Maureen Corrigan

2012 has been a jittery year, what with the presidential election, extreme weather events and, now, the looming "fiscal cliff." Not surprisingly, many of my favorite books told stories, imagined and real, about people who felt like they didn't have a clue what hit them.

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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