Tag Archives: Anna Quindlen

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: If you like Elizabeth Strout or Ann Tyler…

Cover imageSometimes I cringe when I see the comparisons in publishers’ press releases but in Anna Quindlen’s case Scribner are spot on with Elizabeth Strout and Ann Tyler. She also shares with Strout a far smaller following here in the UK than she deserves, although I can happily put that in the past tense for Strout these days. I’d love to think that Alternate Side will do the same for Quindlen as My Name is Lucy Barton did for Strout. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, it inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory.

Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the Manhattan cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. They’re a fortunate couple: owners of a coveted brownstone bought when such a thing was affordable; successful in their careers; parents of twins set on the road to a fulfilling adulthood. Yet there’s the odd niggle – Charlie would prefer to be a large fish in a much smaller pool than New York, Nora finds herself going elsewhere in her head when he talks about work and she’s not entirely happy in her own job as the development officer of a rich woman’s vanity project. Theirs is a tight-knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, who’s given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably.

I read Miller’s last novel on holiday a few weeks ago, packing it safe in the knowledge that it would justify its weight. H read it too and, to my delight, is now a convert. Much as I enjoyed Miller’s Valley, Alternate Side is even better. Quindlen tells her story from Nora’s perspective with characteristic wit and keen observation, clicking marriage, privilege and the slide into middle age into focus.

The truth was that some of their marriages were like balloons: a few went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore

Nora is a sympathetic character, acutely aware of her own privilege yet not entirely understanding how that might be perceived. She knows that without Ricky or Charity, their housekeeper, things would fall apart but she’s brought up short when faced with unease and anger when she steps over the line into their territory. There’s a pleasing thread of wry humour running through this novel which is also a love letter to New York, laced with a certain ruefulness at its makeover:

The city had become like that edgy girl in college, all wild hacked hair and leather, who showed up at reunion with a blow-dried bob and a little black dress, her nose-piercing closed up as if it had never existed

Another witty, absorbing and intelligent piece of fiction from Quindlen, then. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part Two

Cover imageIn contrast to the first batch, this selection of August titles has its feet planted firmly in the US. Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side is set in New York City where Nora and her husband live happily until a terrible incident takes place, shaking Nora’s confidence and dividing the neighbourhood. ‘With an unerring and acute eye that captures beautifully the snap and crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife and a woman at a moment of reckoning’ according to the blurb. Quindlen has always seemed somewhat underrated here in the UK.

I very much enjoyed Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything a few years back so have hopes for The Hazards of Good Fortune. Set during the Obama presidency, it’s about a wealthy philanthropist who tries to lead a moral life but finds himself entangled in a prosecution which will have dramatic consequences in terms of race and privilege. ‘At times shocking, but always recognizable, this captivating tale explores the aftermath of unforgivable errors and the unpredictability of the court of public opinion. With a brilliant eye for character, Greenland creates a story that mixes biting humor with uncomfortable truth’ say the publishers.

I’ve never got around to reading Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, daunted by its door-Cover imagestopping size, but that hasn’t stopped Lost Empress catching my eye. Nina Gill is taken aback when her brother inherits the football team she’s quietly been keeping afloat. Meanwhile, Nono DeAngeles is setting about an audacious crime having deliberately got himself banged up in Rikers Prison.Without knowing it, or ever having met, Nina and Nuno have already had a profound effect on each other’s lives. As his bid for freedom and her bid for sporting immortality reach crisis point, their stories converge in the countdown to an epic conclusion’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing although it’s another doorstopper.

Cherise Wolas’ The Family Tabor sounds a little more straightforward. Harry Tabor is about to be honoured as Man of the Decade in recognition of his work with the many Jewish refugees he’s helped to settle in America. Years ago, Harry uprooted his own family taking them across the States from Connecticut to the South West. ‘Wolas examines the five members of the Tabor family as they prepare to celebrate Harry. Through each of their points of view, we see family members whose lives are built on lies, both to themselves and to others, and how these all come crashing down during a seventy-two-hour period’ according to the blurb which sounds highly entertaining.

J M Holmes’ How Are You Going to Save Yourself is about four young men who’ve grown up together but have drifted apart in adulthood as they try to cope with society’s expectations, family pressures and their own self-images. Described as ‘both humorous and heart-breaking’ it’s ‘a timely debut about sex, race, family and friendship’, apparently which sounds good to me.

Cover imageMy last choice for August is from the author of a book I enjoyed very much: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan all about black American jazz musicians in 1940s Europe. Washington Black sounds very different. The eponymous eleven-year-old is chosen as a personal servant to one of the brothers who have taken over a Barbados sugar plantation, a man obsessed with the idea of flying which results in disaster for him. ‘From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life’ according to the blurb. That jacket alone should win a prize.

That’s it for August’s new novels. A click on any that have caught your eye will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks shortly…

Four Days in Amsterdam, Fourteen Days in Central Europe and Three Books

John Betjeman statue (St. Pancras International)We’d already decided on another central European railway jaunt this year then Eurostar announced its new London to Amsterdam service. The idea of arriving in a city dear to both of us without setting foot on a plane was irresistible so we decided to extend our holiday to include a few days there. John Betjeman was kind enough to see us off from St Pancras International.

Gorgeous weather meant we spent most of the time outside, in contrast to our Christmas visit a few years ago. I’ve been to Amsterdam many times during most seasons but never in June when the gardens are at their best. Amsterdammers manage to get cottage garden flowers to grow in the tiniest of cracks in the cobbles outside their home. There was an abundance of climbing Hollyhock (Amsterdam)roses, wisteria and greenery everywhere but my favourite was the good old-fashioned hollyhock.

Sunday was spent wandering around Hortus Botanicus and on Monday morning we took ourselves off to the Vondelpark, a haven for bird life with its many lakes and wild areas including a couple of storks busy feeding their four young. The afternoon’s treat was tea at the Tassen museum taken in one of their elegantly decorated rooms overlooking the Herengracht canal. Our only other bit of culture was Our Lord in the Attic, a remarkable hidden Catholic church built within a merchant’s canal house at a time when Amsterdam proclaimed its religious tolerance but could not be relied upon to practice it.

Art Nouveau frontage (Leipzig)On to Leipzig the following day, a stone’s throw away from Dresden which we visited on our last railway holiday. Lots of Arts Nouveau and Deco to ogle here, run through with arcades full of ritzy shops, and some lovely green spaces to explore around the city. Leipzig’s slice of culture was the Grassi, a complex of three museums. We only managed to see the applied arts section – so extensive, beautifully organised and rich in treasures that it could give the V & A a run for its money but, mystifyingly, we had it almost to ourselves.

Next stop Görlitz on the Polish/German border where Wes Anderson shot much of The Grand Budapest Hotel using the interior of the vast Görlitzer Warenhaus department store as a stand-in for Gorlitzthe Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Unlike Leipzig, Görlitz escaped the devastation of WW2 bombing. It’s a little gem of a town much beloved by film-makers, from Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan. Inevitably it’s been dubbed Görliwood, I suspect by the local tourist board.

Our first Polish city was WrocƗaw whose name Botanical gardens (Wroclaw)sounds nothing like it looks to an English-speaker’s eyes. WrocƗaw is one of many central European cities razed to the ground in WW2 but, like Dresden, it’s been meticulously and beautifully restored with jaw-dropping architectural delights at every turn. It’s also home to botanical gardens that put Amsterdam’s in the shade plus an exquisite Japanese garden on the edge of town.

We lost around 14°C between WrocƗaw and Poznań which was something of a Craftsmen's cottages, Rtnek (Poznan)relief. Poznań’s grand square is a little smaller than WrocƗaw’s but its row of colourfully decorated craftsmen’s cottages marks it out. Every day at noon two mechanical goats emerge from beneath the town hall clock next to the cottages and butt horns twelve times to mark the hour. A chilly wind blew a light drizzle in our faces at the appointed hour but being British we’re used to that kind of thing and we were determined not to miss the show.

House of Nicolaus Copernicus (Torun)Our penultimate stop was Toruń which, like Görlitz, emerged from WW2 miraculously unscathed. It’s a small medieval walled city stuffed with Gothic and Gothic Revival red-brick architectural gems including the supposed birthplace of Copernicus (or Copper Knickers as we used to call him, sniggeringly, at school). H and I were both somewhat taken aback to find that it’s twinned with Swindon. Apologies to any Swindon-based readers but if you look to the left you’ll understand.

Our last two days were spent in Warsaw. The first thing we sawPalace of Culture and Science (Warsaw) when we walked out of the station was Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science looking oddly anachronistic and slightly menacing next to the many gleaming skyscrapers but still the tallest building in the city. As the museums close on Tuesdays and we’d arrived on Monday, we chose the Museum of the History of Polish Jews over the Warsaw Rising Museum and wished we hadn’t. Overwhelming multimedia and short quotes displayed without context resulted in an exhibition which lacked any coherence. Not a patch on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I learnt nothing from it I didn’t already know.

We spent Tuesday ambling around the old town, beautifully restored after its WW2 bashing, and loafing in the stylish Café Bristol. After nearly three weeks away we were both ready for home and wondering if Mischief would still recognise us, let alone be pleased to see us. Then I remembered that we’d be arriving almost precisely at feeding time.

 And the books? Three of the six I took hit the spot:

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, a perceptive, small town novel about a bright young woman whose future is clouded by family complications.Cover image

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching tells four very personal stories of New York from the points-of-view of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edmund White, Walt Whitman and Robert Moses the urban planner who shaped the modern metropolis.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade, a heart wrenching, beautifully written story of a young boy’s love for an older woman.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this very long post, and to H who planned the whole adventure and who’s already thinking about another. Back to books and brevity on Friday…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of August paperbacks kicks off in New York with a surefire bestseller then wanders into smalltown America before briefly taking off around the world, offering a few more out-of-the-way books to explore. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths takes a crime committed in 1960s New York and fashions it into a novel which I’m pretty sure will turn up on a quite a few beaches this summer. In the heat wave of 1965, Ruth Malone wakes to find both her children are missing. Paying more attention to the wagging tongues keen to emphasise Ruth’s colourful life then they perhaps should, the police jump to conclusions but a tabloid journalist new to the job thinks otherwise. Crime fiction isn’t my usual territory but the setting and premise of this one makes me curious.

Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley takes us out of the city and into smalltown America, a favourite setting for me. Looking back on her life spent in Miller’s Valley, the town her family have lived in for generations, Mimi Miller ‘confronts the toxicity of secrets, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the risks and inequalities of friendship, loyalty and passion. Home, she acknowledges, is somewhere it’s just as easy to feel lost as contented’ according to the publishers who raise the bar extraordinarily high by comparing the novel with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I’m a Cover imagefan of Quindlen’s fiction so expectations are high, but perhaps not that high.

Gregoire Delacourt’s novels are often written in a delightfully playful style yet deliver acute observations. His last novel, The First Thing You See, took a mischievous swipe at celebrity culture all wrapped up in a sweet love story but We Saw Only Happiness sounds much more sombre. Antoine is determined that his son and daughter will have the perfect childhood, a far cry from his own. He’s convinced he’s found the secret of a happy life but tragic circumstances turn him into someone he no longer recognises. This may not sound a particularly inspiring premise but I’ve enjoyed all the novels by Delacourt I’ve read so far.

Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel sounds entirely different. A writer is invited to take part in Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held in the German town of Kassel every five years. All he has to do is to write every morning in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town. ‘Once in Kassel, the writer is surprised to find himself overcome by good cheer. As he strolls through the city, spurred on by his spontaneous, quirky response to art, he begins to make sense of the wonders that surround him’ say the publishers. Paul Auster’s recommendation is the lure for me here.

Cover imageI’m not sure what Auster would think of it but I’ve seen lots of recommendations from bloggers for my final choice. Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is about five runaways who’ve left their home for the metropolis in search of a better life. They’re a disparate bunch made up of a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. ‘Soon, they will also share a burden none of them expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos’ according to the publishers.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s caught your eye. If you’d like to catch up with either August’s new titles or the first batch of paperbacks, they’re here and here.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs: A touch of the Anne Tylers

Still Life with BreadcrumbsNot so long ago I had a run of heart-wrenching reads so it’s a pleasure to report that Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs is in the opposite corner. Not that there were any guarantees that it would be – I remember two of her previous books, Black and Blue and One True Thing, being quite harrowing at times – but this particular novel reminded me of Anne Tyler: acutely observed, entertainingly  written and a pleasure to read.

It opens with what might be a gunshot, although it turns out not to be. Rebecca Winter is lying in the bedroom of the rundown cottage she’s rented for a year. Divorced, almost sixty and with ailing parents, she’s sublet her New York apartment in an attempt to eke out her meagre income from her diminishing royalties. Rebecca’s a photographer, made famous by the eponymous photograph of her kitchen after yet another impromptu dinner sprung on her by her then husband who never felt it was part of the deal to help clear up. The gunshot, she realises, was the springing of a trap set by the local roofer, Jim Bates, to capture whatever was making the skittering noise on her roof the previous night. Urban to the bone, Rebecca find adjusting to small town New York State hard but money is tight and needs must. She gets to know Sarah, an anglophile tea shop owner; Tad, a professional clown with an operatic voice and of course, Jim, the taciturn roofer. She begins to find things to photograph, the most intriguing being a series of white crosses adorned with memorabilia. Then, one winter’s night when the snow is so deep she’s unable to open her door, Jim arrives to dig her out. There are no real surprises in the way things turn out but the way we get there is thoroughly enjoyable.

Quindlen has a nice line in wry observation and a smart turn of phrase: Rebecca’s dilapidated cottage is the ‘real estate version of online dating, built atop lies, leading downhill to disenchantment’. Dry, often very funny, asides and observations on characters and what happens to them are woven through her narrative together with lots of pleasing little trails leading off into side stories often finishing ‘but that was later’. Every character has a story and the loquacious Sarah makes sure that Rebecca knows them all. All of this lifts Quindlen’s novel well above the sentimental while remaining firmly in heart warming territory. It’s a treat, and it’s made me want to pick up her backlist and read the ones I’ve missed.