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Books About Fathers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Get an insight into the life of fascinating families with these book suggestions to celebrate Father’s Day.

Not every father can be an Atticus Finch, a Bob Cratchit, or an Arthur Weasley. There are many examples of glowing fatherhood through literature…but what about the more complicated and realistic fathers who make mistakes or have difficult lives?

Can a Nazi also be a good father? Is it possible to be both a loving dad and a stranger to your family? As Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “There are as many kinds of love as there are hearts,” but there are also as many types of fathers as there are families. 

It has been said that “family is a nest of perversions” – a hyperbolic sentence attributed to Simone de Beauvoir. There are joyful and admirable relations between fathers and their children, but there are complicated and painful family bonds, too. 

For example, the death of a parent has often been a source of literary inspiration. Many readers have comforted their own grief in the words of others for their lost loved ones. When Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, she did it to understand the loss of her husband, Gregory Dunne. As personal as the topic was for the author, the book has become a universal tale about mourning. 

Because family matters create a powerful literary focus, to celebrate Father’s Day we have made a selection of books about some of the good, the bad, and the ugly types of fathers, families, and parenthood: 

The Ratline: Love, Lies, and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

Delving into family history is not always a pleasant experience, especially if your father was an SS high commander. There are many examples of how painful it was for many to discover their family connections with the Nazi regime. Choose from Martin Davidson’s The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past and Géraldine Schwarz’s great essay Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe. In The Ratline, writer and lawyer Philippe Sands describes the character of SS Otto Wächter, the governor of Poland while the Kraków Ghetto was created. 

As Sands did in his acclaimed East West Street – both a memoir and a historical investigation of the Nuremberg trial – he makes use of Wächter’s youngest son Horst to figure out this sinister figure. The interesting part of this inquiry is that Horst has always considered his father to be a loving and perfect one. He even tries to justify Otto’s orders, although he was accused of mass murder among other criminal charges. In The Ratline, Sands rebuilds the story of a family defined by the sins of the father almost as if it were a mystery novel.


Pedro Páramo

Mexican writer Juan Rulfo wrote one the most famous beginnings of Latin American literature: “I came to Comala because I was told that my father, a man called Pedro Páramo, was living there”. These are the first words of the novel Pedro Páramo, in which Rulfo relates both the adventure of Juan Preciado looking for his father and Páramo’s story as a corrupted chief. 

Published in 1955, many elements of magical realism are found in this novel, although it was written before the two masterpieces of the genre: Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Elena Garro’s Recollections of Things to Come. Due to his innovative literary structure it’s considered one of the most influential novels written in Spanish, and it has been translated into multiple languages since its publication.  


A Death In The Family: My Struggle, Book 1

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book series My Struggle is quite a feverish obsession in Norway, the author’s homeland, and beyond. Originally published in 2009, it was the first of six novels in which Knausgaard does a profound and detailed analysis of his past and his actual life. It’s indeed a memoir, even if the series is marketed as fiction. 

The premature death of his father triggered an emotional revolution. In A Death In The Family, ten years later, Knausgaard faces the consequences of this event and his role as a father by the time it was written. The release of this volume became tabloid news – and a judicial matter – because of the raw manner in which the family’s intimate stories were made public.


A Man’s Place

Acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux has mastered the art of using autobiographical literature as a way to depict universal themes. In 1982, she published the novella A Man’s Place, dedicated to her father who died only two months after she passed her exams to earn a teaching certificate. Barely educated, the author’s father represents a generation strictly valued for their labor force. At the same time, he functions as an excuse to describe the French migration from the rural areas to the cities. A Man’s Place is an emotional and beguiling portrait of a devoted daughter and her father, and the heartbreaking cultural and educational gap between them.


The Distance Between Us

The father just might be the most popular character archetype of universal literature. Especially when you have a father whose life could be a novel itself – and not necessarily a nice one. Two decades after his father’s death, writer and poet Renato Cisneros found out his father had another family in Argentina. Cisneros is the son of Peruvian ex-minister and Lieutenant General of the Army Luis Federico Cisneros, who was quite a controversial figure in his country. 

The author spent eight years investigating the person who had raised him, someone who became a complete stranger although they had shared a life together as a family. As a result, readers can perceive how he faced the emotional difficulties of being at the same time a writer pursuing a good story and a son trying to understand his father and his family. 


Patrimony: a True Story

Originally published in 1991, Patrimony is a classic when talking about books and fathers. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Herman Roth – writer Philip Roth’s father – needed to be taken care of by his son. The author relates the vicissitudes of this period: the illness and the fear, but also the strength of love and the essential bond between parents and children. A captivating story written by one of the most skilled novelists of contemporary American literature.


My Ear At His Heart

My Ear at His Heart is a novel published in 2004 by British author and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi. It could be said it is actually two books in one: throughout its pages, Hanif Kureishi narrates how he found a lost manuscript written by his late father Shanoo. 

This unpublished novel, titled An Indian Adolescence, along with other books his father never released, enables Hanif to understand the literary aspirations of Shanoo, a civil servant for the Pakistani Embassy in London. With My Ear At His Heart, Hanif celebrates his father’s love for books by making him a literary character. As many others did before him, the writing of this novel eventually functions as a way to understand the man behind this figure called Dad. 

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