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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

Most women can recall with fondness reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women when we were girls. I can still see the cover of my book: chocolate brown, with a color illustration of the March girls. Little Women was one of the first books I can remember reading that gave me a sense that female relationships were important, and that is was OK to be whomever you were.

Kelly O'Connor NcNees has taken the life of Louisa May Alcott and reimagined a pivotal period of her life in this historical novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. All of the sisters are there, and McNees is clearly inspired by the style of Alcott, as in this passage describing sister Anna.
Anna practiced compassion like an art form. She knew how to apply it with a delicate hand, knew its gradations and nuances, could distinguish its authentic form from imposters like sympathy and voyeurism. It came naturally to her, almost like a physical impulse.
The writing here is exquisite.

The summer recounted in this novel is the one in which Louisa meets and falls in love with Joseph, a young shopkeeper. While I enjoyed the story of the Alcott family, I felt that the book really captured me when Joseph and Louisa's love started to bloom. This is ironic, given that when I was a young girl, I liked the March sisters' story much more than the romantic Jo/Laurie storyline. Maybe it is a factor of age?

It is interesting comparing the fiction of Little Women, which was based on Alcott's own family, with the historical fiction of the Alcott family in Lost Summer. McNees did a lot of research, read many biographies of Alcott, and I enjoyed how she weaved biographical information, historical information (such as the publication of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass) with her fiction of Alcott's life.

During a recent online chat with the author at heylady.net much discussion arose about the father figure in the story. Louisa's father Bronson was a philosopher, and working for living to provide for his family was not something he was inclined to do. He believed that working for pay violated his conscience. He seemed to leave it to his wife and daughters to provide physically for the family so that he could live according to his beliefs.

Some bloggers felt that he was shirking his responsibilities, yet he was willing to live off the efforts of his wife and daughters. Others felt that he was living up to ideals. I fell into the camp that he was irresponsible, and it was hard to respect him. How can an able-bodied man sit in his study and read while his wife and children do the hard labor? Louisa questioned this as well.

If you have teen girls in your family, Little Women and The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott would make a great gift for them. Reading Lost Summer sent me to my Kindle to download a free copy of Little Women and remembering the summer I spent reading it on my porch.

This is another Amy Einhorn book, and again she has found another wonderful voice in McNees.
Rating 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin?/ TLC Blog Tours for providing a copy of the book for review.

Beth Fish Reads: Amy Einhorn Books Perpetual Challenge: Information

Beth Fish Reads: Amy Einhorn Books Perpetual Challenge: Information

The Postmistress

Back in March, I posted that I had the great pleasure to attend a reading and book signing for Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, from Amy Einhorn Books of G.P. Putnam's Sons. It was fascinating to hear the creative process behind the book, a fictional novel about three women's lives that collide during World War II.

Blake described the research that she did for this remarkable novel. She began with Iris James, the postmistress of a small community on Cape Cod. Iris took her job very seriously, believing deeply in the order of government, truth and that mail must be delivered.

Emma was a young bride, in love with her young doctor husband Will, who leaves her behind, pregnant, while he goes off to help the war effort in England after an unfortunate outcome for a patient shakes his belief in himself.

The most intriguing character is Frankie Bard, a young female reporter who travels to England and ends up as a war correspondent working with Edward R. Murrow. When I was a young girl, I wanted be like Brenda Starr, the strong reporter from the comic strip. After reading this novel, I want to be Frankie Bard. (Blake wrote in my book "So glad you're a Frankiephile"!)

Frankie fights to bring the truth of the war to her listeners. The most intense, gripping part of the story takes place when Frankie is on a train traveling through France to Spain. The train is filled with people, many of them Jewish, fleeing the Nazis. The tension on the train is palpable, and Blake writes those scenes with such realism, you can feel your heart beating through your chest as these people are praying to make it to safety.

Frankie hopes to get some people to speak into her new recording device, determined to bring the tapes back to England and allow the people of America to hear the truth in the words of people who fear for their lives. (At this point, the American people are not aware of the atrocities the Nazis are inflicting on Jews and other people.)

Blake parallels Frankie trying to bring the truth of the war to Americans who were confused and uninformed with reporters who were trying to bring the truth of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. She likens the fear in America following Pearl Harbor to the fear and uncertainty we felt after 9/11.

The Postmistress feels authentic, thanks to Blake's research at The Radio & Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland. She listened to recordings made by Mary Marvin Breckinridge, Betty Wason, and Martha Gellhorn, female war correspondents, and they inspired the fascinating character of Frankie.

In the end, Frankie and Iris must make a decision that requires them to question whether they can uphold their beliefs about truth and duty. This gripping novel, filled with strong characterizations, asks us to question our own beliefs in the face of adversity as well.

Amy Einhorn, whom I was lucky enough to meet at the signing, has a gift for finding talented writers with a fresh, strong voice. I've read Kathyrn Stockett's The Help, Diana Joseph's I'm Sorry You Feel That Way, and Kelly O'Connor McNees's The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott from Amy Einhorn Books, and loved them all. I look forward to any book from this imprint.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I finally saw Broadway's NEXT TO NORMAL

I have been meaning for a very long time to see Broadway's Next to Normal. My friend Paula, who ushers at Second Stage Theatre, saw it off-Broadway and told me how good it was and I said "I've got to see it", but I didn't.

Then a few weeks ago it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and I said I have to see it. I went to the website and saw that J. Robert Spencer, who plays Dan, the husband, was leaving soon, and again I said "I have to see it". Finally, I got an email offering $50 tickets for a few performances, and when plans that I had for one of those nights fell through, I bought my ticket. And I was glad I did.

The show is about a mother of two who is battling mental illness. Alice Ripley won a Tony last year for her performance as Diana, the troubled mother. The show also won a Best Score Tony. Both awards were very well deserved, as Ripley is fantastic, both humorous and heartbreaking in her showy role, and the music is terrific. It's a rock score, like Rent, and the band actually plays on the stage, well, above the stage.

The play reminded me of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, August:Osage County, in that the subject matter is a family in crisis, and the story takes the viewer on an emotional journey. You really feel wrung out by the end of the show.

Jennifer Damiano plays the daughter Natalie, an artistic high school high achiever who is struggling with her mother's illness and finds a kind boyfriend in Henry, played in the performance I saw by understudy Brian Crum. Damiano has a powerful voice, and I am sure we will see a lot of her in the future. She hits all the right notes of being a teenager.

Kyle Dean Massey plays son Gabe, and he is a whirlwind on the stage, bringing a huge energy to his dancing and singing, along with his underlying anger at his family. He's very easy on the eyes too.

While the showier role is Diana, the heart of the show belongs to Spencer's father, Dan. Spencer really breaks your heart as a man torn between caring for his wife, who doesn't seem to get any better no matter what kind of therapy she gets, and trying to give his daughter a normal life. I loved his performance; it was full of nuance, sadness, anger and confusion.

My only problem with the show, and this is one I find frequently with rock scores, is that the music sometimes drowns out the singing, and the overlapping singing makes it difficult to understand the lyrics at times. To get the full effect of the show, you need to buy the soundtrack CD, which in this case is a good buy. It's filled with great performances from to bottom, especially "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" a duet between the siblings.

Next to Normal is a near-perfect show; it has the power of a great dramatic play and a wonderful score that makes it a musical not to be missed. Paula was so right!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors

Writers are told to 'write what they know' so it's no surprise to discover that Michele Young-Stone is a lightning strike survivor. She titled her first published novel The Handbook for Lightning Survivors, and it's an emotional powerhouse of a book.

Using the conceit of placing a 'book within a book', one of the main characters, Buckley, a young man, has written a non-fiction book titled The Handbook for Lightning Survivors. Parts of his book are sprinkled within the novel, which tells the story of Buckley, who has had brushes with lightning strikes, and Becca, who has been struck twice by lightning.

Becca was struck by lightning as a young child, but her parents didn't believe her because she did not appear to be harmed. When a photograph of Becca appears to have a halo of light around her, her mother starts to believe it may be true. She is struck again when she is teenager, but this time, her boyfriend witnesses the strike.

Becca loves her father, who leaves his wife Mary. Mary falls apart, drinking, taking pills, ignoring her daughter. Becca turns to creating art, and indiscriminate sex, to deal with her emotions.

Although the story is about Becca, an actual lightning strike survivor, Buckley is a survivor in a different manner. His obese mother marries a shady, lazy man, who mistreats Buckley in the name of 'toughening him up'. When Buckley's mom has had enough, she leaves her husband behind with her mother and starts a new life with Buckley far away.

They meet another type of survivor, Paddy John, a Vietnam war vet, who has more than a few problems. But he falls in love with Buckley's mom, and his courtship of her is tender and sweet. Their relationship, and Buckley with his mom's, is the heart of this moving story.

How can you not love a young boy, of whom is written,
Buckley wanted a lot of things, but at the top of his list was for his mother to be happy. It seemed to him that she was always sad. She was a good mom- never a mean word crossed her lips- but like Buckley, she seldom smiled. She was fat, and it was hard for Buckley when they went places to hear people snicker and know she heard it too.

Within the novel are parts of Buckley's book, mostly statistics and anecdotes from lightning strike survivors. One mantra that is repeated is
TREAT THE APPARENTLY DEAD FIRST. Most lightning strike fatalities are caused by cardiac arrest.
The importance of this advice becomes apparent by the end of the novel.

Stone-Young is a wonderful writer. She weaves Buckley's book and the novel together with skill, and her characters are complex and drawn with compassion. You feel that you know these people, and Buckley and Paddy John are two of my favorite characters in contemporary literature.

I look forward to Stone-Young's next effort; she has a talent for creating characters who stay in your heart long after you finish the book. It's also no surprise that this is a Shaye Areheart imprint; her imprint always means a quality book. It's a shame that her imprint is no more.

Rating 5 of 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher for providing a NetGalley copy for review.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Anna Quindlen's powerful new novel

(Reprinted from the Citizen newspaper, Auburn , NY)

Anna Quindlen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times column “Public and Private”. Her “Last Word” column that ran in Newsweek magazine for nine years left many readers saddened when she said goodbye to it last year.

Quindlen and her husband raised three children, and many of her columns focused on life as a parent of teenagers, something many of us could relate to, myself included.

Some of her most moving columns dealt with 9/11. Quindlen, a New York City resident, wrote movingly of a friend who was lost in terrorist attacks, and the aftermath of the tragedy on the loved ones left behind.

In her newest novel, “Every Last One”, Quindlen combines the story of a family of teenagers with the horror of an unthinkable act that destroys the family. The act comes out of the blue to devastate, and the result on the family is similar to what happened to people on 9/11.

Quindlen spoke recently at a book signing in New York City, and she described the story of this normal family as going into the basement of your home and finding a small crack in the foundation. You ignore it, then you notice a few weeks later that it is bigger. You ignore it again, and finally you find the basement flooded with water.

Mary Beth Latham narrates the story of her family. Her husband Glen is an ophthalmologist, and she runs a landscaping business. They are dedicated to their seventeen-year-old daughter Ruby and twin thirteen-year-old sons Alex and Max.

Ruby is an individual; she revels in not following the crowd. She has a unique style of dress, drives an old car, and wants to be a writer. She has two close friends, and a boyfriend, Kiernan, whom she has known her entire life. Ruby has recently recovered from an eating disorder.

Alex is typical all-boy; he excels in sports, has lots of friends, and is not so interested in school. Max is quieter, has no friends to speak of, and likes to play the drums. Kiernan is very kind to him, and Max looks up to him.

The Latham house is the one where all the kids hang out, and Mary Beth likes that. She likes the activity, and knowing her children’s friends feel welcome in her home.

Yet for all this typical suburban happiness, something discomforting lies underneath. Ruby’s eating disorder is mentioned, but not the underlying cause of it.

Max’s teachers are concerned about him; he is antisocial and never speaks in class. Mary Beth and Glen finally agree to send Max to a counselor, a man who specializes in helping twins, as he is a twin himself.

Mary Beth is prone to crying, a symptom she attributes to perimenopause, yet she says, “if pressed, I would have to say that they (tears) are the symptom of some great loneliness, as free-floating and untethered to everyday life as a tornado is to the usual weather.”

Ruby has decided that she no longer wants to date her lifelong friend, Kiernan. This is not something he takes well. He believes that he and Ruby are soul mates, and he will do anything to salvage the relationship.

Mary Beth supports Ruby, but it is difficult because Kiernan is always at their home, a part of the family. His parents are divorced, and although Mary Beth was good friends with his mom, something happened to change that.

Kiernan asks if he can move in with the Lathams when his mom has to move away to care for his grandmother. Mary Beth feels badly for Kiernan, but her first loyalty must be to her daughter, and Kiernan can’t seem to accept the fact that he and Ruby are no longer a couple.

The last half of the book is heartbreaking, and it literally took my breath away when the horrific violent act occurred. Quindlen said that this book has reverberations of 9/11, and when it does happen, it recalls the same feelings of that day- utter confusion, a deep sense of fear, helplessness, and grief.

Quindlen really gets the parents of teens vibe right. My generation parents differently than our parents. We spend more time with our kids, are in constant contact with them by cell phone, drive them to school, attend all of their sporting events, send them to expensive summer camps.

And yet, teens still keep secrets from their parents. They do not trust us more because we are more involved in their day-to-day lives. Ruby, Alex and Max are very close to their parents, but they hide things from them that may upset them, things that they feel may cause concern or disappointment.

Quindlen gets the marriage thing right too. Glen and Mary Beth seem like a loving, happy couple, but an unpleasantness in their past is hinted at, and later we find out the truth. This line about their marriage/parenting roles- “for purposes of our union, he carries the stoicism, I carry the concern”, speaks to many marital relationships.

“Every Last One” is a remarkable book, it will strike a chord of familiarity with parents of teens. How Quindlen manages to connect 9/11 and the feelings that evokes with the story of the Latham family is brilliant; it is cathartic to read this deeply moving, emotional story. Your tears will flow like Mary Beth’s by the time you finish.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The NY Pops 27th Birthday Gala at Carnegie Hall

I had the pleasure of attending the New York Pops 27th Birthday Gala, The Best Is Yet To Come: Celebrating The Legacy of Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall on May 3rd.

Former Daily News columnist Liz Smith hosted the evening, and after a few comedic attempts to seat herself on a very high chair, she told a few stories about Frank Sinatra.

The opening number was a rousing rendition of New York, New York from the film On The Town that Sinatra starred in. Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV's Modern Family, Michael Urie of TV's Ugly Betty and John Tartaglia from Broadway's Shrek gave a spirited and exuberant performance. It was a wonderful start to the show.

Handsome Cheyenne Jackson, from Broadway's Finian's Rainbow and TV's 30 Rock walked the center aisle singing Luck Be A Lady. His smooth style and beautiful voice showed why men and women adore him.

Fan favorite Steve Tyrell sang one of my favorites The Way You Look Tonight and then was joined by Hilary Swindal for a duet of Fly Me to the Moon.

Norm Lewis from Broadway's Sondheim on Sondheim and Little Mermaid was smooth as silk in his rendition of Don't Worry 'Bout Me.

Broadway star Michael Cerveris came on stage to sing High Hopes with some special guests, Bad Habit, a group of four young instrumentalists and fourteen members of the Ronald McDonald Choir, all children from Ronald McDonald House. Their music touched the entire audience and resulted in a well deserved standing ovation.

Montego Glover, who received a Tony nomination today for her performance in Memphis belted out a fantastic version of The Best Is Yet to Come. She also looked amazing in a fuschia form-fitting gown.

After Frank Sinatra Jr. performed, looking so much like his father in his later years, he conducted the Pops in Yellow: Laughter, a work commissioned by his father and conducted by him on an album.

Keith Roberts and Tony nominated Karine Plantadit danced to One For My Baby from the Tywla Tharp Broadway show Come Fly Away. I guarantee they sold some tickets to their show that night with their hot dance number.

Michael Feinstein blew everyone away with For Once In My Life, and led the cast in The Theme from New York, New York, featuring middle school students performing with the Pops, and the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

The New York Pops put on a fantastic show, and most people tapped their feet or swayed in their seats. Sinatra's music is the music of America, and it was a joy to hear such incredible performers bring it to life.

I did see a few celebrities in attendance. SNL's Rachel Dratch, looking so beautiful, sat behind me. Behind her was Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cam, to Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Mitchell on the show. He was with Jesse's lovely mother. I was able to speak with both of them, and Jesse's Mom beamed when I told her how much my sons and I love her son's performance on the show. Eric was a really great guy, offering to take a picture with me.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Legacy of a False Promise

Margaret Fuchs Singer was thirteen years old when her college law professor father was asked to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee regarding Communists working in the federal government. She did not know that both her parents used to be members of the Communist party.

Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter's Reckoning is her recounting of that period of her life. Sometimes books such as this tend to be not so well written, and a bit dry, but Fuchs writes a powerful, interesting story of her search for the truth about her parents.

Fuchs' parents worked in the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s while members of the Communist party. While they believed in their cause, they still kept their politics hidden from their employers, something that I found intriguing. Singer writes
My father did not see in his Party membership a conflict of loyalties or a threat to the United States, but, instead, a way to participate in the nation's economic and social recovery.(p. 117)
That seems to me like a rationalization. If you believe you are truly doing good, you wouldn't have to hide your beliefs.

The Fuchs attended meetings, recruited other Communist Party members as federal employees, and reported back to a man higher up in the Party. When they became discouraged by events in Russia, they left the party. While they thought they had left it behind, when the government held hearings before Congress in the 1950s, Herbert Fuchs was called as a witness.

The government wanted Fuchs to name other Communists who worked in the federal government, but he did not want to betray his former friends. His employer, American University, promised him that he could keep his job if he cooperated. He was told that his wife would be called to testify if he did not cooperate.

With the memory of the execution of accused Russian spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg fresh in his mind, Fuchs reluctantly appeared before the Committee and gave them the information they asked for, to protect his wife, his children and his job. He agonized over the decision, but felt he had no choice.

The dean of American University reneged on his promise and forced Fuchs out of his job. Many people felt that Fuchs was a traitor to his country, and others felt that he betrayed his friends by naming names. It was a no-win situation for Fuchs.

Singer vividly brings to life that time period in our history through her family's story. Her description of what it felt like as teenage girl, so confused by what was going on, her relationships with her family, and the fallout from her father's decision are heartfelt.

As an adult, Singer works to find out the truth about her parents, seeking out documents and people who can help her. She is conflicted about this, even fearful about what she may find, but can't come to terms with what happened to her family until the truth is known.

Legacy of a Promise will appeal to many different readers; fans of history and politics, as well as those who like personal stories about family and a search for identity.

Rating 4 of 5 stars
Thanks to Robyn at Carol Fass Publicity & public Relations for providing me with a copy of this book.