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.

Salute These Shorts

I love short stories. Otherwise I wouldn’t write them, because they are a pain in the ass. Sure, you can get the whole idea in your head at once, but there’s no room for error. So when I read a great one, I sit in awe. Here are a few of my favorites. What are yours?

The Creature from the Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

This one felt silly when I first read it, but now that we have cell phones, ol’ Fritz is laughing in his grave.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel paints pain so beautifully, without ever using fancy brushes.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin

An incredible fable that puts civilization in perspective and asks us why we can’t walk away.

The Gentle Way, by Lawrence Block (available in his collection “Enough Rope”)

Mr. Block writes damn fine short stories. This one, about an animal shelter dealing with a vandal, resonates deeply. His excellent story “See the Woman” is available online.

Placebo, by Andrew Vachss (Available in his collection “Born Bad,” and also in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.) You can read the also-excellent “Working Roots” free here on his website.

Placebo is a pared down work of great power. Working Roots is a gritty urban fairy tale. I wish Andrew Vachss would write a novel about these kids.

Houston, Houston Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon.

How do you end violence? The answer is simple, if unpleasant.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
The last Ms. Butler is interviewed by Charlie Rose here:

The late, great Ms. Butler captures the terror of a true apocalypse and losing the power to communicate in this gut puncher.

The Man from the South, by Roald Dahl

One of my favorite horror tales. You’ll be clutching your fingers!

The Chaser, by John Collier

One of the funniest and best short story writers, Collier is oft forgotten but has many lessons to teach writers today and many joys to bring readers for centuries hence.

The Appointment in Samarra, by Somerset Maugham

A classic bit of flash fiction.

Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

A great picture of a family from one of its loony members.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

If you don’t like this story, hit yourself in the face.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

The inspiration for “The Thing,” this one is terrifying on a cellular level.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison. He has written a ridiculous amount of great short stories. How to choose one? This has always been the most memorable to me. A supercomputer destroys humanity in retribution for creating him–a genius who cannot truly move, feel or love– but he saves five individuals to torture for eternity. Misanthropy at its most dire. A close second is “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a wonderful fantasy story about a man who guards the “clock” that keeps the world from doomsday, and how he shares a moment with a veteran wracked with survivor’s guilt. The first is available in the collection of the same name, the second is in “Angry Candy.” I am also fond of the entire collection :”Deathbird Stories,” especially the title story, which retells Genesis from Satan’s–I mean “Snake’s” point of view.