Category: Reviews

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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:

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The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier


What if you broke your arm and a shaft of light came shooting out of your elbow? Or if your boyfriend left you and your chest glowed with brilliant radiance–the pain could be an illumination.

So is the basis of Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination. He takes the most tragic of human condition, both emotional and physical, and gives it beauty that never ceases to reveal new interpretations of pain. A woman cuts her thumb and a sword of light shoots out of the wound; a young boy’s bum has a lit up square-edged mark from a paddle spanking; a girl’s skeleton swells white as disease rushes through her bones. Though written with lyrical and beautiful phrases, there is no uplift in this theme that one would normally ascribe with radiance, not in the figurative sense anyway. It has more to do with tenderness. In one scene, after a young Chuck Carter is beaten by fellow classmates, Mr. Brockmeier describes the episode: “For a few seconds, the light poured out like water. It hurt just a little too much to be beautiful.”

The six characters that are protagonists to each of their stories (a data analyst; a photojournalist; a schoolchild; a missionary; a writer; a street vendor) are all at a loss–not only from what is obvious, but from what is underneath them, emotionally and psychologically–and where there is injury, there is light. It’s a global phenomenon. One wonders if Mr. Brockmeier’s intention is to illicit a kind of empathy for those in pain, especially from members of the ‘fend-for-yourself’ culture. Would the immediacy of being able to witness pain invite more compassion?  Perhaps, if you were to cross the street and see someone’s arthritic knees spark like a disco ball, you might be inclined to help him.

It isn’t just The Illumination that threads these six narratives; there is also a journal, a love diary: I love sitting outside on a blanket with you, my bare foot brushing against yours. I love how embarrassing you find your middle name. I love how irritated you get at smiley face icons, or, as I know you love to call them, “emoticons.” I love seeing your body turn into mosaic through the frosted glass of a hotel shower. The diary is comprised of reasons why a husband loves his wife. But they get into a car accident. Carol Anne, one of the protagonists, shares a hospital room with the wife for whom the journal is written. The wife, before she dies, gives the diary to Carol Anne, and from one story to the next, the journal ventures on its own journey, coming across characters that find themselves touched by the emotional radiance it reveals.

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Light and Language in True Grit

True Grit –  by Mario A. Zambrano

There might be a better reason why I was impressed after seeing True Grit, the latest Coen film, other than that it was a film masterfully put together; from soundtrack to dialog to cinematography. I didn’t watch Westerns growing up, even with the insistent coaxing from my father. It wasn’t in my interest to watch cowboys ride horses and spit tobacco while abusing Indians making them out as if they were lesser than the horses they rode. John Wayne was mentioned more than a dozen times, and there was a particular tune my father would sing when he’d feel he’d performed some heroic deed. If I tried to sing it now it’d sound like the opening track to an Indiana Jones flick, but if I heard the melody I’d recognize it and be half-certain that a man was nearby with his chest filled with pride because of some stunt he’d performed to make him feel like John Wayne.

I’m not sure why I agreed to see True Grit, if it was because I was on vacation at home in Houston during the holidays⎯meaning that days are spent mostly making meals and waiting to see what my parents would like to do⎯or if it was because I’d heard hype about Jeff Bridges’ lead performance. I didn’t know at the time that this new adaptation, inspired by the novel by Charles Portis, had already been made into a film in 1969 with John Wayne himself, whom won an Academy Award for his role as Rooster Cogburn. I have my father to thank for letting me know. As the movie began, he leaned over to me and said, “Let’s see if this is as good as the original.”

Before an image is revealed, a track played, the movie begins with a young girl’s voice, prim and strong-willed, and a faint golden light slowly illuminating at the center of the screen. Mattie, the young girl, tells the story of how her father was killed, who killed him, and her plans for finding the man so that justice prevails. She finds the U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a drunk, one-eyed official known for his easy hand in shooting criminals, and offers him fifty dollars to find the man that killed her father. He hesitates at first, shocked and amused at the fourteen-year old’s insistent proposition, but finally accepts.

As I reflect on the film I realize that there are different kinds of films for different kinds of interest. If one wants to be wowed with the latest technological feats and cinematic effects then one could choose a film like Transformers or Harry Potter to sit back and be bedazzled. But if one prefers character and dialog then there are recent films like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right to satisfy the itch. True Grit is one of those films.

There is a scene where Mattie haggles with a vendor trying to sell back a few ponies that her father had bought before he died. She’s only fourteen, and yet her wit and brilliance pierces the scene like a shaft of light in a dark tunnel, the way she handles the language is sharp and acerbic. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss for vocabulary and conversation, something that has gotten loose and easy over the years, especially amongst our teenagers. I was sitting atop a moment of irony: the most impressive highlight of the scene was the speed of mind and eloquence of rhetoric, yet there were no interchangeable vehicles or sweeping visual effects that could turn a human into a mongoose, and make it seem ‘real’. And there I was in a theater with a TMX sound system next to a young woman who a few minutes earlier had chanted with her husband such sophisticated phrases like, “OMG,” “For real?,” “She is so not right.”

What’s happened to our language? Was a Western film really impressing me on the grounds of verbal skills in a way that I thought could only be done in an English novel? Yes, it was. The Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the film, were doing a fantastic job in transcending me to a literary experience not commonly felt in blockbuster hits.

Great House

‘I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it.’ – Great House, Nicole Krauss

Sensibility veils the language in Nicole Krauss’ new novel Great House, not in the way that obscures the images of life on the other side of the narrative, but in a way that perceives a character’s past—reflecting on loss, the inheritance of one’s history —in a sort of nostalgic embrace that finds poetry in meditation: ‘When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it’/ ‘…my mind went to it like a tongue probing the tender spot of a missing tooth.’

All the narrators that compose this orchestrated collection share a poet’s sensitivity and point of view. Two of these characters are writers: Nadia, a middle-aged novelist in New York City who has a brief affair with a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, who gives her a wooden, nineteen-drawer desk, once owned by Lorca, to look after when he goes back to Chili, and Lotte Berg, a former Kindasport chaperone (her story his narrated by her husband Arthur Bender) who writes elliptical stories in the privacy of her attic studio, on the same desk Nadia looks after years later⎯the desk being the object that threads together all four narratives. Other participants in the trajectory of ‘the desk’ are Leah and Yoav Weisz, children of an Israeli furniture dealer who specializes in retrieving heirlooms lost to the Nazi’s during the war. And finally, there is Aaron, a man writing to his estranged son Dov after his wife’s death, trying to piece together the puzzle of their relationship that has been obscured by misunderstanding. Dov, who left Israel and went to London to become a judge, is alluded to as the connecting line to Nadia, who narrates her story to a judge, ‘Your Honor’, whom she has fatally injured in a car accident in Israel.

*Editor’s note – there’s so much more to this review – click more and keep reading.