23 April 2012

Review: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

In the late 1980s one of my favorite treats of the week was to read Anna Quindlen's New York Times column "Life in the Thirties." Although Quindlen and I were in different stages (I was in graduate school writing my dissertation and building my freelance career and she was the mother of two small boys with a prestigious job), I felt a deep connection with her through her observations and her outlook on life. Her column was much discussed among my women colleagues.

Quindlen (who is just a couple of years older than I am) and I are still in different places. This time because she has grown children, a big-city lifestyle, and a comfortable bank account. I'm now fairly small town, childless (by choice), and still building those savings. Nevertheless, her latest collection of essays, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, has only tightened our connection.

Written in the style I grew to love almost twenty-five years ago, Lots of Candles speaks particularly strongly to those of us quickly being forced to make friends with sixty. As Quindlen looks back on the collective experience of the baby boom women, she points out the many firsts we were witness to. Some of these were related to technology (first color televisions, first manned space flight, first home computers), but the truly defining firsts had to do with the women's movement and the opportunities--and stresses--that came with it.

On the positive side were the first woman on the Supreme Court and the first coeds in Ivy League schools. On the stress side were the first generation of super mothers and the first women to be sandwiched between our dependent (or semi-dependent) children and our aging parents.

In fifteen essays, Quindlen covers such issues as friendships, parenthood, marriage, materialism, mortality, aging, body image, and the future. She uses a personal voice and fluid style and has the knack to zero in on the heart of the topic at hand. I am but one of many women who not only will agree with most of what Quindlen says but will need to pick up the phone or crank up the email to share choice bits with our close women friends, our mothers, and our daughters or nieces.

The subtitle of the book is A Memoir, and I suppose it fits in that genre. What Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake really is, however, is a collection of musings, observations, and opinions of a smart, vibrant woman who generously lets us in on her thoughts.

About friends:
Perhaps only when we've made our peace with our own selves can we really be the kind of friends who listen, advise, but don't judge, or not too harshly. My friends now are more cheerleader than critic. They are as essential to my life as my work or my home, a kind of freely chosen family, connected by ties of affinity instead of ties of blood. (p. 28)
About surprise in our lives:
We are, after all, always a work in progress. There were things I hadn't done, didn't know, couldn't imagine at fifty that have all come true in the last decade. There must be such things in the decades to come as well. They arrive not because of the engraved invitations of careful planning but through happy happenstance, doodles on the to-do list of life. (p. 88)
About body image:
We women have such a strange relationship with our bodies nowadays, even stranger than it was when I was a girl. All of it takes place at the margins, between the Boston Marathon and all-you-can-eat buffets, between draconian diet plans and the Triple Quarter Pounder with cheese. Obesity and anorexia--you have to hand it to us Americans, we never do anything halfway. We have a culture that elevates women in advertisements who are contoured like thirteen-year-old boys, a culture that showcases actresses on television so undernourished that they look like bobblehead dolls. We've invented a new--and apparently desirable--class of clothes, size 0. A Harvard University study showed that up to two-thirds of underweight twelve-year-old girls considered themselves to be too fat. In other words, we have a culture that reflects contempt and antipathy toward a realistic female body, which is just another form of hating women.

. . . It's a story everything around us tell us, and, worse, it's a story young women hear as they're growing to adulthood. The invisible negligible disappearing woman, the cultural ideal just at a time when women are becoming more powerful and participatory in the world. No mystery to that equation. And speaking of equations, zero is nothing. (pp. 96-97)
The unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio), was read by Anna Quindlen herself. For a more personal and intimate experience I recommend giving the audiobook a try. My full audiobook review will be available on the AudioFile magazine website.

Buy Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake at Powell's, at an Indie, at Book Depository, or at a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Random House / April 24, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781400069347
Source: Review, print and audio (see review policy)
Rating: A-
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 4/23/12, 6:52 AM  

So happy you had a chance to experience this one; I loved it.

Laurie C 4/23/12, 7:04 AM  

Looking forward to your audio review. It sounds like the kind of book that might be best read by the author. She must be accustomed to public speaking, too.

bermudaonion 4/23/12, 7:45 AM  

I'm right there with you and Anna age wise but my situation is a little different since I live in a suburb. I just got this book last week and cannot wait to dig in!

Daryl Edelstein 4/23/12, 8:25 AM  

I miss that column too ... sounds like a good read, thanks!

Zibilee 4/23/12, 10:01 AM  

I loved the quote about friends, and so agree. I also think her opinions on body image are very much like my own. I think that even though she and I are of different generations, I would love to read this. It sounds like she has some very important things to say. Great review today!

Carol @ Always Thyme to Cook 4/23/12, 10:40 AM  

Great review! I really enjoy Anna Quindlen, saw her today on the Morning Show promoting the book. Added it to my list, I'm looking forward to reading it.

picky 4/23/12, 11:38 AM  

I've never read any Quindlen that I know of, but I love these sorts of observations and essays. Though I'm younger than she is and also in a very different place in life, I've always sort of had an "old" soul. Thanks for such a great review.

Barbara 4/23/12, 1:02 PM  

So glad you had a chance to read this too. I'm 71 and also childless by choice but I always identified with Quindlen. No matter our situations individually, she writes of the experiences of all women in a down-to-earth sensible manner. I loved this book.

softdrink 4/23/12, 1:23 PM  

Imaginary London is soon to be my first experience with Quindlen. This one looks pretty good though, too.

Carole 4/23/12, 4:59 PM  

Thanks, Beth. I didn't know about these essays. I have read a couple of her books although I couldn't finish one of them because it was so depressing.

JoAnn 4/24/12, 8:08 AM  

This book is on my must read list! The only decision is whether to go audio or print...

Karen White 4/24/12, 9:32 AM  

Very convincing review! I was always a fan of Quindlen's NYT essays, but have been a bit disappointed in her fiction. This collection sounds brilliant, though. I loved all the quotes. Thanks for sharing!

Julie P. 4/24/12, 11:25 AM  

I am so jealous that you already have "read" this one. I'm dying for it! I love her writing and her essays.

Leslie 4/25/12, 3:33 PM  

I'm really sorry I passed on an advance copy of this one now that I've read a few reviews. I didn't realize it was essays, which I would enjoy. I used to read Quindlen every week; the Chicago Tribune would pick up her column. I was sad to see her column writing days end. Anyway, nice review. I think I'll go for the audiobook.

Jenners 4/26/12, 7:00 PM  

I heard that she hits this one spot on!

Francis 5/12/12, 7:25 AM  

I look forward to seeing your review of the audio book. It is also being reviewed by Elaine Charles on her radio show "The Book report"(www.bookreportradio.com) on mothers day. This sounds like an excellent book to listen to.

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