Good Reads, mid December

Read any good books lately? I have. Here are a couple.

couplandAll Families Are Psychotic, by Doug Coupland. I’m a big fan of Mr. “Generation X.” My friend Suzanne kept goading me to read Microserfs, and I was surprised at how damn good it was. Coupland has a knack for seeing the heart of things, especially generational differences and the string in the sweater of our personality, that when tugged, causes everything to unravel and be seen for its component parts. “Families” is no different, pitting ’50s-born parents against children born in the ’70s and ’80s, with his unique, insane caper-style stories. Almost if Don Westlake decided to write John Irving stories, these books are always fast, packed with humor and unpredictable yet inevitable collisions between unforgettable characters. This one involves AIDS, the space shuttle, endangered species smuggling, Thalidomide, surrogate parenthood, and … well, it’s set in Florida, so maybe all that’s expected. This was one of my favorite reads this year. The paperback is sadly out of print, but it is available on Kindle, and at used bookstores. Coupland always manages to play fun games with book design. My paperback felt like it was bound in corrugated cardboard, and the end wraps had a photo of the author next to a huge statue of a green toy Army soldier. I’m told the hardcover was flipped midway through, like the old Ace Doubles, but I haven’t been able to find one.

tampaTampa by Alissa Nutting will be polarizing. It’s the story of a monster, like Nabokov’s Lolita, with the gender roles reversed. The main character is a middle school teacher who preys on her male students. Because we view women as less dangerous, Nutting can carve a dark satire of our mores, media, and expectations. By the end, the damage to her victims is clear as day, but our cultural beliefs are barely shaken, even when the protagonist’s monstrosity is laid bare and raw, and our double standards flayed before us like a laboratory specimen. This was a daring novel that will certainly be pilloried as salacious, but its depiction of a heartless female predator and the incalculable damage sexual abuse inflicts on teenage boys is an important and generally untold story.

lush_lifeLush Life, by Richard Price is like a season of The Wire moved to the Lower East Side on the cusp of gentrification. The book flies, despite being crammed with storylines of street kids, detectives, bartenders, and hipsters. Any fan of the series will want to read this. I hadn’t read Price since Clockers, to my detriment. That book was fantastic, and remains one of the best crime novels written about New Jersey. The Wanderers, his ’60s era coming of age in NYC novel, is delightful, too. One of the first books I ever read that had characters that reminded me of my friends and family, who “tawked” like me. But Lush Life is an accomplishment, encapsulating the sausage factory of the criminal justice system and how even the best intentions ricochet like mad.

Parable of the SowerAnd finally, The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. Her stories have always resonated with me, from “Bloodchild,” which I’d read as a teen, to “Speech Sounds,” an amazing apocalyptic tale where humanity is slowly robbed of language. The Sower is another story of slow collapse, as the economy crumbles and America becomes a Balkanized state of gated communities and enslaved company towns. Written from the perspective of Olamina, a teenage girl prepping for the day looters clamber over the walls to destroy her family, this book is equally entertaining for teens and adults. It is rich and thoughtful, but written as diary entries, by a young woman creating a scientific philosophy where God is change and cannot be worshiped as much as prepared for. As dark as The Road but as compulsively readable as The Hunger Games, this 1991 novel is due for a deserved resurgence. The politicians will sound all too familiar, as they bargain away our rights and national assets in the name of “the economy” as the country foments into a corrupt Third World state without the rule of law. I’m waiting before I tackle the sequel, The Parable of the Talents. Butler died while still working on a third novel, that was never fully realized or completed.

Give yourself a gift, and read a book. Happy holidays to you all.