The best books with funny, wiseass narrators and ridiculously dysfunctional families

Who am I?

The stories I’ve loved the most in my life have all been about the richness of human relationships, told by a memorable narrator who can find humor and hope in almost everything, no matter how screwed up. Whether it’s Charles Dickens poking fun at his contemporaries in Victorian England or Armistead Maupin sending up friendship and love in San Francisco in the 1980s, I’m a sucker for well-told, convoluted, and funny tales about people who find life with other human beings difficult, but still somehow manage to laugh about it and keep on going. As the author of six novels myself, these are the kinds of stories I always try to tell.  

I wrote...

The Language of Love and Loss

By Bart Yates,

Book cover of The Language of Love and Loss

What is my book about?

Home, for Noah York, is Oakland, New Hampshire, the sleepy town where Noah’s brilliant, difficult mother, Virginia, had a psychotic breakdown and Noah got beaten to a pulp as a gay teenager. 

Now thirty-seven and far from home, Noah is eking out a living as an artist, Virginia has become a famous poet who enjoys skewering her son in her poetry, and J.D.—Noah’s ex—is in a loving marriage with a man Noah despises. But Virginia has shattering news, and a request Noah can’t refuse. Soon, he will track down the sister he never knew existed, try to keep his kleptomaniac cousin out of jail, feud with a belligerent neighbor, and confront his ex’s jealous, unhinged husband—all while dealing with his own considerable demons.

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The books I picked & why

Straight Man

By Richard Russo,

Book cover of Straight Man

Why did I love this book?

This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. It’s about a neurotic, hypochondriacal, middle-aged college professor in a small town who does one absurd thing after another as he attempts to sort his life out. 

His wife, daughter, and father are all as much of a wreck as he is, as are his lunatic colleagues in the English department. Being a middle-aged, neurotic, and hypochondriacal man myself—and having grown up in a small, claustrophobic college town with maladjusted academic types much like these—this novel had me crying with laughter. (There’s an over-the-top scene with a goose and a news reporter that almost made me wet myself.) 

But as often happens in a Richard Russo novel, there are also tons of lovely, sweet, and insightful moments. This is a great book.

By Richard Russo,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Hilarious and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down, Straight Man follows Hank Devereaux through one very bad week in this novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls. Soon to Be an Original Series on AMC Starring Bob Odenkirk.

William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character—he is a born anarchist—and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have…

Book cover of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Why did I love this book?

On the surface, this is a coming-of-age story with a protagonist similar to many others in the genre—bright, witty, snobbish, and pissed off at almost everybody he meets. But what makes this book so good is the narrator’s intelligence and self-awareness, and the complexity of all the characters and their relationships. 

My own upbringing was a far cry from the wealthy, highly-cultured world depicted here—I grew up in a tiny town in southern Iowa, and though there was a college in town I had little access to culture—yet I could completely relate to the gay narrator’s fish-out-of-water feeling and his desire to be understood. I also loved his close relationship with his grandmother, since my grandmother was equally important to me.    

By Peter Cameron,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is the story of James Sveck, a sophisticated, vulnerable young man with a deep appreciation for the world and no idea how to live in it. James is eighteen, the child of divorced parents living in Manhattan. Articulate, sensitive, and cynical, he rejects all of the assumptions that govern the adult world around him–including the expectation that he will go to college in the fall. He would prefer to move to an old house in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You takes place…

How To Talk To A Widower

By Jonathan Tropper,

Book cover of How To Talk To A Widower

Why did I love this book?

I love this novel. It’s about a young man mourning the death of his wife and trying to deal with crippling grief while also repairing his relationship with his sixteen-year-old stepson. With such a premise you wouldn’t think the book would be funny, but it’s both hysterical and emotionally touching. 

Trooper has a gift for making extremely dysfunctional characters lovable, putting them in ludicrous situations and turning them loose on each other. This book really resonated with me because of the damaged-yet-enduring family dynamic after the death of a loved one, which is similar to my own experience following the death of my father. 

The evolving relationship between the main character and his stepson is also great, and Tropper nails the adolescent angst I remember so well from my own childhood.

By Jonathan Tropper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How To Talk To A Widower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Doug Parker married Hailey - beautiful, smart and ten years older - he left his carefree Manhattan life behind to live with her and her teenaged son, Russ, in a quiet Westchester community. Three years later, Hailey has been dead for a year, and Doug, a widower at 29, just wants to drown himself in self-pity and Jack Daniels. But his family has other ideas.

Russ is furious with Doug for not adopting him after Hailey died, and has fallen in with a bad crowd. Claire, Doug's irrepressible and pregnant twin sister, has just left her husband and moved…

We Are the Ants

By Shaun David Hutchinson,

Book cover of We Are the Ants

Why did I love this book?

This is a YA novel, but it deals with adult themes like suicide, crumbling families, and mortality. 

It’s also drop-dead funny, with a smartass, teenage narrator you’ll alternately want to hug or slap silly. He believes he’s been abducted by aliens and given the choice of either saving the world or destroying it, and he only has a few months to decide. I love the witty dialog and the genuine, complex relationships, but what especially drew me to this story is the love story between the narrator and his new boyfriend. 

I wish I’d had a book like this to read when I was a teenager struggling with my own sexuality; it would’ve helped me immensely to see a fully-realized gay character like this one, both flawed and lovely, trying to find his place in the world, just like me.

By Shaun David Hutchinson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked We Are the Ants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Time Best YA Book of All Time (2021)

From the “author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews) of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes an “equal parts sarcastic and profound” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) novel about a teenage boy who must decide whether or not the world is worth saving.

Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.

Only he isn’t sure he wants to.

After all, life hasn’t…

Book cover of The Heart's Invisible Furies

Why did I love this book?

This is a peculiar and marvelous book about birth families, adopted families, and “found” families, and how each of these can be equally screwed up.

Starting in Ireland in the 1940s, the story is peppered with sharp, clever dialog and vivid, fully-human characters. I love how the narrator struggles with his own heart for decades, unable to decide what he wants, who he loves, what’s right, what’s wrong, etc.—in other words, all the stuff I haven’t figured out yet myself. 

Coincidence also plays a huge role in this book, basically making an ass of everyone, which I find oddly comforting since it reminds me that part of being human is having very little control over my own life. Painfully funny and brilliant from cover to cover. 

By John Boyne,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Heart's Invisible Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Compelling and satisfying... At times, incredibly funny, at others, heartrending' Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit

Forced to flee the scandal brewing in her hometown, Catherine Goggin finds herself pregnant and alone, in search of a new life at just sixteen. She knows she has no choice but to believe that the nun she entrusts her child to will find him a better life.

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, or so his parents are constantly reminding him. Adopted as a baby, he's never quite felt at home with the family that treats him more as…

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