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Anna Quindlen: Over 50, And Having 'Plenty Of Cake.'

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times columnist's new memoir explores her past, present and future — her relationships with her parents and children, her faith, her career and her feelings about herself over the past five decades.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2012: Interview with Anna Quindlen; Review of Andrey Kurkov's novels "The Case of the General’s Thumb" and "Death and the Penguin."


April 24, 2012

Guest: Anna Quindlen

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Anna Quindlen, became well-known for her New York Times column "Life in the 30s," about the issues she was facing in her 30s as the mother of two little boys - dealing with sibling rivalry, toilet training and her newspaper deadlines. She gave up the column after the birth of her third child in 1988. Three children and a newspaper column seemed like too much to handle.

But a couple of years later, she started a new column on the Times op-ed page called "Public and Private," which won a Pulitzer Prize. From 1999 to 2009, she wrote a column for Newsweek, and along the way, she's written best-selling novels, including "One True Thing," "Object Lessons" and "Black and Blue."

Now, on the verge of turning 60, she has a new book about her life in her 50s called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake." It deals with marriage, friendships, being the mother of adult children, and she reflects on turning points in earlier stages of her life that made her the person she is today.

Anna Quindlen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to start by reading the opening sentences of your new book.

ANNA QUINDLEN: (Reading) It's odd when I think of the arc of my life - from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn't know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I'd invented. And finally I was what I was again.

GROSS: That's Anna Quindlen, reading from her new book. And would you compare the person you initially was - were...


GROSS: ...with the person that you invented?

QUINDLEN: Oh, Gloria Steinem uses a phrase that I mention in this book, female impersonators. And she talks about how women respond to societal pressure by becoming some carefully manipulated version of themselves. I think I did that for a long time. I was a pretty gutsy, out-there little girl, the kind of little girl who wasn't afraid of a whole lot, who got into some trouble, who shot off her mouth all the time.

And over time, I think I learned that that was not necessarily what was wanted. Now, those people who read me over the years in the New York Times or Newsweek would argue, I think successfully, that I didn't mitigate that much. But I did enough so that I tried to do more of what I think of as a girl imitation.

GROSS: Which was?

QUINDLEN: Nicer, sweeter, less outspoken, less combative. All of the qualities that you need to be a good opinion columnist tend to be qualities that aren't valued in women. And I think that was a bit of a challenge for me when I became an op-ed-page columnist and has been a challenge for many of us who do that as a living.

GROSS: So who are you now? What parts of the past have you incorporated into your new self, or what parts of you...

QUINDLEN: Oh, I am five again.



QUINDLEN: I think there came a moment, probably when I was around 50, and I'm not sure exactly why it's around that age, you know, everybody wants to talk about how you're reaching menopause, or your children are leaving the nest, but what I found was really the upside to that, which is I didn't care anymore what other people thought about me.

After all those years as a woman of hearing, you know, not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough, almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought: I'm enough.

GROSS: Much of your writing over the years has been about being a mother, yet I was surprised to read when you were in your 20s, you asked your doctor to tie your tubes so that you would be unable to have children. Why were you so confident in your 20s that you did not want to have children, and now you're the mother of three? But why were you confident in the 20s that you wanted to make it physically impossible to be a - you know, to give birth?

QUINDLEN: I wouldn't describe myself as confident. I was broken. I had had my own mother die after a, you know, horrible siege with ovarian cancer, and I had spent six months overseeing four bereaved children, my siblings, who at the time ranged in age from 9 to 18.

And so I became, almost overnight, a working mother of four kids who were at the worst moment in their own lives, and it put me off the entire enterprise forever. I just thought, well, I never want to do this. This is too hard. This is a trap, and I went into my 20s thinking that's something I never want to do.

I'm happy to say that I had a doctor who said, well, you know, I think you need to talk about all this with a trained therapist, and I didn't do that, and a scant 10 to 12 years later, there I was pregnant with baby number three.

GROSS: So your mother died when you were 19, and you were in college. I'd like to hear a little bit more about how your mother's death affected your decision not to be a mother when you decided in your 20s not to be a mother, because I think in addition to her dying and the horror of that and you taking over the parenting role for a while, you probably also didn't want to be the mother your mother was.

QUINDLEN: No, no. Actually, I think I despaired of being the mother my mother was. In terms of character, my mother and I are quite different. She was a reserved, almost shy person. I clearly am not. But she was really, really good at being a mother. She just had that gift for making you feel as though you'd hung the moon, each of you. I think each of us felt like we were her favorite.

And at some level, I think I thought that she was too tough an act to follow. And certainly, it's true that when I had my own kids, I would feel like if I got anywhere close to being Prudence Quindlen on any day, I was doing a good job.

GROSS: But by that I meant you didn't really want her life of being a full-time mother.

QUINDLEN: Oh, I so didn't want her life. At I say in the book at one point: I have never actually owned an iron because some of my clearest memories of my mother is her standing at the ironing board ironing our uniform shirts for school. For me, the combination of a damp dress shirt and hot metal means a life that I so did not want, and to a large extent that remained true throughout my 20s and 30s.

I'm just one of those people who's not cut out to be a full-time, stay-at-home mother.

GROSS: Your sister, who was 9 when your mother died, has no memory of your mother. That must be very upsetting to her and to you.

QUINDLEN: It was extremely upsetting to me when I had young children because I was so central to their lives and they to mine that I would look at them at 5 or 6 and think I haven't even really imprinted yet. If anything happened to me, I would disappear into the ether for them. And that was kind of terrifying, those moments when Theresa(ph) would say to me, really, when I would mention, you know, how our mother would do her hair or what our mother would cook or what she sounded like.

It's as though she vanished into thin air for my sister, and I was terribly afraid that that might happen for me and my kids.

GROSS: It must have been an odd time for you to be taking care of your mother and then taking care of your siblings because when you were in college, this was probably like late '60s, early '70s...

QUINDLEN: Early '70s.

GROSS: OK, and it was a time when young people were really just, like, actively rebelling against their parents and against their upbringing. And you were in the position of having to spend so much time at home in the parental role.

QUINDLEN: Well, I was discovering feminism and learning how to make a decent meatloaf simultaneously.


QUINDLEN: And that was not a comfortable place to be. In some ways, it was harder when I went back to school. I mean, having looked after someone who's dying by inches, having given her morphine, having then made school lunches for your siblings and then going back to a place where, you know, the biggest concern is: am I going to ace this gut course? It makes you feel like you've been taken out of one world and thrown back into it again.

And I think over the years, when I was in my 20s, I had a hard time adjusting to the prevailing speed and concerns of life for my peers.

GROSS: When your mother died when you were 19, did she leave you any possessions, and do you still have them?

QUINDLEN: She left me her engagement ring, and it was stolen when somebody broke into my apartment when I was in my early 20s.


QUINDLEN: Great sadness for me.

GROSS: Yeah, that must have had an incredible, like, symbolic and emotional import.

QUINDLEN: I mean, the truth is she left me - she embedded herself in everything that I am and everything I do, but that was tough.

GROSS: So you said you had to take care of your siblings for six months. What happened after the six months?

QUINDLEN: I hired a housekeeper, the only person who answered my ad. It's astonishing anyone did - four children under the age of 18 - and went back to college.

GROSS: And what about your father?

QUINDLEN: My father continued traveling during the week on business, he was a management consultant, and being home on weekends.

GROSS: And were you going to out-of-town school, or were you home at night?

QUINDLEN: I went to Barnard. No, I - the truth is that once I hired a housekeeper, I sort of fled. I wanted to go back to what I thought of as my real life. I was really nervous about the briars growing up around me and keeping me trapped in that role that at the time I desperately thought I didn't want.

GROSS: I feel for you. I just think that must have been so hard to have the pull of your family and the desire for the life of a young person.

QUINDLEN: Yeah, but you know, in retrospect, it's probably the single biggest thing that made me what I am today. There's no question that you're either going to fold in a situation like that, or you're going to develop reservoirs of strength you didn't even know you had.

GROSS: But you always have to ask yourself, am I being selfish, you know, to want my life?

QUINDLEN: Yeah, but I fled.


GROSS: And you think you did the right thing?

QUINDLEN: I don't know what the right thing was. You know, I did then what I tried to do ever since. I tried to do the best I could by my own lights. It was a really difficult situation for everybody involved, and I just tried to do the best I could.

GROSS: So your book is really about life in your 50s, and you're on the verge of turning 60. But I'm going to take you back to when you were in your 30s, which you write a little bit about in the book. And, you know, we were talking about how in your 20s, you desperately didn't want to have a baby, you wanted to have your tubes tied, but you ended up not doing it. In your 30s, you decided you desperately wanted to have a baby and then ended up having three of them. What changed you emotionally and maybe physiologically?

QUINDLEN: Boy, my husband is still asking that question because he spent all those years with a woman who said she never wanted to have kids and who literally woke up one morning when she was 30 years old and said let's have a baby. And I honestly can't explain to you how that happened. It was as if the on-off switch got thrown. And I'm still a little puzzled by the progression, but so happy about it.

GROSS: What was his reaction?

QUINDLEN: He said - he's a much more thoughtful decision-maker than I am. He's somebody who takes a long time to make important decisions. I'm somebody who comes down to breakfast one morning and says I'm quitting my job next week. And he said: I'd like to back off for a little while. And so we did.

GROSS: But not for too long.


QUINDLEN: Not for too long, no, let's say Quinn was - Quinn was born when I was 31, in September of that year.

GROSS: So you describe yourself as having given birth at the dawn of uber-momism. Do you think you encouraged or discouraged that kind of uber-momism in your columns that you wrote about being a parent for The New York Times?

QUINDLEN: Oh, I hope I discouraged it, first of all because there wasn't so much of it. But the other thing is that I think if you look at those columns or some of the columns I wrote later - my son the other day was saying that I had earlier posited that maybe the title of the book would be "Mistakes Were Made."


QUINDLEN: And that's what I always say about motherhood. Mistakes were made, over and over again. And I think the problem with the uber-momism is that you convince yourself first of all that you can never make mistakes. Second of all, if you do, it will be tragic and traumatic.

And third of all, that you have control over the entire situation, which is what's led to this kind of helicopter parenting we talk about all the time. I was the best mother when I stood back, provided appropriate oversight but basically got out of their way so they could be themselves. And that's kind of the opposite of uber-momism.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Quindlen, former columnist for The New York Times and Newsweek. She has a new book, a memoir called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake," about life in her 50s. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Quindlen. She's a former columnist for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her new book is called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake," and it's a memoir about her life in her 50s. She's on the verge of turning 60.

You say one of the greatest challenges of your life has been raising feminist boys. So let's start with what you mean by feminist boys.

QUINDLEN: Boys who will become men who will respect women, who will decide how they feel about them on their merits in terms of smarts, in terms of empathy, in terms of character and personality, men who will not make snap judgment, either overt or covert, about women based on their gender.

GROSS: And you say this was one of the greatest challenges of your life. Why is it so hard? What were some of the forces opposing you in your quest to raise feminist boys?

QUINDLEN: Oh, well, society is opposing you at every turn. I mean, one of our sons said to me later: You know, mom, it was a little bit like having your skin stripped off. I mean, when you have a daughter, and you say to her look, things are not going to be fair for you, people might treat you in a certain way because you're female, might say this thing or that thing; that's kind of easy.

When you're saying to your boys, OK, there's a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man, and you should not take that. That's a kind of craziness. You know, you're asking them at some level to be different from people, certainly to be different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them.

I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great. And, you know, as my one son says in the book about being a feminist boy, chicks dig it. And that's been his guiding principle.


QUINDLEN: I'm going to be a good guy because chicks dig it.

GROSS: How did you discover the women's movement?

QUINDLEN: I think I began to think about it when I was in high school, and there was a clear sense among certain of my teachers that somehow the boys were more. They never exactly said, you know, half of you are going to have important jobs, and the other half of you are not. Or, half of you need to go to college, and the other half will just waste that when they take care of kids full-time.

But there were all kinds of small cues that the boys were more at some level, that they were smarter, that they were more able, that they were more strategic. And I think I started to feel my back going up in about my junior year in high school, and that continued all through high school. And then I went to Barnard, a women's college.

And at Barnard, there was such expectation that we were going to do great things, that we were going to run the world. And of course that was when second-wave feminism was just crashing on the shores of the country. And many of my professors were feminists. There was so much going on in the world of journalism, which I was interested in even then. There was a sit-in at Newsweek; there was a class-action suit against The New York Times. I just threw my lot in.

And frankly, I threw my lot in not because I wanted to make the world a better place for women, but because I wanted to make the world a better place for me. I moved past that, but early days, it was all about self-interest.

GROSS: So when you got hired at The New York Times, was it as a result in part of the class-action suit?

QUINDLEN: I think it was completely a result of the class-action suit. I mean, as I like to say at colleges and universities where sometimes they believe the big lies, I am an affirmative action hire. And that is only a problem if you can't cut the mustard.

You know, these women brought this suit. The Times settled it and said that they would heretofore be hiring more women, be promoting more women, be hiring women in parity with men. And there were a whole group of us who were hired in very short order, many of us quite young, and it was entirely because these women went out on that limb.

GROSS: Do you remember the first column you wrote?

QUINDLEN: The first column I wrote was an About New York column, and I can't remember. I think it was about the murder of the violinist at the Metropolitan Opera for About New York. In fact, I'm almost 100 percent sure that's what it was because now I'm seeing myself standing in the lobby at 10:00 at night getting a first run off the press and looking down at that column. Best feeling in the world.


GROSS: Anna Quindlen will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Anna Quindlen. She wrote about her life in her 30s as a working mother of two in her New York Times column Life in the 30s. She gave up the column after the birth of her third child, but a couple of years later returned to The Times to write her op-ed column, Public and Private, which won a Pulitzer Prize. From 1999 to 2009, she wrote a column for Newsweek, and she's written several best-selling novels. Her new book is about her life in her 50s called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake."

So in your new book, "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake," you write that cosmetically what passes for the baseline for women has become increasingly impossible. And you're talking about how there's been so much plastic surgery and Botox treatments and this and that, that women have very unrealistic expectations that they're supposed to measure up to. But then you write that you've had Botox treatments and facial fillers. So do you feel like you have given in to these and possible models as opposed to like resisting them? Do you feel like you're giving into the kind of age denial that you write about?

QUINDLEN: Actually, in my case, it wasn't age denial. It was that in photographs I kept looking really crabby. And I didn't feel crabby at all, as you can tell by the title of this book. And eventually I think I said something to my dermatologist who said, oh, we can fix that. And I went home and thought about it and thought about it. And then I thought, hell, let's see what it looks like. I had what I would describe as the number 11 between my eyebrows. And when I smiled it sort of made me look like I wasn't really smiling at all. And once she took it away, I thought I'm doing this for the rest of my life.


QUINDLEN: Because I didn't look crabby in photographs anymore. And that was the same case with, you know, having the fillers around my mouth - that I didn't look crabby. I have a 23-year-old daughter. I have a limited ability to fool myself about whether I look young. I just didn't want to look like I was in a bad mood all the time. The stuff that makes me kind of sad - and I think it happens more with beautiful women who have grown up with that sense of their face is their fortune, which I didn't - is this attempt to kind of embalm it - to have it set in stone, to have your face not look any different. I think it's vainglorious and I think sometimes it works against the reality. For example, I think in many ways Meryl Streep, who is a person with very strong features, a very strong face, looks more beautiful in her 60s than she did in her 20s or 30s, although when you see "Sophie's Choice," she's pretty breathtaking then. And I think what happens to a lot of the women who try to halt the passage of time is that they wind up looking like someone else entirely.

GROSS: So the facial fillers, what are they?


QUINDLEN: Oh. They're like little beads of stuff that they put under divots or lines in your skin and they sort of plump it out a little bit.

GROSS: So do you feel like you have stuff in your face now or that part of your face is paralyzed as a result of the treatments?

QUINDLEN: I don't. I mean my face is still about as mobile as a face can be. Some would say too mobile, but yeah, I mean when you do a tiny little bit of this stuff, it doesn't do any of those things that people worry about. It doesn't paralyze anything. Everything still moves, works, looks exactly the same - except that I don't have a number 11 between my forehead and I don't look like I'm ticked off a lot of the time in pictures.

I don't think of it as any different from having my eyebrows waxed. And believe me, nobody wants to see me with my eyebrows as they are in nature. I'm half Italian. It looks like a freight train of eyebrow, and that's why somebody takes them off, you know, every 10 days or so. So I don't really see this as a whole lot different.

GROSS: You write a little bit about marriage in your book. And you write: When I first married I'd expected my husband to be all things: sex object, professional sounding board, partner in parenting, constant companion. How does that compare with what you expect now?

QUINDLEN: Well, first of all, it's interesting because I don't think our parents' generation expected that at all. They had a much more realistic view of marriage - a clearer division of duties and goals. He was the breadwinner. She was the wife and mother and homemaker, as it were. And we're probably the first generation of people who somehow expected this all in all thing. I mean, look, there are things that my husband isn't interested in that I discuss with my girlfriends. There are events my husband doesn't want to attend to which I take one of our kids. We've been married for 34 years, but he has interests that I don't share and vice versa. And I think when I was 21 years old, I would've found that insupportable. We were supposed to be in each other's pockets 24/7. And I think over time you realize that often that's not the key to a successful marriage.

GROSS: You have separate finances. I guess you have your own bank accounts or investments or whatever. Why did you choose to do it that way?

QUINDLEN: Oh, I think part of that grew out of my feminist beliefs. I really like to earn my own money and I really like to oversea my own money. And also, I really like to know that if there was any kind of a problem, if God forbid anything bad happened to Gerry, that I would have the money right at hand to take care of our kids. So I just am somebody who's always been really independent, almost to a fault, and I think money is one way that that played out.

I think I also remember reading early on that the worst fights in marriage were always about money, and somehow having separate finances takes some of that out of the play.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Quindlen. She's a former columnist for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her new book is called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Quindlen, who wrote columns for The New York Times and Newsweek for many years. She has a new memoir about life in her 50s called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake."

So you describe yourself and your book as a control freak with one thing that you can't control, which is drinking, which you gave up years ago. What was your thing when you were drinking?

QUINDLEN: You know it's interesting. You hear all the time that you really have to hit your bottom to stop drinking. Or my agent said to me this is the most boring chapter about drinking I've ever read in my life.


QUINDLEN: You should just take it out of the book. You never crashed your car. You know, you never missed any work. You never lost friends or did anything really bad. I just tend to have a kind of an all or nothing personality, and it presented on that level too. I mean I just - in any battle between me and alcohol, should I have another, alcohol always won. And at a certain point I thought to myself, this just isn't going to work for you over the long haul. And frankly, I had three little kids. My daughter had just been born. I obviously had not had a drop to drink during any of my pregnancies or when I was breast-feeding, so I knew it wasn't necessary to my life at some level. I looked at my kids and I thought, OK, when you drink, your personality tends to change over the course of it. So you have one glass of wine and you're kind of jolly and you have two and maybe you get a little quieter and you have three and maybe you get a little spiky. I think kids need as much consistency as possible and I don't think a kid should have three or four different iterations of mom during the course of a given evening, and that's why I stopped.

GROSS: When you were drinking, did you cover it up?

QUINDLEN: No. No. I mean, you know, one of the things about drinking is it's really the acceptable drug among people and people push it on you all the time. And believe me, anybody who's stopped drinking knows that there are these constant battles at parties or restaurants where people say, just try, you've got to try the margaritas. The margaritas are amazing. And so everybody else was drinking so much that, you know, at some level I don't think I drank a whole lot more than some other people that we knew. I just knew that I wasn't good at it. I wasn't on top of my game when I did it.

GROSS: And you also say that some habits seem worse when you're older and you didn't want to be like the older woman who drank too much.

QUINDLEN: There's no question about that - and it's not just drinking. I mean think of, you know, as I say in the book, the 30-year-old guy who hits on everybody is one thing. The 60-year-old guy who sits on everybody is something quite different, or the person who talks too much, or the person who drinks too much. It just, it hardens. It hardens in terms of how you do it and it hardens in terms of how people see it as you get older.

GROSS: You write that you're expected to have your faith deepen as you get older and as you get closer to your own mortality. But that's not been your experience.

QUINDLEN: Well, I think what I say in that chapter is that I haven't lost my faith but I've lost my religion.

GROSS: What's the difference between the two?

QUINDLEN: Oh, I still believe in some things so deeply. I've never really gotten past that quote from Anne Frank in her diary - which is so poignant - where she says she believes that people are really good at heart. But I feel like the Catholic Church - no, the Catholic hierarchy has been disinviting people like me, and especially women like me, from the party for so many years that I finally took the hint.

GROSS: Yeah. Some people stay in spite of it and try to like reform the church by their presence, but you thought it would be better to just like leave.

QUINDLEN: Well, actually, I did that for years. I mean I used to say it's not their church, it's my church and I'm staying. But the pedophilia scandals and the church's reaction to them and their constant obsession with gynecology, taken together at a certain point it was probably two or three years ago I said enough. Every time I sit in the pew I ratify this behavior and I'm not going to ratify it anymore.

GROSS: So it's a pretty recent change for you.

QUINDLEN: It is. I mean we raised our kids Catholic. We took them to mass every Sunday. They could stop when they went away to college, and in fact each of them did, just as we did - by the way - when we were in college, and we continued to attend mass. But there just came a breaking point a couple of years ago. It was that kind of perfect storm of the behavior of the hierarchy.

GROSS: Do you miss mass? Do you miss a communal experience where people who share a certain faith get together?

QUINDLEN: I don't so much. I think not going anymore made me realize how much of the good had been imprinted deep inside me, and how much of the rest I didn't need. I mean I don't have to listen to the gospel on Sunday to know the stories of the New Testament. They inform so much of what I write that they're practically like a news scrim that goes through my brain 24/7. And I don't have to listen to a sermon to know what to think or feel about them. So it's almost as if I'd absorbed completely all of what mattered most to me, and the rest could go.

GROSS: So you said you still have faith. What does that mean? Faith in what?

QUINDLEN: Well, as I say in the book, I'm not willing to say that I'm an atheist. That's a kind of certainty that I might've had when I was 18 but I sure don't have at 59. Maybe an agnostic, in that I'm not sure what I know or what is knowable. But I still walk around some mornings and look at the world and think, oh my god, this is so fantastic. And there's so many opportunities to do good and to be happy.

And I think that comes from some deep faith place that started in religion but now (technical difficulties)...

GROSS: What is the kind of belief that you feel like you gave up?

QUINDLEN: Oh, I think there's all kinds of theological backwaters of the Catholic Church that you embrace when you're a kid - the lives of the saints, the virgin birth, all the rest - that you become more skeptical about when you're grown up. I mean I grew up with the notion that father was as close to God as you got on Earth. Obviously I don't really believe that anymore.

GROSS: Did you ever want to be a nun?

QUINDLEN: I think if I wanted anything, I wanted to be a priest.


GROSS: That's part of the reason why you're not in the church anymore.

QUINDLEN: Exactly.

GROSS: In your new memoir, you write that the greatest hallmark of your life and of your generation has been choice. What kind of choices are you referring to?

QUINDLEN: Oh. Oh, my gosh. There's so many. The educational opportunities that we had. The assumptions that our parents made about we could and would do. The ability to decide when or whether to have children. The ability to decide whether to stay in a bad marriage. The ability to work. The ability to work at - you know, you look at somebody like Sandra Day O'Connor, who graduated second in her law school class, who went out to interview at big law firms, all of which said - well, first of all, most of which wouldn't interview her and one of which said we've never had a woman attorney and we'll never have a woman attorney, who was offered jobs as a secretary - and then you fast forward to today. I mean everything's changed. Everything's changed. The women's movement has transformed the way American women live, what they can expect, how they think of themselves.

I just feel really blessed to have lived during the period of time that I've lived through.

GROSS: What political debates about women right now are you surprised - are you most surprised to hear actually being debated?

QUINDLEN: Oh, come on. Contraception? Hello? What is this, 1962? I mean, it's being debated. It has no traction in the world. I mean, none of us are out there saying, gee, should you be able to buy the pill or should you not be able to buy the pill? All of this is an attempt in a rapidly changing age to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle. And guess what - it does not work.

We are accustomed to living a certain way. Our daughters take certain things as bedrock. And a couple of guys in Washington arguing about this, or presidential debates - they're not going to change that.

GROSS: You write in your book: I wouldn't be 25 again or even 40. Why not?

QUINDLEN: Oh, I think I was still so unsure of myself, particularly at 25. I mean, you know, I talked a good game but there was still that sense of looking over my shoulder all the time in terms of what people expected of me, what I expected of myself, that thump, thump of ambition that's kind of free floating when you're young.

I just feel like with every passing year I've sort of become more myself. I've sort of circled back to that little five year old girl, you know, who was kind of full of herself and didn't take a whole lot of guff and did what she wanted to do and was comfortable in her own skin.

GROSS: Well, Anna Quindlen, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

QUINDLEN: Terry, it's always a pleasure to be with you. Anna Quindlen's new book is called "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake." You can read an excerpt on our website, This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov has written 13 novels that have gotten him compared to everyone from Franz Kafka to John LeCarre. His books first began to be translated into English in 2001 in Great Britain, where he soon developed a devoted following, but he still remained largely unknown in the U.S. But that began to change when Melville House started releasing his work last summer. Our critic-at-large John Powers is a fan and says that Kurkov is the kind of writer you can get hooked on.

JOHN POWERS: When you hear the words Russian novel, you probably picture something big and heavy as an anvil. Yet ever since the fall of communism, we've seen the ascent of Russian novelists who are shorter-winded and jauntier. The most sheerly enjoyable is Andrey Kurkov, who lives and works in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. Kurkov writes short, sly page-turners that specialize in what we might call absurdist noir.

He's already a cult writer in the U.K. and Europe. Now some of his best novels are being released by Melville House, one of those admirable small presses that, in our supposedly globalized age, are helping keep foreign literature from completely dying out in the U.S.

Their most recent Kurkov release is "The Case of the General's Thumb," a sardonically amusing romp that's well worth reading. Yet the book I suggest you start with - and that may get you hooked - is the 1996 novel that's probably Kurkov's best. It certainly has his best title: "Death and the Penguin."

Set in the run-amok city of Kiev, it's the story of Viktor, a wannabe novelist who lives with his pet, a penguin named Misha, which he began looking after when the local zoo could no longer afford to keep him. To keep himself going, and Misha in frozen fish, Viktor takes a job preparing advance obituaries for a local paper.

Sounds promising, until Viktor's obits turn out to be a kind of hit list. The people he writes about wind up getting murdered. And that's not all. Soon he's looking after the daughter of his dodgy human friend, Misha - called Misha-non-penguin - whose shenanigans get Viktor ever more deeply involved with the gangsters who run modern Ukraine. These thugs have their own strange use for Viktor's penguin.

Now, if you're like me, you may be skeptical of any book about a man with a pet penguin. It sounds too cute by half, like one of those movies where a loner hit man proves his humanity by raising a bonsai or talking to his pet cockatoo. Yet Misha the penguin isn't a gimmick.

Not only is he central to the plot, he's a mirror of Viktor's own melancholy soul. Just as Misha is cut off from a sane environment for a penguin - he has been uprooted from both Antarctica and the zoo - so Viktor is trying to survive in a city that's become hostile to simply being human.

I don't know Russian, but in George Bird's wonderfully readable translation "Death and the Penguin" comes across as an almost perfect little novel. Kurkov tells his story in a brisk, surreal deadpan that captures the mental atmosphere of a country that since the fall of the Soviet Union has often verged on black comedy.

Indeed, since Kurkov wrote this book, Ukraine has been through at least one rigged election, had a presidential candidate poisoned with dioxin, staged an Orange Revolution, voted in a woman prime minister, who lost another disputed election to the guy the Orange Revolution originally threw out, who then tossed her into prison for crimes that other nations don't remotely believe she committed.

Meanwhile, the mafia operates with impunity and public services collapse. Remember how Viktor got his penguin? That was true. Ukrainian zoos actually did give away their animals. Of course, what's bad for living can be good for literature. In conjuring the bedlam of Ukrainian life, Kurkov's novels are spider-webbed with entertaining tricks and double crosses.

In the new one, an honest cop goes on a wild goose chase to find the thumb of a murdered general. In another, a desolate husband takes out a contract on himself - then changes his mind, a bit too late. Spinning these yarns, Kurkov reveals a level of casual corruption so profound that ordinary people just trying to get by can't avoid being sucked into the muck.

But please don't think Kurkov's work grim. It's not. It's fast-paced and witty and on the side of the angels. For all the immorality that threatens to drown them, his heroes cling, like latter-day Buster Keatons, to the life raft of their personal decency.

They may not be able to change the world around them - the forces that run it are too big and too strong. But they can find odd moments of zen-like calm, and more important, perform the small kindnesses that reaffirm their humanity - like looking after a penguin that wants nothing more than to find its way back home.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and


GROSS: We're closing today by remembering the clarinetist Joe Muranyi. He died last Friday at the age of 84. Perhaps the most life-changing event for him musically was joining the Louis Armstrong All Starts in 1967. Muranyi played with Armstrong through the rest of Armstrong's career. We're listening to a 2009 recording featuring Muranyi on clarinet and vocals.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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