Jenny and Mumsy go on about the Brownings (Part 1)

Welcome one and all to the Browning Letters Readalong! We are kicking off this readalong by chatting about the letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett from January to May 1845 (the first five months of their acquaintance). I am your humble host Jenny, and I have roped my lovely Mumsy into talking about these Browning letters with me. We talk about them all the time anyway so it’s not that difficult for us. I hope you are enjoying them as much as Mumsy and I are in this first round!

Jenny: Obviously Robert is the sweetest dear in all the land in these early letters. That is undeniable. He is always rushing in to assure Elizabeth of his regard, and I think he’s ready to be in love with her by the time they meet. If I had to put a date on it, I’d say he’s ready to marry her as of her letter of 3 February, which is long and expansive and asks for no ceremony and no constraint. Here’s what he says in response:

People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning, for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has, for instance, used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could, even if by the devil’s help he would, reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over—and so, if ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.

Mumsy: Oh, I agree that Robert is in love long before they meet, and I would put the date perhaps even earlier than you do – I think he is already half in love when he writes to her. “I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence [in your poetry], the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and rue new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you – your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.” He says in that very first letter, and I don’t think he was just being cute. He mentions several times how she uses her own voice in her poetry (“You speak out YOU”) and hints over and over at the fact that he has fallen in love with that voice. When he admires her poetry, he admires it for the one thing she cannot deny – that she uses her very own voice.

Jenny: I think that’s why she ends up falling in love with him, don’t you? Because he admires about her the things she secretly admires about herself?

Mumsy: They also have so much in common! With the bugs and spiders and toads, and the books they like, and the sense of humor. And sadly, so much contrast, too. It makes me feel sad when he talks about his family so fondly, and they love and appreciate him so much; and poor her, living on bits and shreds of love.

Jenny: It’s touching when she says, “Remember that as you owe your unscathed joy to God, you should pay it back to His world. And I thank you for some of it already.” It was a melancholy response to what he said about “If ‘I love you’ were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time.” Which by the way? I ran that through Google Translate’s Subtext-to-English function? And it came out “When I said I love you I meant I really love you.”

Mumsy: That is what I took away from it too.

Jenny: I love how attentive Elizabeth is to him in these early letters (and throughout! of course!). Even though they’re basically strangers, she’s very quick to pick up on small things Robert says, and to try and move that on. When I was reading Elizabeth’s first letter to Robert, I kept thinking of the rule in group improv comedy that you’re never supposed to say no to an improv partner; you’re always supposed to say yes and. Elizabeth’s wonderful at yes and — she picks up something that Robert said in his letter about having wished to be of critical use to her (before discovering that her poems are ALL PERFECT ALL THE TIME), and says, in the most gracious manner possible, that she’d love to hear any criticisms he might have of her. She also takes up his regret over not having met her that one time, and says how much she’d like to meet him later in the year.

Mumsy: Don’t you love how he keeps escalating the closing of his letters? Yeah, first he is primly “ever faithfully yours”, then it’s “Ever most faithfully yours,” then he”s all “know me for ever your most faithful,” and pretty soon it’s “Yours everywhere, and at all times yours, R. Browning” (31 March). And she notices, too – that last letter she never responded to at all, until after he wrote a second letter two weeks later (on 16 April), and then she writes a letter that is clearly trying to pull him back to a less intense correspondence – asking him if he has read the “Improvisatore”, blah blah blah.

Robert catches that, too. His letter of the 18th is confusing and weird (I wonder if Google could translate that bit about Vivien Grey!), but you can see he is hinting away at the fact that he wants to Say Something Important and he knows she is pulling him up with trivia. But he’s no fool, and he signs that letter, very properly, “Yours ever faithfully.”

You know what else I noticed this time around? I always supposed that Bro’s death, and the tragic circumstances as they pertained to Elizabeth, were a big secret; that no one outside of the family knew about it. She hints at the tragedy several times, but clearly supposes that Robert doesn’t know about it.This time I was intrigued by how Robert, who notices everything, is careful not to ask her about it, but very quick to respond to the “tragic chord,” as he calls it, in her letters. Do you think Mr. Kenyon was a big gossip? Or do you think everyone in London knew?

Jenny: I don’t know! I don’t know what to believe. On one hand, I’m sure I’d gossip if I were Mr. Kenyon. On the other hand, isn’t it the case that Robert writes That One Letter because he doesn’t fully understand Elizabeth’s health situation? And wouldn’t he understand it if Mr. Kenyon were singing like a canary about the Barrett family history? Or do you think Mr. Kenyon also thought the wrong thing about what was wrong with Elizabeth?

And okay, That One Letter: The immediate aftermath of it makes me really sad on both sides. I feel so sad for Elizabeth when she’s being firm with Robert while also obviously hating the idea of losing him as a friend. I know you are mad at Robert for getting all “Oh great poets are always saying things in the grand style and how silly of you to take it in any serious way!” — and I am too! of course! It’s not very nice — but I also sympathize with him. When I’ve done something embarrassing I have to fight very hard against the impulse to shift the embarrassment elsewhere in the most ruthless manner.

Mumsy: I think maybe when I die and go to heaven and get to ask any questions I want (which, obviously, will happen), I will ask to see a copy of That One Letter.  What on earth could he have said?  ”Marry me, my precious Erato, and allow me to gaze longingly at your melting brown eyes even though we can never have sex”?  But yes, I AM mad at Robert for his response when Elizabeth calls him out on it.- it’s the one moment in the correspondence when I just do not like him.  He deliberately embarrasses her!  On the other hand, it is also the moment when I recognize how young he really is, for all his genius and his self-confidence.  He just can’t bear to look like an idiot in her eyes.

Remember later in the correspondence, when That Letter comes up, and he says, “I would have said or done anything to get back into your good graces”? I think of that every time I read his response to her smackdown.

I just can’t end this without talking a little bit about how contemporary Robert and Elizabeth sound. They seem like people you might know, people you might even be (minus the poetic genius).  I love when they talk about how they hate it when people admire their work for all the wrong things; and then Elizabeth says, “Pippa Passes is the one work I envy you the authorship of,” and Robert responds, “Pippa is my best thing of everything I have written.”  They love all the right things about each other!  They are completely irresistible.

Jenny: They are irresistible. I can’t wait to read the next batch of their letters.

The rest of you Browning Readalongers, please leave a comment if you’ve also written a post for today, and I’ll put together a link roundup this evening.

Did everyone feel good about this segment of the readalong? Does five months of letters work for you all? I propose the following schedule for the remainder of the readalong, if so:

  • 8 July: June 1845 through October 1845
  • 22 July: November 1845 through March 1846
  • 5 August: April 1846 to the end (September 1846ish)

Does that work for people? If it seems too ambitious, I will happily revise it, but I’d like to know your thoughts before I make anything final.


Revisiting Harry Potter: “Kill the snake?” “Kill the snake.”

Here is my main complaint with this section of the book, which I otherwise love very much: How’s Harry going to use the Cruciatus curse on the Carrow sibling who spits in McGonagall’s face? (I find the Carrows boring and have not bothered to learn their names.) He was unable to do this curse on Bellatrix Lestrange two seconds after she killed Sirius Black, but somehow he can manage to do it just because some Death Eater insults one of his teachers? Number one, that is bullshit. Number two,

don’t torture people. Torture is wrong, and Harry could have accomplished the same effect of punishing the Carrow sibling by just Stunning him/her. I wish McGonagall had said something, like, “Hey, do not torture that Carrow sibling, you war criminal.” I guess we’ll just have to assume that Luna mentions this incident to Hermione later, and Hermione fusses at Harry for us.

Okay. Now that I have gotten that out of the way I shall proceed with talking about Percy, who redeems himself by returning at last! I always knew he would. I knew it because of that time he splashed out in the water to come get Ron. All along Percy really loved his family. I admit that I was hoping Percy would come back, redeem himself, and die nobly in battle. That would take care of Weasley family deaths without one of the twins having to die, something I was deeply concerned about before the seventh book appeared. Instead Fred Weasley dies, and it was heartwrenching, especially when, oh God, especially when Percy is lying across Fred’s body so nothing else can happen to it, and he won’t let go–

The whole Battle of Hogwarts is a pretty great set piece. Although it goes on for a long time, and there’s a lot of events occurring, it doesn’t feel long at all. It feels frantic and disorganized in a really wonderful way. One second Professor Trelawney is throwing crystal balls on Fenrir Greyback’s head (woot), and the next second Neville Longbottom’s grandmother has come to fight alongside him because she hates evil and is proud of her wonderful grandson. The last Horcrux gets destroyed in the Room of Requirement, and Harry’s almost too busy to notice.

This is not the time or place, but sometime later I’d like us all to think about how great a spell Glisseo is. Have we seen that one before Hermione uses it to escape from some Death Eaters? It is awesome. I love slides. If I were a wizard, I’d never ever walk down stairs. I would always make them into slides. That is a much more fun way to get from one floor to another. Does it only work on straight staircases? Or if you are up several floors and you have a staircase with landings, will they turn into one big curvy slide?

Did anyone feel like it was kind of a cheat to have Dumbledore show up and explain everything at the end? As I recall, I thought that it should feel like a cheat, but I was so happy to have Dumbledore back again that I didn’t care. I wanted that chapter to keep going on and on forever, because I do not tire of Dumbledore telling Harry how to understand the world. This chapter also felt very — momentous in the scheme of things, just like, it felt like a chapter that JK Rowling had been waiting twenty years for us to read.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

And then Harry comes back to life and we are treated to the spectacle of Mrs. Weasley getting Bellatrix because Bellatrix threatens Ginny! That part! How she is all,

and kills Bellatrix LIKE A BOSS. You always see Mrs. Weasley when she’s mothering and taking care of everyone, and she is amazing at that, but I liked to see this from her as well. You knew Mrs. Weasley had this in her. When she says that Bellatrix will never touch their children again, I cried three tears from my eyes. Writing about it is making me sniffly.

Oh Neville

I know. This should have been a section all along. I’m sad that it wasn’t. I love Neville and he has wonderful moments in each of the books, because JK Rowling is a genius and she knew all along that Neville was going to save the motherfucking day. It says so much about Neville that Harry can hand over this task to Neville and trust that it’s going to get done.

“Just in case they’re — busy — and you get the chance–”

“Kill the snake?”

“Kill the snake,” Harry repeated…

But Neville seized his wrist as Harry made to move on.

“We’re all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?”

NEVILLE. To get an assignment like this and be all,

He not only kills the snake, he does it while he is also on fire. Neville you beautiful genius.

The Adulting of Harry Potter

I am on record as saying that I love it when Harry has a thoughtful moment and chooses what kind of person he’s going to be. He can be impulsive so it’s great to see him thinking matters over in a self-aware manner and making a choice. I love it that we get to see him deciding he doesn’t want to be Dumbledore and keep everything a secret from everyone. Although, I don’t really understand why everyone can’t just know about the Horcruxes by the time Harry gets to Hogwarts? There’s only two left, and since Voldemort is heading for Hogwarts right now, it seems like you’d want as many people on Horcrux duty as possible. Wouldn’t you?

For Harry’s final adulting trick, he names his kid after Severus Snape. That is — an amazing feat of grace and forgiveness. I hope that wherever Snape is right now, he appreciates the gesture.

On the other hand, won’t that be a really, really awkward conversation to have with the kid? “That’s right, son, when we ran out of your grandparents’ names, we went ahead and named you after the guy who was responsible for their deaths.” I would not want to be named after Severus Snape. That dude sucks. He did some helpful stuff, but he mostly was terrible and a bully. If I were Ginny I’d have put my foot down on that one. The world is full of names. Plus, if you’re going to name your child Albus (how cute is it that his nickname is Al?), you should give him a really super normal middle name. If he ever decides he’s tired of Albus as a name, he should have a backup plan.

Y’all! I am so sad the readalong is ending! I know we have a wrap-up post next week, but I will no longer have this forum in which to talk about the many, many feelings and thoughts I have about the Harry Potter books. What will I do with myself? What will happen next time I reread them and I have feelings to share? (I reread these books like once a year. Don’t judge.) Alice, thanks so much for hosting this readalong. It has been great.

Revisiting Harry Potter: I guess now we have to say nice things about Scrimgeour

I decided to do all Disney gifs for this post. Why? Because as usual this readalong is making me feel a lot of feelings, and most of my feelings for the first Deathly Hallows post are wrathful feelings. And Disney makes me feel happy feelings.

Exhibit A: Rita Goddamn Skeeter

How dare she. I get so angry when I read the excerpts from her rotten biography. Righteously angry! With much stomping around and wishing I had her here in my living room. You know what especially pisses me off? I will tell you. It’s when she calls his relationship with Harry “unnatural”.

Yeah, lady, we know what you’re implying with that. I hope Voldemort kills your mother.

(Oh God, I don’t hope Voldemort kills Rita Skeeter’s mother.)

Exhibit B: All these times JKR acts like she’s going to kill Hagrid

Hagrid launching himself off the motorcycle onto a Death Eater to save Harry is of course what would really happen. This is why Hagrid was top of my list for people who were not to die in the seventh book. In fact, this is the part of the book where, when I read it for the first time, I was writing stuff down as I went, and my notes for page 57 of the book (which is where it starts getting super tense with Hagrid and the Death Eaters) say:

I just flipped ahead a few pages to make sure that Hagrid was going to survive.  JK Rowling has a heart of stone and this ISN’T FUNNY.

Yeah, it’s not funny. I have enough emotions. I do not need them to be toyed with. But oh, when they get back to the Burrow, and everyone’s talking about loose lips and how they sink ships, and Harry takes a stand for trusting the people he loves. Once again with Harry making his moral choices. He decides he’s not going to be the guy who’s constantly suspicious of all his friends. He’s going to be like Dumbledore and not like Moody. That’s awesome, Harry. That’s the person you should want to be. Which brings me to:

Exhibit C: Lupin

When did he morph into such a mean jerk? He used to be so chill and calm and sensible, and now he’s all like,

in this book. Slamming Harry into walls and whatnot. Did it happen the instant he put a baby in Tonks, was that the moment? I appreciate that he was there to save George, but I hate it how he’s all “Kill people instead of disarming them!” and “Don’t trust your friends!” Ugh. My love for him started to die in these moments. Shut up Lupin. Go do something nice for your wife instead of looking grumpy and wrathful every time she speaks to you. Or if you can’t do that then, like, go tell your past self how to use a condom.

Not an Exhibit: Ron defending Ginny

Okay, I don’t know what Ginny’s birthday present for Harry was supposed to be ALTHOUGH I HAVE SOME IDEAS AND THEY ARE ALL BLOW JOBS, but I think it’s really sweet how Ron comes find Harry and tells him to knock it off. That’s nice because sometimes in the past Ron has been like awkward big brother sexual protector role, which I hated, and I like it that here he’s just saying, “Do not fuck with my little sister’s feelings.” Yay Ron. Harry shouldn’t fuck with Ginny’s feelings. You are correct.

Exhibit D: Scrimgeour crashing another Weasley party

What is with Scrimgeour’s perpetual crashing of Weasley parties to harass Harry? He can’t come on a different day than party day? First at Christmas and now Harry’s very sweet first-ever (right?) birthday party. And I’m all,

But it avails me nothing because here he is trying to bully Harry and Hermione and Ron. Spoiler alert, Scrimgeour, that has never worked. I feel like when you know three people who have faced down Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters and lived, you should probably come at them with bigger guns than just, like, your angry lion face and a whole lot of self-justification. I don’t actually have to say nice things about Scrimgeour and I’m not going to. Obviously it was not helpful to Harry for Scrimgeour to die without revealing his location, because the Death Eaters are at the Burrow in like twenty seconds.

Speaking of which, is there anyone who read “The Ministry is fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming,” and didn’t start going,

Because that’s what I always do.

And finally, Exhibit E: Voldemort

I know this is predictable. But really, Kreacher’s story about Voldemort “needing an elf” is just — man, Voldemort is an awful, awful person. I always think about how that could just as easily have been Dobby if Voldemort had gone to the Malfoys first. And the Malfoys might not have said “come back” and Dobby could have died right then and never have been free. Meanwhile I like it that Hermione’s not just carrying on and on about house-elves — finally, the people are paying attention to her. Word. I mean they should have been listening to her all along, but we’ll take what we can get.

Next up: The Ron-Harry-Hermione road trips that everyone hates!

Review: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Here is a book I purchased for my mother’s birthday although I had not read it and I had read very few if any reviews of it at the time of purchase and I didn’t read it first. I got it for her only on the basis of the short excerpt NetGalley provided in their “Buzz Books” sampler. That is how much I love the narrative voice of Nao Yasutani. A very very lot.

I’m leading with that because the synopsis of this book would not have induced me to read it. One of the two lead characters is — like the author — a writer called Ruth who has a husband called Oliver. They live on a small Canadian island, and one day a package washes up on the beach — Ruth presumes from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Well-wrapped to protect it from water damage, the package contains two diaries, some letters, and an old watch, all inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One diary is in French but the other — disguised as a Proust novel — is in a teenager’s purple-pen rounded English cursive. It is the diary of a teenager called Nao who is planning to kill herself but wants first to write the life story of her great-grandmother, a radical feminist turned Buddhist nun following the death of her son in World War II.

When writing about this book, Vasilly said there was something about it that felt really special. I felt just the same, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the whole book. There were times, certainly, when it felt like Ruth’s sections of the books were proceeding by rote — she’s interested in the diary, she’s trying to find Nao in real life, she’s talking to her husband about Nao’s life — and I was impatient to get back to Nao. But as the book went on, and Ruth’s life on this island became more fleshed out independent of Nao’s story, I was able to enjoy both sections of the book about equally.

This was helped, of course, by the increasing sadness of Nao’s life, which at times it was a relief to escape from for a little while. Although Nao tries to talk about her great-grandmother, Jiko, she is frequently sidetracked into stories of her own difficulties. Her father was fired from his Silicon Valley job when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nao, who thinks of herself as American in many ways, has never fit in with her Japanese schoolmates. She is brutally bullied in school (really, it gets pretty upsetting), and at home her father is becoming increasingly depressed over his inability to provide for his wife and family. Nao is terrified that her father will kill himself, and her fear expresses itself in anger with him.

Though Nao’s story is tragic, there kept being moments of light that saved it from being too much for me. Nao’s voice, as I’ve said, is captivating and warm and lovely. And old Jiko is a wonderful, wonderful character. She is just the right combination of mystical and down-to-earth, and there’s never any doubt why Nao admires and loves her so much. For instance, this, when Jiko has asked Nao if she feels angry.

“Of course I feel angry,” I said, angrily. “What do you expect? It was a stupid thing to ask.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a stupid thing to ask. I see that you’re angry. I don’t need to ask such a stupid thing to understand that.”

“So why did you ask?”

Slowly she turned herself around, pivoting on her knees, until finally, she was facing me. “I asked for you,” she said.

“For me?”

“So you could hear the answer.”

I just loved that.

As well, Ozeki has a knack for keeping you invested in characters you might be inclined to write off or stop thinking about. I was as frustrated as Nao was with her father, and thinking many critical thoughts about him, and then Ruth found a posting about suicide on the internet, which she suspects was written by Nao’s father:

Recently I am reading some philosophical books written by great Western minds all about the meaning of life. Those are very interesting, and I hope I will find some good answers there.

I don’t care for myself, but I am afraid my attitude is unhealthy for my daughter. At first I thought I should commit suicide so she will not feel shame on account of my failure to find a good job with big salary…Now I think I must try to stay alive, but I have no confidence to do so. Please teach me a simple American way to live my life so I do not have to think of suicide ever again. I want to find the meaning of life for my daughter.

I got all choked up.

Finally, the end. Ah the end. How I loved it. This is the sort of ending that will not please everybody, but it greatly pleased me. It has a quality of semi-deniable magic, which — given the slightly magical feel of the book in the first place — did not feel out of place to me. It’s also an ending with some ambiguity to it. We don’t really find out what happened to Nao, but the book ends on a note of hope. I like a hopeful ending. It doesn’t feel like a cheat to end a sad book on a hopeful note.

If I had to sum up the reason I loved this book, apart from Nao’s really wonderful narrative voice, I would say, I guess, that I admire a book that can look at sadness and still feel hope. I admire a book that suggests — even in the midst of sorrow — that all systems tend towards love.

I received this free e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Dumbledore has a purple suit and psychic paper

Oh God, it’s so wonderful to have Hogwarts back to normal. I never realize how miserable Umbridge’s reign at Hogwarts was really making me until I get to the sixth book and McGonagall’s bossing everyone around without a mean toad lady going “Hem hem” at her shoulder all the time. Yes, Snape is teaching Defense against the Dark Arts, and yes, I think that blows and also, isn’t it sort of irresponsible of Dumbledore to keep giving that job to people when it’s plainly jinxed? Like, couldn’t he knock the subject of Defense against the Dark Arts on the head and invent a brand new subject called, like, Nefariousness Prevention, and get around the jinx that way?

I want to call Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince “The Book in which Harry is Right”. I love it when Harry’s right, and usually if there’s a conflict between him and Hermione, Hermione’s going to win. But not in this book! In this book Harry gets to be right on a number of different occasions, and Hermione gets to screw up. It’s not that I don’t like for Hermione to be right — I do! But it’s also good to see that she’s not infallible. She sometimes fails at sneakiness, and she sometimes resists available evidence that points to a conclusion she does not wish to reach. Such as that Harry is right about Malfoy, in particulars as well as just the general thing of Malfoy being Up to Something.

In the ongoing Harry-Dumbledore buddy comedy that is Book Six, Harry ribs his buddy-comedy-buddy for his fashion sense sixty years ago — props, Harry, there’s no reason for anyone of any time period to wear a purple velvet suit while not being Oscar Wilde. Or maybe Dumbledore’s just wearing it to alarm the orphanage superintendent who is so fond of gin. I cannot blame her. I am fond of gin myself, and I do not have daily responsibility for a tiny magical psychopath. If I did, I would probably drink quite as much gin as this lady does after Dumbledore does his psychic-paper spell.

I like the flashback of little Voldemort better than the flashbacks that involve the Gaunt family as a whole. Little Voldemort is just the right amount creepy, whereas the Gaunts are over the top if you ask me. If they’d lived a few decades into the future, I bet they’d have had their own reality show. They could have talked about Mudbloods and hissed at snakes, and all the wizards watching the show would shake their heads judgmentally and talk about what is wizarding television coming to these days.

Do you notice, by the way, that all evil wizards in this world seem to have the habit of doing mocking singsong voices as a sign of disrespect? Is that a thing? Voldemort’s grandfather did it and Bellatrix Lestrange is prone to it too, if you’ll recall. Either this is a thing they teach you in Taunting Class at Durmstrang, or JK Rowling’s sister used to do this to her on car trips and JK Rowling really, really hated it. Fair enough if the latter.

Are y’all fans of the incorporation into this book of hilarious romantic subplots involving Cormac McLaggen and Lavender Brown, whose name I inexplicably keep on typing as “Lavendar”? I AM. Ron’s defense of starting to go out with Lavender when he was supposed to be going to Slughorn’s party with Hermione is hilariously belligerent. In fact everything about the Ron-Lavender relationship is hilarious, from its onset to its eventual demise. Quidditch is apparently a great aphrodisiac in these books — Ron and Lavender are, ahem, not the only couple to start making out in the immediate aftermath of a successful Quidditch game.

I love everything about this exchange:

“But you are normal!” said Harry fiercely. “You’ve just got a — a problem–”

Lupin burst out laughing. “Sometimes you remind me a lot of James. He called it my ‘furry little problem’ in company. Many people were under the impression that I owned a badly behaved rabbit.”

Aw. Harry being loyal; us getting a non-douchey memory of James; Lupin laughing. Bless them.

The Adulting of Harry Potter

1. It rocks that Harry tells McGonagall (and Dumbledore, and everyone) what he suspects about Malfoy after Katie Bell gets attacked. McGonagall was obviously not going to believe him, but still, Harry has come a long way from the early books when he never told anything to anyone.

2. Asking Luna to Slughorn’s party is a delightful thing for Harry to have done. It’s extra delightful that he asks because he enjoys her company. As who wouldn’t, you know? He’s really clear with her about what the invitation portends (nothing romantic!), which is also good. And Luna’s response is so sweet and so completely Luna.

“Oh, no, I’d love to go with you as friends! Nobody’s ever asked me to a party before, as a friend! Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?”

Plus, when they’re at the party, Harry doesn’t ditch her and go hunting for other people to hang out with, as he did when he asked Parvati to the Yule Ball. He stays with Luna for the bulk of the party, and when he’s ducking out to eavesdrop on Snape he’s like, Hey Luna, I’ll be right back, okay? which is fine, because she’s engaged in a conversation anyway. Good job, Harry! Your social skills are coming along in leaps and bounds!

3. The conversation Harry has with Scrimgeour at Christmas might very well be my favorite bit of this entire series. I love how adorably obvious it is that Harry’s using Dumbledore as his model for how to behave with bullies. I love that his criticism of Scrimgeour is biting and on point and pretty calm even when Harry’s getting pissed. And, of course:

“Well, it is clear to me that he has done a very good job on you,” said Scrimgeour, his eyes cold and hard behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “Dumbledore’s man through and through, aren’t you, Potter?”

“Yeah, I am,” said Harry. “Glad we straightened that out.”

Never ever EVER gets old. Of course it is wonderful when Harry defends his belief and his people. But it is huge extra piles of awesome that he’s so consistently been a person who Will Not Abide with Your Bullshit, and now he’s the grown-up version of that person. Yay. I love Integrity Harry!

Revisiting Harry Potter: The Harry-Dumbledore Buddy Comedy Commences

Okay, “buddy comedy” may be putting it a trifle too strongly. But you know what I mean? When they go off to make Slughorn come to Hogwarts, and Dumbledore goes off to have a poop while Harry (metaphorically) seduces Slughorn with his fame, courage, and loyalty to Hogwarts? And Dumbledore’s all, “Knitting patterns! Well, we must be off,” and cracks wise about his jam preferences. (Raspberry jam is delicious; good call, Dumbledore.) All the trappings of a classic buddy comedy! (Ish.)

It is also about damn time someone told off the Dursleys for being terrible child-rearers. I don’t know why Dumbledore wasn’t keeping a closer eye on that situation. Couldn’t the wizarding world have taken up a collection to pay Petunia and Vernon for Harry’s upkeep? They’d still have been jerks to him but at least they would have been accountable to someone and Dumbledore could have stopped by now and then to stop them putting Harry in the cupboard under the stairs. But what’s past is past, I guess. I’m glad something was said about how awful the Dursleys are, and I’m glad that Dumbledore tells Harry he’s proud of him for how he’s dealt with losing Sirius.

How do people feel about the chapter with Snape and Bellatrix and Narcissa? Personally I do not care for it. I am pleased to know all the ways Snape has been explaining to Lord V. his behavior over the years, but I’d have preferred that information to come out slowly instead of in one big infodump. Also, are you extremely curious what role Snape played in Emmeline Vance’s death? I AM. Do you think it was the kind of situation where Voldemort had found out information about Emmeline from another source, and Dumbledore knew he had, so he had Snape give Voldemort basically that same information? Or do you think an element of self-sacrifice on Emmeline Vance’s part was involved? Inquiring minds want to know.

You know who sucks? Fleur. I think she’s one of those people who’s all like, “Oh, you know, I don’t really have any friends who are girls,” and she thinks the reason for this is that she’s so beautiful and other girls are jealous, but the real reason is that if there’s a guy around she immediately stops paying attention to her girl friends. I would deeply resent having to be her bridesmaid, if I were Ginny.

This book amps up the everyday scariness of Voldemort, which I appreciate — you don’t want a toothless villain! I always thought we were going to find out why Florean Fortescue got taken, but we never did. I guess we’ll have to wait for the Encyclopedia that JK Rowling better not have decided against because that would make me sad. I posit that it’s because Florean knew some information about History that Voldemort wanted (because remember he knew all about medieval witch-burnings in the third book?), and I guess if you’re Voldemort and you want to know something you abduct and torture an expert on that subject. That is the Voldemort version of going to the library.

(Like, it’s either that, or Voldemort stopped in for ice cream and Florean Fortescue spit in his milkshake.)

Fred and George’s joke shop includes this product:

“One simple incantation and you will enter a top-quality, highly realistic, thirty-minute daydream, easy to fit into the average school lesson and virtually undetectable (side effects include vacant expresion and minor drooling). Not for sale to under-sixteens.”

Not for sale to under-sixteens EH? Real talk for a second here, y’all: They’re sex daydreams, right? This is a sex product?

The Adulting of Harry Potter: I’m making this a feature for Book Six, because Harry has grown up so much since the last book, and I think it deserves its own special feature. Let’s compare some Harry behaviors to their equivalents in earlier books.

1. When Harry suspected Snape was up to no good in the first book, he didn’t tell anyone because he was all “We’ve got no proof!” When he suspects Malfoy is up to no good in this book, he tells everyone. It doesn’t do him any good — because everyone’s like, “You’ve got no proof!”, but still, way to go, Harry. If you see something say something.

2. He deals with his grief over losing Sirius like a MOTHERFUCKING CHAMP. Whereas with Cedric he couldn’t figure out a way to process what had happened (again I say, shouldn’t someone be in charge of slapping this kid into wizard therapy?), he admits to Dumbledore that he feels terribly sad about Sirius and misses having a parent but he knows Sirius wouldn’t have wanted him to just curl up into a ball o’ sadness, and that’s why he’s going to keep on fighting evil because it’s what he wants and what Sirius would have wanted.

(Truth. Also, sniffle.)

3. In the fifth book, a pretty girl finds Harry in the company of Neville and Luna and Harry wishes he could die. In the sixth when the same situation occurs, Harry’s like, “Piss off, these are my friends.” Plus:

“People expect you to have cooler friends than us,” said Luna, once again displaying her knack for embarrassing honesty.

“You are cool,” said Harry shortly. “None of them was at the Ministry. They didn’t fight with me.”

Damn straight, Harry. I am glad you and I have both come around to appreciating Luna’s charms. She was wasted on us both in the previous book.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Crying early and often

You guys. This book. How can everyone be so brave and good, and everything go so terribly wrong for them all the time? All through this readalong I’ve been excited to get to the final segment of Order of the Phoenix because, in my opinion, there is no finer set-piece throughout the entire series (and there are a lot of good set-pieces!) than the sequence in the Ministry. It is so fucking tense. Actually, this entire section of the book is fairly intense. Which is why this post is in a state of near-total incoherence and book quotes. Sorry. But, I don’t know what else could have been expected.

Like this? It is both scary and awesome.

Harry could see the tiny outline of Fang, attempting to defend Hagrid, leaping at the wizards surrounding him until a Stunning Spell caught him and he fell to the ground. Hagrid gave a howl of fury, lifted the culprit bodily from the ground, and threw him: The man flew what looked like ten feet and did not get up again.

RAWR. HAGRID. Really, as much as I hate the overarching Hagrid plotline in this book, it nevertheless shows everything that is good about Hagrid. How he is so loyal to his brother, even though it sucks for him, and how he is tough and scary in defense of the people he loves, and also at the end how good and kind and gentle and supportive he is with Harry over losing Sirius. Y’all, real talk, before the seventh book came out, I made a list of four people who absolutely must not die, and three of the four died, but the fourth was Hagrid, and if I’d had to choose only one of the people on my list to survive I’d have chosen Hagrid.

Exceptionally wonderfully, this section of the book brings up Harry’s “saving-people-thing”. Hermione, our emotional insight machine and frequent authorial voice, makes us all take a beat and address the fact that Harry, whom we love and admire for his heroism, is sometimes being heroic because he is very, very damaged.

“You…This isn’t a criticism, Harry! But you do…sort of…I mean — don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a — a — saving-people-thing?” she said.

What’s fantastic about this is that the books have never made you think about this — Harry’s been the archetypal hero, struggling along trying to do the right thing whenever he can — but once Hermione says it, you immediately recognize it as true. He exactly has a saving-people-thing. He lost his parents, he doesn’t want to lose anyone else — the kid’s got a saving-people thing. Everything Hermione says is right, and in this book, for the first time, it’s not serving Harry well. His saving-people thing is, cruelly, the reason Sirius dies. WHY, J.K. Rowling? WHY?

Anyway, this reread may have the record for how early on I started crying. Ordinarily I start crying when Harry’s facing the Death Eaters and he’s all alone, and Neville comes running down the aisle, all beat up and screaming that he’s still there to fight with Harry. (No lie, just writing that made me start crying.) But this time I started crying way sooner, viz., when:

“We were all in the D.A. together,” said Neville quietly. “It was all supposed to be about fighting You-Know-Who, wasn’t it? And this is the first chance we’ve had to do something real — or was that all just a game or something?”

Dammit Neville.

And look, I know y’all are maybe going to be angry at Harry for taking everyone to the Ministry and putting them in danger, but he had to — I mean, he had to, forget having a saving-people-thing, which he does, he had to go. He couldn’t not go. And once he’s there, and everything’s awful, I think he does a really good job of handling his shit. He figures out the leverage he has, and then he figures out a plan for getting them past all the Death Eaters, and he just does a really really good job with a shit hand of cards. I don’t care what you say, I AM PROUD OF HIM.

Oh how many tears did I cry? Many tears, friends.

But some part of him realized, even as he fought to break free from Lupin, that Sirius had never kept him waiting before…Sirius had risked everything, always, to see Harry, to help him…If Sirius was not reappearing out of that archway when Harry was yelling for him as though his life depended on it, the only possible explanation was that he could not come back.

GODDAMMIT. I don’t care about Ron! I wish Mr. Weasley had died and Sirius had lived and I do not care what you say! Ron has like sixteen thousand family members, and Harry has only exactly one. He needs his one family member, dammit! I wish Mr. Weasley had died! I wish it to infinity! I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!

In case you couldn’t tell, I am writing this post approximately two seconds after finishing the book, and I haven’t yet cycled all the way through the stages of grief over Sirius’s death. I cried all the way through Dumbledore telling Harry how it was his fault what happened (and like, yes, Snape had to pretend not to take Harry seriously, but don’t you feel like any other person, i.e., anyone with a scrap of mercy for Harry’s feelings, would have figured out a way to indicate to Harry that he was going to take care of it? The kid is fifteen years old and you’re talking about the death of his only family member), and I cried when Harry found the mirror and when he talked to Nearly Headless Nick and then I cried extra when he talked to Luna, and I cried when the members of the Order came and threatened the Dursleys for him. Oh Harry.

My favorite moment of the fifth movie: When Sirius has come to save Harry at the Ministry, and Harry’s saying he wants to stay and fight, and Sirius says, “You’ve done beautifully. Now let me take it from here.” Totally destroys me. I don’t love those movies, but each of them has moments that make them worthwhile — and weirdly, it’s usually moments they haven’t pulled from the books.

The moral of the fifth Harry Potter book is: Good intentions will lead you to misery and awfulness. Excuse me while I throw away a handful of snotty Kleenex and proceed onward to the sixth book, wherein good intentions frequently produce good outcomes.

Thanks as ever to Alice for hosting this readalong!

Revisiting Harry Potter: Sirius Black and other concerns

Oh, third book. I wish I had made time to write about you last week, for truly you are the sparkliest of all the Harry Potter books. Your beauty makes me want to sing songs of praise. But I do not do that, because I have roommates and they already think I’m weird. I will get to Sirius Black in a minute, but first I would like to speak in praise of some other aspects of the third book. (Obviously, this will be all spoilers all the time.)

One, I don’t know why everyone makes such a big deal about Harry being the youngest Quidditch player in a century. We all know Harry is a rock star of Quidditch, and I’m not trying to take away from that but you know — first years aren’t allowed to try out.

Two, you know how I was whining about the Hagrid plotlines? This is the gold standard of all Hagrid plotlines. It integrates beautifully with everything else in the book — both Hermione’s stuff with the Time-Turner and the major plotline of the book, which is the escape of Sirius Black and the fallout therefrom. It’s also a plotline with a Hagrid monster where you are legitimately on Hagrid’s side. Hagrid’s not making Harry’s life harder by doing what he’s doing here. He designed a good Care of Magical Creaetures lesson and taught it responsibly. The only reason shit all went to hell is that the Malfoys are jerks. If Neville’s grandmother was as much of a jerk as the Malfoys, Madam Hooch would have been fired in the first book.

Three, Snape is a dick. He’s a dick. How are you going to insult a thirteen-year-old kid’s dead father? If you can’t think of anything nice to say about a thirteen-year-old’s dead father, that is an awesome time to JUST SHUT UP.

(You know what I love in the movie of this book? I love it so much when Snape and Sirius are in the Shrieking Shack and Sirius says, “Oh why don’t you go play with your chemistry set?” I loooooved that. Gary Oldman made it speak volumes about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Aw Gary Oldman.)

And four, I think it super sucks that Mrs. Weasley is pulling to keep Harry from finding out that Sirius Black is after him. That is dumb because Harry pokes his nose into everything and will inevitably end up somewhere he’s not supposed to be, but it’s also just bad parenting form. She should tell him the truth and be real about it. If you don’t tell the kids these things, they’re just going to learn everything on the street. Which is exactly what does happen! Boo.

And now, on to Sirius Black. Some people in this blogosphere have made the claim that Sirius Black sucks. Some people say that Sirius Black is irresponsible and a drag on Harry’s life. To those people THAT ARE ALICE HI ALICE I LIKE YOU BUT YOU ARE CRAZY TO HAVE THIS OPINION, I say this: You do not have Harry’s best interests at heart.

I get sort of dorky when I start talking about Harry, because I grew up with him and now I am much older than him so I feel protective in the same way I feel protective of the kids I used to baby-sit for who can now drive and are applying to colleges. But I want to prove my point because it is correct and opposition to it is incorrect so I’m going to go ahead and be dorky. Harry’s a kid, and kids need to know that they are somebody’s most important thing in the world. Until Sirius shows up, and then again after Sirius is gone, there is no character who consistently lets Harry know, hey, you are my most important thing. The speed with which Harry comes to expect this from Sirius and depend on receiving it should tell you that this is something this kid needs.

Which is why I love and defend Sirius Black in spite of his flaws, which I know that he has and I have never tried to deny. Let’s contemplate timelines for just a minute, shall we? Sirius is in Azkaban for twelve years prior to learning that Pettigrew is out and about and a threat to Harry. Approximately 4380 days. You want to know how many days Sirius is in Azkaban after he learns that Harry’s in danger?

The answer is zero. Zero days. He escapes from Azkaban that night. Here is proof:

There was a thud on the wood, and Harry was sure Mr. Weasley had banged his fist on the table. “Molly, how many times do I have to tell you? They didn’t report it in the press because Fudge wanted it kept quiet, but Fudge went out to Azkaban the night Black escaped.”


Madam Rosmerta let out a long sigh. “Is it true he’s mad, Minister?”

“I wish I could say that he was,” said Fudge slowly. “I certainly believes his master’s defeat unhinged him for a while. The murder of Pettigrew and all those Muggles was the action of a cornered and desperate man — cruel…pointless. Yet I met Black on my last inspection of Azkaban. You know, most of the prisoners in there sit muttering to themselves in the dark; there’s no sense in them…but I was shocked at how normal Black seemed. He spoke quite rationally to me. It was unnerving. You’d have thought he was merely bored — asked if I’d finished with my newspaper, cool as you please, said he missed doing the crossword.”

Which is to say, the day on which Sirius saw the picture of Pettigrew on Ron’s shoulder in the newspaper, that exact day, is the day he escaped from prison. Basically Sirius can deal with the hellish suicidal-depression torment of Azkaban indefinitely, but when he gets one hint that Harry might be in danger, he goes, “Fuck. This. Noise,” and is out of that jail in a hot second. He is brave and resourceful and devoted to Harry, and I love Harry so so much, and when people are brave and resourceful and devoted on his behalf, it buys a hefty amount of affection from me.

So, okay, Sirius comes to save Harry from Peter Pettigrew. That’s brave and great, but you could make the argument that it’s his moral duty. He’s the only one who knows what Pettigrew is, plus he has that subsidiary revenge motive that’s been cooking for over a decade. After that’s done, though, he could legitimately decline to take responsibility for Harry. His connection to Harry was James, right, and James is dead. He has not been part of Harry’s life for the past twelve years. Harry has a home already, and as far as Sirius knows, it’s the happiest home ever. Sirius does not need to make Harry his problem. But this never seems to cross his mind. What he says to Harry is, like, the perfect thing:

“I’m also — I don’t know if anyone ever told you — I’m your godfather.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” said Harry.

“Well…your parents appointed me your guardian,” said Black stiffly. “If anything happened to them…”

Harry waited. Did Black mean what he thought he meant?

“I’ll understand, of course, if you want to stay with your aunt and uncle,” said Black. “But…well…think about it. Once my name’s cleared…if you wanted a…a different home…”

Excuse me. I have something in my eye.

Again, let’s remember, this man is nobody to Harry, and the first thing he does when they have a quiet moment is to offer to be his parent, if there is room in Harry’s life for that. He’s basically telling Harry that he will love him and take care of him forever.

And hey, here’s an update from the future: That is exactly what Sirius does do! He promises to take care of Harry and then he takes care of Harry. Circumstances are against him in this, I’ll grant you — not his fault! Voldemort’s fault! — but Harry can expect, and Sirius never lets him down, that always no matter what forever he will be the top number one highest priority in Sirius’s life. Harry has people who love him but he belongs to nobody until Sirius comes along. Sirius is the only person of whom Harry ever expects parenting, and that is why I like him and you should too.

The new Hawkeye comics you maybe haven’t yet realized you want to read but you totally should because they are amazing. Wait, hear me out.

I know! You don’t want to read the new Hawkeye comics because comics are expensive, Hawkeye is boring, and Marvel comics are too mythology-heavy for a newcomer to leap into. But you’re so wrong. Unbeknownst to you, you really do want to read the new Hawkeye comics. Let me explain real quick why your objections to doing so are inadequate.

1. Single-issue comics are an expensive habit. So borrow a friend’s. Or if you can’t borrow a friend’s, just pay the three bucks a month. If you take a year’s subscription through Marvel, it’s still about the same cost as one hardback book. You buy books all the time. Subscribe to a comic this one time. (Or wait for the trade paperback to come out in March of this year.) The covers are stylish, and as I’ll describe in more detail below, the comics are very very very good.

See? Attractive.

2. Hawkeye was the boringest Avenger in the Avengers movie. Yup, he was. That is a correct assessment. Partly that’s the writing — it’s hard to be cool and interesting when you’re (spoiler alert) turned evil within five minutes — and partly it’s that Jeremy Renner (sorry, Hurt Locker fans! I am sure he was great in Hurt Locker but I’ll never know because I’m not watching that movie) is bland like oatmeal and a bad archer. Plus, when everybody else in the movie gets a bunch of opportunities to be awesome and ass-kicky, and one character gets very few and has no superpowers, you obviously end up thinking of that one character as the weakest link.

Luckily for us all, the Hawkeye comics in question are about Hawkeye when he’s not hanging around with the Avengers; i.e., when he’s just being a regular guy trying to do right by the world. The first issue is about him trying to get his shady thug landlord not to raise the rent on all the tenants in his building. The second issue’s about him trying to foil a robbery. The writer, Matt Fraction, has said that his vision of Hawkeye is someone who just can’t help being a good guy — like, he’d help you move your couch even if it was raining outside (says Matt Fraction). What can I say? I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

Also, he acquires a dog. He renames it but it’ll always be Pizza Dog in my heart.

Ehn is right.

3. All the mythology is too hard to get into. Nope, it isn’t. This one’s my big reason for never reading any Marvel comics — the canon’s too voluminous — but the Hawkeye books are very light on the mythology. The writers aren’t telling a big extended story. They’re telling a bunch of small stories. If you’ve seen a few of the superhero movies in the last few years you’ll be fine.

So okay. That’s your objections resoundingly put paid to. Now that I’ve dealt with the reasons not to not read the Hawkeye comics, here are the reasons to read them:

1. The two main characters are a delight (to each other and to you). The two main characters are Clint Barton (regular Hawkeye) and Kate Bishop (also somehow Hawkeye? I don’t know the mythology on this and you don’t need to either; she shoots like Hawkeye does), and they enjoy and excel at working as a team. I was in for this as soon as Clint 1) talked all about how great and awesome Kate is, as you the reader are watching her be great and awesome; and 2) said he didn’t want to sleep with her. Yay! Not everyone has to constantly want to sleep with everyone else. Kate and Clint get a kick out of each other, and they have each other’s backs. What more could you ask?

2. Everyone wears purple. This isn’t anything. I like purple, that’s all. The palate of the comic is overwhelmingly purple. Yay.

3. The art is really nice. I guess the purple thing could have been subsumed into this, but I love purple so much! It feels wrong to pretend I love purple less than I do. Anyway, the art is really nice as a whole. The action shots are elegant and cool. The quieter, chattier panels do an amazing job of conveying subtext through body language. There are a few panels I kept going back to because the way the characters’ faces were tilted and how their arms went, damn it just said everything. Way to go, artist David Aja.

4. The dialogue is understatedly wonderful. It is all charming all the time. Hawkeye’s inner monologue is extra charming, especially when you consider that inner monologues are basically voiceovers, and voiceovers are hard. These ones are the perfect balance of sincerity and humor and self-deprecation. I know I’ve just two seconds ago praised the dynamic between the two main characters, but I’m going to do it again because this page, where Hawkeye is blown away by how perfect Kate is at her job, blows me away with how perfect everyone who worked on this page is at their jobs.


There is also this joke. It’s maybe not the first time this joke has been made, but it’s made completely charmingly here.

5. The stories have complex, interesting, inventive structures. Y’all know I love a story with a tight structure. I particularly love Hawkeye #3 for this, although all of the issues are good. The unifying theme of #3 is that Hawkeye has made nine really bad decisions that day, and he ticks them off for you one by one and that’s the story. It all has its roots in Hawkeye trying to get some tape to label all his ridiculous trick arrows (this in the vein of Hawkeye being the Avenger who’s just a dude), but as he’s trying to get that task accomplished, he ends up in a big car chase shooting trick arrows pretty much at random. A small inset panel shows a close-up of the arrow with a label (acid arrow, smoke bomb arrow, etc.), and below that is a panel showing the damage being done by each. It is so damn cool.

6. When I finished reading the six issues that existed as of December which is when I read them, I felt real sad. I felt so bummed out that I had reached the end of the comics to be read, I read two of them over again. (The third one and the last one.) Then I gave all six to Mumsy to read (she liked them), and when she gave them back I read them again. And then the first one again. After that I let Legal Sister read them, and after that I returned them to Captain Hammer, whose comics they were. As soon as I got home that evening I regretted giving them up because I wanted to read them all again. This is all in the course of one day. That’s how delightful and readable these comics are. Read them tomorrow.

Aaaaaa, I love this comic so much. When the first volume comes out in March, I will want to buy a copy for everyone I like. It’s just so good. Read it. Read it. Read it. You’ll thank me later.

Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt


It’s taken me a little while to spit this review out, because I feel like this is or will be one of those books that gets a lot of hype. I don’t want my review to become one of an avalanche of reviews that raves about a book, and then you are like, “Hey the people really love this book, Imma read it too,” and then you read it with your expectations sky high and when it doesn’t turn out to be the second coming of The Color Purple you’re like, “Why is everybody screaming about this book? It’s fine. It’s not that great. GOD.”

I don’t want that to happen because I think Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a lovely book, and I feel fond and protective of it. So I’m going to start by tempering your expectations. I want you to understand, though, that these criticisms made no difference to my enjoyment of the book, and I am saying them for your sake, to maximize the chances that you will enjoy this book when you read it, not because any of what I’m about to say interfered substantially with my enjoyment of the book. For it did not. But if you do wait to read the book, and you don’t like it, I don’t want you coming back here being like, “GOD could she be making more of an effort to remind us that wolves are a Theme?” Because I will already have warned you.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is Carol Rifka Brunt’s first novel. It’s about a teenage girl called June in 1987 whose uncle Finn dies of AIDS shortly after painting a portrait of June with her sister Greta, once June’s closest friend and now something of an adversary. Bereft after losing Finn, the only person who ever seemed to understand her, June secretly befriends his long-time boyfriend, Toby.

Okay. Criticisms first. Raving afterwards. This is a first novel and there are some things. Some emotional beats get drummed a teensy bit too hard. There is a plotline about a guy at June’s school who constantly invites her to play Dungeons and Dragons. He seems nice and normal, which is unusual for a fictional portrayal of D&D players, but June never actually does play Dungeons and Dragons with him, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. There was also a lot of wolf imagery. Usually it was cool and effective, but there were times as the book went on that I wanted to ask Brunt gently to give us a break from it until the (I presumed) quiet, wrenching denouement, at which point I would permit its reintroduction.

(Then I checked the end to see if the denouement was quiet and wrenching. It was.)

What I’m saying is, no book is perfect, and this one isn’t either. There. I’ve inoculated you against that expectations thing. (Not really. There’s no vaccine for that although it would be great if there were.) Now I will say that I loved this book with all my heart. When I wasn’t reading it, I felt sort of bereft and wished I could be reading it; and when I was reading it, and had to stop reading it, I felt resentful. Finishing it made me sad, both because the denouement was, as previously mentioned, quiet and wrenching, but also because afterward I wanted to be able to keep reading it and I couldn’t.

Some of the reviews I read of this made it sound like it was a book about family tragedy and finding out secrets, but it really isn’t like that. There are secrets but they aren’t secrets about family scandal and betrayal, just secret hurt feelings, secret wishes to return to some previous, happier way of being. The scope of the book is small. Brunt is telling a lovely, specific story about family, and silence and absence, and how easily the space between people can widen and widen:

Greta went to high school and I was still in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got…weirder. None of those things should have mattered, but I guess they did. I guess they were like water. Soft and harmless until enough time went by. Then all of a sudden you found yourself with the Grand Canyon on your hands.

Brunt has that knack for giving emotional heft to very small hurts and kindnesses. It’s hard to quote these because they’re all about the context, but I’m going to just quote from this one scene where Toby flicks a penny into the parking lot as June is leaving and tells her to check if it lands heads-up, because if it has he’ll have given her good luck. They are both reeling from the loss of Finn, and June is still not sure about Toby and mainly agrees to be around him because he is a connection to Finn, and they are both tentative and awkward and unsure of each other. But:

I knew you couldn’t make luck that way, but still I kind of hoped it was heads. I started to run to the spot, but even from a few feet away I could already see it was tails. I bent and picked up the penny anyway. Then I turned to Toby and gave him a smile and the thumbs-up. He didn’t need to know.

There are similar small moments between June and her older sister Greta. Some of the stuff about Greta being troubled is overdone and under-resolved, but everything about the two of them being sisters, and growing apart, and trying to get back to their former closeness through a thicket of hurt feelings and resentment, is just so sincere and lovely.

Oh, and there is all this business with the portrait Finn paints of Greta and June, that’s gorgeous gorgeous. And the end is perfect, and the denouement made me get all throat-achey. And Finn’s last letter to June made me cry several actual tears, which is pretty rare for me! And the title is one of my favorite titles for a book that I’ve encountered in a long time. I just loved this book, I loved it. The library copy on my Nook expired right after I finished reading it, and I wanted to check it right back out and read it all over again. Please get it and read it now, and then come back and tell me how much you loved it. Ana! Jill! Chris! (among others)

I read an interview with Lizzy Caplan recently where she said (of the group of friends in her movie The Bachelorette), “There’s something really amazing about being able to be as cruel as you’d be to your sister, to your friend.” I just — no! That’s not a thing! I deeply dislike that that’s the way family/friend relationships are often portrayed on TV and in movies, that you can just say whatever cruel horrible thing in the heat of the moment, but then afterward as long as you defend the person to outsiders, your loved ones know that you care about them and you are the best of besties. I disagree! Defending your loved ones to outsiders is easy and rare (and gives you a joyous feeling of moral clarity); being careful of them on all the regular days is tricky and confusing and every day. All of which soapboxiness is to say, I wanted to hug Carol Rifka Brunt for writing a book about how you have to be kind and careful of the people you love, that it is worth the effort to think about how your behavior affects them. Because when you don’t do that, you lose people. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a book about how we lose people, and how we (sometimes) get them back.

I’d link to other reviews but I sort of don’t want you to read any other reviews because I am anxious that you should read this book first and reviews afterwards. Once you already love it and are no longer be susceptible to too-high expectations. So yes! Go forth and do so!