Saturday, February 25, 2012

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Every Last OneEvery Last One by Anna Quindlen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every Last One is the type of book that I can’t write about without including spoilers. I’ve hidden the Goodreads version of my review, but if you’re reading this on my blog, please be forewarned – THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Anna Quindlen did a marvelous job creating a book about raising a family. The type of problems Mary Beth had with her daughter, Ruby, and her sons, Alex and Max, were interesting enough to work on their own. They were adolescent problems about dating and picking colleges and participating in sports and feeling insecure around other people. Then, about halfway through the story Quindlen brings the book to a new level with a massive act of violence. For me, the violence was unexpected, but there were many clues in the earlier section that should have warned me.

The section of the book that follows the destruction of Mary Beth’s family is a story of grief and of going on with life. Quindlen writes about the small details, until the reader can feel exactly what Mary Beth and Alex are going through.

Mary Beth’s ex friend, Deborah, blames Mary Beth for everything that’s gone wrong because of a short affair Mary Beth had with Deborah’s husband, Kevin.

Ruby had introduced Mary Beth to the concept of “The Butterfly Effect” the beating of their wings in Mexico could cause a breeze in our backyard. The idea of a connection between everything in life comes with guilt for her. She wonders about what she did, thinking, I was unfaithful, which for a mother is not simply betrayal of a man but of a family and a vocation? Did I trade my ordinary, average, perfect life for hasty couplings on a cement floor?

But the timing of the physical relationship between Mary Beth and Kevin indicates that the affair was not the cause. They had sex after Kevin and Deborah's youngest child, Declan, had drowned in their swimming pool. And Kevin had been sleeping with other women in the community before that tragedy occurred. Of course, Mary Beth cannot explain the order of the events to her former friend without confessing to her adultery.

Every Last One is written extremely well with full, unique characters and a great attention to detail. It presents ideas about grief, family life, and human failing that are fascinating.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

New Music by Reynolds Price

New Music: A TrilogyNew Music: A Trilogy by Reynolds Price

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reynolds Price's work is considered a treasure, especially along the tobacco road corridor in North Carolina. He was a graduate of Duke University and returned there to teach for many years. He wrote novels, memoirs, short stories and, plays, including New Music.

When I saw Price's play was on the schedule for Triad Stage in Greensboro I was excited to see it. New Music is the type of play Triad Stage does well. At almost any moment during the show there are only a few characters on stage, so the staging issues aren't complicated. And it isn't a classic work they feel they have to reinvent. This was a good production.

The set was excellent, as it always is at Triad Stage. It was simple, with places on the stage that designated two different homes and a store. There was no need for set changes. There was also an apartment upstage which provided interesting levels and variety. The acting was wonderful, especially Gayton Scott who plays Roma Avery, a middle aged woman with a cutting, sarcastic side to her that affects her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law. I could see the compensation for insecurity that drove Roma to act the way she did in every move Scott made.

New Music is a trilogy. Triad Stage has decided to put on the entire work in two parts. I saw part one, which is the first two plays. All three plays follow the lives of the Averys, a wealthy southern family. In August Snow Neal and Taw are in the first year of their marriage. It hasn't been an easy year for Taw. Neal spends too much time at his mother's home and too much time with Porter Farwell, his lifelong friend. He often comes home drunk.

Taw has decided to give Neal an ultimatum. He needs to clean up his act or she will leave him. Throughout the beginning of the show the audience's sympathies switch back and forth. Is Taw too domineering or has Neal's behavior forced her hand? There's also a hint that the relationship between Neal and Porter wasn't just a friendship. The subtlety and character development in August Snow was outstanding. I thought the production was as good as you can get and well worth the price of the ticket.

The second play Night Dance didn't come up to the level of the first. This takes place after Neal and Taw have been married for nine years. There is a focus on their decision to have or not to have children. There is also a second plot surrounding World War Two. Neal has flat feet and wasn't able to join the service while Wayne, the fiancé of their friend and landlord Genevieve Slappy, is in the fight. This play was weaker than the first. There was a scene with Wayne's father that didn't advance the plot in any way. The homosexual relationship between Neal and Porter was talked about, so the subtlety was lost. And there were ghosts that appeared in the play, which wasn't in keeping with the style of the show.

The evening was too long even though it was only half the show. We decided not to go back for part two. However, the first play alone was well worth the ticket price and it was a good feeling to see a show by Reynolds Price.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The full name of Paula Mclain's novel is The Paris Wife – A Novel. I suppose the subtitle is to let the reader know this is historical fiction. Still, the big events seem to stick with the way things really went during the five year marriage of Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway.

They met in Chicago a short time after Hadley's mother died. They decided to move to Paris because as Sherwood Anderson tells Ernest: “Paris is the place to be. That's where the real writers are now. The rate of exchange is good. There are things to do at any hour. Everything's interesting and everyone has something to contribute.” But did Hemingway react in a controlled and understanding manner when Hadley lost three years of his manuscripts on a train bound for Lausanne, but react with fury when, on the same trip, Hadley told him she'd forgotten her diaphragm? There must have been some conjecture there.

The picture I got of Hadley and Ernest's personalities was of two opposites. Hadley seemed optimistic, supportive, but also whiny. Ernest seemed self-centered, dogmatic, and at times cruel. I don't know how much of their personalities was based on research, but it is a fact that The Torrents of Spring was a parody of the work of Sherwood Anderson, who had been a friend. Hemingway seemed to be someone who was willing to step on others to advance his career and willing to hurt others to show off. It was interesting to note that Hadley had a successful marriage after their divorce while Ernest went through four wives then committed suicide.

Although I believe the Hemingway marriage didn't last because Hadley and Ernest weren't good together, the book seems to put much of the blame on the Paris scene. They spent most of their time partying with rich friends from the art and literary world. Ernest's second wife was Pauline Pfeiffer, who was part of their crowd and a friend of Hadley's. They tried to be a threesome for awhile, which was in keeping with the anything goes attitude of that time and place, but it didn't work for Hadley. The fact that she tried says a great deal about her personality.

This book presents an interesting view of one of the world's greatest writers. It is well worth reading.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Doomsday Book at our book club

Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book was a hit at our book club. My wife recommended it and led the discussion. The club meets in our church and many of the members are in our choir and bell choir. Christian traditions that have provided continuity throughout history were one interesting topic of discussion. The technology of the future from a viewpoint that is now twenty years old was another. The characters in the book are strong and interesting. It is the human side of Willis's portrayal of life in Europe during the plague that was the most fascinating. I recommend this choice to others looking for book club discussions. The only problem with it is accessibility. It's twenty years old, so our local library had only one copy left...and it was in Korean.

Anyone who would like to read my review from May of last year can find it here: Doomsday May 21 2011.