The Friend – by Sigrid Nunez

“The Friend” is a novel about writing, friendship, loss and man’s (in this case woman’s) relationship to animals, most particularly dogs. Although short (214 pages), The Friend packs a punch in the way it touches on life’s many wonders.

The novel is in part a musing on writing. In this part of the novel, the narrator is a writer and teaches writing in a university in New York. Her closest friend was a successful novelist and also a professor of writing. A great deal of the book is devoted to questions about the writer’s role in society and the changing perceptions of writers in culture. The narrator  spends a great deal of time discussing other writers and approaches to the themes of the book (the other musings that come next). Many of my favorite authors are quoted or discussed.

The novel is in part a musing about suicide and grief. The narrator’s friend has just died and the death is a suicide. This disclosure is not a spoiler since the cause of death is made clear at the beginning. The narrator spends time reading about suicide, thinking about writings about suicide and mentioning other authors who have committed suicide. She wonders what would have happened if her friend had failed.

Finally, the novel is a musing about our relationship to dogs. The narrator’s friend had a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo. Apollo weighs 180 pounds and stands 34 inches, shoulder to paw. The friend’s wife, known in the novel as wife Number 3, cannot take care of the dog and asks the narrator to take the dog. The narrator lives in a 500 square foot apartment in Manhattan that does not allow dogs. She takes Apollo and all three parts of the novel, writing, grief and dogs come together.

The landlord threatens to evict her, but the narrator comes up with an ingenious solution—you need to read the novel to discover the solution. She falls madly in love with Apollo and he became a most important part of her life and also gives her a lasting connection to her friend. When pondering the relationship of humans and dogs she asks a lot of questions and makes a number of points that most dog lovers have likely considered. For instance, after we are introduced to the lovely Apollo, Nunez taunts the reader with “Does something bad happen to the dog?” That seems to me the question I ask in every book, every television show and every movie I see where a dog plays a role.

Nunez also asks “Why do people often find animal suffering harder to accept than the suffering of other human beings?” Reflecting on the outrage we feel over cruelty to animals, Nunez answers the question by reflecting on our own instincts in early life when we are helpless and observes that “when we are no longer capable of feeling it [outrage] will be a terrible day for every living being, that our own downward slide into violence and barbarity will be only that much quicker.”

Nunez ties all three musings together at the end of the book by acknowledging the significant role that love and loss play in shaping who we are. “What we miss—what we love and what we mourn—isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”

I loved this book! The author uses a number of literary tricks which work, her life observations are real and poignant, without being preachy, her writing is fantastic and then of course there are the dogs. I acknowledge that this book may not be for everyone. But if you love to read literary fiction, this is a book for you. Oh, and one more thing, the novel won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction. The Friend can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

There There – by Tommy Orange

There There is the story of urban Native Americans, whose lives come together at a massive Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.

There There is not a cheerful tale and involves a lot of characters. Tony Loneman is a physically disfigured 21 year old whose appearance and mental capacity were adversely affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. He makes a living selling drugs.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her half-sister, Jacqui Red Feather, were taken by their mother to live at Alcatraz for the occupation. Jacqui was raped and their mother informed them that she was dying of cancer, leaving them to live with an unrelated man. You can guess how that went.

Dene Oxendene receives a grant to film interviews with Native Americans living in Oakland, giving each person the opportunity to tell his or her story. “I want to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience as it’s seen on the screen. We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story.” The interviews are sort of the story in the story. When we first meet Dene he is listening to Radio Head’s “There There”. (Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there”). He also reflects on Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, that there is no there there. “For Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

Octavio Gomez is a drug dealer. It is his idea to rob the powwow of the prize money. There are many shady characters who revolve around Octavio.

There are lots of other characters too, all engaged in some way around the powwow. The story is brilliantly conceived, bringing numerous seemingly unrelated people together, and describing differing cultures, struggles and identities. As the powwow arrives and the attempted theft begins, the chapters become short and relay a sense of urgency to the reader, so that you feel like you are part of the story.

The book made me sad and ashamed. This is a book we should all read to remind us about how our country evolved and the continuing isolation and prejudice the original founders of this country continue to experience. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Ohio – by Stephen Markley

Ohio is a story about a fictional small town in Ohio, New Canaan, “cradled in the state’s northeast quadrant, equidistant from the cities of Cleveland and Columbus…”. Ohio tells the story of the town’s long term devastating impact on a group of young people who grew up there.

The novel starts in October of 2007 with the New Canaan parade in honor of 22 year old Rick Brinklan, who was killed in action in Iraq in April of 2007. Rick had been the star quarterback of his high school football team. Rick’s high school girlfriend, Kaylyn Lynn, who had rejected his marriage proposal, attended but refused to speak. “In terms of our story, the parade was perhaps most notable not for the people who showed up but for those who were missing that day. Bill Ashcroft and nasty Tina, former volleyball star and First Christian Church attendee Stacey Moore. And a kid named Danny Eaton.”

The novel then moves to a time 6 years later, when all of the people missing from the parade, Bill Ashcroft, Stacey Moore, Danny Eaton and Tina Ross, each of whom had left New Canaan, return at the same time for different reasons. And through this return, we learn the haunting story and frightenly unlikely intersections of their lives.

The novel starts with Bill Ashcroft, who is telling the story of his life and his high school experience in New Canaan. Bill’s family was relatively well to do, his father a dentist and his mother a journalist with the local paper.  Bill was romantically attached to Lisa Han throughout high school, but we learn that he also had a side relationship with Kaylyn. Bill was madly in love with Kaylyn.  Bill was the high school political radical.

Bill returns to North Canaan from New Orleans, having been fired from his job writing media releases for a wetlands conservation group. He is being paid to transport a package from New Orleans to North Canaan. He does not know what is in the package, described as a rectangle, the length of a number 10 envelope, a few centimeters thick, which he has hidden in the back wheel of his truck. After a night of drinking at the Lincoln, coincidentally with Dan Eaton and former high school friends Todd Beaufort and Jonah Hansen, Bill runs out of gas and is forced to remove the package from the truck and tape it to his back. He goes on a drug and alcohol bender and then delivers the package to its owner, who happens to be a pregnant Kaylyn. The years have not been kind to her, one of the most beautiful girls in high school. The have a friendly reunion and she tells Bill she has done terrible things. We learn about these terrible things throughout the book.

Stacey Moore returns to New Canaan at the request of her best friend’s mother, Bethany Kline. Stacey had been involved with Ben Harrington, who became a moderately successful musician and who died of an overdose. Bethany’s daughter is Lisa Han, Bill’s former girlfriend. Lisa has not been seen since high school and has limited communication with her mother and her friends. Bethany and Lisa had a falling out and Bethany is hoping that Stacey can help find her. Stacey had been looking for Lisa over the years and has her own theory about Lisa’s whereabouts.

Dan Eaton had been involved with Hailey Kowalczyk in high school and she had wanted to marry him. But he enlisted in the military and redeployed for two more tours of duty and Hailey broke up with him. She was married and had a child when he returned for a visit and they reunited. The war had a visible and significant impact on him.

Tina Ross returns to New Canaan seeking to avenge the cruelty heaped upon her by her high school boyfriend Todd Beaufort, with whom she is still in love. This is a particularly disturbing part of the book.

Every character’s life is miserable in some way or another, some more extreme than others, all as a result of their New Canaan experience. In some ways the book is a horror story, particularly when you learn about some of the things the individuals have done to each other and the utter hopelessness of their lives. The book is well conceived and written and all of the lives and events are well connected. But the story is unpleasant and the misery of the community and the experiences are not well explained or understandable. Maybe Markley is telling us that small town life is insular and miserable. I certainly felt miserable and tortured when I was done, so if that was the intent, I say job well done. If you want to punish yourself with well written unpleasantness, then by all means read this book. It can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Salvage the Bones – by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s National Book award winner “Salvage the Bones” is a  complex, often difficult story that simply pulls the reader into the lives of a poor Mississippi family that ultimately survives Hurricane Katrina. In a Question and Answer session regarding the book, Jesmyn Ward says “I often feel that if I can get the language just right, the language hypnotizes the reader.” In Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward not only succeeds in hypnotizing the reader, but she makes the reader feel like she is living through every painful and uncomfortable moment described in the book.

The novel is broken down into twelve days, days one through eleven leading up to Hurricane Katrina, and day twelve describing the initial aftermath. Each day follows siblings Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior, as well as “Daddy”, living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.   The family’s mother had died 7 years before during child birth. Along with the family are friends Manny, Marquise and Big Henry, as well as others. A lot happens during the 12 days, but interspersed throughout the first 11 days are preparations for the hurricane.

At the start of the novel Skeetah’s beloved pit bull, China, is giving birth to 5 puppies. China, the puppies and dog fighting play a significant role in the book. Esch, who is 15 years old and telling the story, is naively in love with Manny and discovers early in the story that she is pregnant.

A siblings are very active.  Skeetah breaks into a neighboring  family’s property to get worming medication for his beloved China and the puppies. Daddy, an alcoholic, has an accident and loses some of his fingers. Randall, a basketball prodigy, loses an opportunity to go to a basketball camp where he could be discovered. Esch and Manny have a falling out and Junior, 7 years old, just tries to keep up. Throughout Esch’s narration she weaves in the story of Medea, the Greek sorceress who slaughters her children to punish her husband for taking a new bride. This is a paltry summary of a complex and beautifully written story.

The Hurricane proves to be much stronger and violent than the family anticipated. Their house is devastated and they almost drown, but through ingenuity and love they all find a way to survive. Looking at the aftermath, Esch observes that “…there is nothing but mangled wood and steel in a great pile, and suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it.”

The book is simply brilliant. Throughout all the tragedy the family sticks together and that strength and love is one of the hopeful aspects of an otherwise difficult story. In addition, their close friendships, in particular with Big Henry, reassure the reader of the goodness in the world. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time. Ward’s ability to make the reader actually feel part of the story, without ever telling the reader how to feel or having any of the characters engage in a soliloquy about their emotions is awe inspiring. This book deserved the National Book Award and is a must read. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Red White Blue – by Lea Carpenter

“Red White Blue” is a literary espionage novel, written in a very unique style. The story unfolds in a slow, deliberate and fascinating way, building on itself and bringing the reader directly into the fold.

Anna is the character around whom the story revolves. Anna was effectively raised by her father, Noel, after her mother, Lulu (short for Eleuthera) inexplicably left when Anna was young. Although Lulu stayed in touch, Anna was most deeply influenced by Noel. Noel worked in finance and when asked what he did for a living he told people he “moved things around.” Noel actually worked for the CIA and that is the story Anna confronts throughout the book.

Noel bought a chalet in Switzerland and Anna and Jake are to marry in Switzerland. The day (or the day before) they are to marry, Noel dies in an avalanche while skiing. Anna and Jake marry anyway and later go to the south of France for a honeymoon. They are both mourning Noel’s death.

Jake is a musician and is in the process of selling the record label he owns and is away frequently during the honeymoon. During the trip, Anna meets an unnamed CIA operative (although she does not realize that is what he is at the time) who cryptically tells her part of her father’s story. Anna learns that both Noel and the unnamed operative spent most of their time in China working with an “asset” who deeply affected their lives.

When Jake and Anna return to New York, Jake decides to run for the Senate. At roughly the same time, Anna receives in the mail a package including a tiny silver USB with a collection of videos relating to Noel and the unnamed operative. As a result of of Jake’s candidacy Anna is subjected to numerous FBI interviews where she never discloses the USB. Jake wins the election and their lives become very public. The book ends with Anna being further drawn in to her father’s activities.

The story is told in chapters alternating between Anna’s story and the unnamed operative’s story. The writing and story telling style are unique and rhythmic. The story is compelling and at the same time has a distant foggy feel to it, probably reflective of the nature of the business the story describes. I really liked this book. Give this one a try. You can reserve this at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Southernmost – by Silas House

“Southernmost” is a thoughtful contemplation of tolerance, acceptance and the role of religion in everyday life.

Asher Sharp is a self-taught Pentecostal preacher in a small town outside Nashville, Tennessee. When we first meet him, the town is in the midst of a flood brought on by incessant rain and a rising river. Asher rescues his beloved mother-in-law, Zelda, and takes her to his home, which sits high and is protected from the flooding. He arrives home to a distraught eight year old son, Justin, who is unable to locate the family dog, Roscoe.

Justin runs off in search of Roscoe and Asher goes in search of Justin. The flood waters are rising and Asher is relieved to see Justin in the care of two men. At the same time that he sees Justin, he sees a house completely deluged, with a man and woman trapped on the second level. Asher and one of the men with Justin risk their lives to save the pair, Cyril and his teenage daughter.

After the rescue, Asher, Justin, the two men and the rescued pair return to Asher’s home. It becomes clear that the two men, a country singer, Jimmy and Stephen, are a couple. Asher’s wife, Lydia, vehemently opposes having the two men in the house, and over Asher’s objection, they leave. This episode is the beginning of tensions in the marriage.

Justin is a very sensitive eight year old. His mother is extremely concerned about his emotional fragility and sends him to a therapist in Nashville without Asher’s knowledge. When Asher becomes aware of Lydia’s actions the tension rises.

Jimmy and Stephen start attending Asher’s church, where the congregation is extremely intolerant. In fact, “[m]ore than one of his congregants had blamed this new flood on the Supreme Court’s ruling. No coincidence that the rain had started the same day as the marriages started happening over in Nashville, they said.”

The congregation effectively gives Asher an ultimatum, culminating in a fiery speech by Asher about the role of religion, tolerance and love. One of the congregants video tapes his speech and it goes viral on social media, making him look like both a hero and a lunatic. He is voted out of the congregation. His marriage fails and because of the video he loses custody rights of his beloved son, Justin. That is when everything simply goes off the rails.

During the story we learn that Asher has a gay brother whom Asher and his mother rejected on the basis of their religious beliefs. Asher has not seen his brother, Luke, in 10 years. Periodically, Asher receives an anonymous postcard from Key West with a poem or quote which he knows is from Luke.

I will not tell you the rest of the story (I have probably told you more than I should), but after losing his congregation Asher  starts over and learns more about tolerance, the differing roles of religion, life and love. His son, Justin, refers to religion and G-d as The Everything. The novel has a serious but heartwarming message told through a compelling and thoughtful story. The characters are real and flawed. I really liked this one. You can reserve Southernmost at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Safe Houses – by Dan Fesperman

I decided it was time to take a break from my usual books focused on life’s hard questions, deep introspection and angst. I felt like it was time to lighten up, so I tackled Dan Fesperman’s 400 page “Safe Houses.” And I am glad I did!

Safe Houses is a story of CIA intrigue, with a feminist twist. Helen Abell is a 23 year old low level CIA operative stationed in Berlin in 1979. Her responsibility is to maintain a network of safe houses in Berlin, where CIA agents can meet with operatives without fear of disclosure. While in one of the safe houses checking on the recording equipment, she is surprised by the unplanned arrival of two men who were not known to her. Helen hides in an upstairs bedroom and overhears a conversation that is not intended for her ears. She takes the tapes of the conversation for security and leaves the house as soon as the men have gone.

While at another safe house, Helen witnesses and prevents an attempted rape of an agent by a case officer, Kevin Gilley. Kevin Gilley, code name Robert, was a fixer for the CIA and a very dangerous man. He did not appreciate that Helen was a witness to the attempted act (which she taped). The agent was found dead later that evening. These two incidents set off a series of events that brings Helen into contact with various other female CIA operatives who become friends and contacts for life. While in Berlin, Helen had a romantic relationship with a more experienced, higher level CIA agent, Clark Baucom. Clark plays a significant role in Helen’s CIA experience.

The book moves back and forth between Europe in 1979 and Poston, Maryland in 2014, when Helen and her husband are killed in their bed by their developmentally disabled son, Willard. The murder brings Helen’s daughter, Anna Shoat, back to Poston from Baltimore, looking for answers to her parent’s death. She hires Henry Mattick, a casual investigator with a past of his own, to help her, and together they begin to learn Helen’s history.

While Anna and Henry are learning more and more about Helen’s past, finding letters, documents and articles about her activities, 1979 and 2014 ultimately come together. The book is well written, the story gripping and most importantly for this type of book, the ending ties everything together in a believable fashion. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Melody – by Jim Crace

“The Melody” tells the story of an aging singer, who at a younger stage of his life was beloved and famous and is clinging to the melodies as he ages.

Alfred Busi is living in a no name town, likely somewhere in Europe, in an age old villa on the sea. He had lived in the villa as a child and throughout his marriage to Alicia. When we meet Alfred he is two years a widower and is somewhere in his late 60s. His wife’s ashes are still living with him in the villa.

Alfred’s villa and the villa next door are the last of an era. When we first meet him it is nighttime and he hears noises outside the villa. These types of noises are common as his villa borders a woods where animals and perhaps other supernatural beings live, coming out at night to investigate food possibilities. He walks downstairs in his villa and is attacked by something and bitten in the hand and face. He is certain it is not an animal, but rather a child, perhaps a Neanderthal. His bandaged face is in the local newspaper as he is about to be inaugurated into the Avenue of Fame.

After he is bitten he calls his sister-in-law, Terina, for help. In his younger years he and Terina had a romantic moment, but he had chosen the younger sister, Alicia. Terina’s son (Alfred’s nephew) Joseph, is an opportunistic hothead whose mere existence is an ongoing annoyance to Alfred.

A couple of days after the bite, Alfred goes to a medical clinic for the first of 10 rabi shots (although after the experience it is the last). While walking home he sees picture for a new high end apartment development on the very spot where his villa stands. Joseph is one of the developers.

Alfred is so upset that he walks home through a seedy part of town where he is mugged and beaten. Although he is supposed to perform a concert that evening, he fails to show. And it would appear that he will never perform again. Reflecting on the events of the day, he decides that what he has learned is that “his public life had reached its tipping point. Behind him lay celebrity; before him was obscurity. And insignificance, perhaps.”

The balance of the story involves Alfred’s life in the new apartment complex and his two new young friends, Lex and the unnamed young man who is telling Alfred’s story. They have a picnic, finally distribute Alicia’s ashes and return home. The ending of the book, much like the rest of the book, is strange and disturbing.

The story seems to focus on the sad loneliness of aging. Although there are moments of kindness in the story, each character (with the exception perhaps of Lex) is miserable, sad and generally unlikeable. Life is short and there is so much out there to read. I will have done my job well if I convince you to pass on this one. However, if you wish to be a contrarian, or perhaps you only like what I do not, then you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

The Library Book – by Susan Orlean

My passion for libraries, good writing, great storytelling and history all come together in Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”. The Library Book tells the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, beginning in 1986, when the main branch burned to the ground, back to the establishment of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1844, then forward through the current day.

The book starts with the story of Harry Peak, who was briefly accused of having set the fire that caused the downtown and main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to burn down, “destroying almost half a million books and damaging seven hundred thousand more. It was … the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.” Harry’s story is interspersed throughout the book, as are the efforts to repair and preserve some of the damaged books.

More than anything, however, The Library Book is a great synopsis of the ever changing role of libraries, focusing on the history of libraries and of the Los Angeles library system and detailing operations, leadership changes, financial challenges and community needs. Susan Orlean’s descriptions of our needs for libraries, and the constructive and life changing impact of libraries, is beautifully articulated in a way I can feel but have not been able to express, acknowledging the library’s role as a mirror of our communities. “Every problem that society has, the library has too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library and nothing bad.” This truism is exactly the reason why libraries strive to expand programs to improve the lives of others while staying true to the mission of reading, lifelong learning and civic engagement.

Susan Orlean details the roles that libraries play in helping patrons learn computer skills, deal with challenges of homelessness, address needs of teens and children, assist with job and social service needs and provide meaningful access to books and other materials. The book describes the historic sexism and misogyny faced by women initially entering the profession, and the changing face of the librarian and the role of the librarian. “There is…a sense that being a librarian is an opportunity to be a social activist championing free speech and immigrant rights and homelessness concerns while working within the Dewey Decimal System.” She also notes libraries’ never ending need for financial resources.

Susan Orlean is spot on when she observes that “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen: here I am, please tell me your story.” This is exactly how I feel about libraries and if you read this book, which I truly hope you will, even in these dark times, maybe you will find cause for hope and renewal. And maybe you will pay your local library a visit. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Dakota Winters – by Tom Barbash

“The Dakota Winters” is a story of historical fame and privilege, told through the eyes of Anton Winter. Anton is the son of Buddy Winter, a famous talk show host who is attempting a comeback after having a breakdown on his own show and simply walking out. The Winter family lives in the famous Dakota, a cooperative apartment building in New York City, where parts of Rosemary’s Baby was filmed.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in the Dakota and they play a significant part in Anton’s story. At the beginning of the book Anton has returned from Gabon on the West Coast of Central Africa, where he almost dies from malaria and a variety of other maladies. He is convalescing at his parent’s apartment in the Dakota. We learn that Anton has a sister, Rachel, who finds the whole fame and fortune thing an inconvenience, and brother, Kip, who is a great (but not great enough) tennis player. Kip and Rachel are really just side stories.

The Winter family live a privileged life although money is running out since Buddy walked off his talk show. Anton’s mother had been an accomplished actress and when we meet her she is helping Joan Kennedy with Ted Kennedy’s presidential race.

The family takes a trip to Lake Placid for the Winter Olympics and the efforts to get Buddy back on television begin in earnest. Throughout this process we learn how dependent Buddy is on his son—for his material, his connections and intense moral support. Anton has issues with this dependence.

The book has three pieces—getting Buddy back on television, Anton’s relationship with John Lennon and the death of John Lennon. All three are wrapped up together.

Anton and John become friends and John invites Anton to join him on a cruise on his boat to Bermuda. During the journey the boat is hit by a storm that they almost do not survive. John and Anton become close from the experience.

Finally, Buddy gets a new talk show, a once a week event on Friday nights. The show is precarious and Anton is in the process of getting John, Paul, Ringo and George together on the show (everyone has agreed except George), when John is killed. Everything speeds up from there.

The book is well written and the historical references interspersed throughout are interesting. I really enjoyed the portions focused on John Lennon and the Beatles, but I found Anton’s angst over wealth and privilege  annoying. At one point he comments that “Being famous seemed like a curse, something you couldn’t escape. It followed you everywhere and you could never decide to suddenly be anonymous.”

The thing you get from the book is that absolutely everyone, regardless of fame, fortune or position, has problems and personal issues, but in Anton’s story, those problems and issues seem to me indulgent and unsympathetic. The angst Anton describes revolves around a life of luxury, where the characters never worry about having a roof over their heads or a glass of Dom Perignon in their hands, but seem to worry over the emptiness and potential loss of privilege. This was not my favorite book but I think others less cynical will enjoy the story. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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