An extraordinary debut

Tell the Wolves I’m Home ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Carol Rifka Brunt
Random House, 2012

The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. ~Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolvesI don’t know how to write a review for this book. I’ve made a few false starts already. It’s always SO HARD to review the exceptional, the beautiful, the sincere and heartfelt. When what you’ve just read humbles you, when it so keenly reminds you of the raw power of storytelling — of why we read in the first place — it can leave you floundering without any words to describe the experience (a cruel irony if there ever was one).

I have no words, or I feel like I don’t have enough, or know the right ones to use to capture the intensity and sweetness of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Like Mozart’s Requiem, it’s meant to be experienced. It’s the really funny joke that “you had to be there” to find funny at all.

I can tell you it’s a coming of age story that hits all the right notes regarding that excruciating, confusing transition between childhood and adulthood, from innocence to innocence lost. June is fourteen and bright and funny and loveable, but also fierce and stubborn and selfish. She’s prideful and lacks confidence, while at the same time marches to the beat of her own romantic drum. She’s learning to love, not just perfection, but flaws and failures — discovering that real beauty, real love, has scars and history, mistakes and disappointments.

There is so much character in this story — not just June, but her sister Greta, their beloved uncle Finn, and his beloved Toby. Each character is whole with lives and souls to call their own. Their voices are distinct, their points of view crystalline and unique. It makes you care, it makes you feel and cry, and sigh and laugh out loud.

There’s also a sense of place — a time really — that’s so vivid it acts as a powerful subtext to the entire novel. June is growing up in the 1980’s while her uncle is dying from AIDS. We remember the music, the clothes, the movies and that makes us smile. But then we remember the ignorance and fear, the prejudice and cruelty — as much a part of the disease as its auto-immune deficiency — and we weep. Toby and Finn, with genuine humanity, symbolize the tragic loss of so many young men in the early days of AIDS, before anyone really understood what was happening, before anyone had the courage to do anything about it when they finally knew exactly what was happening.

Ultimately, this book is about profound loss and the giant grief that accompanies it. It’s about finding yourself in that loss, and then finding your way through it. If you’ve been there, you know. There are no shortcuts. It is what it is and it’s you and it. But if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, there will be someone beside us to hold our hand, to pull us in, to catch our tears, to guide us back to the land of the living.

This is an emotional story, but it is in no way maudlin or melodramatic. It could be that book, that smacks of manipulation and exploits tragedy for the big win. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not that book. It is the very opposite of that book. I’m going to end this review with a Hemingway quote that I would like to dedicate to June and Greta and Finn and Toby. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

This review also appears on Goodreads.

John Green wants to make you cry, but first he’ll make you laugh

grca_badge_winner-f9454940ba1e5388d3d719979c7f3f51The Fault in Our Stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
John Green
Dutton Books, 2012

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. ~Julius Caesar

I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
~The Fault in our Stars

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsAlright, alright! I admit it, it got to me — it freaking absolutely got to me. If I were Superman this little book would be my Kryptonite. Why did I think I would be immune? I was so smug going into this, feeling secure in my awesome, arrogant certainty that the sure to be oodles of maudlin and reams of cliches would keep me safe and sound from any wrenchings of the heart. My overall dubiousness and cynicism would serve as my protective shield, offering immunity against such ruthless emotional manipulation — nay exploitation — about to be perpetrated against my person. Sick kids? Cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer falling in love? Really? You’re going to go there so completely and unapologetically and still expect me to respect you in the morning?

Despite all the obvious pitfalls lying in wait for John Green, he manages to avoid just about all of them (seemingly with ease). I experienced a level of integrity and commitment to the subject matter that gave sufficient weight and depth to what could have just as easily turned out to be breezy and shallow.

That’s not to say that this story wallows in gloom and gravitas — far from it. It’s funny. I laughed out loud — out loud — and when I wasn’t doing that I snickered, grinned, and tittered (yes, there were a few titters). I also bawled like a baby, but the laughter came first, and the tears were earned.

Hazel Grace — our terminal narrator — is lovely. You will notice she doesn’t always act or speak like your average teenager, and that’s because she isn’t one. Hazel has been in a staring contest with Death since she was 13 years old. He hasn’t beaten her yet, but it’s changed her, in more ways than any of us non-terminal people could ever comprehend. Our casual intellectual acceptance that we are all terminal and will one day die is not nearly the same as carrying Death on your skin and in your bones, to feel life seeping out of your pores and stalk you in the night. To sit on your chest and steal the breath from your malfunctioning, fluid-filled lungs.

Augustus Waters is sheer delight and I don’t give a donkey’s ass that the way he and Hazel speak to one another is unrealistic because it is filled with such a sincere sweetness and adorable, lovable humor I couldn’t get enough. It broke through my armor, tore a hole through my cynical self, and had me falling head over heels in love with these two. Each is defiant in the way that only a young person battling Death can be defiant, they are warm and insecure and brave and foolish and selfish and sad and real. I’m not going to say realistic — we could argue that point til the cows come home — but not once did they ever stop being authentic.

What can I say? I loved them. I loved this book. Okay?

Okay.

Occasionally, I like to play around with book trailers. Here is one I made for this lovely little book.

A book like no other

The Book Thief ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery…

The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you. ~ The Book Thief

the book thiefThis book left me gutted and absolutely speechless.  It is the kind of book that we can only hope to see once or twice in a generation. And that’s if we’re lucky.

Narrating The Book Thief is Death, who confesses he is haunted by humans — our beauty, our savagery, our contradictions. I, on the other hand, will remain haunted by Liesel’s story for the rest of my life (and little Rudy Steiner). There is really no way to describe this book that will come anywhere close to doing it justice. It defies all regular categorization and usual comparisons.

There are only a handful of books that after the reading is done I want to run out and buy copies for everyone I know and plead with them to drop whatever it is they are doing and read it immediately (before they get hit by a bus or a comet smashes into the Earth) — this is one of those books. The words lyrical and profound, spiritual and uncompromising are quite often overused, to the point where we’ve rendered them almost meaningless and that’s too bad, because I want to use them here and have them mean something.

Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews. When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.

Zusak’s prose is staggeringly gorgeous both in its simplicity and in its complexity; his choice of words is flawless and inspired. I am humbled by such immense talent. The Book Thief is a gift for the ages, a love song to words, books, and what it means to be human.  It is a story that will steal (and break) your heart.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

Living Dead Girl ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
by Elizabeth Scott

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who disappeared.
Once upon a time, my name was not Alice.
Once upon a time, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

When Alice was ten, Ray took her away from her family, her friends her life. She learned to give up all power, to endure all pain. She waited for the nightmare to be over.

I struggled with how to rate this book — from 1 star, to 5 stars, to no stars. There is a part of me that regrets ever having picked up this book, and definitely a part of me that (for better or worse) will never forget reading it. My first visceral reaction to it was that Scott had penned an outrageously exploitative, gratuitous book, one so gruesome in parts, and so fully realized, that I felt like an accomplice, aiding and abetting “Alice’s” abductor. The book left me reeling from shock and revulsion. Yes, it’s that graphic.

I will say what I said after reading Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird: “Can people really be that cruel and savage towards one another? Of course they can, I just don’t like to be reminded of it especially by a writer with such obvious talents.” And Elizabeth Scott is a very talented writer, and in her hands, this story will not just haunt you, but hurt you.

Having said that, this is an important book, one that throws a spotlight on a taboo subject we all wish didn’t exist. But it does exist, for countless abducted children, and for countless children victimized by family or friends. I had a friend explain to me why she thought this book is so important, and I had to agree with her: this book doesn’t make us an accomplice, but rather a witness — in the reading we are bearing witness to such awful, indescribable crimes, much as we would when reading a book about the Holocaust. You bear witness so that you won’t ever forget all those nameless, faceless victims. We bear witness so that maybe next time, we will recognize when something’s “not right”, we will identify the child in distress who cannot ask for help. Rating: ★★★★★

%d bloggers like this: