Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday Fiction: Anna Quindlen

--by Hanje Richards

Anna Marie Quindlen (born July 8, 1952) is an American author, journalist, and opinion columnist whose New York Times column, "Public and Private," won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992. She began her journalism career in 1974 as a reporter for the New York Post. Between 1977 and 1994, she held several posts at The New York Times.

Quindlen left journalism in 1995 to become a full-time novelist. In 1999, she joined Newsweek, writing a bi-weekly column until announcing her semi-retirement in the May 18, 2009 issue of the magazine. Quindlen is known as a critic of what she perceives to be the fast-paced and increasingly materialistic nature of modern American life. Much of her personal writing centers on her mother, who died at the age of 40 from ovarian cancer when Quindlen was 19 years old.

Black And Blue: A Novel - For eighteen years, Fran Benedetto kept her secret, hid her bruises. She stayed with Bobby because she wanted her son to have a father, and because, in spite of everything, she loved him. Then one night, when she saw the look on her ten-year-old son’s face, Fran finally made a choice — and ran for both their lives.

Now she is starting over in a city far from home, far from Bobby. In this place she uses a name that isn’t hers, watches over her son, and tries to forget. For the woman who now calls herself Beth, every day is a chance to heal, to put together the pieces of her shattered self. And every day she waits for Bobby to catch up to her. Bobby always said he would never let her go, and despite the ingenuity of her escape, Fran Benedetto is certain of one thing: It is only a matter of time.

Blessings: A Novel - Late one night, a teenage couple drives up to the big white clapboard home on the Blessing estate and leaves a box. In that instant, the lives of those who live and work there are changed forever. Skip Cuddy, the caretaker, finds a baby girl asleep in that box and decides he wants to keep the child... while Lydia Blessing, the matriarch of the estate, for her own reasons, agrees to help him. Blessings explores how the secrets of the past affect decisions and lives in the present; what makes a person or a life legitimate or illegitimate and who decides; and the unique resources people find in themselves and in a community.

Good Dog. Stay (Non-fiction) - “The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed,” writes Anna Quindlen about her beloved black Labrador retriever, Beau. Quindlen reflects on how her life has unfolded in tandem with Beau’s, and on the lessons she’s learned by watching him: to roll with the punches, to take things as they come, to measure herself not in terms of the past or the future but of the present, to raise her nose in the air from time to time and, at least metaphorically, holler, “I smell bacon!”

Quindlen reminisces, “There came a time when a scrap thrown in his direction usually bounced unseen off his head. Yet put a pork roast in the oven, and the guy still breathed as audibly as an obscene caller. The eyes and ears may have gone, but the nose was eternal. And the tail. The tail still wagged, albeit at half-staff. When it stops, I thought more than once, then we’ll know.”

How Reading Changed My Life (Non-fiction) - In this pithy celebration of the power and joys of reading, Quindlen emphasizes that books are not simply a means of imparting knowledge, but also a way to strengthen emotional connectedness, to lessen isolation, to explore alternate realities, and to challenge the established order. To these ends, much of the book forms a plea for intellectual freedom as well as a personal paean to reading.

Never stodgy or academic, Quindlen ties her own experience to reading habits in general and the ways they have changed over the last 100 years, including the recent influence of Oprah. She concludes with a series of arbitrary and capricious reading lists that could give librarians ideas: "10 Books That Will Help a Teenager Feel More Human," "10 Mystery Novels I'd Most Like To Find in a Summer Rental," "10 Modern Novels That Made Me Proud To Be a Writer," etc.

Living Out Loud (Non-fiction) - In this collection of syndicated columns, based in the New York Times and called "Life in the 30's," Quindlen gives ample evidence of why her reflections about herself, the progress of her life and feelings, resonate in a large readership. First, there is relevancy for the "targeted audience who are in their 30s and share Quindlen's chronology of adulthood, career, marriage and children." We share her humor and frustration as she raises two sons, as she longs for a daughter, as she talks about her lawyer-husband. Quindlen's columns on baby-boomers who negotiate traditional values, such as a piece in which she defines "cultural Catholic," invite controversy; but there is universal appeal in her experiences of the contemporary world.

Loud And Clear (Non-fiction) - With her trademark insight and her special ability to convey the impact public events have on ordinary lives, Quindlen here combines commentary on American society and the world at large with reflections on being a woman, a writer, and a mother. In these pieces, first written for Newsweek and The New York Times, Loud and Clear takes on topics ranging from social change to raising children, from the political and emotional aftermath of September 11 to personal values, from the impact on individuals of global events to the growth that can be gained by spending summer days staring into the middle distance. Grounding the public in the private, connecting people to each other and to the greater world, Quindlen encourages us to develop authentic lives, even as she serves as a catalyst for political and social change.

Object Lessons - Maggie Scanlan begins to sense that, beneath the calm everyday surface of her peaceful life, everything is going strangely wrong. Her all-powerful grandfather is reduced to a shadow by a stroke, and this causes her usually unemotional father to burst into tears. Connie, her lushly beautiful mother, whom Maggie could always be sure of finding at home, is now rarely there. And her cousin and her best friend start doing things that leave her confused and frightened about sex and sin. In the sprawling Scanlan family in New York's Westchester Country in the '60s, accommodations are made within a culturally mixed marriage and the mundanity of married life is validated by the occasional flare of passion. Maggie observes the powerplay and shifting allegiances operating behind the scenes with the sharp and dispassionate view of a child on the verge of adulthood. A troubling, frightening time, it ultimately becomes one of liberation, an object lesson Maggie will remember for the rest of her life.

One True Thing - After a short prologue about the time she spent in jail, accused of having killed her mother, Katherine, Ellen Gulden quickly skips back to her story's beginning, when the 24-year-old's father guilts her into putting her high-powered New York writing career on hold and moving back to Langhorne, the small college town where she grew up, to care for her mother, who has cancer. Cerebral, high-achieving Ellen has always been more her father's daughter; he is the English department chairman, while Mom is a Martha Stewart-perfect homemaker, the type of woman who canes her own chairs. But she and Ellen begin to influence each other, and it becomes clear that Katherine is attempting to take care of unfinished business in her characteristically graceful way, even as her body rapidly deteriorates. By the time Katherine's autopsy reveals that she died of a morphine overdose, the jailhouse prologue has almost been forgotten, so the clever mystery ending (complete with satisfying twist) is an added bonus.

Rise And Shine: A Novel - It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of "Rise and Shine," the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break – but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike.

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow. The effect of Meghan’s on-air truth-telling reverberates through both their lives, affecting Meghan’s son, husband, friends, and fans, as well as Bridget’s perception of her sister, their complex childhood, and herself. What follows is a story about how, in very different ways, the Fitzmaurice women adapt, survive, and manage to bring the whole teeming world of New York to heel by dint of their smart mouths, quick wits, and the powerful connection between them that even the worst tragedy cannot shatter.

A Short Guide To A Happy Life (Non-fiction) - Anna Quindlen, reflects on what it takes to "get a life" — to live deeply every day and from your own unique self, rather than merely to exist through your days. Her mother died when Quindlen was nineteen: "It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on for the darkest possible reason... I learned something enduring, in a very short period of time, about life. And that was that it was glorious, and that you had no business taking it for granted." Quindlen guides us with an understanding that comes from knowing how to see the view, the richness in living.

Thinking Out Loud: On The Personal, The Political, The Public, And The Private (Non-fiction) - Thinking out loud is what Anna Quindlen does best. A syndicated columnist with her finger on the pulse of women's lives, and her heart in a place we all share, she writes about the passions, politics, and peculiarities of Americans everywhere. From gays in the military, to the race for First Lady, to the trials of modern motherhood and the right to choose, Quindlen's views always fascinate.