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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The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

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My Review:

If you are craving a bit of Big Chill nostalgia this summer, The Gunners is a great choice!  Childhood relationships are revisited when six friends return to their hometown for a funeral of one of their own who committed suicide.  Each character feels some responsibility for the departure of their late friend and they reveal secrets from their past they had kept from others in the group.  As much as they knew and loved each other as kids, their sometimes distorted perspectives were shaped by what they didn’t know.  Alternating between childhood and current timing, Rebecca Kauffman shows us how we base our lives on our own personal reality, and what seems to be true from a distance may not always be the truth when examined up close.

The friend circle dissipated when they were teenagers because one of the six left the group without explanation, causing a fracture not to be repaired.  Each went on with their lives separately, feeling blame, shame and regret, but now, reconnecting over tragedy, the friends share all that they have been hiding over the years as they spend the night together following the funeral.

Mickey, the most developed character, has remained in his hometown and is a late bloomer; he comes into his own at thirty when he has to face his failing eyesight and his difficult relationship with his father.  He is a lonely guy with an average job, a quiet life and now, tragically he is going blind.  The rekindled childhood friendships he regains boost his morale, and the secrets, now told, bolster his strength, shed light on his family situation and increase his understanding of his own existence and purpose.

The Gunners is a beautiful story of old friends and memories of youth, and how they serve as the foundation of adult relationships, bringing understanding, warm feelings, comfort and support to our lives as we get older.  I highly recommend this book, especially of you are going to your high school reunion any time soon!

Goodreads Summary

 

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About the Author:

Rebecca Kauffman is originally from rural northeastern Ohio. She received her B.A. from the Manhattan School of Music in Violin Performance, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from NYU. She currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

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As seen in Goodreads:

The #1 New York Times bestseller and modern classic that’s been changing lives for a decade gets a gorgeous revamped cover and special additional content.

You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

My Comments:

The most important message from Thirteen Reasons Why is that how we treat others can effect them in bigger ways than we realize and we should be cognizant of our actions and interactions. At 16 Hannah has committed suicide and has left behind audio cassette tapes for the people who contributed to her unhappiness as one thing lead to another and her depression snowballed. Each person mentioned in the tapes is supposed to listen so they can see how their actions impacted Hannah. Clay listens to the tapes and little by little begins to understand her mindset as different people let her down along the way. The story is a sad one, and each person in her life had an opportunity to “save” her but nobody realized how bad she needed saving until it was too late.

My teenage son read this in a day and suggested I read it. His high school sent an email to all parents bringing to our attention the Netflix series based on the book and warning that the TV version may glamorize suicide and to watch and discuss it with your children.

Bullying, promiscuity, and teenage drama are not new topics but author Jay Asher does a nice job delivering a fast moving, suspenseful novel for adults and teens which sparks important conversation about the serious topics of suicide and depression.

The national phone number and website for help is 1-800 SUICIDE and www.hopeline.com.

 

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Jay Asher was born in Arcadia, California on September 30, 1975. He grew up in a family that encouraged all of his interests, from playing the guitar to his writing. He attended Cuesta College right after graduating from high school. It was here where he wrote his first two children’s books for a class called Children’s Literature Appreciation. At this point in his life, he had decided he wanted to become an elementary school teacher. He then transferred to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo where he left his senior year in order to pursue his career as a serious writer. Throughout his life he worked in various establishments, including as a salesman in a shoe store and in libraries and bookstores. Many of his work experiences had an impact on some aspect of his writing.

He has published only one book to date, Thirteen Reasons Why, which was published in October 2007. He is currently working on his second Young Adult novel, and has written several picture books and screenplays. Thirteen Reasons Why has won several awards and has received five stars from Teen Book Review. It also has received high reviews from fellow authors such as Ellen Hopkins, Chris Crutcher, and Gordon Kormon.

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan

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Billy Brennan is overweight, 401 lbs to be exact. He and his wife Tricia just lost their oldest teenage son Michael to suicide, and with no recollection of the boy being unhappy and no note of explanation, they are blindsided and distraught. This horrific tragedy has left the family in shambles. As the couple and their 3 remaining children struggle in their grief to reclaim an element of normalcy, Billy steps out of his typical complacency and decides he will make a big change in his own life and attempt to get healthy in honor of his beloved son. With a unwavering commitment to lose 200 pounds, organize a walk to raise money for suicide prevention and film a documentary to publicize this terrible and prevalent occurrance, he pushes forward with determination while his family chooses not to support him and his efforts as they deal with their grief in their own ways.

Ethel Rohan does a fine job showing us some of the challenges of weight loss and the struggles brought on by suicide in broad strokes. Billy is a likable character and despite his lack of support from the family, the community starts to rally behind him.  I was rooting him on every step of the way as his effort picked up momentum. I found the relationship development with Billy and his wife and other children to be a little shallow at times and reenactment of playing with his deceased son with the wooden toys a bit odd for a grown man, but grief can be expressed in many ways. Despite dealing with the sensitive topics of obesity and suicide, The Weight of Him was a very enjoyable and quick read.