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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Quindlen’

In the fleet The Flight Attendant (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Chris Bohjalian  puts some polish on that old chestnut of waking up next to a dead body. Flight attendant and binge drinker Cassie Bowden has only vague memories of her one-night stand with first-class passenger and American hedge fund manager Alex Sokoloff.  She recalls a business associate of Alex’s called Miranda showing up in his Dubai hotel room with more vodka. Then Miranda left and Cassie was going to leave, too, only now Cassie’s awake, and Alex is dead beside her with his throat cut. She clears out quickly, not at all sure she didn’t kill him with the broken glass she takes with her to discard, and makes her flight to New York, hangover and all. What she doesn’t know is that a Russian assassin is already regretting her decision not to kill Cassie and that the hotel security cameras were working. Cue the FBI. It’s a great set-up, although Cassie tries to drown her childhood memories and her present predicament with more regret drinking, and her addiction threatens the thrills of the espionage plot. But then Bohjalian pilots the book out of a dive with a couple of quick stunts. Fasten your seatbelts, please.

First-time author Clarissa Goenawan explores love and loss in Rainbirds (Soho Press, purchased hardcover), which mingles mystery with a touch of magical realism. When Japanese grad student Ren Ishida’s older sister Keiko is murdered, he travels to the small town where she had been living to collect her ashes. But Ren realizes that most of what he knew of Keiko has to do with his childhood, when she mothered him, and he has little idea of who she became after leaving home. He ends up taking over her teaching job at a prep school and even moves into the room she rented from a wealthy politician and his invalid wife. After he learns details of her stabbing death on a rainy night, he finds the street where it happened and lies down to reimagine her last lonely hours. He has recurring dreams of a pig-tailed girl, tries to help a shoplifting student and can’t find the knife he gave to Keiko. He does find her birth control pills. As Ren tries to discover Keiko’s secrets and come to terms with his own guilt and grief, he connects with  other people — fellow teacher Honda, the politician’s silent wife, the troubled student, a former lover. Rainbirds, with its images of goldfish, its memories and dreams, is quiet and disquieting, reminiscent of Haruki Murakami. Haunting.

New Yorker Nora Nolan has what you might call first world problems, although her college-age daughter is quick to note that no one says that anymore. Still, in Anna Quindlen’s thoughtful new novel, Alternate Side (Random House, digital galley) Nora, a museum director, and her investment banker husband Chip enjoy the privileges of life in an Upper West Side townhouse on a rare dead-end street. She really doesn’t want to live anywhere else. Sure, neighbor George is an officious busybody, and Jack next-door has a terrible temper, but it’s a real community with holiday parties, dogs on  leashes, a small parking lot for residents of long-standing, and shared handyman Ricky. Then Jack takes a golf club to Ricky’s van — and Ricky — in a parking dispute, and the incident winds up in the tabloids with neighbors split as to the rights and wrongs of the situation. Even Nora and Chip disagree, which prompts Nora to take a long look at her marriage and what she wants for the rest of her life. I suppose Alternate Side is a comedy of manners, but only if you think of the human comedy and not the laugh-aloud kind. There’s wit and satire, of course, but also probing questions of race and class, privilege and empathy. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Quindlen writes of how we come to understand our lives retrospectively. “The life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more  than the successes.”

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millvalleyWhen she’s 11 and selling corn from a roadside stand, Mimi Miller knows her place in the world — the same small farm in Pennsylvania her family’s owned for 200 years. The flood-prone area is even known as Miller’s Valley. But only a few years later, Mimi already is missing the girl she used to be. “Getting older wasn’t working out so well for me.” Her best friend Donald has moved away, and so has her oldest brother, Edward. Her other brother, charming Tommy, has joined the Marines, gotten a local girl in trouble, been sent to Vietnam, gotten into drugs. Rumors that the government is going to flood the valley under a water-management plan are firming into facts. The ground even feels soggier. Mimi’s father lives in a state of denial and keeps the sump pumps running. Her mother refuses to get involved. “Let the water cover the whole damn place,” she says. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is that Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, still  refuses to leave the small house at the back of the Millers, even when floodwaters send her to the attic.

Anna Quindlen’s emotionally resonant new novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, digital galley), is a coming-of-age novel distinguished by the intimate voice of narrator Mimi and a specificity of detail and image. The fog can lie “as thick as cotton candy” on the valley floor, a neighbor woman is remembered for “her lavender smell and warm pies.” When Tommy comes home, he has “a tough little barking laugh. . . a mean second cousin to a real laugh.” But Tommy also warns Mimi not to get sidetracked by her boyfriend, an older construction worker with whom she’s in love and lust. Tommy wants Mimi to concentrate on getting out of Miller’s Valley. “Don’t get stuck.” Mimi’s good grades and a college scholarship are going to be her way out, until a family crisis throws up a roadblock.

Families, friends, first loves, old secrets. Quindlen’s story flows like the rising river, moving faster as it nears the end. A mystery surfaces unexpectedly, and Mimi must decide whether to pursue it or to let it go, even as she tries to find traction on the slippery slope of change, at home in a world both familiar and strange.

 

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Watching the first two episodes of the new HBO series “Girls,” I chuckled, cringed and laughed out loud. That was when 24-year-old Hannah announced to her parents that she believed she was “the voice of her generation,” or at least “a voice,” and needed $1100 a month for the next two years to finish her collection of essays. Her mother sputtered, “That’s ridiculous!”

Present-day me agrees with mom. But long-ago me recognizes the confident bravado of the young writer when everything is bright and shiny and possible. Still, as Hanna’s gynecologist asserts in the next episode, “I wouldn’t be 24 again.”

I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen (more on that in a moment), but I imagine that she would have a similar reaction to “Girls.” Her new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, reminded me that Quindlen is the voice of my generation, beginning with her “Life in the Thirties” column for the New York Times 25 years ago and continuing through her books. Like many other women of a certain age, I find myself nodding in agreement as I read her new one.

Early on, she writes, “There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps, more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. … We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.”

How true. As are her observations on collecting “stuff,” the choices that bless and burden our generation of women, how much of life is surprise and happy accident, the importance of girlfriends, “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.”

I could continue quoting, but you should have the pleasure of discovering what Quindlen has to say on your own. It’s like an ongoing conversation with your BFF about books, men, mothers, kids, work, aging. I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen, but she sure speaks for me.

Open Book: I’ve never met Anna Quindlen, but I feel like I know her through her books and novels, and having looked at a series of pictures of her at different ages in the current issue of More magazine, I know we sort of look alike, except for our noses.  And having read her over the years, I know we share remarkably similar interests and views. So much so that after reading a NetGalley digital copy of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House), I bought two hardcover copies — one for my college roommate for her birthday, and one for me just because.

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