How is it already the second week of November? Several library holds came to me sooner than I expected, and they’re all nonfiction, so I’m having a great start to Nonfiction November. I’m currently reading Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, one of my favorite books.
Week 2: (Nov. 5 to 9) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing (Sarah’s Book Shelves): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together.
The fiction in the trio I’m suggesting is Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. June Elbus is a 14-year-old girl in 1980s New York who develops a relationship with her uncle’s boyfriend after her uncle Finn dies from AIDS. I liked the book, but I didn’t love it the way some people in my life have loved it. The conflicts resolved a little too easily for me, and sometimes I felt like the author was checking off a list of references and product placements to make the 1980s setting stronger. June also seemed somehow too old and too young at the same time, but then haven’t we all had that time in our lives at least once where we felt both too old and too young? Maybe that’s actually just a good representation of being 14.
The thing I loved about reading the book was the conversations it created with other readers and the way it highlighted how age matters when thinking about HIV/AIDS. People who were adults in the 1980s have a much different history with HIV than people who were younger or not even born yet. I was born in 1976, and I remember a lot of fear and misunderstanding and ignorance and confusion. At that time, it seemed like being HIV positive was an automatic death sentence, and today, you have people for whom that has never been the case.
Another fiction possibility to go with these books is the more recent The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, but I haven’t read it yet. It’s about a group of friends, mostly gay men, in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1980s, and I believe it covers more of the long-lasting impact of AIDS on those who were left behind when people died.
The first nonfiction I’d like to suggest is an older title – My Own Country by Abraham Verghese – published in 1994. Dr. Verghese was a rural infectious disease specialist in the 1980s and worked in an area in Tennessee within a hundred miles of my childhood home. He vividly describes the area and talks about how his own views changed as he worked with patients and their families as they dealt with prejudices and fears. I haven’t read this book since first reading it in the 1990s, so it’s possible it might seem a bit dated, but I recall it as a fascinating description of an important slice of time and in a more rural setting than the usual focus of this kind of exploration.
A more recent book about the early days of AIDS in the United States is How to Survive a Plague by David France (2016). It starts in the summer of 1981 as The New York Times reported about a rare cancer observed in homosexuals and ends in 1996 as protease inhibitors were becoming available as a treatment option. David France weaves in some of his personal accounts with the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States but really focuses on the activists who lobbied for research and better treatment and ultimately saved lives through their efforts.
Here is a quote from How to Survive a Plague that has stuck with me for months:
Nobody left those years uncorrupted by what they’d witnessed, not only the mass deaths — 100,000 lost in New York City alone, snatched from tightly drawn social circles — but also the foul truths that a microscopic virus had revealed about American culture: politicians who welcomed the plague as proof of God’s will, doctors who refused the victims medical care, clergymen and often even parents themselves who withheld all but a shiver of grief. Such betrayal would be impossible to forget in the subsequent years.