It’s All Relative: Dysfunctional Families You Can Reshelve When You’ve Had Enough

Shelf RenewalThe film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s hilarious novel, This Is Where I Leave You, came out on DVD just in time for the holidays. Readers needing to know that their familial spats could be worse will find comfort in these tales of delightful domestic drama.

This is Where I leave You

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke

After you’ve served a prison sentence for “accidentally” burning down Emily Dickinson’s house, it’s really no surprise that blame falls to you when Edith Wharton’s crib gets torched. Sam Pulsifer tries to clear his name while living with his unabashedly alcoholic parents and stalking his estranged wife.

Between, Georgia, by Joshilyn Jackson

Nonny has not one, but two dysfunctional families, and now she’s stuck in a family feud that began the night she was born. Her biological family, the Crabtrees, are the poor lawless outcasts of their rural Georgia town; her adopted family, the Fretts, are the upper-crust, can-do-no-wrong type. Her adopted mother is blind and deaf, her rocker husband is always half out the door, and her biological grandmother sets her dobermans on anyone she doesn’t like.

this is where i leave you coverThe Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Enid Lambert is desperate for one last perfect Christmas before her husband Alfred’s Parkinson’s-induced dementia turns his family into nothing more than an unreliable memory. The three Lambert children are far from perfect, of course, and they return to St. Louis with emotional baggage from their adult lives that battles for attention along with the unpacked wrongs from their childhood.

Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, by Paul Feig

The creator of the short-lived (and much mourned) TV show, “Freaks and Geeks,” mines the dysfunction not so much of his immediate family but of the absurdity of adolescence itself, in this humorous essay collection. The humiliations of growing up are never forgotten, and in Feig’s case—that’s a good thing.

Mermaids in the Basement, by Michael Lee West

Mourning the death of her mother, Renata escapes to her grandmother’s cottage, but instead of finding rest and relaxation, finds more stress, thanks to her family. Eventually, she discovers that her parents led secret lives to which she was never privy, until now: Grandmother Honora and pals have decided it’s time to let all of the skeletons out of the family closets. And to top it off, when her father’s new fiancée is found unconscious in the pool at their engagement party, Renata becomes the prime suspect.

The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz

It’s hard to get any privacy when the family business is a detective agency. Isabel Spellman, however, still manages to be surprised when her parents do background checks on her dates and put a tail on her when they think she’s not being forthcoming enough. Her older brother David is just happy that he’s not under the microscope for a change, and younger sister Rae is a sugar-addicted Harriet the Spy. One of the most wonderfully, frustratingly-boundaryless families in all of detective fiction.

Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison

Script doctor Money Breton has got her hands full with three ex-husbands, teams of ridiculous movie people demanding her help, money problems, a new boyfriend, undermedicated ADD, a methadone-addicted daughter, and a son whose recent assault may have exposed him to AIDS. It shouldn’t be funny. It really shouldn’t. But what can I tell you? It really, really is.

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About the Author:

Karen Kleckner Keefe is the director of the Hinsdale (IL) Public Library, a Booklist reviewer, and one of Library Journal's 2009 "Movers and Shakers." Follow her on Twitter at @KarenKleckner.

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