Category: Reviews

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Book Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Midway through Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, she recognizes tone as though it were a found object held in her hand— a photograph of her daughter Quintana Roo, who died in 2009. It’s not stoicism that keeps her from staring at it but more of a kind of nimbleness (or agility?) of mind, flipping through a book of sketches of when Quintana was three years old, of when she got married—the stephanotis woven into her braid—and ultimately, when she passed away.

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We The Animals, Book Review/Interview – by Mario Alberto Zambrano

Justin Torres is the author of We The Animals. His stories have appeared in Tin House, Granta, Gulf and Glimmer Train, along with other publications. He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

He will be giving a reading on Monday, September 12 at 6:30 pm at The New School, moderated by Jackson Taylor, associate director of the School of Writing.  Alvin Johnson/J. M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, room 510

As you begin reading We The Animals by Justin Torres it’s as though you hear a voice speaking from a lowly-lit room, lips close to the mic, beating out rhythms of familial images, both beautiful and grotesque, with a drumbeat at the end of every phrase, like rock-n-roll, like the wheels of a locomotive proving the force of its momentum: “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of forks against the table, tapped our spoons against the empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riot.

The narrative propels us with the voice of a sincere boy, the youngest of three brothers, son to a white mother, most of the time exhausted between graveyard shifts, and a machismo Puerto Rican father referred to as Paps. “Mutts,” he says to his boys. “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican. Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto.”

It’s a slim book, less than a hundred and fifty pages. But even so, verse and metaphor are so precise, so well stitched that there aren’t any loose threads for meandering prose. We veer our attention towards the depths of how the story holds, not so much with length but with a sense of connection. One feels it when coming to the end of a sentence, when meaning punctures the semblance of human condition and a mirror is raised. You see yourself–I saw myself–and herein lies Torres’ gift, his economy of language that when strummed hits emotions with indomitable pitch. He’s a sort of Leonard Cohen capable of telling a round emotion in a single lyric.

But the issue of length also relates to a matter of time, like when one is swept up when seeing someone at first sight. If the connection is strong enough, well, you sense something immediately. But more often than not it takes days, weeks, to feel as though something has gone past the skin, straight to the heart; that’s when the undeniable attraction and connection is felt.

This book does that in an instant.

But it’s also in this instant where I feel it hesitates, where a few more pages (a little more time) would’ve offered a deeper connection or a longer affair with the reader. The intimacy and openness of the main character doesn’t resist sharing familial relations or sexual fantasies. He soon escapes the room he’s invited us into, almost as if he tells us his name, shows us a bruise, smiles innocently and then runs out the door — leaving us wanting to know where he’s off to. Because of this reluctance (in allowing us to stay with him), the tension never breaks and we are left curious from one page to the next.

Torres knows what he’s doing; we never cease to pay attention. The amalgam of curiosity and compassion elicited is what makes the novel one of the most tender pieces I’ve ever read. His chapters are confessions of the most pure and dangerous experiences told from a young boy, and it hardly bleeds, hardly needs to. The pages are sore and bruised with an honesty that escapes its own brevity, ending with a subtle and unexpected brilliance that is nothing less than inspiring.

*Please continue here for the interview: