Can Dogs Help Us With Grief? In Sigrid Nunez’s Latest Novel, The Friend, You May Get Some Insight.

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Meeting the Author and My Review:

Fortunate to have had the opportunity to see her speak,  I have not come across many authors who are as impressive, authentic and old school as Sigrid Nunez.  A true, lifelong writer for writing’s sake, not caught up in the business of marketing her work or following her reviews, Nunez seems focused on her craft, and just expressing herself and getting her story out of her head and onto the paper.

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According to the author, her novel, The Friend just flowed and formed itself on its own without an outline or a plan. A while ago she had been asked to do a 10 minute reading so she wrote what turned out to be the beginning of The Friend.  Soon after, she was asked to do a 25 minute reading so she added on and she felt she had something of a novel developing so she just continued to the end.  She did not do much research for this book; most of the story was meditative as the reader is alway in the consciousness of the book’s narrator.  Nunez chose to keep to the tone of a “hushed, intimate voice of someone writing a love letter” but did not write in a letter format.  She enjoyed the freedom of going from thought to thought, and felt this form was liberating and easier to write than in any other way.

Nunez is a big reader, and could never envision herself living a happy life without it.  She likes to write in the morning, at home or in the school library where she is teaching, (currently she is at Syracuse University) and works on only one project at at a time.

A writer her entire life, she is pleased, I am sure to get recognized by The New York Times (they published an article with the headline, “With ‘The Friend’, Sigrid Nunez Becomes an Overnight Literary Sensation, 23 Years and Eight Books Later”).  She is the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2018.

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The Friend is an unnamed woman’s story of grief after losing a lifelong friend to suicide and adopting his seemingly forlorn Great Dane, Apollo.  After meeting with her Friend’s 3rd wife who requested she adopt the pet, she agrees even though no dogs are allowed in her small apartment and she runs the risk of eviction.  The relationship with her Friend’s very large, aging companion becomes important to her and even though others believe she needs help to overcome her grief and back away from the unusual commitment to Apollo, she prefers to be with him rather than socialize with other people.  She assumes he misses his master and tries to understand what goes on in his head and his heart.

In the narrator’s voice, the author makes her own thoughts known regarding the writing community; she likens the publishing industry to a sinking ship, and mocks what could be a status builder, (the crazy but not altogether impossible idea of) a naked author calendar.  The narrator doesn’t believe people write for the right reason and interestingly enough, author Sigrid Nunez, through the voice of her narrator, has made her critical opinions known regarding the loss of integrity on the literary scene, and has unexpectedly received media attention with The Friend.

Throughout the story there is a lot to think about:

Philosophical questions and musings about reading and writing; “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.”

Publishing, and how literature has lost its quality;  “I recite your various gripes, which were not much different from those heard every day from other teachers: how even students from top schools didn’t know a good sentence from a bad one, how nobody in publishing seemed to care how anything was written anymore, how books were dying, literature was dying, and the prestige of the writer had sunk so low that the biggest mystery of all was why everyone and their grandmother was turning to authorship as just the ticket to glory.”

Dogs and their understanding; “What do dogs think when they see someone cry?”

The narrator talks about her Friend and his feelings about the benefit of walking as it contributes to creativity because it delivers a rhythm.  She tells stories of suicide, blindness, loss of speech, psychosomatic illness, sex trafficking and prostitution.

Does a good book have to deliver what the reader wants or is what makes it good the delivery of what the author wants to communicate?

I enjoyed The Friend and meeting Sigrid Nunez and hearing about her writing process and the inside scoop made me appreciate it even more!

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Sigrid Nunez has published seven novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City, and, most recently, The Friend. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Among the journals to which she has contributed are The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and The Believer. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including four Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian American literature.

Sigrid’s honors and awards include a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters: the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the Rome Prize in Literature. She has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Boston University, and the New School, and has been a visiting writer or writer in residence at Amherst, Smith, Baruch, Vassar, and the University of California, Irvine, among others. In spring, 2019, she will be visiting writer at Syracuse University. Sigrid has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and of several other writers’ conferences across the country. She lives in New York City.

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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

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My Review:

Wow!  My Absolute Darling is literary fiction at its finest! This vividly written debut is rich in language with full descriptive prose and incredibly complex characters.  Turtle, a motherless teenager living with her reclusive, resourceful, survivalist dad, has an unusual existence.  Some of her days begin with raw eggs and a sip of beer before she goes on the bus to middle school.  With little interaction amongst her classmates and not much interest in academics, her attendance is haphazard.  Not the typical northern California fourteen year old, she spends lots of time wandering around alone outside in nature and is often busy cleaning her gun.  Her large and physically imposing father, Martin, provides sparse supervision and motivation, yet he is all she has, and she says she loves him.  Martin loves her, teaches her everything he knows about surviving in this crazy world, yet they have an unspoken dirty little secret and there is a dark cloud of hatred between them.

The tension between Martin and Turtle escalates as the story progresses, with the death of Grandpa, the new boy in Turtle’s life and Turtle’s journey into adulthood.  When Martin brings home a young girl to live with them, Turtle sees the evil in Martin more clearly, her maturity coinciding with increasing will and courage to plan her escape. The damage Martin has inflicted on Turtle’s self image is seemingly unsurmountable, her self hatred is overwhelming and she constantly battles inner conflict, yet in other ways he taught her survival skills, and she must conjure up the strength to do what she needs to escape.

Emotionally painful and exhausting to read, I needed to put the book down at the end of each chapter to absorb, contemplate and recover, then was immediately compelled to pick it right back up again to continue.  It is crazy to say I loved a book with such distasteful subject matter, but the way author Gabriel Tallent developed his characters and moved me with his writing is a testament to the power of his words.  I highly recommend My Absolute Darling.

 

As seen on Goodreads:

Turtle Alveston is a survivor. At fourteen, she roams the woods along the northern California coast. The creeks, tide pools, and rocky islands are her haunts and her hiding grounds, and she is known to wander for miles. But while her physical world is expansive, her personal one is small and treacherous: Turtle has grown up isolated since the death of her mother, in the thrall of her tortured and charismatic father, Martin. Her social existence is confined to the middle school (where she fends off the interest of anyone, student or teacher, who might penetrate her shell) and to her life with her father.

Then Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who tells jokes, lives in a big clean house, and looks at Turtle as if she is the sunrise. And for the first time, the larger world begins to come into focus: her life with Martin is neither safe nor sustainable. Motivated by her first experience with real friendship and a teenage crush, Turtle starts to imagine escape, using the very survival skills her father devoted himself to teaching her. What follows is a harrowing story of bravery and redemption. With Turtle’s escalating acts of physical and emotional courage, the reader watches, heart in throat, as this teenage girl struggles to become her own hero—and in the process, becomes ours as well.

Shot through with striking language in a fierce natural setting, My Absolute Darling is an urgently told, profoundly moving read that marks the debut of an extraordinary new writer.

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About the Author (seen on book cover):

Gabriel Tallent was born in New Mexico and raised on the Mendocino coast by two mothers.  He received his BA from Willamette University in 2010, and after graduation spent two seasons leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest.  Tallent lives in Salt Lake City.

The Bloom Girls by Emily Cavanagh

 

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Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with The Bloom Girls, this lovely debut novel by Emily Cavanagh.

When the Bloom sisters, Suzy, Violet and Cal, were young and in school, their father was a caring teacher and swim coach. Due to horrific accusations by some of his students, he was  forced to resign. The stress and embarrassment of being in the spotlight combined with an unspoken personal secret lead to the break up of his marriage. The relationships with his daughters changed dramatically and became fractured as he tried to rebuild his life in a new place, always feeling the void of his beloved family.

Years later, Suzy, the youngest, now in her late 20s was living with her own secret, Violet, the middle daughter was rejecting her loving, unconventional boyfriend, and Cal was feeling unsatisfied with her job and overwhelmed with family responsibilities. After hearing the shocking news of their father’s unexpected death, the girls are devastated and are faced with questions, unspoken words and regrets. The Bloom sisters come together for his funeral where they learn more about him through his community.   Mourning together provides the girls with time to understand his painful past, process how it impacted their young lives and to find forgiveness as they make decisions for the future.

This was a heartfelt story of sisters, complexities in families, and how secrets can eat away at happiness and poison relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of The Bloom Girls and look forward to Emily Cavanagh’s next novel.