‘The Friend: A Novel’ by Sigrid Nunez

My local library has re-opened after many months of COVID lockdown and the first book I borrowed was Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning The Friend. This was despite my resolution to avoid books about writers, but in my defence, I thought this was going to be a heart-warming story about a dog. I mean, look at the cover!

'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez

It’s actually a thoughtful meditation on death, grief, writing and literature, narrated by an unnamed author who inherits her friend’s Great Dane after the friend, who is also an author and a teacher of writing, commits suicide. The narrator is not a dog person and lives in a tiny New York apartment that forbids dogs. The plot, such as it is, concerns whether the grieving dog will come to accept and love his new owner, whether the narrator will get evicted from her rent-controlled apartment due to the illegal dog, and whether “anything bad will happen to the dog”.

Note: Nothing bad happens to the dog. Mostly, this is about loss and literature, with a lot of quotes from Important Literary Figures, including Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Baudelaire, Rilke and a bunch of French writers I’d never heard of. The narrator and her friend have many opinions about writing (that is, the sort of Serious Literary Writing done by people who live in New York, teach at Princeton and get fellowships to write in Berlin, much like Sigrid Nunez). Often this is about how things were much better in the Old Days. For example,

“The rise of self-publishing was a catastrophe, you said. It was the death of literature. Which meant the death of culture. And Garrison Keillor was right, you said: When everyone’s a writer, no one is.
[…]
None of this was as new as it might sound. ‘To write and have something published is less and less something special. Why not me, too? everyone asks.’
Wrote French critic Sainte-Beuve.
In 1839.”

The dead writer friend also had problems with modern readers treating books as objects to be “rated for consumer satisfaction”, required to affirm what the readers already felt and thought, with even his literature students appearing “never to judge a book on how well it fulfilled the author’s intentions but solely on whether it was the kind of book that they liked”. There are musings on the cancel culture promoted by his students:

“how self-righteous they’ve become, how intolerant they are of any weakness or flaw in a writer’s character. And I’m not talking about blatant racism or misogyny. I’m talking about any tiny sign of insensitivity or bias, any proof of psychological trouble, neurosis, narcissism, obsessiveness, bad habits—any eccentricity.
[…]
A novelist, like any good citizen, has to conform, and the idea that a person could write exactly what they wanted regardless of anyone else’s opinion was unthinkable to them. Of course literature can’t do its job in a culture like that.”

“To become a professional writer in our society you have to be privileged to begin with, and the feeling is that privileged people shouldn’t be writing anymore — not unless they can find a way not to write about themselves […] It’s kind of a double-bind, though, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.”

There’s an argument between two writers about the ethics of writing about a friend’s trauma, which I just happened to read during the Bad Art Friend kerfuffle. Another friend stops writing after discovering Buddhism and she explains why:

“You had to have ambition, serious ambition, and if you wanted to do really good work you had to be driven. You had to want to surpass what others had done. You had to believe that what you were doing was incredibly serious and important.[…] And even though writing isn’t supposed to be a competition, I could see that most of the time writers believed that it was.
Also, it seemed like money was in the front of everyone’s mind. I didn’t get that. Who on earth becomes a writer for the money?”

This book will probably most appeal to those who have some interest in the world of writing, but others may find it interesting for its exploration of grief and death. I found this book really engrossing and clever — and often, unexpectedly, amusing. There’s a good interview with the author here.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Way back in 2012, I wrote this on Memoranda, in response to a reader’s question:

“Shannon asked me about the new book I’m working on, so I composed a long blog post on the subject, complete with jokes and a cool photograph of a turtle. But then I read over it and realised I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that much detail about a writing project that’s at such an early stage, it doesn’t even have a title, let alone a publisher.

So I deleted the post.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time, because I also realised that writing that post had made me feel more confident about this new book. After I finished ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I flipped through my mental catalogue of Ideas For Books and decided I needed to write something that would not be the start of a series, would not be a complicated family saga, would not include scenes of heart-rending anguish, and would not require much research. This next book would be fun and easy to write!

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite the way I’d expected. I’ve spent the past six months compiling a vast folder of notes and diagrams and photocopies, but feel I’ve barely started on the research. It isn’t a complicated family saga, but at the heart of the story is a mystery that requires far more complicated plotting than I’ve ever before attempted. It was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I already have ideas for a sequel and I’m not even sure the book would be best described as a ‘novel’. Plus, there’s at least one scene of heart-rending anguish…”

And five years on, I’m still working on that book, although at least now, I know what it’s about.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest grew out of several ideas. One of them was sparked by my irritation at shoddy articles about health and medicine in supposedly reputable newspapers. One particular Australian journalist, who clearly had no scientific education whatsoever, specialised in what I came to think of as ‘blueberries cure cancer’ stories – that is, articles that misrepresented or ignored scientific research in favour of sensational, fact-free assertions by celebrities and self-proclaimed experts who had no medical qualifications. I have a science degree and have worked in health sciences for most of my adult life, so I could see these articles were utter rubbish, but what about other readers? People were spending lots of money on these useless ‘cures’ and sometimes putting their health at risk by following harmful advice.

I was especially concerned about teenagers who dropped science subjects early in high school because they hated maths or decided science was boring or difficult. Scientific literacy is just as important in modern life as being able to read and write and interact socially. Science doesn’t always have to be learned in a classroom, though. Some of my favourite reads in recent years have been popular science books – books written by experts who are good at explaining complex scientific ideas in an entertaining and informative way. But those books are all aimed at adults. Where are the popular science books for teenagers, especially teenage girls?

It’s not that there are no Australian books about science for young readers. There are thousands of colourful, interesting books for primary school students on a wide variety of science topics, from astronomy to zoology. There are science books for older students, too. There are well-written and well-designed text books used by science teachers in the classroom, but they’re not intended for general reading. I’ve also seen books with eye-catching titles and cartoon covers, along the lines of There’s a Worm on My Eyeball!, full of disgusting facts and clearly marketed at boys.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop girls picking up these books and some girls do like them, but I was interested in writing something more thoughtful and philosophical, although still entertaining – a book that would appeal to teenage girls who were interested in history and stories and people, but thought science was difficult, dull and only for boys. I decided a history of medicine, from superstition to science, might be a good way to introduce the beauty, creativity and power of scientific thinking. The book needed a framing narrative, so I came up with Rosy and Jaz, two very different thirteen-year-old girls who are thrown together one summer holiday because their parents work at the same college. A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful artefacts – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Rosy and Jaz find themselves arguing with Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, being horrified by the Black Death, body-snatching and eighteenth-century surgical techniques, and scrutinizing modern homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement. They uncover the secrets of the brain’s anatomy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and find a link between herbal medicine and Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. They learn how the discovery of penicillin demonstrated the benefits of having an untidy desk, why an Australian scientist thought it would be a good idea to drink dangerous bacteria, and how traditional Aboriginal remedies might save lives when modern antibiotics fail. And there’s more:

What does aspirin have to do with secret agents, revolution, stolen treasures and explosions?
Can unicorns cure leprosy?
Who thought it was a good idea to use heroin as a cough medicine for children?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does acupuncture really work?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

It’s a little bit like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, but about the history of medical science rather than the history of philosophy. (Incidentally, whenever I said this to publishers, I got blank looks. How can you work in the publishing industry and not have heard of Sophie’s World?! It was an international best-seller! It won awards! It was made into a film and a TV series and even a computer game! And by the way, it was the reason the narrator of the Montmaray Journals was called ‘Sophie’.)

Anyway, this is how Dr Huxley’s Bequest starts:

CHAPTER ONE

Afterwards, Rosy always blamed the turtle.

‘It wasn’t the turtle’s fault,’ said Jaz, as the two girls sat in the courtyard beside the pond, eating salt-and-vinegar chips.

‘You weren’t there, Jaz. You didn’t see his evil expression. He knew exactly what he was doing. None of it would have happened without that turtle.’

The turtle in question raised his head and turned his beady yellow gaze upon them.

‘Look,’ said Rosy. ‘He’s doing it again. Malevolent, that’s what I call him.’

‘How do you know it’s a boy?’

‘He’s got a beard.’

Jaz peered closer. ‘I think that’s a bit of lettuce stuck to its chin.’

‘After all that everyone here’s done for him, too,’ Rosy went on. ‘Feeding him. Cleaning his stupid pond. And how did he repay us? With treachery and disloyalty and, and … dirty tricks! Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen this college if we hadn’t come to the rescue.’

‘Well, considering there wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t –’

‘Malicious,’ Rosy said quickly. ‘That’s what he is. Mephistophelean.’

‘That is not even a word.’

‘It is. It’s from Mephistopheles. Remember, that stone demon spitting into the fountain in Science Road?’

‘Oh, right,’ said Jaz. ‘Faust. The quest for knowledge.’

‘Exactly,’ said Rosy.

The turtle lunged at a passing dragonfly, snapping off its wing and a couple of legs. The unfortunate insect tumbled onto the surface of the pond and the turtle gulped it down, then twisted his wrinkled, serpentine neck in the direction of the girls.

‘He does look a bit sinister,’ Jaz conceded.'Dr Huxley's Bequest' turtle illustration

Text and illustration © Michelle Cooper

More in Adventures in Self-Publishing:

Why Self-Publish?
Editing
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
Designing a Book Cover
Turning Your Manuscript Into A Book
All the Mistakes I’ve Made (so Far)

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.