March 2010

It’s All Relative

Lonely Hearts Book Club Picks

“Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of the night.”
—P.J. O’Rourke

Our family gets together every year, and I dread it. My sister can’t stand my husband, and my brother is newly married to a woman who thinks we’re loyal to the first wife. Last time, my sister got so angry she barely spoke, and my brother nearly punched out my husband. My brother just informed us he’s only available for one night, even though we’re all flying to his city. His guest room has been turned into a gym/office, and we’ve been banished to a hotel. I can afford this, but my sister can’t, and she resents me because her husband has never earned a dime. My mother tries to keep the peace but ends up drinking too much, saying whatever pops into her head. Can you suggest some diversionary reading?    —Sophie, Van Nuys

Dear Sophie,
There are so many grand, wise, illuminating books on the subject of family dysfunction, any one of which can provide solace and amusement. Here are a few that will get you through another vacation with your loved ones—or at least through the night.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

This turbulent, often infuriating, family epic set in the Midwest makes Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof look like Father Knows Best. A 2001 National Book Award winner, the novel is filled with a stunning array of losers, drinkers, sex addicts, aging parents, indifferent siblings and wisecracking spouses, who come together for one last Christmas dinner at home. Brick and Maggie, pull up a chair.

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts

Buy the paperback version of this Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play—a piercing and hilarious encounter with an unruly, aggressive Oklahoma family dealing with their father’s mysterious disappearance. The cast of characters includes a diabolical, drug-addicted mother and her troubled offspring. And it all roars into a surprising conclusion. Blood is thicker than vodka.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris

It’s not often a modern humorist is compared to Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker and Anton Chekhov. But in this 2004 short-story collection, Sedaris pens comical, poignant stories about growing up amid a middle-class family’s quirks and foibles. “As children we’d been assigned certain roles—leader, bum, troublemaker, slut—titles that effectively told us who we were.”

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley

In this sprawling family saga—which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—a Lear-like patriarch divides his thousand-acre remote Iowa farm among his three daughters, resulting in sibling rivalry, thwarted ambitions, dissolved marriages, spilled secrets and the decline of the family business. As Smiley describes the dynamic, it’s love that’s “more quid pro quo than unconditional.”

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This Pulitzer-winning author’s contemplative third novel—which took the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction—centers on the fragile, probationary comforts of coming home—especially when, as often happens in life, there is no place else to go. It’s a portrait of two lost souls—a sister and brother. One is not home even when he’s home, and the other must find a way to move on.

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Written in a Rothian, male, middle-aged voice—you either love it or you don’t—this novel won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and made Time’s “All-Time 100 Novels.” As a father deals with the heartbreak of a daughter’s rebellion, it gives new meaning to the parent’s

Have a question? You can reach Mack and Kaufman at