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

 

Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

Children’s Books by Weighty Authors

After reading Alexandra Alter’s front page article for the Sunday New York Times – “Masters of Prose, Warming Up to Picture Books” – I thought about authors who have managed both adult and children’s books successfully.

Roald Dahl, famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and whose children’s book The BFG  (big friendly giant) is coming out in film soon, first attracted me with his short stories about World War II (Dahl was a fighter pilot in the war) with their eerie endings.  Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog ” is one of my favorites – you can read it here.

Alter’s article mentions famous authors crossing over into writing children’s books, including Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin, and Elena Ferrante. James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and James Baldwin are also mentioned. I’m looking forward to reading Trillin’s funny book of poetry for children and the elusive Ferrante’s scary book.

Here is a list of the titles:

James Baldwin’s Little Man Little Man

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night BN-ND310_FERRAN_DV_20160317134312

James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil

Jane Smiley’s Twenty Yawns

NoFair-NoFair-coverCalvin Trillin’s No Fair No Fair  with illustrations by Roz Chast)

John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sun Moon Star

And did you know Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the story of a magical car made famous by Disney, was written by Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond stories?

Laughing Out Loud – Imaginary Mitzvahs

After a day of smiling at strangers, trying to follow the Chinese wisdom of Michael Puett’s The Path, I came across Calvin Trillin’s essay for The New YorkerImaginary Mitzvahs – and my true self reverted to type.

When I travel, I often tear out essays I want to read again from The New Yorker, before recycling the magazine to a flight attendant.  Trillin is one of my favorite funny cynics, and his litany of good deeds gone undone restored my cranky equilibrium.  But I did have a good laugh.

In Imaginary Mitzvahs, Trillan reviews his attempts to be a good person. When he graciously moves to a middle seat on the plane between a woman holding two crying babies and “a man whose stomach hung over the armrest” to accommodate the two men who “hadn’t seen each other in years…{this} flight is the only time we have to catch up,” he notices one man falls asleep throughout the flight and the other reads.

When he obliges his newly gluten-free vegan cousin by foregoing the sumptuous meaty French meal he had anticipated, his taste buds suffered but he felt virtuous.

Finally, when a cat in a fiery building needs rescuing, he resists – despite his inclination to do good.

There is a limit, after all.

Have a laugh – Read the essay : Imaginary Mitzvahs

9780375758515_p0_v1_s192x300And if you have not read Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out – my favorite book, here is my review:  Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

 

 

Travels With …

Books can vicariously take you many places, but the Smithsonian has a list of  books to inspire real travel – The Top Ten Most Influential Travel Books.   From Homer’s Odyssey to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the list also includes Peter Mayle (Provence).

One of my favorite travel writers is Paul Theroux; I discovered him as I was flying across the ocean to a new life in Hawaii; his fictional Hotel Honolulu proved to be an irreverent perspective that was easy to adopt.  Since then, I’ve discovered his nonfiction – The Tao of Travel.

More recently I’ve turned to Rick Steves as my nonfiction source for all travel to Europe, but for a humorous outlook on travel, I always return to Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice.9780374526009_p0_v1_s260x420

“So far, no scholar of Franco-American relations has attempted to refute the theory I once offered that some of the problems American visitors have with the French can be traced to the Hollywood movies of Maurice Chevalier.  According to the theory, meeting a surly bureaucrat or a rude taxi driver is bound to be particularly disappointing if you’ve arrived with the expectation that every Frenchman you encounter will be a charming, debonair old gent who at any moment might start singing, ‘Sank Evan for leetle gerls.’”

Do you have a favorite travel book?