"Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake," by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen, now 59, is a former columnist for the New York Times. In her latest book, she reminisces about marriage, love, rites of passage and other cross-generational moments that we can all relate to. In looking back, she writes of the importance in looking ahead, and women young and old will find a bastion of hope in Quindlen's words. "Where 'Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake' succeeds," writes Yvonne Zipp of The Washington Post, "is in Quindlen’s warm yet pithy discussions about feminism, aging, the uselessness of stuff and the importance of girlfriends." That "aging," however, is what tipped off Maria Russo from Slate to consider the undercurrent of loss in Quindlen's writing: "Quindlen seems to have lost the confident pop in her voice, the instinctive feel for that adoring audience. So much of what formed her is fading and fracturing..." But with life comes loss, and all sides should be accounted for. As Karen Campbell at The Boston Globe concludes: "Ultimately, 'Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake' imparts an abiding curiosity and zest for life. You’ve got to love her attitude when she asserts, 'I want to see what comes next.'"
"A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman," by Alice Kessler-Harris
You may finish the last page of a biography feeling certain of your opinions, but the last word on the subject always remains to be written. This is undoubtedly true of Lillian Hellman, playwright and controversial activist of the 20th century. Her outspoken opinions on Stalin's regime and other leftist concerns are on trial even today. It's a testament to the strength of her convictions that, upon invocation, her name sparks as many snarls as it does smiles. In "A Difficult Woman," Alice Kessler-Harris retells Hellman's life with a contextual approach that suggests sympathy for her subject and turns some reviewers away.
Michael Moynihan of The Wall Street Journal, for instance, is dismayed. "Ms. Kessler-Harris acknowledges Hellman's prevarications only grudgingly, resorting to a tedious postmodern explanation that writers are entitled to their own version of 'truth.'" Jenny Hendrix of The Christian Science Monitor considers Kessler-Harris's approach: "One might say that this is what Kessler-Harris has tried to do, writing Hellman onto various layers of history to see what shows through. Her book, nuanced as it is flawed, is a way of seeing Hellman again, and of possibly changing our minds." Overlooking the author's own tacit concessions to Hellman's controversial ideas, Floyd Skloot of The Boston Globe underscores the importance of the book: "That this book combines so many elements reflects its breadth and strength as history, biography, and cultural criticism." After all, "her book is as much about the world that shaped Hellman as it is about Hellman herself."
"The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," by Robert Caro
Robert Caro is the J.R.R. Tolkien of historical biographies. His epic, sprawling masterpieces on the life and times of Lyndon B. Johnson are deeply intricate and can effectively transport you to another world. A world, one must add, which Caro has dedicated his life to recreating. In his latest installment, Caro details the tedious vice presidential years of LBJ and the tumultuous events that saw him ascend to the role of Commander in Chief. Wendy Smith of the Los Angeles Times knights "Passage" as Caro's crowning achievement. "Caro evinces genuine empathy for Vice President Johnson," and "with his habitual clear-eyed assessment of a very flawed human being warmed by appreciation for that unexpected heroism, 'The Passage of Power' quite possibly will stand as Robert Caro's finest moment..." Likewise, when you are exposed to Caro's character studies (LBJ and Robert Moses), the character's "grow larger," writes Steve Inskeep of The Washington Post. "Their stories" are "told by a biographer with ambitions as vast as theirs."
Finally, The New York Times landed a major cameo reviewer, Bill Clinton, to lend his thoughts on the president and on Caro's illustrious career as LBJ's legacy caretaker: "Even when we parted company over the Vietnam War, I never hated L.B.J. the way many young people of my generation came to. I couldn’t. What he did to advance civil rights and equal opportunity was too important. I remain grateful to him. L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does. With this fascinating and meticulous account of how and why he did it, Robert Caro has once again done America a great service."