo's drunk driving accident threatens that needed security. Debut novelist Sweeney writes this juicy, fast-moving story with wit and irony, careening hilariously through themes of flailing, failing, and finding out what really counts.
I want to go on record saying that none of my aunts are people I particularly want to avoid — but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy this "aunty" survival guide by Maria Qamar of Instagram @Hatecopy fame. And you, too, can learn how to manage meddling, avoid unnecessary advice-giving, and circumvent irksome judgment-bombing from your parents' female siblings and other honorary aunties. But Trust No Aunty isn't just about aunt-survival. With Qamar's bold, chunky pop-arty illustrations, it's a treasure trove of sharp social and cultural criticism delivered with loads of insight.
Editor’s note: This title sells out quickly! Set up a Used Book Alert on the Powells.com product page to be notified once it’s back in stock.
When the wealthy Wang family loses everything in the 2008 financial crisis, they pack into the one major possession they own that has not been repossessed, a 1980s Mercedes Benz station wagon, and head off to upstate New York to their eldest daughter's home to start over. Part family saga, part road-trip novel, The Wangs vs. the World is an utter delight. Along with exploring the topics of family and wealth (and lack thereof), author Jade Chang skewers Asian-American and immigrant family stereotypes. The writing is fresh and sharp, the story is wonderfully zany, and the voice shines with heart throughout.
Yes, I had to include a second Kevin Wilson book on this list, because how could I not? In Nothing to See Here, Lillian becomes caretaker to her former roommate's twin children. It's a heartwarming — Did you see what I did there? Wait, you will. — story about parental love with one catch: whenever the twins get upset, they tend to burst into flames. Literally. Wilson writes with a deceptively light touch and then wallops you with wit and wackiness as he delves into just how fiercely we can love.
In White Noise we meet a huge extended family living in a place only known as The-College-on-the-Hill. The heads of this family, Jack and Babette, have an obsession with death that extends over everything in their lives like the black toxic cloud that's catapulted over their town following a railcar chemical spill. This preoccupation with mortality pervades every inch of
the story, from conversations to infidelities to the abuse of a drug called Dylar that is supposed to alleviate the fear but also carries bizarre side effects like the inability to distinguish between words and objects. As things go from bad to more bizarre, Jack starts considering the question of whether perhaps committing murder could assuage his death obsession. With its surreal, brainy brilliance and its complex take on topics including technology, pop culture worship, unchecked consumerism, faux intellectualism, and of course family, it's not surprising that White Noise won the National Book Award.
What's a list about the joys of family without a story about multiple murders? Beautiful wild-child Ayoola is the serial killer of the book's title. Her sister Korede, used to years of cleaning up after Ayoola's exploits, finds she's pretty skilled at things like expunging bloodstains and eighty-sixing bodies. In fact, the book opens with Korede, mid-scrub, musing on the fact that the hardest place to get blood out of is where it seeps between the shower and the caulking. The writing is deliciously deadpan and the plot is full of twists, but it's the examination of the sisters' psyches that shines in Oyinkan Braithwaite's wickedly funny debut.