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Posts Tagged ‘the friend by sigrid nunez’

It is hard to believe that the year – nay, the decade – is ending tonight. The date has been set since time began, but – like Christmas – it feels like it’s just sort of caught me by surprise. Such is the mystery and irritation of the passage of time.

Along with the closing of the year comes my annual recap. I don’t know why this is something I continue to do, year after year. I don’t particularly enjoy it. I enjoy reading other people’s versions of this post, though, (if you do any sort of year-end post, please link to it in the comments!) so maybe that’s part of why I force myself to endure these same questions, every December. Reciprocity, right? Also, I am nothing if not an enthusiastic resolute cog in the unceasing wheel of tradition.

I am especially dreading the recap this year because it feels like I have so little positivity to contribute. And that’s not really true – I feel fairly optimistic about the future, looking into 2020. (I mean, as optimistic as a person can be, with all the doom and gloom we carry around on a daily basis.) Plus, when I look back on the year, there is MUCH to celebrate.

But… the fourth quarter of this year has been really hard. Two specific things have made outsize contributions to how difficult it has been, I think. First was the loss of my dear friend in September. Second is an unbloggable, ongoing thing of the sort that is lifelong but not life-threatening, common enough to feel like it should be no big deal but new enough to me that it feels like a very big deal indeed. I have been struggling and worrying and grieving a lot these past few months. It’s really hard not to allow that to color the whole year.

Anyway, I will try to inject some happiness and light into this survey, where I can – while still being true to both the year and to my current emotional state. Because this blog is as close as I have to a diary, and it might be useful for Future Me to look back on the truth, rather than a chipper, sanitized version of 2019.

This is all to say, I don’t know if you ever read these, but if you do, this year’s might not be particularly fun. Feel free to skip it.

(This yearly recap originated with Linda of All & SundryIf you’re so inclined, you can read past versions of my responses: 2018201720162015201420132012201120102009.)

  • What did you do in 2019 that you’d never done before?

My husband and I left our baby (read: self-sufficient nearly-six-year-old) for eleven whole days to traipse off to Europe, that was something we’d never done. (We left her with my capable and loving parents, by the way, not, like, on her own.)

I attended the funeral of a dear friend, which was awful and something I’d never like to repeat.

I made a leopard spotted cake.

I (silently) celebrated the ten-year anniversary of this blog. Outside of marriage, I don’t think I can say I’ve ever put so much of myself into something for so long.

I made a big, fancy Pinterest-style cheeseboard.

  • Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

Let’s revisit some of my goals from last year’s survey:

As for 2019, I have decided to make some very specific goals, which I hope means they are easier to accomplish.

  1. I want to learn German. Maybe notfluent German, which seems like quite a stretch. Especially for someone who took four years of high school French and another year in college and never actually learned more than basic vocabulary. But I want to learn enough that I don’t feel like a complete floundering oaf when I visit Munich and Vienna later this year.
  2. I want to finally, after seven plus years in this house, hang up the gallery wall that I’ve been planning to do. All of the photos and artwork exist, in frames, in my basement. The lovely blank wall is just sitting there, ready for decoration. I just need to DO IT.
  3. Last year, I lost 10+% of my body weight. And then gained it all back. I would like to do the former again without the latter.
  4. I want to cut back on the amount of time I spend on my phone. My Reach Goal is to put my phone in my bedroom when I arrive home with Carla after school and not touch it until I set my alarm before bed. But I’d be happy to just keep it out of my hands until she goes to bed.
  5. I want to invite friends over for dinner. I ENJOY this. But I always think about it and then never invite anyone over and they magically never invite themselves, so I am going to remedy that.

That seems like a good place to start. The bigger goals are in play, too – let’s not forget about patience and quality time and THE NOVEL. But throwing in a few specifics shouldn’t hurt.

Well, I have had very limited success with all of these. The big one, first: I believe – very tentatively – that I have completed the first draft of my manuscript. It’s just a DRAFT, so there is still much, MUCH, MUCH work to be done. But I feel like it’s all there, ready to be shaped into Draft Two.

I think I have made some big strides toward being more patient. I certainly am less YELLY than I have been. (Not to be confused with being less ALL-CAPSY which is more of a personality trait and probably not going anywhere.) But of course I can continue to improve.

I did NOT learn German. I learned a few words and phrases and that was it. It turns out that not only do I have no facility with languages, I also just plain do not like learning them.

I have not yet hung up a gallery wall. The closest I came was to gather a selection of paintings and arrange them against the wall on which I want to hang them. However, my plan is to FORCE this to happen this weekend, once all the Christmas has been expelled from our house.

I did not lose 10% of my body weight. I did not lose anything, except the same six pounds over and over and over and over.

I did NOT cut back on my phone time. It is disgraceful. I am really and truly addicted and I need an intervention.

I did invite friends over for dinner. We had the epic dinner party and there were two or three other occasions when we had people over and it was stressful and fun. (And don’t you love how BREEZY I have become, that I didn’t even make full-blown posts out of those other dinners? And I know for a FACT that there was a fourth occasion during which we had people over that I didn’t even mention – but if I am remembering correctly, we just had tacos so it was totally a non-issue.)

Will I make more goals for the coming year? Sure. I am not ready yet. Part of me wants to Make Serious Goals and Track Them… part of me worries that that is a recipe for failure since I am not and have never been a Serious Goal Making and Tracking Person, and that I should probably just… have some gentle aspirations, as I did last year.

  • Where did you travel this year? (This is my own recasting of a question I could never answer which was How many countries did you visit this year? Of course, this is the year that I visited THREE countries. But that is unlikely to repeat, so I will keep the revamped question as it is.)

This year, I visited Austria; Germany; Ontario, Canada; Florida; Kentucky; New York; and my home state out west. Is that really it? I feel like I am missing something, but I don’t know why or what.

  • What would you like to have in 2020 that you lacked in 2019?

A clear, measurable plan for the unbloggable stuff. A strong second draft of the manuscript. More time alone with my husband. More fun adventures with Carla.

  • What dates from 2019 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

As I said last year, the specific dates don’t necessarily stick… but I do remember specific THINGS. This year: My wonderful anniversary trip with my husband. The day my friend died. And the two days I spent in New York for her wake and funeral service.

  • What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Finally finishing a first draft of my manuscript? Honestly, it feels less momentous than I thought it would, because it happened sort of without me noticing? (I don’t write in a linear way, so it wasn’t like I wrote the final chapter and said, “There, finished!”) Plus, there’s still so much work to be done.

  • What was your biggest failure?

What I have said the past two years applies here:

Not getting enough words on the page each day! I can trot out a 7,000-word blog post of a morning, but I seem to spend hours and hours coming up with a measly 200 for my manuscript! What gives? 

  • Did you suffer illness or injury?

Nothing serious.

  • What was the best thing you bought?

Technically, my husband bought it, but I love the eternity band he got me for our anniversary.

  • Whose behavior merited celebration?
  • Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
  • Where did most of your money go?

 

  • What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Our big anniversary trip to Europe!

  • What song(s) will always remind you of 2019?

The soundtracks to all three Descendants movies, which have been playing around here nonstop.

The soundtrack to Frozen 2.

The entire Jonas Brothers oeuvre, as The Brothers and as solo artists, particularly the Happiness Begins album.

I Could Use a Love Song” and “Sugar” by Maren Morris

Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus

Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish (which I hated, briefly loved, and then hated again)

Everything by Post Malone, whose songs played constantly on the radio this year.

  • Compared to this time last year, are you:
  1. a) happier or sadder? 
  2. b) thinner or fatter? 
  3. c) richer or poorer? 
  • What do you wish you’d done more of?

My answer is identical to last year: Writing (evergreen item)!!! Keeping up with out-of-state friends. Doing fun things with Carla outside the house. Going on dates with my husband.

  • What do you wish you’d done less of?

Feeling sad. Eating my feelings. Worrying. Driving to various appointments and activities. Trying to fix my leaky toilet.

  • How did you spend Christmas?

My parents came to town this year. My husband did not have to work. We had a wonderful warm, partly sunny Christmas together and it was lovely. We ate a LOT of cheese and drank a LOT of wine and had a really nice time together.

  • Did you fall in love in 2019?

 

  • What was your favorite (new) TV program?

TV is so great! I really love it. My husband and I discovered Schitt’s Creek after a billion years of people recommending it to us, and it’s so, so excellent. We re-watched the entire American series of The Office, which was so much fun. We fell in love with The Masked Singer, which is a pretty great (and fairly family-friendly) show to watch when you can’t agree on a movie for Movie Night. And my husband and I also LOVED Songland, which I hope will restart again soon. We watched the first season of Fleabag, although I think I enjoyed it more than my husband does. The second season of Mindhunter was pretty great. I really like the new Cobie Smulders private investigator drama, Stumptown. Is that it? That might be it.

  • Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

 

  • What was the best book you read?

I really did a terrible job of reading this year. You can go ahead and blame my phone addiction on the low number of books I finished in 2019 – because it was just so much simpler to reach for my phone and read Ask a Manager posts than engage my mind in real literature. But I did read 23 books this year, which means that I can at least answer this question.

My favorite novel of the year was easily The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. SO GOOD. Another favorite was Inland by Téa Obreht,  which was one of the most well-researched and beautifully plotted books I have ever read. As far as top of my favorite genre – mysteries – goes, I loved The Lost Man by Jane Harper and The Next to Die by Sophie Hannah and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. I was delighted and honored to beta read my friend Kristina’s first novel, Weight of Memory, as well.

 

  • What did you want and get?

Freelance assignments from great clients. A fantastic trip to Europe with my husband, and a really fun weekend jaunt to Toronto with my husband and kid. An eternity ring. The Megan Follows boxset of Anne of Green Gables which is EVEN BETTER than I remember it. A bottle of Tiffany Sheer. An answer to a perplexing issue that’s been cropping up for years (sorry – I know this is vague); it’s not the answer I WANTED, but I wanted An Answer more than anything, so now I have it.

 

  • What did you want and not get?

A flapper that will fix the leak in my toilet. Seriously, I have gone through three of them and I need to find another option. My dad thinks I should go to the hardware store, buy one of each, and just try them, one after another, until one works. As dreadful — in so very many ways — that sounds, I think that may be my best course of action. Either that or buy a new toilet, I guess?

On a more serious note, I wanted to see my friend again. She went into the hospital in July and we talked about my coming to visit her at some point. Obviously, when we were planning the visit, we both assumed she would be healthy (or on the way to being healthy) when I did. But I didn’t get to see her and then she died and my heart is broken.

 

  • What was your favorite film of this year?

Frozen 2 was pretty great. So was Chasing Happiness, which was a documentary about the Jonas Brothers and really made me fall in love with all three of them. I honestly have no idea if I saw any other movies.

  • What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

 

  • What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

If I had been able to see my friend before she died, I think I would feel… better, in some ways. Of course, maybe not. I would still be so very sad that she is gone.

  • How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2019?

I’d call my 2019 Lewk “Trying to Appear Carefree and Nonchalant About Being Unshowered Whilst Simultaneously Envying the Moms Who Actually Put On Makeup and Curled Their Hair and Did So Despite Appearing to Have Double Or Triple the Number of Children I Do.”

Does it really require such an effort to just… put on some cute booties and a non-sweatshirt top and maybe brush my hair? A burning question for the new decade.

  • What kept you sane?

My husband. Exercise. My terrible, ubiquitous, addictive phone. Recipe blogs. Freelance work. Alone time. Good TV. Writing here.

  • Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek. Also Paul Rudd.

  • What political issue stirred you the most?

 

  • Who did you miss?

My friend who died. We were roommates for three years in college. We stayed in regular touch via phone and email and occasional visits for probably ten years after that. But then work and family and distance put bigger gaps between our conversations. We’d have marathon-length phone calls that we would schedule in advance, and we’d try to catch up on every last detail of each other’s life before we got exhausted from talking. I got to see her in 2018 at our college reunion, which was really great. She got to meet Carla, which is a memory I will cherish. Late in 2018, she began having some severe health problems, and they continued to increase in severity throughout 2019. Our conversations were more anxious than I remembered – she was worried about changes with her work, her health, and what lay in front of her. I think we talked more frequently than we had in years, which is a blessing – although, still, months would go by with just texts between us. (She was a busy, vibrant woman who was always traveling somewhere or going out to a new restaurant or attending a concert or giving a presentation or meeting someone for a date – she lived a jam-packed, interesting life but man was it hard to fit a phone call in among all her events and activities!) We knew each other for twenty years and I had planned on being friends with her for many, many more. I’m really sorry she’s gone.

  • Who was the best new person you met?

The new mom friend I met last year didn’t pan out as a longterm friend. But I met another mom earlier this spring, and we’ve gotten together a few times which has been really nice.

  • Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2019.

I don’t know. That things could always be worse? Ugh. That’s a terrible life lesson, true as it may be. That sometimes things seem pretty grim and you just have to keep going? I am still processing the past few months and I don’t think I’ve fully wrapped my head around what’s been going on… or how to apply what I’ve learned (what I’m learning?) to the future. So that grit-your-teeth kind of thing is all I have right now.

  • Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

“This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down / But a tiny voice whispers in my mind / You are lost, hope is gone / But you must go on / And do the next right thing.” – The Next Right Thing

 

Well. That wasn’t the most uplifting note to end on, although I do find that lyric to be a very good Coping Thought.

One of the very best things of the year — one that defies the questions on this list — has been Carla. She is officially six-and-a-half and so… creative and interesting and funny and curious and loving and energetic and fun. I just love her so much. I feel like it’s really an unfair thing, to be a student of your child’s — but the truth is, she is teaching me so much about how to be a better parent, how to be a better person. I owe her my strides in patience and my attempts to be more outgoing. She is such a wonderful human being and she becomes more herself every day. Right now, at this very moment, she is on the kitchen floor, wearing the tiger onesie we got her as a Halloween costume. She has her new artist’s studio spread out around her on the floor and she is making a (second? additional?) tiger costume out of paper and colored pencils and copious amounts of Scotch tape.  The Descendants 3 soundtrack is playing on our Echo. Just a few minutes ago, she showed me these tiger paws she created, complete with claws and paper armbands so she can wear them on her own hands. She is endlessly inventive and imaginative and I am so lucky to be her mom.

Tiger craft

A new decade lies before us, Internet. Fresh and unwrinkled, with no mistakes in it yet. I hope it brings all of us health and happiness and grace. Happy 2020, thank you for reading.

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I just finished a book with which I fell so completely in love, I want to FORCE everyone to read it immediately.

Of course, in my intense desire to expose everyone to this perfectly wonderful book, I am fearful that maybe you won’t, in fact, like it. Which wouldn’t make me like you less, I promise; I know books of all things are highly subjective, and you might find the style irritating or disjointed or you might find the subject matter maudlin or disturbing.

But I still feel this strong, nay, irresistible urge to COMPEL you to read it, and then get all your friends and family members to read it as well.

Am I putting too much pressure on it? I’m putting too much pressure on it.

Eh, you may like it, you may not. Whatever.

Let me see if I can pinpoint, for myself, why I liked it so immensely. And maybe that will help you determine whether you think you might like it.

The book in question is “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez.

the friend

Image from amazon.com

And, by the way, Sigrid Nunez is nearly 70 years old, which I find appealing as well. (You don’t necessarily hear a lot of buzz about older authors.) (Her protagonist in this book is also older; I envisioned the protagonist as a stand-in for Sigrid, although who knows.) She didn’t publish her first book until she was 44! She is a critically acclaimed author, and I am deeply embarrassed that I haven’t read her work until now. I feel an urgent need to read ALL her books now, in quick succession.

This particular book won the National Book Award in 2018, if that makes any difference to you.

Do I need to include a trigger warning here? Probably. The book deals, in large part, with suicide. So if that is a problematic topic for you, I sadly recommend against reading the book. (I can’t remember any specific, upsetting descriptions of the death, but I suppose I could have forgotten them.)

But its larger themes are more philosophical: Grief, and its forms. Love, and its actors, and its varying forms. Growing old, and what that means, and its inevitable conclusion. Writing, and what it means to be a writer, and the changing view of writing/writers. Those are the big ones.

More specifically, there is a woman whose mentor dies, and who – unexpectedly, without warning her or asking her – leaves her his dog. Not just any dog, but a giant Great Dane. (She lives in a tiny pets-free rent-controlled apartment in New York City.)

From the get-go, I was skeptical of the book. While I don’t dislike dogs, I certainly don’t love them. I didn’t want to read a book about a dog. I didn’t want to read a sad book about someone losing her friend. I opened it with great reluctance. I was soothed to find that the protagonist prefers cats to dogs as I do.

Also, the book is (sort of) epistolary. It’s written in the second person, directed at the mentor she’s lost to suicide. That’s unusual enough that it could be distracting or annoying or tiresome.

Some things I loved about the book:

  • The style is unlike anything I’ve read before. Some reviewers refer to it as “stream of consciousness,” which I get. But I sort of think of “stream of consciousness” as a semi-derogatory way to describe someone’s prose (I don’t know why). I think of it as a Joyce-ian, Molly-Bloom-ian type of style, with long voluminous paragraphs and few sentences and winding, difficult-to-untangle threads of thought. (Maybe that’s why I think of it as derogatory; I did NOT enjoy Ulysses.) This book is NOT like that. I thought of it more as reading someone’s diary: there are discrete paragraphs, often unrelated or related only in that way that thoughts link to one another in your brain. Sometimes it feels like you are reading her notes, as she researches a particular subject: Here she is, going through her research about (for example — may not actually appear in the book) student/professor affairs; there is a paragraph about an author who had a famously disastrous affair with a student; there is a summary of the changing cultural attitude toward student/teacher relationships; there is a literary quote about the lawlessness of the heart; there is a paragraph about university regulations around fraternizing with students; there is an anecdote from her personal life about someone she knew who had an affair with a student. I can see how this might sound unappealing; there is no singular narrative that flows from beginning to end. I mean, there is, but you get all these ebbs and flows as she interjects and retreats. But I found it wholly appealing – a very fresh and interesting way to approach telling a story. And she does it so deftly that I felt as though I was riding around in her brain with her. The little intuitive leaps made sense and even when she turned away completely from something, it felt… right, and understandable. Nothing ever felt disjointed or incoherent, each thought became simply a new tiny wave breaking on the shore and then melting back into the larger narrative sea.

 

  • The prose is so clean and well-written. She has a very spare writing style, nothing extraneous, every word chosen precisely and with reason. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of beauty in her words – on the contrary, her writing is lovely and evocative. I found myself rereading some sentences many times, marveling at their clarity and simplicity.

 

  • The subject matter is so heavy, yet she treats it so lightly. No, that’s not right. Maybe, she treats it with such a light hand. She seems so comfortable with the inevitability of the subjects of aging and death and grief… and she writes around the topics with such depth and breadth… that the gravitas isn’t pulling you under with each new sentence.

 

  • Related: she has a great sense of humor. You’ll be talking about aging and then suddenly you’re talking about poop. But not in a jarring way. In a charming, amusing way. (Oh clod I am not doing this justice at all. I should just stop talking.) There’s this one point where she relates a conversation with a friend. The friend wonders if she’s ever considered finding a therapist; she thinks the friend is talking about a therapist for the dog; the friend is not. It’s gentle humor, but helps keep the book light.

 

  • The book is meticulously researched. As I was reading, I was certain that any subject she raises in the book has been thoroughly and comprehensively researched. She’s read all the literature related to suicide or dogs or whatever. She’s got all the relevant quotes. She’s dug into the pertinent scientific journals. She’s read related news articles. She’s combed through Wikipedia. You know this only because she pulls out the best tidbits to share – again, kind of like you might scrawl off a particularly juicy detail about, I don’t know, a work project, in your diary – and they are fascinating. But it is clear that they are the gems she plucked out and shined up, and that there are truckloads of dirt clods that she left behind. It’s impressive and, frankly, kind of awe-inspiring.

 

  • She handles the central relationships of the book with such care. Basically, you’ve got a woman and her dead mentor. And you’ve a got a woman and her dead mentor’s dog. And, really, you’ve got a woman coming to terms with herself without her dead friend. Each of these relationships is drawn with such tremendous compassion and thoughtfulness and grace (this seems like the wrong word, but I keep coming back to it) that I was wholly drawn in, wholly won over.

 

  • Lurking in the background is that this book is about a writer, writing. Writing figures into the overarching narrative as kind of a linking force and maybe even a personal imperative. The protagonist is a writer, her mentor is a writer; their writing brought them together, kept them together. And she’s figuring out how writing fits in to her grieving process.

 

Perhaps you should know, before you read it, that I finished reading, closed the book, and wept like a child. Great body-shaking sobs that I could not control or suppress. And yet I welcomed the tears, because they were so well-earned.

Have I managed to make it sound dull and off-putting? Possibly. Hopefully I have not done more harm than good in recommending it to you.

Well, I think you’d be best off just reading the book. I loved it. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I look forward to returning to it again. And then again. I am so very glad I read it.

If you read it, let me know, will you?

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