Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

“Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.” 

Let me begin by saying that this is one of those books that, even if you don’t think the subject matter is to your liking, you need to read it.  It is one of the greatest contemporary novels I’ve read.

Period.

Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, was one that slipped past us at the bookstore.  Someone ordered it in hardcover (I think it must have been in a magazine), but we never carried it in the store.  I think it must have been one that just didn’t really fit our town’s reading groups, but I don’t know how that’s possible.

It’s 1987 and Finn is dying of AIDS.  Finn happens to be the narrator June’s best friend, uncle, and godfather, as well as a famous artist.  Already a misfit because of her love of the past and all things Finn-related, the loss of her uncle devastates June and she struggles to find balance with her family.  Just before his death, Finn completes a portrait of June and Greta, which no one in the family except June seems to appreciate; the painting is eventually shoved into a safe deposit box where the girls can visit (and there’s so much more to that story alone).

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a thin man hanging around and is informed that he is the man who murdered Finn.  When the man, named Toby, delivers a request that June meet with him, she hesitantly does, and this prompts their strange almost-friendship to take root.  Toby now lives alone in Finn’s apartment and, over the course of the novel, June comes to discover that Finn’s apartment, the details of which she loved so much, is not simply Finn’s and that her uncle lived a life which she could never have known.  As June and Toby attempt to cope with their shattered world, they find that Finn, even when he is not physically present, is working his magic to bring them together.

I swear to you, I wept throughout this book.  And because there’s so much to the story and I don’t want to give it all away, here are the reasons why you should read it with not tons of spoilage.

  1. It is BEAUTIFUL.  Because Finn is an artist and our narrator is sensitive to beauty, the descriptions are wonderful and the entire feel of the novel is just… wow.
  2. June as a narrator is very likable.  She’s the weird younger sister who doesn’t quite fit in and she attaches herself to Finn because he understands her.  (And don’t even get me started on her and Toby.  There are some lines in their conversations that made me go from totally dry-eyed to sobbing.)  She reminds me a bit of Scout from TKM in that her voice is innocent (verging oftentimes on naive), but she notices things.  And when you read between the lines… wow.
  3. Finn and Toby’s relationship, which is revealed through June’s friendship with Toby, is tragic and wonderful and it’s kind of Shakespearean in that you know it’s going to end badly, but you want to believe that it won’t.
  4. Some of the dialogue in this book is, like, so heartwrenching you just don’t even want to deal with it.  But you want to keep reading so you do even though the tears you’ve leaked between quotation marks make it difficult to go on.
  5. The portrait of June and Greta is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece that keeps coming up and at the end…

Okay, I can’t even think of more things to say about this because you just have to read it.  I think my exact reaction at the end of it (after I’d sniffled and snuffled and wiped my eyes and sobbed a little and tried it all again) was, “F***.”  Because I was just so emotionally drained that I couldn’t deal with anything.

And you know what?  Totally worth it.

Because here’s the thing: it’s about AIDS, it’s about America in the 1980s, it’s a sensitive subject, it deals with some other issues (like love and alcoholism and sibling relationships), it’s touchy.  Generally, I try to avoid touchy subjects in my recreational reading.  I don’t like preaching about what I should or should not believe.  I don’t like being told how I should feel or react.  But the beauty in Brunt’s work is that you don’t need preaching.  You get emotions so pure and so deep that you understand the message without needing explicit statements.  You don’t need to be told how difficult the world was (or still is) because you see it in Toby’s reaction to his partner’s death, in Greta’s spiral when the pressure builds, in June as she comes to terms with herself as a young woman.

You get a novel as beautiful as the art that Finn creates, and there is nothing better than the wringing of your soul at the end of it all.

So if you’re not completely depressed at the end of this review (or if I haven’t scared you off because you don’t feel like sitting down to complete a novel in one sitting while you weep incessantly into your sleeve while you turn pages), please check it out at your local independent bookstore.  I’d offer to loan you my copy, but it’s currently taking up residence beside Doug Dorst’s S and my complete works of Jane Austen – so Tell the Wolves I’m Home is in some pretty good company.

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Cinnamon & Gunpowder

cinnamon-and-gunpowderAvast, ye scurvy landlubbers!  If ye be keeping an eye on the horizon for a new piece of reading material for your time in the crow’s nest, this scoundrel has a recommendation: Eli Brown’s Cinnamon and Gunpowder.

I cannot tell you how much fun I’ve had reading it (and I literally finished it, like, one hour ago).  And, after trying to explain it to my mom, I’ve come up with the super short summary: Food Network’s Chopped meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

Intrigued?  How about the details.

Owen Wedgwood is chef to a wealthy English lord (who also happens to help run a giant trading company that deals with tea/opium trade to China).  And then, one day, before everyone at the party can taste his yummy food, the pirates strike.  Mad Hannah Mabbot (with a mane of crazy red curly hair) is the scourge of the Pendleton Trading Company (PTC), and she only disrupts dinner when she aims her gun at Owen’s boss and says, “Tell the devil to keep my tea hot.  I’m running late,” before she shoots him.  After tasting Owen’s offerings, Mabbot decides to spare the chef’s life on the condition that he’s taken captive on her ship.

Oh, and that every Sunday he makes her a delicious meal that, if it pleases her, will become his pass for another week of living.

If you think you’ve heard something like this before, you are probably thinking of the Arabian Nights, which is what all the reviews I read of it said.  Sure, Owen’s kind of a culinary Scheherazade in that he cooks to keep himself alive.  But that doesn’t mean that the book is entirely about the food.

As I said at the beginning, it’s Chopped meets Pirates, and it’s a whole lot of fun.  The narrative is through Owen’s diary, so while he gets occasionally frustrating, you forgive him because he is, after all, only a chef.

And even if Owen has moments of “Ugh, why is he narrating?” he makes up for it by describing the other members of the crew.  Like Mr. Apples, the first mate who knits and keeps scorpions as pets.  And he also has some pretty hilarious dialogue.  (“Whistlin’ donkey” is one of his first moments, and they only get better.  And better.)  There are crazy awesome Chinese twins (Feng and Bai) who knock sense into Owen without even trying.  There’s Joshua, the sweet deaf and mute teenager who joins Mabbot’s crew to find his fortunes.  And there are more, but you have to read to meet them.

So what happens when Own joins Mad Mabbot’s crew on the seven seas?  Well, they’re being hunted by LaRoche, the Frenchman with a thing about killing Mabbot because she ruined his chance to be financially backed by the PTC.  Meanwhile, Mabbot is hunting the illustrious Brass Fox, another pirate who’s interrupting the PTC’s trade routes while working on an agenda of his own.

My only gripe with this book is that it’s set in 1819, and the Golden Age of Piracy was pretty much 1600s-1700s.  So chronologically, it might be a little off, but frankly, that’s a small think to nitpick in a novel so wonderfully full of swashbuckling and honeybaked eel…

Are you convinced yet?  No?

Then there is nothing more I can say, except that you really should be convinced.  Because it’s a hoot, it’s so much fun, and it’ll make you want to watch every pirate movie ever made a million times over.

And let me conclude by saying this: High Rise, which is already in production, cannot possibly be as good a movie (and is not, quite frankly, as fun a book) as Cinnamon and Gunpowder would be (and is).

In conclusion, here’s what you’ll look like when you pick up a copy of Brown’s book at your local independent bookstore:

I’ve got a jar of dirt!

 

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