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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How Family, Faith and Friendship contributed to The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

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My Review:

Sometimes you luck out and find a book that is just what the doctor ordered. There is nothing like a quick escape, when you can lose yourself in a touching, inspirational, easy to read story.  I loved this book so much!

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is about a boy born with ocular albinism to a loving and devoted Catholic mother and hardworking pharmacist father.  Sam Hill has the eyes of a devil; they are red due to his condition, and his unusual look makes it difficult for him to blend in.  His classmates shun him and even the Sister at his Catholic school treats him unkindly. He becomes the target of a bully and chooses not to rat him out due to fear.  Eddie, the only black child in the school and possibly the entire town, and Mao, the daughter of an alcoholic who has a reputation for being promiscuous, both outcasts in their own right, are Sam’s only friends.  Embolden with his mother’s faith and his father’s guidance, Eddie’s kindness and sports expertise, and Mao’s unconditional love and friendship, Sam and his devilish eyes make it through high school.

Sam faces challenges once again when his big goals that include pursuing higher education are put on hold. His love for family supersede his desire to go to college and he stays around to help when his parents need him most.

Sam struggles with relationships and acceptance but has a big heart and an open mind.  His experiences allow him to grow to be a man with confidence, skills and admirable values. We see how his belief system is created and influenced in childhood by his parents, friends, teachers and bullies and challenged by the same in his adult life.  Sam is understanding and compassionate, and he believes in forgiveness.  His love for his family and friends is unwavering and author Robert Dugoni shows us that our differences provide even more opportunities to lead extraordinary lives.

If you liked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Rosie Project you will like The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.  I highly recommend this one!

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author: 

Robert Dugoni is the New York Times, #1 Amazon, and #1 Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of the Tracy Crosswhite series: My Sister’s Grave, Her Last Breath, In the Clearing, The Trapped Girl and Close to Home, as well as the short prequels The Academy and Third Watch. The police procedural featuring Seattle Homicide Detective Tracy Crosswhite has kept Dugoni in the Amazon top 10 for more than three years and sold more than 4 million copies. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, released April 2018. Dugoni’s first series featured attorney David Sloane and CIA agent Charles Jenkins.
He is the winner of the Nancy Pearl Award for fiction, a two-time nominee for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction, A two-time nominee for the Mystery Writer’s of America Edgar Award and a two-time nominee for the International Thriller of the year. His non-fiction expose, The Cyanide Canary, was a 2004 Best Book of the Year. He is published in more than 30 countries and two dozen languages.
You can sign up for his newsletter at:
http://www.robertdugoni.com and message him on facebook, twitter and instagram
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Identity, Dance and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Feeling comfortable with who you are can be complicated…a difficult journey for many who feel different from others.  Often this is just a perception, as we all come from various sordid places and are birthed from unique people with their own individual backgrounds.  

I am lucky enough to be part of a group that feels like home, a safe place to tap into who I am and also feel connected to others. For 15 years I have been taking the same dance class and, although there has been some ebb and flow of participants through the years, there is always a solid group of regulars who together create a warm atmosphere of acceptance for all who take part. We come together because of dance, and the positive, nurturing environment our teacher, Luisa, creates and sets the example for. In the safety of the four walls where we convene, we express ourselves freely as individuals, and collectively when we catch eyes in the mirror, simultaneously experiencing heightened endorphins and joy from the movement and the music.  From married, single, children, no children, business owners, workers, retired… to under 40, over 80, black, white, asian, immigrant, townie…everyone has their own unique identity that is accepted and celebrated in the shared space filled with each person’s confidence, energy and light.

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Our dance family has planned outings on occasion, providing us with opportunities to talk, get to know each other and develop connections and friendships that increase the fulfillment of time spent together.  Recently this unique community of ours started a book club, and this month we chose to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. We selected it because we thought it was about two girls who were brought together through dance. We thought we were going to love it.

It started out about a dance class uniting two young girls, but quickly veered away and was really about much more.

Book Club Impressions

In Swing Time, an unnamed narrator told her story and we, as readers were the observers, charged with the task of understanding and finding meaning in her life.  She was a light skinned black girl who came from a mixed race family. She was drawn to Tracy, another racially mixed girl from her dance class and they became fast friends. Their young friendship was strong, the narrator became Tracy’s loyal sidekick, and then the friendship faded as their lives went in different directions. The narrator’s lack of proficiency in dance led her to becoming an assistant to a pop star, while Tracy pursued a dance career but ended up unemployed with three children each from a different father.  Mixed race, broken homes, untapped talents and unfulfilled dreams, drug overdoses, neglected friendships and bad relationships, betrayals, lack of support systems, poor decisions and misdirection sum up the challenges the characters faced, but the underlying theme was everyone’s search for identity, self fulfillment and acceptance. 

Only half our group was able to finish the book, as we all mostly agreed it felt like it was a bit of slog, an emotionless slice of life, providing nothing of great interest to tap into our curiosity.  An anonymous narrator with lack of ambition didn’t show enough of herself to create connection with us. We never even knew her name.  I believe the author intended to keep all the characters at arms length in order to allow readers to draw conclusions about identity, race and wealth from their actions, but for our group this approach fell flat.

This was an ironic book choice for a diverse group that collectively has the opportunity to feel supported, connected and in touch with their individual identity in a warm and accepting environment.  So it is not surprising that we were not overjoyed with a story about unresolved personal journeys, struggles and unfulfilled dreams. In the book, the time periods jumped around quite a bit and despite the easy to read prose, Swing Time was a challenge to follow and not as engaging as we had hoped.  It definitely was fodder for rich discussion though, and while the characters in the book struggled, we bonded.   Read this one at your own risk.

Goodreads Summary 

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About the Author:

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

The Salt House: A Novel by Lisa Duffy

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My Review:

In The Salt House, author Lisa Duffy masterfully takes us deep into the layers of emotions of the Kelly family as they work through feelings of guilt, responsibility and pain following a tragic family loss.  After losing their baby, Hope is paralyzed with her grief; she is having trouble moving forward and is unable to return to work.  She refuses to scatter the ashes and has been reluctant to continue with the renovation of The Salt House, the home the family loves and plans to move in to.  Jack, a lobster fisherman, throws himself into his work on the boat, is rarely home with the family and is neglecting his health.  Overcome with guilt, combined with  the sorrow of losing a child, and the stress it put on the marriage, the Kelly family’s world starts to cave in.  The daughters, Jess and Kat, are living and dealing with the loss of their baby sister in their own ways while baring the brunt of parental stress and disagreements at the same time they are trying to grow up.  So well written from each person’s point of view, the characters dig deep to expose their pain, past and current, and their journey together sets an example for how families can rescue each other from debilitating hurt and grief by facing it head on with truth and honesty.  I felt emotionally overwhelmed and shed many tears while I read The Salt House, a sign of a great book that really touched me, and when it ended I had feelings of renewal and hope for the future.  At under 300 pages, this is a great book to pick up this summer…I loved it!

As seen in Goodreads:

In the tradition of Jodi Picoult and Lisa Genova, this gorgeously written, heartbreaking, yet hopeful debut set during a Maine summer traces the lives of a young family in the aftermath of tragedy.

In the coastal town of Alden, Maine, Hope and Jack Kelly have settled down to a life of wedded bliss. They have a beautiful family, a growing lobster business, and the Salt House—the dilapidated oceanfront cottage they’re renovating into their dream home. But tragedy strikes when their young daughter doesn’t wake up from her afternoon nap, taking her last breath without making a sound.

A year later, each member of the Kelly family navigates the world on their own private island of grief. Hope spends hours staring at her daughter’s ashes, unable to let go. Jack works to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to avoid his crumbling marriage. Their daughters, Jess and Kat, struggle to come to terms with the loss of their younger sister while watching their parents fall apart.

When Jack’s old rival, Ryland Finn, threatens his fishing territory, he ignites emotions that propel the Kelly family toward circumstances that will either tear them apart—or be the path to their family’s future.

Told in alternating voices, The Salt House is a layered, emotional portrait of marriage, family, friendship, and the complex intersections of love, grief, and hope.

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Lisa Duffy is the author of The Salt House, her debut novel. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and can be found in The Drum Literary Magazine, So to Speak, Breakwater Review, Let the Bucket Down, and elsewhere. Lisa is the founding editor of ROAR, a literary magazine supporting women in the arts. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.