Maureen Corrigan

Famous writers and their families: that's the subject of two recent biographical studies that read like novels — one a Gothic nightmare; the other, a romance.

At first glance, a novel in which the main character eats herself to death may not seem like the most felicitous pick for Thanksgiving week; but The Middlesteins turns out to be a tough but affecting story about family members putting up with each other, even in their most unlovely, chewing-with-their-mouths-open life moments. If you have a Thanksgiving family reunion looming before you that doesn't exactly promise to be a Norman Rockwell painting, The Middlesteins may just be the perfect literary corrective to overindulgence in high-calorie holiday expectations.

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth is that oddest of literary achievements: an ingenious novel that I compulsively read, intellectually admired and increasingly hated. By the time I got to McEwan's last sneer of a plot twist, I felt that reading Sweet Tooth is the closest I ever want to come to the experience of watching a snuff film. Think that's harsh? Open up Sweet Tooth and find out what McEwan thinks of you, Dear Reader, particularly if you're a woman, as most readers of fiction are.

Something must have been in the tap water in Gloversville, N.Y., during the 1950s when Richard Russo was growing up there — something, that is, besides the formaldehyde, chlorine, lime, lead, sulfuric acid and other toxic byproducts that the town's tanneries leaked out daily.

But one day, a droplet of mead must have fallen into the local reservoir and Russo gulped it down, because, boy, does he have the poet's gift. In a paragraph or even a phrase, Russo can summon up a whole world, and the world he writes most poignantly about is that of the industrial white working class.

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