The Paris Wife

by Paula McLain

Book Cover: The Paris WifeLet me preface by saying (with more than a hint of embarrassment) that I was an English major in college, yet have not read Ernest Hemingway. However, it served me well in the case of reading The Paris Wife. It was through the eyes of his first wife Hadley Richardson, in this historical nonfiction account, that I learned about Hemingway’s years in Paris as he established himself as a novelist.

The story read beautifully and the characters were well developed. During their time in Paris, the Hemingways befriended ‘characters’ that could practically write themselves—from well-known literary figures like Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald to avant-garde socialites to liberated women with big careers at companies like Vogue. Some of these characters were in fact the inspiration for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Yet Hadley’s perspective is nonetheless insightful. Although she ran with Hemingway’s various crowds, she seemed to be on the outside looking in. While the rest of the group played partners in crime, she observed their behaviors and shed light on their vivid energy and silly flaws.

What I found myself continually intrigued by was the extravagance of their lifestyle—considering the fact that Hemingway was a “struggling artist” who barely got them by with his correspondent side gigs. They had a cook, and then a nanny after their son was born. They traveled extensively in Europe and for long periods of time. They had elaborate cocktail parties in Spain during the Running of the Bulls (apparently financed by a richer member of the group).

I know for many Hemingway’s reputation precedes him. In The Paris Wife, he is depicted as a bold man with a big ego. But with Hadley as the storyteller, you also witness tender moments between the two of them. Unfortunately in the end though, you see how his growing pains as a literary star did damage among his close friends, circles of friends, and most sadly, his devoted wife and their son. As he followed his latest fancies without the worry of leaving a detrimental trail behind, I did have to remind myself that it was the 1920s, and therefore not so easy to fault Hadley for being such a devoted wife no matter what he was up to.

With this book now behind me, the fact that I have not read Hemingway makes it a simple choice of what to read next. Up first are A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, two books that reflect this time in his life. I am curious to experience his prose, but even more so, his perspective.

—Christine, contributing author

Fifty Shades of Grey

by E L James

[Editor: Here’s the second perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey]

First, think Danielle Steele with an edge.

I haven’t read Danielle Steele in over 20 years, but what I remember of the genre is the redundancy of a heavily sexual plot with over-the-top beautiful characters. Fortunately for Fifty Shades of Grey, leading male character Christian Grey steps up the level of intrigue through his divergent pursuit of leading female character Anastasia Steele.

Anastasia, or Ana, is on the eve of her college graduation. Her best friend Kate is the editor for the university’s newspaper and has a high-brow interview with the 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey, who will deliver their commencement speech. But Kate has the flu and begs Ana to stand in for her. Ana arrives at the interview knowing nothing about Christian. He of course is hot, and she of course doesn’t know how beautiful she is. She’s also unassuming and lacking confidence, and trips and falls when she enters his office. In Danielle Steele style, the electricity between them is palpable. Ana is inexperienced with men and freaked out by it. Christian, on the other hand, is a man who knows what he wants and gets what he wants. Ana has no idea what she’s in for. He lives the art of seduction, and she’s hooked.

And so is the reader. As Ana enters into his sexual world of “dominant-submissive” relationships, Christian is not so much pleasing the pants off of her (like every hour)—he’s pleasing the most devoted readers. When he takes her into his sexual play room (what Ana calls his “red room of pain”), it’s out of the ordinary, and intriguing.

Next, think a new kind of liberation for women.

Having read and discussed Fifty Shades of Grey as part of my book club, I got to thinking about it from a different angle. These days, post-women’s liberation, the lines are blurred as to who’s in charge in a relationship. Women often have the upper hand—regardless of the fact there are women’s lib issues that need balancing. But in exchange for this relatively new sense of power and freedom of choice, have women completely put their submissiveness aside? And have they inadvertently transferred too much of that submissiveness to men?

Christian is a rare species of a man. In his own deviant way, he’s both an old school gentleman and an intensely controlling character. Combined, this can actually be a turn on for readers. Why? He brings a new light to submissiveness. At the end of the day, would it be so bad to have a man open your car door, decide what you’ll have for dinner, order a nice bottle of wine, pay the bill, tell you what to wear (or what not to wear), instruct you how to wait for him in his play room as he enters with no shirt, top button of his jeans undone…

It’s not Ana’s struggle to be a modern independent woman that gets readers fired up. Nor is it her exhausting insecurity and repetitive self-monologues. It’s the intrigue into her relationship with Christian through which he teaches her to give up the need to be in control, and in the process, makes it look sensual and gratifying.

The Fifty Shades of Grey plot is purely dependent upon its erotic twist, but the Danielle Steele feel is its saving grace. It’s not all spanking, whips, and bondage (or even close)—that which is supposed to define Christian as “the dominant.” It’s actually pretty fluffy, and a love story. Yet the author knows her hook. While the play room, the backdrop for the dominant-submissive rules and regulations, does not come into play often, it leaves readers wondering how far Christian will go and why he is the way he is. Why else dive into the next two books of the trilogy?

—Christine, Guest Contributor

Stories I Only Tell My Friends

by Rob Lowe

Book Cover: Stories I Only Tell My FriendsI’ve got Rob Lowe’s back.

Before I read his autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, I had already felt like I grew up with him through his classic roles like Sodapop Curtis in The Outsiders and Billy Hicks in St. Elmo’s Fire. Later, he surfaced as Young Number 2 in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, seemingly coming back from nowhere (though the book proved me wrong on that). Then he established a place in my heart as Sam Seaborn, the deputy White House communications director in The West Wing.

So when his book came out, I was intrigued, particularly by the title. I bought it in hardcover as a birthday present for myself because I was too impatient to wait for a copy to be returned to the library. It turns out that the title is right on target. The more you read, the more you feel like you’re part of his inner circle. His stories are often deeply personal while they bring you behind the scenes in everything from his movies to his family life to his love life to his struggle with alcohol and time in rehab to his political adventures.

While he had a powerful drive for success and was continually looking for the next big thing. I gladly found Rob to be humble and well intentioned, even through his greatest moments of insecurity and turmoil. Through the unraveling of his life story, he’s sort of carried through his late teenage years into adulthood by a wave he couldn’t control. His hunger to act grew with each major role he played. With it came a lot more than anyone in their late teens and even 20s would be ready for. Visit his profile on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) and you’ll see a reference to him telling USA Today that he went gray at age 24.

What becomes an ongoing element of the book is his insight into other actors, many of whom also got their start in their teenage years, through Rob’s friendships and interactions. From living down the street from the Sheen and Penn families to having lunch with Sara Jessica Parker to running around with the “Brat Pack” to getting reacquainted with Patrick Swayze in Young Blood (years after playing his younger brother in The Outsiders), he continually shares his perspective into Hollywood personalities. It could come off as a bit much (really, you’re going to tout your relationships with everyone?), but his humble voice holds it together.  As he gets older and enters into a more of a soul-searching time, his perceptions grow deeper. Through his depiction of his friendship with Mike Myers you see Rob in a different light—one that shows off his humor, intelligence and lightheartedness—and ultimately encourages him to write the book.

What I enjoyed most about his book is that it actually comes from Rob’s voice. It’s written in a style that feels so conversational that it’s like being in a room with him while he’s telling the story. The genuine tone lets you in as a trusted friend and confidante.

Autobiography is a new genre for me, and I had no idea what to expect. Ideally, I think the story should feel like it’s coming from the true persona of the author and make you like that person more or as much as you already did, or at least see that person in a light that derives respect for his/her journey. (It’s got to be a vulnerable experience to put yourself out there like that.) For me, Stories I Only Tell My Friends did all of the above. Each time I watch Rob act as Chris Traeger in his most current role on the TV show Parks and Recreation, I am glad I got to know him better and feel like I am still growing up with him.

—Christine, contributing author