During an election year we all start dreading our holidays spent with family. The tense undertones of aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, and parents who do not agree with our politics. We prepare safe conversation starters or topic changers or rejoinders to bad opinions. This year, of course, is different. This year we cannot gather with extended family and friends. This year we’ll fix small meals and maybe a dessert. Scrabble is a good game to play with a few people, or a card game. We can still drink lots of wine, watch a movie, and go to bed early; which doesn’t sound bad, but it will be different. Probably a little depressing. The holidays are for family and it’ll be hard without them. So, if you need a fun family to hang out with, try one of these books featuring literary families instead.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Watsons live in Flint, Michigan. They’re a family of five; Byron’s 13, Kenny’s 10, and Joey’s 6. Their dad works for one of the auto companies in Michigan, and the family is blue collar, bordering on poor. Despite the lack of funds, they’re a happy family. Byron is a bully with a heart. Kenny’s sensitive and smart. And Joey’s the only girl and spunky. They play, get in trouble, watch cartoons, freeze during the winter, and deal with school. They’re normal, and although the world is harsh, they seem to be okay.
The Watsons are in Birmingham in 1963 to visit their Grandma Sands when the local church is bombed and four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley—are killed. Although this is a heavy book, Curtis is the kind of writer that can make you laugh while you cry, and you’ll really find yourself in love with the good humor of the Watson family.
Song accompaniment: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Alexandre Desplat
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
This is a memoir written in short vignettes about Shirley Jackson’s life in an old house with four unruly kids and a negligent husband.
When in labor and ready to deliver her third child, Jackson had to call a taxi and get herself to the hospital. Her oldest son, a terror, comes home every day with stories about a boy in class that is always in trouble, and as Jackson and her husband decide something must be done about this boy, they find out that the bad boy their son tells them about is actually him.
I wasn’t sure what a Shirley Jackson memoir would be like, but I absolutely hooted at this book. There are undertones of Shirley Jackson darkness here, but it’s all coated in a very funny story of a flawed family.
Song accompaniment: Training With Mr. Schaibel by Carlos Rafael Rivera
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Junichiro Tanizaki is a big deal in Japan, but I’d never heard of him until this year. This book takes place right before WWII in Japan. There are four Makioka sisters. The two oldest are married, while the two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, remain unmarried. Yukiko is very traditional and struggles to find a husband, preferring her life with her family to the uncertainty of a married life. Taeko, the youngest, is more modern and caused a scandal when she tried to elope a few years earlier. The two older sisters are desperately trying to find a suitable match for Yukioko so they can marry off Taeko before she causes anymore scandals. There are plenty of disasters, but also moments of tradition and ceremony that would be pleasing to any fan of Yasujirō Ozu’s movies.
Not only a novel about family, but also about a modernizing Japan and a woman’s place in a changing world. This is a not unlike a Jane Austen novel; full of subtext and social commentary, with witty thoughtful characters. It truly is a masterpiece.
Song accompaniment: The Belt of Faith by Jung Jae II
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Cassandra Mortmain lives in a decaying castle with her family of eccentrics. There’s her father who is suffering from writer’s block, her beautiful sister, airy stepmother, precocious younger brother, and Stephen, the family’s only servant and breadwinner. Cassandra captures her family’s exploits within three different notebooks over a period of a few months when two American boys join the family and begin disrupting all of their lives.
This is often compared to Jane Austen’s books (Austen’s coming up again, but I didn’t put any of her books on my list, so right here I’ll say: Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice would be great inclusions on a list about literary families), but I’d also say anyone who’s read Cold Comfort Farm or Nancy Mitford’s books would love I Capture the Castle. It’s just a delightful book, full of unruly people that are fun to hang out with for a little while.
Song accompaniment: Dawn by Dario Marianelli
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It’s been years since I’ve read this, but I’m recommending it because it’s a classic and one of my favorites. Every time I see a yellow butterfly I’m reminded of this book. Do I remember the plot? Kind of. José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch of the Buendia family, builds a home, and as the years pass a city is built around his original dwelling. Over one hundred years, the Buendia family and the home they created grows and changes. The ending stands out in my memory, but I won’t spoil it here!
Now, I’ll admit I debated between this and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. Also a family saga, also magical realism, but Kurniawan’s book takes place in Indonesia during and after WWII. It has one of the best first lines, and I’m afraid if I include it here you’ll be less likely to pick Marquez. Oh well, here it is: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” Anyway, really do read them both, because they’re great books.
Song accompaniment: Pruitt Igoe by Philip Glass
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Every spring my dogs eat baby bunny nests. It happens every year, with every dog I’ve ever had. It’s horrifying, but the mom and dad rabbits are not very careful and generally make their nests in the middle of the yard, and my dogs, being dogs, find the bunnies and see nothing but a nice squeaky snack. Horrifying. But there was one exception to this traumatizing pattern. One of our dogs, a golden retriever, picked up a baby rabbit that my cats had been toying with (at this point it was still alive), and the bunny disappeared from view into his mouth. The members of my family that were standing outside were horrified, but the dog was unfazed. We ignored him, disgusted that he could be so callous. It wasn’t until he wanted to go inside that he opened his mouth, and the baby rabbit, very much alive, hopped off. I will never forget it.
Something like that happens in this book. In fact, many things like that happens in this book. It’s about four sisters—Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty—and their summer spent at Arundel, a cottage that was “not only yellow, it was the creamiest, butteriest yellow the Penderwicks had every seen.” This is the first book in one of my favorite children’s series.
Song accompaniment: Orchard House by Thomas Newman
Ordinary Jack by Helen Cresswell
I discovered the Bagthorpe Series a few years ago. Helen Cresswell is English, so I’m sure these books are more popular there, but I’m going to try my hardest to make them popular here, too. I’ve only read the first two books, because I think the rest of the series is kind of hard to get. My copy of Ordinary Jack is an old library book and missing the first three pages, so I’ve no idea what happens at the beginning of this book. I’m sure it’s something hilarious, because both books are nonstop laughs.
The Bagthorpe family consists of Mr. Bagthorpe, who is delightfully crotchety; Mrs. Bagthorpe; their children William, Tess, Jack, and Rosie all prodigies except Jack; Grandma, who likes to start trouble; Grandpa who has SD (selective deafness); Uncle Parker; Aunt Celia, who is a poet; and Daisy, who is their troublemaking daughter. And then there’s Zero, the family dog. Nothing big ever really happens, but a bunch of small disasters add up, and it’s worth it just to see Mr. Bagthorpe’s reaction.
Song Accompaniment: Windsor Gardens by Dario Marianelli
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
This is the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s outrageous that Gerald and Laurence are brothers. I tried reading The Alexandria Quartet after this memoir, and man, it’s hard to believe Larry wrote those books. In this story, Laurence Durrell is definitely a Larry (no offense to Larrys, that’s my dad’s name), and he’s such an indolent idler, but you’ll love him. You’ll love the whole Durrell family—his careless mother, his apathetic brother, his acne-ridden sister—as they move to the Greek island of Corfu to escape the awful British winter. Besides Gerry’s family, there’s also a lot of really excellent nature writing, and it feels like a real getaway when none of us can actually get away.
Song accompaniment: The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe, Part 1: A Veiled Mist by Alexandre Desplat
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Beauty is a Wound, this book is a family saga. It begins in Korea but migrates to Japan when Sunja, a young Korean woman, becomes pregnant and finds out the father of her child is already married. Pregnant and desperate, Sunja marries a minister who is passing through and moves with him to Japan. In Japan, Koreans are second class citizens, so Sunja’s decision has ramifications for generations of her family.
This is the novel I’ve chosen to read through the holidays. I’ve only started it, so I can’t tell you how much, but so far I love the writing.
Song accompaniment: Yumeji’s Theme by Shigeru Umebayashi
French Exit by Patrick deWitt
I’ve just started watching The Crown and I can’t understand why the British people are still paying for that family’s lifestyle. They do nothing! They hunt, they bully, they play silly games. And yet, I keep watching.
The mother and son in this book are very similar to the royal family. Their mordant humor is intoxicating. Nothing really happens, but just like The Crown, you can’t stop wanting to spend more time with Frances Price and her son Malcolm.
After becoming social outcasts, Malcolm and Francis decide to leave New York by boat and live in Paris. Their lives are filled with outlandish characters who ebb and flow throughout the story, appearing just to add a dose of unneeded, but wonderful chaos.
Song accompaniment: Opus 17 by Dustin O’Halloran