The best novels about complicated families

Why am I passionate about this?

For my Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, I drew heavily upon my own life as a former musician who now lives with hearing loss, and how that loss informs my relationships with my family. The book is set on the south side of Chicago in the neighborhood where I grew up and where I continue to return to to visit family and it’s that part of the city that’s almost never documented in fiction or film that drew my attention. I wanted to write a novel that felt like a musical composition, detailing the contradictions of a family struggling against the past and present.


I wrote...

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies

By Joe Meno,

Book cover of Book of Extraordinary Tragedies

What is my book about?

Aleksandar and Isobel are siblings and former classical music prodigies, once destined for greatness. As the only Eastern European family growing up on their block on the far south side of Chicago, the pair were inseparable until each was forced to confront the absurdity of tragedy at an early age and abandon their musical ambitions.

Now in their twenties, they find themselves encountering ridiculous jobs, unfulfilling romantic relationships, and the outrageousness of ordinary life. When an illness forces Isobel and her three-year-old daughter to move back into the family home, Aleks becomes deeply involved in the endless challenges that surround his relatives. Once Isobel begins playing cello again, Aleks comes to see a world of possibility and wonder in the lives of his extraordinarily complicated family.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of All My Puny Sorrows

Joe Meno Why did I love this book?

One of the most complicated and hilarious novels about the difficulties of having a sibling, Miriam Toews's story of two sisters who grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada and are now struggling with adult life feels incredibly urgent and intimate, like a conversation between the reader and the narrator. Elf and Yoli are sisters and both are struggling with Yoli’s compulsion to end her own life. With wickedly-funny insights, Elf struggles to keep her family from falling apart in this grippingly-honest retelling of events from Toews’ own life. This book gave me the permission to draw from some of the challenges of my own family has faced—hearing loss, mental health criseswhile still searching for joy and humor in the midst of all these ongoing tragedies.

By Miriam Toews,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked All My Puny Sorrows as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of Women Talking, a "wrenchingly honest, darkly funny novel" (Entertainment Weekly).


Elf and Yoli are sisters. While on the surface Elfrieda's life is enviable (she's a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, and happily married) and Yolandi's a mess (she's divorced and broke, with two teenagers growing up too quickly), they are fiercely close-raised in a Mennonite household and sharing the hardship of Elf's desire to end her life. After Elf's latest attempt, Yoli must quickly determine how to keep her family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one…


Book cover of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Joe Meno Why did I love this book?

This award-winning novel follows Oscar, a young Dominican-American man from New Jersey struggling with his present as a self-confessed “ghetto-nerd” and the legacy of his family’s past. The book is a dazzling example of how complicated our relationship to our family can be. I read and reread passages trying to decode Diaz’s choice in language and how he created such a compelling cast of characters. Told in vary perspectives and points of view and leaping gloriously back and forth in time, the book brazenly displays how the past is never truly past when it comes to matters of family.

By Junot Diaz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14.

What is this book about?

A SUNDAY TIMES TOP 100 NOVEL OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

A ghetto nerd living with his Dominican family in New Jersey, Oscar's sweet but disastrously overweight. He dreams of becoming the next J. R. R. Tolkien and he keeps falling hopelessly in love. With dazzling energy and insight Diaz immerses us in the tumultuous lives of Oscar; his runaway sister Lola; their beautiful mother Belicia; and in the family's uproarious journey from the Dominican Republic to the US and back.

'The Best Novel of the 21st Century to Date' - BBC Culture.


Book cover of Salvage the Bones

Joe Meno Why did I love this book?

Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award-winning novel captures young narrator, Esch, and her family in the moments before Hurricane Katrina strikes their home in rural Mississippi. I had never encountered a narrator with such fierceness and complexity before. Told her in poetic, vibrant prose, Esch struggles to prepare her family for the impending storm as she confronts her challenges including the realization that she might be pregnant. I don't think I’ve ever read a book that so brilliantly captured the struggle of family life and how that idea of family plays into our individual sense of survival. By the end of reading this, I felt like a member of the family.

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Salvage the Bones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ 'A brilliantly pacy adventure story ... Ward writes like a dream' - The Times 'Fresh and urgent' - New York Times 'There's something of Faulkner to Ward's grand diction' - Guardian _______________ WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD Hurricane Katrina is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. He's a hard drinker, largely absent, and it isn't often he worries about the family. Esch and her three brothers are stockpiling food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets;…


Book cover of Franny and Zooey

Joe Meno Why did I love this book?

One of the most familiar mid-century novels to depict an odd, American family, I first read this book as a sophomore in college. A young woman I was dating had a copy in her room and let me keep reading it when she went to class. I finished it before she came back. Franny and Zooey Glass are siblings that grow up in a family of troubled geniuses. After her first semester at college, younger sister Franny has a breakdown and returns home, questioning her future in acting. Zooey, her older brother tries to convince her of her talent in a book-length phone conversation that ranges from questions of religion, philosophy, and finding your place in an ever-complicated world.

By J.D. Salinger,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Franny and Zooey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Perhaps the best book by the foremost stylist of his generation" (New York Times), J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey collects two works of fiction about the Glass family originally published in The New Yorker.

"Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much only in a different way."

A novel in two halves, Franny and Zooey brilliantly captures the emotional strains and traumas of entering adulthood. It…


Book cover of Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Joe Meno Why did I love this book?

Witty, hilarious, and heartbreaking, Maria Semple’s book about a modern family living in Seattle confronting modern meaninglessness is inventive and playful in its use of forms. Each chapter feels like a new opportunity for Semple to explore a different way of capturing this family of three that has begun to drift apart. Part mystery, part satire, the novel perfectly captures the absurdity of trying to understand the strange people we call family.

By Maria Semple,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Where'd You Go, Bernadette as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A misanthropic matriarch leaves her eccentric family in crisis when she mysteriously disappears in this "whip-smart and divinely funny" novel that inspired the movie starring Cate Blanchett (New York Times).

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is her best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette vanishes. It all began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle --…


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By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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