Skip to main content


November 27, 2008

Katherine Taylor: Bad Choices in Book Giving

Posted by admin

Though she had us in stitches with her debut novel, RULES FOR SAYING GOODBYE, Katherine Taylor's particular brand of humor isn't always appreciated. . . especially around the holidays, when family chaos typically ensues. Here, she muses on the year she decided to give her parents and siblings self-help books, and the disastrous events that followed.

Just before Thanksgiving, my brother's girlfriend had killed his pet snake with a cleaver. My brother saw this as just a casual blip in their relationship. The snake murderer was invited to Thanksgiving dinner. Dinner with sharp utensils! In my childhood home! She and my mother shared a beet salad. My mother called her "sweetheart" and "darling" and insisted the two of them sit next to each other. The gushing, phony conciliation drove me bananas, and that holiday weekend culminated in a screaming, crying, door-smashing altercation between my mother and two brothers and me, all promising never to speak to one other again.

By December 24th, my beleaguered father had persuaded me to come home for the holidays. "Forgive your mother," he pleaded. "It’s Christmas." Reluctantly, and at the last minute, I drove home from Los Angeles to Fresno.

Caught without gifts, I bought presents at the only place open after dark on Christmas Eve: the chain bookstore in my small hometown. For my explosive brother with the awful girlfriend, ANGER: A Guide For Men. For my erratically depressed mother, THE ANXIETY & PHOBIA WORKBOOK. For poor Dad and for my youngest brother, who during family fights usually tend to keep their ears plugged, copies of THE NARCISSISTIC FAMILY: Diagnosis and Treatment.

These gifts did not go over enormously well.

Christmas ended in more tears. Hurt feelings went on and on.

The self-help books from that Christmas still line the shelves in my parents' library, along with some wiser gift choices from over the years --- Marilynne Robinson and Denis Johnson, last year's Leo Lerman's journals, a leather-bound series of the complete works of Hemingway, a first-edition Mark Twain I got for $100 at a used book store in Tulare.

I don't know why my parents keep the self-help books from that extremely unpleasant holiday season. Probably it's their overall reluctance to get rid of any book. It could be an ongoing punishment for my having ruined Christmas with books no one else thought were very funny. Partially it may be a subtle (and certainly necessary) reminder, when my brothers and I come home every year and under holiday pressure inevitably revert to our most obnoxious childhood selves, not to let snake murderers or life's various intruders interrupt the peace in a family, and to be kind to each other in the end.

Tomorrow, John Addiego shares with us gift-giving traditions from his childhood, and the most memorable present of all.