Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home


A few years ago, I kept hearing wonderful things about Carol Rifka Brunt’s¬†Tell the Wolves I’m Home.¬†Brunt’s literary debut ended up on multiple “Best of 2012” lists including the¬†Wall Street Journal¬†and O: The Oprah Magazine.

In a lot of ways, I couldn’t tell what this book was or wanted to be. Tell The Wolves I’m Home¬†fell somewhere¬†between adult and young adult fiction; fairy tale and realism; enjoyable and not¬†enjoyable

Set in the 1980s, the novel centers around 14-year-old June Elbus and her coming of age. June has never felt like she belongs — not in her family, now that her sister Greta can’t seem to stand her; not in the suburbs; not in this time period. When she loses her Uncle Finn, the only person to truly see who see is and loves her for it, June finds herself lost with more questions than answers. Soon, she meets Toby, a man who knew and loved Finn just as much as she did. With the help of her new friend, June reluctantly learns how to navigate grief, growing up, and family dynamic.

I liked the book enough, but I just did not love it in the way that everyone else seemed to. I didn’t think the characters were well-established, especially Greta and Toby. It wasn’t until late in the book that I even started to feel anything close to sympathy (and even empathy) for Greta. She was so mean to June, almost mercilessly so, and we only got little glimpses of kindness–and those glimpses were not enough. Toby was also not well-drawn–we barely learn anything about him except that he cares for June, loved Finn with his whole heart, and has a checkered past. He is introduced as “the man at the funeral” and we don’t end up learning much more.

June was well-developed and her pain was palpable throughout the entire novel. She also has a secret she can hardly admit to herself: she is in love with her Uncle Finn, a man who could never and would never love her in that way. What would have read as crass in another novel felt like a naive girl misunderstanding loving someone and being in love; who felt things too deeply and was too romantic for her own good; who misses her uncle and greedily attempts to find pieces of him wherever she can (even at the expense of others). June’s shame and sadness felt so real that those portions of the book read as confessional poetry.

Honestly, what I liked most about the novel is the thing I can talk about least as I don’t want to spoil it. This part of the plot unfolds slowly and involves June, Greta, and their mother. It takes a long time to reach the resolution but it is well worth the wait. It was a triumphant way of showing how all of these women are connected not only to each other, but to Finn, the man they lost and miss terribly. It was a great reminder that even when we truly believe we are one way that we have to power to change that and recreate ourselves.

Favorite Quotes

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

‚ÄúI had no idea how greedy my heart really was.‚ÄĚ

“Greta said he looked like a small gray mother wrapped in a gray spider’s web. That’s because everything about Greta is more beautiful, even the way she says things.”

‚ÄúThere was at least some small beauty in what we‚Äôd done.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúI felt like I had proof that not all days are the same length, not all time has the same weight. Proof that there are worlds and worlds and worlds on top of worlds, if you want them to be there.‚ÄĚ

Final Thoughts

I liked¬†Tell the Wolves I’m Home¬†enough but I felt a little cheated. Certain plot lines cropped up only to trail off. It felt like every part of June’s life was touched on but most of it was surface-level engagement. The book left me wanting more in a bad way. It seems like I was down on this novel but I thought it was fine. Nothing great but certainly not bad.

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Have you read¬†Tell the Wolves I’m Home? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Am I just a heartless reader who misunderstood the purpose of Carol Rifka Brunt’s literary debut?


Review: The Reader


Bernhard Schlink’s¬†The Reader¬†is told from the point of view of Michael Berg, a grown man looking back on his youth. After falling ill during his walk home from school, Michael meets Hanna, the 34-year-old woman who nurses him back to health. Soon they find themselves embroiled in an affair until Hanna disappears. The next time he sees her, Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial for an unspeakable crime. Set in post-war Germany,¬†The Reader¬†weaves a tale of eroticism, morality, secrecy, and shame.

While I enjoyed the aestheticism of Schlink’s¬†writing, there was a coldness and standoff nature to the prose. It felt like everything was being kept at arms length–even when we witnessed (fleeting) moments of tenderness or even lovemaking between the characters. It always felt like there was a shroud between me and the book. I think this is both a thematic and stylistic choice. By not inviting his readers all the way in, we are forced to maintain¬†an objectivity that seems impossible for the characters.

While readings, I could not quite pinpoint what about this book I could not love and I think I just figured it out: it left me unsettled in multiple ways. The sexual and emotional relationship between 15-year-old Michael and 34-year-old Hanna. The horrific and inhuman crimes of the Holocaust. The inability to feel empathy for most (if any) of the characters. The way the plot swings from mundane to monstrous in a thematic pendulum.

The writing was beautiful but the story deeply disturbed me, which I guess is the mark of good literature. Books that affect you deeply and without remorse. There was a lot to like about¬†The Reader – particularly, for me, was Schlink’s meditation on the powerful nature of memory – but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. There just wasn’t enough humanity in the characters, or perhaps paradoxically there was too much humantity (as well as inhumanity) in them.


Favorite Quotes

“Her face as it was then has been overlaid in my memory by all the faces she had later.”

“She had looked like an old woman and smelled like an old woman. I hadn’t noticed her voice at all. Her voice had stayed young.”

“But at a certain¬†point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?”

Final Thoughts

Overall,¬†The Reader¬†is a quiet and well-written novel exploring morality and the limits of human forgiveness. Schlink’s exploration of memory – and the way it governs our lives but also fails us constantly – were the strongest passages of the book. While I believe it is a worthy addition to the¬†Holocaust Canon, I cannot say it is one of my favorites.

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Have you read The Reader or seen the movie? If so, do you agree/disagree with my review? If not, do you plan on reading it in the future?

Retro Review: American Wife

Editors Note: Retro Reviews are a new feature on That Worn Book Smell. It’s for books I read, but didn’t get around to reviewing right away. I could give you all the usual excuses–work, commuting, going the gym, having some semblance of a social life, netflix, etc.–but sometimes a review just doesn’t want to be written right away. So now I’ll have Retro Reviews for when I want to revisit a book from my past.

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CaptureWritten by Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the enormously-popular novel Prep, American Wife is a fictionalized biography of Laura Bush’s life. As someone who had nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the first lady’s life, it was obvious Sittenfeld had drawn inspiration from her, but I had no idea just how much the line between fact and fiction had been blurred. The author really toes the line between Laura Bush’s real life and the imagined life of Alice Lindgren.

In some ways, my post-novel research (curiosity got the best of me) hindered how much I liked the book. It was too close to non-fiction, not enough of it felt authentic (though I suppose part of my problem is searching for authenticity in fiction–though I’ve often been able to find real, soul-crushing, life-leveling truths within the pages of the imagined). If I hadn’t googled and wikipedia-ed, I may have been able to like the book more–Alice’s experiences would have felt more her own instead of “Ripped from (Past) Headlines.”

The novel, which is broken up into 4 parts based on location, is fairly long though it doesn’t read that way. My version clocked in at 555 pages, but it could not have taken me more than 4 days to read. Even though I know I didn’t like the novel as a whole, complete book, it engrossed me and I could not stop reading.

Photo by Flickr User Erica Minton licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.
Photo by Flickr User Erica Minton licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

Maybe what Sittenfeld does well is providing the¬†fully-realized life of a character. We meet Alice as a child and stay with her until her early sixties. We see all her firsts; witness all her tragedies and triumphs; and get her at the most intimate moments of her life–the scenes of her describing the paper-mache literary sculptures are some of the quietest (and best) of the entire novel.

I liked Alice when she was growing up. She was smart, kind, empathetic, and a little judgmental (as a particularly illuminating plot involving her grandmother’s personal life reveals). She makes the mistakes that any normal teenager makes and then she makes a mistake that (thankfully) not many teenagers do–and that mistake changes her life forever. It’s a tragedy that completely sends Alice’s life completely off course. I won’t spoil it, but it was truly heartbreaking and I’m not sure if or how I would have recovered from it.

Maybe it was because I knew it was a fictionalized George W. Bush, but I didn’t care for Charlie as a character nor a romantic interest. He isn’t smart enough nor kind enough nor strong enough for Alice, who is independent and true to herself. Alice describes Charlie as “churlish,” “shallow,” “egotistical,” and a “dimwit”–all things a reader wants in a protagnist’s boyfriend (and future husband), right?

He, like his real-world counterpart was, is controlled and highly influenced by the people around him. Instead of doing what he is good at, he has bigger political goals and an irksome obsession with his “legacy.” From a powerful Midwestern political family (slightly tinged by Charlie’s father’s lost presidential race), Charlie is a man-child who wants to be the guy in charge. I just had such an utter lack of patience for his inflated ego and frat-boy ways.

Like I mentioned before, the novel is broken up into four parts and the first three work well. They are fully realized snapshots of Alice and Charlie’s lives (both separate and together), but the fourth and final falls flat. This chapter is what we have been building to–Charlie has become president against all odds and Alice, quiet, children’s librarian and liberal Alice, has become the first lady to a staunch Republican and arguably the most controversial President in history. And yet this is almost glossed over. It is by far the shortest and least interesting of the book.

We see¬†Alice’s¬†internal struggle of remaining faithful to her husband and his politics, but also to herself and her beliefs. There was so much that could (and should) have been explored and I felt almost cheated. Being in a relationship means existing as oneself and as part of a pair, and trying to balance those two selves is not always easy. Can you imagine if you were the wife of the President of the United States? It would mean publically supporting his policies, values, and morals while also not sacrificing yourself. These questions were posed then left unanswered and unexplored.

I liked American Wife, but I didn’t love it. The writing wasn’t that good, but something propelled me forward–maybe it was knowing that Charlie became president? Needing to know how Alice answered the above questions? It’s likely and it’s probably the reason I feel so uneasy about the book–what had excited me most is what let me down the most. Though, in a book about politics and politicians, it’s almost the perfect (unintentional) metaphor.