Wednesday, September 26, 2012

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

A number of persons, not necessarily all virtuous, have been scooped up into heaven by The Rapture.  At least, that's what everyone assumes when family and friends suddenly just evaporate into thin air on Oct. 14.  The town of Mapleton has its own list of unlikely vanishers, including Nora's husband Doug, who was having an affair with a much younger woman.  In fact, Nora's kids vaporized also, and she has suffered probably the biggest loss of loved ones in Mapleton.  However, Nora's not the only one having trouble coping.  Laurie, whose family has remained intact, becomes so unmoored by the event that she abandons her life to join the Guilty Remnant, a bizarre cult that requires all members to smoke, stalk their former neighbors, relinquish all tokens of their previous lives, and make martyrs of themselves or their fellow members.  In fact, most everyone has lost their rudder, not knowing when/if they, "the leftovers," will disappear as well.  Rather than relish and enjoy each day as a gift, many of Mapleton's residents have basically given up or joined some fanatical group in order to find some sort of safe harbor.  Laurie's son, Tom, has become a follower of Holy Wayne, who has a string of teenage wives, while Laurie's teenage daughter, Jill, has veered off course, under the not-so-watchful eye of her father, Kevin, mayor of Mapleton.  Kevin and the barely functioning Nora strike up a tentative relationship, but really everyone is avoiding committed relationships, given that one or both parties could suddenly go poof.  Life is uncertain anyway, though, and maybe that's Perrotta's point.  Enjoy what you've got while you've got it; attitudes of gloom and doom just make matters worse.  I loved the ending, which provides a glimmer of hope that not everyone will go off the deep end.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TAFT by Ann Patchett

John Nickel manages a bar on Beale Street in Memphis and has a thing for his new waitress, Fay Taft.  There are two big problems:  1) She's a teenager, and  2) She's white and he's black.  The race difference wouldn't seem to be that big a deal these days, even in Memphis (my hometown).  However, Fay, her troubled brother Carl, and Fay's mother are living with old-money relatives, and John knows that they would take a dim view of an older black boyfriend who runs a bar.  These various issues seem only to intensify the attraction between the two, but in some ways John is also father figure to both Fay and Carl, whose father has recently died, leaving the family destitute and forced to move from the hills of East Tennessee to live with the aforementioned relatives.  I couldn't quite grasp what it is about Fay and Carl that motivates John to protect them in ways that are not healthy for any of the parties involved.  One possible clue is the fact that John himself is father to 9-year-old Franklin, who now lives in Miami with his mother, Marion, whom John never married.  This is a sticking point with both parties, as she was ready to marry when he wasn't and vice versa.  Now he has developed a friendly relationship with her parents, still in Memphis, and a possibly more-than-friendly relationship with her sister Ruth.  Add to these Wallace, Cyndi, and Rose, who all work in the bar, and you have a nice ensemble of characters to keep the pot boiling.  The author, from Nashville herself, nails the dichotomy, or trichotomy, really, that is the state of Tennessee, with the mountain people at one end and the delta people at the other, and the less extreme valley people in the middle.  I've read that the author thinks that the title of this novel hurts its market potential, and I think she's right about that.  It's a shame this novel hasn't come to the attention of more readers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LINCOLN by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal just passed away, and I realized that I had never read one of his books.  I had a copy of Lincoln and decided that now was the time to tackle it.  Historical fiction has the advantage (or disadvantage, in some cases) of a known outcome.  We know who's going to win the Civil War, but getting there seems almost impossible, given the Union's paucity of capable generals, the infighting among political leaders competing for Lincoln's job, the leakage of military plans to the Confederacy, and the bogus intelligence about the size of the Southern forces from obviously unreliable sources.  The book is overly long, but then there's a lot going on, including the plot by local Confederate sympathizers to kidnap or assassinate Lincoln.  The White House residents were aware that they might have to evacuate at any moment, given their proximity to the seceded state of Virginia.  Lincoln's wife's extravagance and migraines add to Lincoln's woes that include attempts to depose him for incompetence.  Eventually his foes in Congress and in his own Cabinet realize that Lincoln is the consummate politician who is wily enough to outsmart them and powerful enough to push them out of his way.  Some of his plans never came to fruition, due to his untimely death.  His ideas of reimbursing the slaveowners and relocating the slaves to Central America were not popular with his colleagues, but I couldn't help but wonder if the Reconstruction era could have been even more chaotic if he had lived.  One thing that I found disconcerting was that the author switched subjects or perspectives rather abruptly, and I had quite a bit of difficulty keeping the long list of characters straight.  No matter.  This book reads like a novel and reminds us that issues such as the size of the national debt and the separation of church and state are not new.  Imagine our current problems compounded by war on our own soil.  This book gives a glimpse of what was truly a turbulent time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Bad things happen to good people, and in this book all the characters are likeable.  Cancer can happen to anyone, and it's devastating.  However, Elizabeth's disease helps bring together two women—Cornelia, the petite newcomer, and Piper, Elizabeth's judgmental best friend.  There's also a surprising blast from the past that is sort of a mixed bag.  Any way you slice it, though, the cast of characters is delightful.  Cornelia is married to handsome oncologist Teo, and Cornelia's new friend Lake has a smart and congenial teenage son Dev, who has a new love interest in Clare, who visits Cornelia and Teo from time to time.  Cornelia and Teo would like to have a child of their own, now that they're permanently situated in suburbia.  Besides the cancer and a few spats due to misunderstandings, the worst thing that happens is that Dev's teacher in his previous school stifled his academic aspirations with a nasty putdown.  Lake, though, responds in the best way possible by moving Dev to a new locale, near Philadelphia, where our story takes place.  Dev suspects that the move has something to do with his father, whom he has never met.  Clare stirs the pot by encouraging Dev to try to identify and locate his father.  The result is that the kids get more than they bargained for.  Too bland a read?  Not at all.  The writing is lovely, and the lives of these nice people have enough bumps in the road to make us want to find out how they cope.