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Archive for the ‘writers’ Tag

Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

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Street Cred   1 comment

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Full disclosure: I’m a John Irving fan. However, at around page 39, in Avenue of Mysteries, I wondered if he’d lost his touch. Before I knew it, I was on page 100 and realized I had nothing to worry about Irving’s storytelling mastery.

Fourteen-year-old Juan Diego and his younger sister, Lupe, are dump kids in Oaxaca, Mexico. That is, they live and work among the trash heaps where garbage is sorted, saved and burned. Through books he’s salvaged, Juan Diego has taught himself to read and learn English. He also serves as translator for Lupe, whose words are unintelligible to everyone else. What she lacks in comprehensibility, she compensates for in her mindreading ability. She’s no fortune teller. Although she has a sense of what will happen, she knows peoples’ histories.

The narrative moves between Juan Diego’s youth and his adult self, a successful writer living in the U.S., who visits the Philippines. Juan Diego’s dreams reveal his past: the dump, the Catholic Church, his mother (the prostitute and cleaning woman for the church), the would-be priest from Iowa and the circus, among many other elements. It wouldn’t be John Irving without the numerous components and the way they intersect.

As he travels, Juan Diego’s state of mind is manipulated by the medication he takes and forgets to take, as he meets Miriam and Dorothy, introduced as mother and daughter. The relationships with the women and a former student are complicated and interesting, but not nearly as engaging as Juan Diego’s earlier life.

Avenue of Mysteries
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
460 pages

A Book for Booklovers   1 comment

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the literary equivalent of a triple chocolate dessert. It’s rich, nuanced and meant for those who love chocolate, or in this case, books.

A.J. is an ill-tempered man running a bookstore on an Atlantic coastal island. The store does a brisk summer tourist business. Otherwise it’s a slow, quiet livelihood for A.J., whose wife has been dead for almost two years. But, he’s not old. He’s not even middle-aged. He is, however, a snob, particularly when it comes to literature, and he’s set in his ways, such as they are, as a lonely and often rude man.

Parts of this novel are entirely predictable, but in all the right spots. A.J. meets someone, actually three someones, who change his life: Amy, a publisher’s sales rep; Lambiase, the local police chief; and Maya, the two-year-old child abandoned in his shop. Despite some unsurprising turns, Zevin writes with humor and poignancy. She also displays a knowledge of books.

The relationships also allow A.J. to accept the greater world around him, for better and worse. It helps that the three persons who share his life are book nerds. Lambiase, who is only ever referred to by his last name, is the last to jump on board as a reader. His evolution from a by-the-rules cop is fun and warm. It’s A.J.’s connections to Amy and Maya that resonate the loudest through their shared passion for pages that need to be turned by hand.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2014
260 pages

Not How A Book Should Be   3 comments

How Should

Any number of factors figure into how I, or anyone for that matter, respond to a book. Experience, age, education, even mood, come quickly to mind. I was struck by these considerations as I read Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? because the novel makes me feel that whatever I bring to this particular reading experience is a negative: my experience, my age, and yes, my mood.

Sheila is the narrator, a young writer in Toronto struggling to finish a long-overdue play; she is easily distracted by life, specifically people in her life. She is so caught up with what others think and do that she lacks focus. Sheila stretched my patience as a reader. She has a wonderful friend in Margaux, an unhealthy but lively sex relationship with a man named Israel, and an undiguised inability to recognize or accept what is good and positive in her life. She is not quite a loser, but teeters awfully close to becoming one.

Perhaps the issue lies in Heti’s attempt to fictionalize her autobiography, for she is clearly the narrator and there is little reason not to believe that the other characters comprise her circle of friends. Frankly, Sheila is not that interesting. That honor goes to Margaux who comes across as honest, talented and a good friend, but it’s hard to explain what she sees in Sheila. Israel is depicted as a depraved man who uses Sheila to fulfill his debased sexual fantasies. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to see he’s attracted to her.

How Should A Person Be?
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Henry Holt and Co., 2012
306 pages