The holidays are a time for gathering with family — which, depending on your family, can rest somewhere between a Norman Rockwell portrait and a Nature documentary on cannibalistic polar bears.
Everyone's got a home-for-the-holidays tale of woe: You're 32 and stuck at the kids' table; your uncle's new wife is your other uncle's old wife; and grandpa's lost his prosthetic eye somewhere in the grape salad.
If you're looking ahead to eccentric family gatherings this holiday season, it might be helpful to know that it could always be worse. Call it schadenfreude, call it mean-spirited, call it comfort reading. We asked booksellers across the country to introduce us to literary families so dysfunctional, yours will seem tame by comparison.
"The Family Fang" by Kevin Wilson
"Camille and Caleb Fang make family dysfunction an art. Their children, Annie and Buster, have been participants in their parents' performance art pieces their entire lives, and as adults they can't help but wonder if their childhood, and their family, was real or art. Very funny, very smart, and unless your father walked through a mall, holding you as in an infant in his arms, while his clothing was on fire, you can't possibly top the Fangs for dysfunction."
— Lyn Roberts, Square Books, Oxford, Miss.
"Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng
"The novel begins with the disappearance of a beloved daughter and we learn just how far one family is prepared to go, however unwittingly, to preserve some very fixed ideas about family roles."
— Karen Maeda Allman, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle
"The Patrick Melrose Novels" by Edward St. Aubyn
"This is one seriously twisted, wickedly satirical, preposterously elegant book. St. Aubyn follows his alter ego Patrick Melrose from a childhood of privilege and abuse at the hands of self-absorbed, aristocratic parents, to drug-addled young adulthood, through recovery and — perhaps — redemption, all the while ferociously and humorously attacking the superficiality and sadism of British high society. A kind of 'Brideshead Revisited' for the 21st Century."
— Alexandra Houston, Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Chicago
"F." by Daniel Kehlmann
"A father brings his three sons to a hypnotist's performance. Afterwards, he abandons them to follow his dream of becoming a bestselling novelist. Philosophical, funny and absorbing, this story of three brothers (an artist, a priest and a stockbroker) groping through adulthood in the long shadow of their absent, unpredictable father, not to mention dealing with one another, will make readers feel swell about their own life choices, I promise."
— Julie Wernersbach, BookPeople, Austin, Texas
"Sweet and Low" by Rich Cohen
"This is the hilarious and heartbreaking history of Ben Eisenstadt, who invented sugar packets and later Sweet'n Low. The book is written by Eisenstadt's disinherited grandson. The story manages to weave in New York gangsters, diet crazes, '80s excess, money, the odd lawsuit and tons of familial discord. A massively entertaining read."
— Michelle Bakken, Tattered Cover, Denver
"The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls
With a charismatic but alcoholic father and a mother who describes herself as an "excitement addict," Jeanette Wall's childhood took some wild turns. Her memoir of growing up in the 1970s includes her family's nomadic wanderings in the deserts of the Southwest and their eventual unhappy landing in a West Virginia coal town. "I laughed and cried. No one can make this stuff up and it is a story that just could not happen in today's world."
— Linda Carver, Books and Books, South Florida
"Catherine the Great" by Robert K. Massie
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Massie tackles the biography of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. "Sleep with your cousin: Check. Have your husband killed: Check. Start wars with your neighbors: Check. Just your normal Russian family."
—Sue Zumberge, Subtext Books, St. Paul, Minn.
"Running With Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs
When Burroughs was twelve, his mother left him at the home of her therapist — permanently. His memoir of the ensuing years at the house includes people popping Valium like candy, an electroshock therapy machine left around just for fun and his encounters with the therapist's own very troubled family. Nearly every bookseller we talked to recommended Burroughs' memoir as a lesson in family eccentricities.
"Me Talk Pretty One Day" and "Holidays on Ice" by David Sedaris
Pretty much any book by any member of the Sedaris family will put your family's own neuroses in perspective. David Sedaris never shies away from an awkward family story, even if it means sacrificing his own dignity in the process. "A great pick-me-up to beat the stress of the holidays, or any time a good laugh is required."
—Mary Magers, Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis
A last note, from Chris A., of Books and Books in South Florida: "Honorable mention to 'The Odyssey' because the husband's gone for 20 years, comes back, engages in a bloodbath and says, 'Honey, I'm home!'"
So, what did we miss? Know a family in literature that's crazier than yours? We'll keep adding to the list in the comments below.