alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 55: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”

I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Ah, post-Cannonball lethargy! Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister — two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.

I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.

Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #36: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff

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This final work from David Rakoff, who died from cancer in 2012 at the age of 47, is a beautiful novel written as a poem. You might be inclined to think that this would make it pretentious and dull (well, I did) but after reading a review that compared his style to Dorothy Parker’s or Ogden Nash’s, I gave it a go. The novel is told in rhyming couplets that reminded me a bit of Dr. Seuss. It’s fun, funny, sad, tragic. In just over 100 pages, Rakoff covers 100 years in the US in a series of vignettes that deal with rape, incurable illness, homosexuality, love, betrayal — the name of the novel says it all. And by the end you see how seemingly unrelated stories fit together. You could easily read this in one sitting and if you pick it up, you will probably want to do just that.

The novel starts with the birth of a redheaded girl in Chicago at the turn of the century and a mid-wife’s prediction that nothing good will come from it. Rakoff then takes us on a journey to California in the ’50s-’60s where a young man is discovering his art and his sexuality. We also see what happens to his lovely single cousin Helen, who puts on a brave face and demonstrates grace and strength in the face of judgment. Rakoff describes the AIDS crisis, Alzheimers, and marriages falling apart.

I found myself especially drawn to the cousins Cliff and Helen. Helen becomes involved in an office romance that ends badly and comes to see that:

Her presence, she thinks, is what’s

rendered him gladder

But really it’s just that he aimed for,

and had her.

After an embarrassing drunken display at an office party, Helen is ostracized but refuses to hide herself away. Her final exit from another office party several years after the event is just fabulous.

Cliff becomes a comic book artist in San Francisco, drawing “Captain Cocksure and Throbbin.” [Illustrations throughout the novel are by the very talented illustrator Seth.] When a homophobic critic named Blanche Tilley refers to the comic as “filthy, overt, immature,” Cliff responds:

How I wish you would stop up that

bile-spewing spigot

You use when you speak, you

rebarbative bigot.

After Cliff contracts AIDS and knows he is going to die, he offers this reflection:

It was sadness that gripped him, far

more than fear

That, if facing the truth, he had maybe

a year.

When poetic phrases like “eyes look

your last”

Become true, all you want is to stay, to

hold fast.

A new, fierce attachment to all of this

world

Now pierced him, it stabbed like a

diety-hurled

Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from

above,

Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like

young love.

This is pretty heavy stuff, and yet Rakoff laces his unflinching accounts of these tragedies with humor and spirit. His characters refuse to remain passive in the face of adversity, and I think the fact that Rakoff knew he was dying of cancer when he wrote this demonstrates his own powerful inner drive and his desire to leave having had his say. Rakoff has the last word against death and his message is beautiful and sad.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #22: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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You may as well tell them where you are, because they’ll find you anyway. They always do.

This 2012 novel by Carol Rifka Brunt deals with the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s, sibling relationships, love and jealousy. The narrator, June Elbus, is 13 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies from AIDS. Finn was a renowned artist and before dying, he painted one last portrait of June and her older sister Greta. Finn and June had had a very close relationship, and she takes his death hard. But what makes it harder is the discovery that Finn had a lover, Toby, whose existence had been kept secret from June. When Toby reaches out to June, she is torn between feeling jealous of him for having a piece of Finn that she never knew and wanting very much to maintain that connection to Finn through Toby. The story then deals with the relationship that develops between June and Toby and the repercussions it has for June’s family.

June’s relationships with Finn, Toby and Greta are at the heart of the story. The two sisters couldn’t be  more different. June is quirky and a bit of a loner. She likes spending time in the woods near her home, imagining that she lives in the Middle Ages, even dressing the part. She doesn’t have any close friends and knows people think she is weird, but she is not bothered by that. Greta, on the other hand, is a talented singer and actress, so smart she skipped a grade. Greta is ready to graduate high school at 16 with acceptance to Dartmouth and the possibility of a part in Annie on Broadway. She and June had been close as younger children but have drifted apart. Greta seems to treat June with derision and contempt, but occasionally shows flashes of her old self, throwing June off balance.

Finn was not just June’s uncle but also her godfather, and he doted on her. Finn aided and abetted June’s love of the Middle Ages, taking her to the Cloisters and buying her boots that June felt were Medieval in look. Although Finn’s final portrait is of both sisters, June feels it was done more for her than for Greta, that this was Finn’s way of getting more time with her before his death. June’s love for Finn is obsessive, and she feels its inappropriateness but struggles not to deal with that head on.

June’s relationship with Toby is complicated. The family, particularly June’s mother, hate him for infecting Finn with AIDS. But June is intrigued by Toby. On one hand, she is jealous of his position in Finn’s life and feels that her experiences with Finn are somehow tainted by his existence and knowledge of June while she was in the dark about him. On the other hand, she knows that she can learn more about Finn and keep him alive by getting to know Toby. Eventually she sees greater value than that in their friendship.

The relationships between characters in this story are fraught with intense love and jealousy. It seems that every character feels in some way cheated out of enough love by some other character, is jealous of what they perceive others having and oblivious to others’ pain and need. And at the center of this love/jealousy vortex are Finn and his painting. Finn is, in artistic terms, the negative space — the missing thing that helps define those around him, and his painting serves as a catalyst for changing the family dynamic within the Elbus household.

The wolf motif throughout the novel is fascinating to me. Why would Finn call his portrait of his nieces “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”? Who are the wolves? Those questions and the fate of the portrait bring about a somewhat sad, somewhat happy ending to the story. I thought this was a brilliantly conceived and executed novel. Although I don’t think it’s classified as YA, it would certainly be an appropriate book to put in the hands of a young adult. The themes would resonate with teens and they’d get an education on the early AIDS epidemic in America.