Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Reading Time!

Since it's too hot to move outside, we've been doing a lot of pleasure reading, some better than others.
Let's start with 2009 Booker Prize Winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  whose dense and riveting novel about Thomas Cromwell examines the complex and often callous world of Henry VIII's court. For once, Cromwell is not the villainous creep that is described in the play and movie A Man for All Seasons. Here is a multifaceted man who rises from a humble home where he was abused by a drunken father to one of the most powerful positions in England. He does it by listening, learning, and using his knowledge to aid the king and to advance himself. Mantel brings humanity to Cromwell with his personal life, especially the loss of his wife and children. Bring Up the Bodies, the second in a trilogy on Cromwell, is already a best seller.

Tom Perotta has established a reputation as a sharply observant and often cynical viewer of modern middle America. His best earlier novels were Election, a humorously scathing look at high school politics and sex and also a terrific movie, and Little Children, which examines infidelity and double standards in the internet age. Now he has come up with The Leftovers, which imagines what happens when a non-religious "rapture" takes away millions of people of all races and creeds. The fundamentalists are filled with guilt, despair, and wonderment. Why were Hindus, Episcopalians, atheists, and sinners taken, and some of "us" were not? The novel concentrates on a fictional and typical American town, where families are adjusting to new family dynamics after their loved ones have vanished. Somehow Perotta's concept lacks room for his usual humor, and the effort falls flat. He substitutes fringe groups, sexual encounters, and depression for his usual twisty plot interactions, and it doesn't work. For his best work, read Election and Little Children.

Anne Tyler, who wrote acclaimed novels such as  The Accidental Tourist, has a light-hearted and occasionally poignant novel called The Beginner's Goodbye. The protagonist falls in line with her standard characters. Aaron is  self-absorbed, quirky, shy, intelligent, and totally out of touch with social interaction. His wife is killed when a tree collapses on her study, and he is plunged into numbing grief. Eventually he begins to see his wife at odd times and tries to communicate with her. He discovers that they really didn't communicate when she was alive. The characters, especially Aaron, his sister, and his contractor for rebuilding his house are fully fleshed out and provide humorous contrasts. However, the supernatural element doesn't quite work. For Tyler's best work, go back to one of her celebrated earlier novels.

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