July 17, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a brilliant and thoughtful debut novel that thoughtfully explores love in all its forms.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"There is much to admire in this novel. The subtle insight on sibling rivalry and the examination of love make for a poignant debut."
So, first I want to say that this is a list of songs I think evoke the mood of the novel. It is not a list of music mentioned in the novel. There are many songs mentioned in the novel, but none of them make it onto the playlist. If I wanted to be dishonest, I would have filled the book only with music I really liked, but I wanted to be honest, so instead I put songs in there that felt right for the time and place. There's Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" and the theme from Ghostbusters. There's Frankie Yankovics's "Tick Tock Polka" and Nena's "99 Luftballons" There's U2's "New Year's Day" and Mozart's Requiem along with several songs from the musical South Pacific. Those songs work in the book, but they don't give a sense of the tone and mood of Tell the Wolves I'm Home.
Tell the Wolves is the story of 14-year-old June Elbus and what happens when her beloved Uncle Finn—an artist in New York—dies of AIDS in 1987. Soon after his death June discovers that, unbeknownst to her, Finn had a long-time partner, Toby. Wolves is the story of the secret friendship that develops between June and Toby. It's a story of all kinds of love and the way those loves and longings can burn holes in your heart. These are songs I listened to to get me in the right mood to tell this story. They're generally a bit melancholy and wistful, but also very often beautiful.
"A sadness so real, that it populates, the city and leaves you homeless again…"
What can I say about this song? It's slow, sad and sweet and breaks my heart every time I listen to it. I think almost everyone has had the experience of thinking they've seen a much missed person . It's a movie cliché to have a character certain they've spotted someone from behind, only to have them turn around and burst the illusion. That's what this song is about. It's about the way yearning can make you believe impossible things.
"So I was the lucky one, reading letters not writing them…"
Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a story of unlikely friendship, but it's also—almost equally—a story about two sisters. The Casio keyboard sound here feels so perfectly 80s. When I listen to this I can see my own finished basement in the suburbs where I spent many hours with my own sister. There's an innocence to this song that for me captures the naivety of both sisters. And the lyrics are so apt. Both sisters see each other as the "lucky" one. The one who has it easy.
"Come up and see me, make me smile. We'll do what we want, running wild."
This song put me in mind of Toby's relationship with June. There's a sense of collusion, of pitching in your lot with another and letting everything else fall away. It captures a little bit of the feeling of the recklessness of their friendship. Toby's a man with nothing to lose, which is both thrilling and a bit frightening.
"What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here."
The quintessential song about feeling out of place and unworthy. This one is for June, who over the course of the book has many occasions to feel this way.
"What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I love goes away in the end."
I hesitated to include this song (the Johnny Cash version) because I think it's gotten pretty close to saturation level. I've heard it used all over the place. I guess the thing is, even with so much overplay, every time I hear it I stop whatever I'm doing and listen , completely captivated. It is still one of the most haunting songs about shame and regret. I don't want to give too much away, but June is filled with both of those emotions towards the end of the book, and this song helped me feel her pain.
"You slip your heart into my chest…"
Short and sweet, but with a little bit of a dark edge. I like the way the poppy sound hides away the quite painful words of the lyrics. I also really like the way the lyrics have a kind of ‘fill in the blank' quality. Like this: "It breaks my heart each time you…." For me, the missing words speak to the way anything can be heartbreaking once a relationship falls to a certain place. Anything and everything can be hurtful. This is another Greta and June song.
"Feed me ‘til I'm fed. Read me ‘til I'm read. I was a dreamer…staring out windows…"
I first heard this on the Mercury Prize Awards show. In that version (see link) Conor O'Brien sounds like he's on the verge of tears as the song comes to a close. He's whispering "I'm selling you my fears" again and again and it's just devastating. He's talking about the songwriting process and I was listening to this during the editing process. There's something exactly right about what he's saying. The best songs and books and art all have that element—the artist selling something deep and personal, pouring that into the work.
"Oooh it gets dark, it gets lonely, on the other side from you."
You really can't get more teenage girl romantic than this song. The ethereal voice of Kate Bush singing about the brooding Heathcliff. In the book, June finds out that Toby is originally from the north of England and immediately conjures images of misty moors and crumbling ruins. This song surely would have been a favorite of hers if she existed beyond the pages of the book. And it's nice to include at least one song that reminds me of the 80s (even though it's originally from 1978.)
"Stay" by Belly
"The Passenger" by Iggy Pop
"Skinny Love" by Bon Iver or Birdy—both have their merits
"Perfect Day" by Lou Reed
"Atmosphere" by Joy Division
"Your Ghost" by Kristin Hersh
"Nightswimming" by REM
"Troubled Waters" by Cat Power
Carol Rifka Brunt and Tell the Wolves I'm Home links:
A.V. Club review
Adult Books 4 Teens review
It's either Sadness or Euphoria.... review
Kirkus Reviews review
Of Books and Reading review
Publishers Weekly review
Stargazerpuj's Book Blog review
Wall Street Journal review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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