Tempting Fare for Book Clubs – Quindlen’s Alternate Side

9780812996067   Love New York City?  Want to improve your vocabulary? Your neighbors driving you crazy? What do you think about the homeless?  Do you have parking?  Anna Quindlen’s story about lives intersecting in Alternate Side has so much to talk about.

It’s hard to appreciate the value of a parking space unless you do not have one.  In Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t going Out, the main character jockeys moving his car to alternate sides of the street to accommodate New York City’s idiosyncratic parking rules.  Parking space is sacred, maybe more important than the car.  I could relate – I’ve been there.  In Quindlen’s story, Charlie and Nora have finally scored a parking spot in the private empty lot at the end of their dead end street in New York City.  At first, the description of the cul-de-sac occupants seems innocuous – just another neighborhood – until one of the residents whacks the indispensable handyman with a golf club for blocking his car.

Suddenly, the atmosphere shifts to the underlying currents plaguing this quiet area – not only the mysterious bags of dog poop on Nora’s front stoop or the rats running out from under the cars but also Charlie’s unsuccessful quest for recognition in his career and Nora’s dissatisfaction with her marriage.  With her usual flair for relatable characters, Quindlen reviews the parallel tracks of the haves and the have-nots, comparing lives :  a group of homeowners with rising equity in old Victorian homes to the Jamaican nannies/housekeepers and handymen from the Dominican Republic who serve them; the superficial wealthy founder of a jewelry museum to the fake homeless guy outside the building; Nora’s private yearning for the lost love of her gay college boyfriend to the husband she settled for.  Quindlen uses a phrase to mock them all – “First world problems” – how is it they want something else, when what they have seems so much more.

Quindlen’s stories are quiet yet forceful, and she is on my list of favorite writers; she can’t write fast enough for me.  One of my favorites – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – her “roadmap for growing older while still enjoying life” has one of her relatable lines I still live through.  In Alternate Side, she offers an opportunity to examine what is important in life, and how long it takes sometimes to realize it – if ever.  Or – an alternate view might be, she offers a tale of a middle-aged couple in New York City who finally got a parking space.

An Added Note:    My best friend and I were reading this book simultaneously, her on the East Coast, me in the middle of the ocean, and we both loved the words – our favorite is “bespoke,”  but a few others crept in too – eschew, ersatz – you might find more.  And I had to highlight some favorite phrases:

“If all the women who fantasized about their husbands’ passings made them happen, there would be no men in the world.”

“There remained the hand-tinted wedding portrait hanging at the end of the upstairs hall, in which both of their parents looked stiff, a little uncomfortable, almost as though they had not yet been introduced.”

“…since she was eleven, the beginning of a time when, Nora knew now from experience, girls are mean as sleet and should be cryogenically frozen and reconstituted later…”

Related:  Miller’s Valley

 

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Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

9780399588563_p0_v2_s192x300Where did you grow up?  Is your childhood home still there with all its memories?  What if it were gone forever?  With the sixties as her timeframe and a small farming town two hours outside of Philadelphia as the setting, Anna Quindlen creates an unforgettable family in Miller’s Valley with a story of lives connected to both time and place.

The story follows the journey of the narrator, Mimi Miller, as she grows from a bright eleven year old who sells corn at a small stand outside her family farm to scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually, a medical doctor who returns to her hometown.  Her mother, a nurse, stabilizes the family with her income and her wisdom; her father, whose family has held the farm for two hundred years, is a stoic man who can fix anything from broken radios to the old sump pump in the basement; her older brothers split into Tommy, the appealing black sheep who goes off to fight in the Vietnam war and returns broken, and Eddie, the steady and boring  brother who grows up to capitalize on the destruction of the land.  Peripheral to the family core but just as important to the theme are others: Aunt Ruth, an agoraphobic with a secret, who never leaves the small house next door, and Steve, Mimi’s boyfriend. 

Quindlen’s main characters are ripe and deep, and you will remember them and wonder about them long after the story is over.

The villain is the government, personified by a slick developer, who is pressuring farmers and town folk to leave to make way for a government sponsored dam and reservoir, surrounded by new patchwork housing.  Clearly, some are happy to sell – including Mimi’s mother – while others, including Mimi’s father, dig in to preserve their heritage.  Mimi is scared of what the future holds but it seems there is no stopping progress – or the government.    

I wondered about the historical accuracy of the story; is there a town and a farm under water in Pennsylvania because of a dam realized through government intervention and industry?  The closest I could get is Codorus State Park and Lake Marburg in York County – both the timeframe and the location fit:

The creation Codorus State Park is tied to a cooperative effort between private enterprise and state and local government. The borough of Spring Grove and the P.H. Glatfelter Company worked together to dam Codorus Creek. The purpose of the dam was to provide drinking water for Spring Grove and to meet the industrial needs of the paper plant owned by the P.H. Glatfelter Company in the borough…a park was created on the shores of the newly made Lake Marburg.[1]

Lake Marburg gets its name from the small community of Marburg, home of a handful of buildings – including a farmstead – that was flooded in December 1966, when Codorus Creek was dammed. The land for the park was acquired as part of the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, with the governor approving the acquisition on December 10, 1964.  Underwater Ghost Town 

 

 

Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; I have a few of her books on my shelf – just cannot part with them.  I’ve quoted from her memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – but I was happy to see another of her novels and anxiously pre-ordered it.  Although the historical aspects are informative, the message of hearth and home – and where it is – left me with a disturbing as well as comforting feeling.  As someone who is displaced, and still misses the place I called home – although it is not underwater and remains the same as when my children skated on the nearby pond –  I can relate to the last paragraph of the novel:

“I never go over that way…But every couple of years I have a dream.  I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences…But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air.  I still need to breath.”

Life goes on, wherever you are, as long as you can keep breathing…

My Reviews of Quindlen Books:  

Still Life With Bread Crumbs

9781400065752_p0_v3_s260x420Anne Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a fast read with a slow impact that lingers.  Her heroine is a sixty year old photographer with a stalled career who finds a new lease on life and love in a romantic comedy with a happy ending.

After renting a broken-down country house two hours away from the exclusive Manhattan apartment that she can no longer afford, Rebecca Winter inadvertently discovers new inspiration for her work in a dog, a roofer, and a series of roadside memorials mysteriously scattered throughout the woods around her cabin.  As Rebecca progresses through her self-actualization, the story includes romance and satisfaction in her new life and those around her – and the promise that life always has surprises no matter how old you are – some good, some not.  I always look forward to Quindlen’s witty tales, and this one did not disappoint.

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Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

9780792265610Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London – “A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City –  will vicariously lead you through familiar landmarks, and maybe introduce you to a few new sites from the pages of well-known authors.  Waiting patiently for Quindlen’s latest book from my library wait list (Still Life with Bread Crumbs), I found this nonfiction guide to London – actually Quindlen’s long essay on her own introduction to the city.

Of course, Quindlen dedicates a chapter to the narrow alleys of Dickens’ novels, as well as the author’s house; John Galsworthy also merits a chapter – motivating me to find The Forsythe Saga. Other famous authors appear – Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, mystery writer Martha Grimes.  Quindlen has repetitive references to some of her favorite books:  Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister as well as Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (another book I plan to find).

Although she never mentioned books from two of my favorite authors – Jane Gardam and Fay Weldon – she did reference one I had not thought about in a long time – Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.  Like Quindlen, I remember reading this banned book under a brown cover (we both went to Catholic school) that probably would not be as shocking today as it was then.  I will have to find an old copy to reread and decide.

With references to British history – kings, great fire, wars – and a chapter on the inconsistency of language and idiosyncratic phrasing, Quindlen’s book has her easy conversational style, and is an enjoyable foray into travel writing.  If you are a writer or a lover of British authors, as I am, you may find a special affinity in its pages.  I plan to reread it before I visit London again.

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Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Memoirs are not my favorite genre and the last time I read Anna Quindlen, she scared me away with the desolation of her novel,  Every Last One, but a good friend suggested that I read Quindlen’s memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Not willing to wait out the long library reserve list, I escaped to a Barnes and Noble to nurse a double espresso while reading the red covered book with a flap that boasted “You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation” – sounded promising.
So, Anna became my morning coffee companion.

As she chatted about friends, school, religion, and children, I realized we have a lot in common. I squirted coffee out my nose laughing at her wanting to lick the brownie bowl without sharing with her small children. (One of my first published pieces was about licking the cake batter bowl.) Although I admired her handstands and one-arm pushups, she did not inspire me to do the same, but her admonition to “drive out fear” is advice worth keeping. When was the last time you did not try something because you were afraid of the outcome?

After a while, I took Anna home with me and discovered her mother had made her pepper-onion-egg sandwiches just as mine had for me. I listened intently as her life changed when her mother became ill when Anna was 19, and suddenly realized the significance of her theme of loss in most of her novels.

Quindlen’s memories have a universality that will resonate with anyone who appreciates “the examined life,” but I made an unexpected connection – just as my friend suggested I would. As for that kitchen renovation, she took the words right out of my mouth…

A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage.

Book Review: Every Last One