September 2, 2007

Loud and Clear

Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction - Essays
Finished on 8/27/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Nonfiction Challenge #4

In her first retrospective essay collection since Thinking Out Loud (1993), best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Quindlen continues to unscramble gnarly social issues with splendid clarity and pithiness, wit and compassion and uncommon common sense.... So true is Quindlen's moral compass, and so lucid, vital, and forward-looking are her insights, that her opinion pieces not only stand the test of time but also provide an invaluable gage of where we've been and where we're going....Quindlen is a tonic for mind and soul.

Quindlen . . . couldn't have picked a more apt title . . . Whether readers agree with Quindlen's opinions on everything from youth culture to gun control, these razor-sharp musings will open avenues of debate and discussion long after the book is closed. Quindlen is at the top of her game . . .
-Publishers Weekly

Fiction has always been my first choice in books. However, in recent years I've been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, specifically memoirs and collections of essays. I'm especially fond of those in which cooking, gardening, family and home are the primary material source. Anna Quindlen is both novelist and columnist (formerly for the New York Times and currently for Newsweek) and I've read most of her published works, so I was thrilled to receive this book from a dear friend last Christmas. It's the perfect sort of book to pick up and read a few essays here and there. (Or, what another friend refers to as reading in "sips and gulps.")

Quindlen divides the book into five categories: Heart (16), Mind (19), Body (12), Voice (4) and Soul (18) for a total of 69 essays. Perhaps the most moving of all, though, is the Preface in which she speaks about September 11, 2001.

I knew that something uniquely terrible was taking place. I also had reason to believe that everyone I cared for was safe: My husband across the Hudson at his office. The children at their schools. My friend in the hospital across town. It was difficult for us to talk to one another, of course, with the New York City telephone lines out, the tunnels and bridges shut down, and cyberspace hopelessly jammed. One of the mementos I have kept from that morning are three identical e-mails from our son at college, who could not get through on the date of his birthday or for three days afterward. Each one is dated September 11, 2001, and says in capital letters I REALLY NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.


Most nights, housebreaking the puppy we had picked up the day after our son left for school, I would run into a fireman who was heading home after working the wreckage, his eyes burning bright in a grimy face, his hands nicked and bandaged. He would pet our dog, rub her ears and muzzle, finally crouch to hold her squirmy little body close, and by the time he rose for the rest of the walk home there would be bright tear tracks in the dirt on his face. I tried not to cry until he was gone.

There are so many wonderful essays in this collective work; I've dog-eared dozens of pages, the majority of which can be found in the Soul section. Essays such as "Life After Death" which deals with grief:

Grief remains one of the few things that has the power to silence us. It is a whisper in the world and a clamor within. More than sex, more than faith, even more than its usher death, grief is unspoken, publicly ignored except for those moments at the funeral that are over too quickly, or the conversations among the cognoscenti, those of us who recognize in one another a kindred chasm deep in the center of who we are.

Maybe we do not speak of it because death will mark all of us, sooner or later. Or maybe it is unspoken because grief is only the first part of it. After a time it becomes something less sharp but larger, too, a more enduring thing called loss.

Perhaps that is why this is the least explored passage: because it has no end. The world loves closure, loves a thing that can, as they say, be gotten through. This is why it comes as a great surprise to find that loss is forever, that two decades after the event there are those occasions when something in you cries out at the continuous presence of an absence, "An awful leisure," Emily Dickinson once called what the living have after death.

Then there's "Anniversary" in which she writes about the loss of a mother, also quite powerful and thought-provoking.

In "Weren't We All So Young Then?" Quindlen returns to the topic of 9/11:

People are changed forever by grief, and changed people change the way the world is, the kind of place it becomes. Getting on with life is not the same as getting over a loss.

I especially liked the following quote from "Leg Waxing and Life Everlasting":

The youth produced by scalpel and laser is of a particularly arid sort, as much like the bloom of the real thing as the decor of those funeral homes is like a real live living room. But if the abs are tight, the eyes unlined, the hands unspotted, the hairline intact, if fifty-five is the new forty, then can't the inevitable be, if not avoided, at least indefinitely deferred? The answer is, of course, no. As Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was said to have told a friend when she became ill, "Why in the world did I do all those push-ups?"

"Watching the World Go By" (an essay about reality tv) provides humor with lines such as:

People named Kimmi and Colby and Amber (who chooses the participants, the writers for One Life to Live?) balancing on rafts, living on goat brains, turning brown in the outback? This is a stunt, not survival.

And then, of course, the column about Harry Potter and readership in America ("Aha! Caught You Reading"):

The next time someone talks about the narrow interests of kids today, how they attend only to the raucous cry of the computer calling across a stretch of cable to its mate the Internet, remember this week. Remember how the boys and girls of America went gaga over a book, a real old-fashioned black-letters-on-white-paper book, how they waited in line for it at the mall, cradled it to their bony little chests and carried it into their bedrooms, slipped into its imaginary world with big eyes and open minds as children have done almost since Gutenberg put the pedal to the metal of the printing press.

There's so much more to this particular essay, but I hate to spoil it for those of you who wish to read the book yourself. Most of the essays are between three to four pages in length, which does pose a problem when trying to share favorite passages. Taken out of context, they have a tendency to lose their significance and power. So, buy the book. Read an essay or two every few days. Don't do what I did and read it like a novel. These need to be savored slowly. And don't forget your highlighter!

Note: Archival copies of Anna Quindlen's Newsweek column, "The Last Word," can be found here. If you enjoy her writing and have read through all 77 essays, you can set up a Google Alert for future columns.


  1. I'm a big fan of essays and just read Thinking Out Loud, which I enjoyed. I'll have to pick this one up as well.

  2. Oh, Les, this sounds good! I've been into short stories lately, so this would fit right in.

    I only read one of Quindlen's books and didn't care for it, but I may give her another chance with this one. :)

  3. I loved this book so much. And I did read it as a novel (I couldn't stop), and I didn't highlight (I never, ever do). :<) I actually listened to her reading her own words and it was wonderful. I liked an amazon review I read once where someone said she didn't agree with AQ politically but that she still liked her. That's high praise in our divided-by-our-beliefs world.

  4. What beautiful quotes. I usually don't like to read essays, but I'm making an exception for this one.

  5. Katya - I'll have to add Thinking Out Loud to my list. I have an old copy of Living Out Loud (almost 20 years old!) that I plan to read later this year, too.

    Joy - I think you'd enjoy this one. It's nice to read a little at a time, especially the political essays (which can get a bit wordy after the first half dozen!).

    Nan - I kind of figured you loved it. :) Thanks again for sending it my way. I think Rod's going to read it, too.

    Framed - There were so many more quotes, but I felt like the reveiw was already long enough. Glad you enjoyed what I included and I hope you like the book as much as I did.

  6. This sounds like a great book! The only Quindlen I've read was her book of essays on reading: How Reading Changed My Life. I loved her "voice" in that one, and will definitely give this one a go.

  7. Andi - I think you'll enjoy the book very well, especially the political commentaries. To be honest, I actually thought of you and a few other friends as I read the book, thinking you'd like Quindlen's columns.


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