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Bookshelf: ‘We the Animals’ by Justin Torres

See what's on our bookshelf this month


Published on March 3, 2016 8:00AM

“We the Animals” by Justin Torres.

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“We the Animals” by Justin Torres.

“Landfall” by Ellen Urbani.

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“Landfall” by Ellen Urbani.

“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.

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“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.

Just finished: “We the Animals: a Novel” by Justin Torres, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Plot Notes: Three feral, mixed-race brothers grow up in a rural part of upstate New York. Equally torn between caring for their exhausted and underappreciated mother and acquiring admiration from their strong-willed and macho father, this slim novel is a struggle for the brothers’ identity both collectively and alone through a number of tense, funny and fresh vignettes that can range anywhere from exploring their neighborhood and getting into trouble to accompanying their dad to his job as a night watchman. Ultimately, the novel becomes less about the brothers and more about the narrator’s struggle with his sexual identity.

Take Away: In Torres’ hands the most familiar of emotions and even the most inane of events can feel as it has been rendered anew and jolted full of electricity. In one of my personal favorites, called “Never-Never Time,” first published in Tin House, the simple act of three kids smashing fruits and vegetables in their kitchen a la Gallagher becomes a lesson in birth, rebirth and regret. Torres’ voice is funny, quirky and full of wild life. As the boys age and begin to gather their own identities, some readers may be put off as the rest of the family falls by the wayside and the narrator begins to explore his sexuality, but even this seemed to be a fundamental truth that Torres had tapped into: When we are young we are saturated and surrounded by our families, but as we age we may only remain in each other’s orbits. We can grow to become things that even our parents and brothers do not understand.

Recommended For: Fans of Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina,” fans of contemporary literature and minimalism, like Denis Johnson, Aimee Bender, and others. Also, a good all-around introduction to contemporary literature for young adults, perhaps especially those interested in LBGT coming-of-age stories.

Other books: “Landfall” by Ellen Urbani, Forest Avenue Press, 2015

Recommended By: Karen Emmerling of Beach Books in Seaside.

Plot Notes: This visceral, historical tale follows two mothers and their teenaged daughters — one black family, one white — through the devastation of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina.

Why You Should Read: Urbani, who now lives in Portland, was a recent guest for Lunch in the Loft at Beach Books, where she read from her acclaimed debut novel, which Emmerling described as one of her favorites of 2015. Emmerling says that Urbani really captures the chaos of the horrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and brings it to life.

Other books: “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch, Washington Square Press, 2015

Recommended By: Karla Nelson of Time Enough Books in Ilwaco, Washington.

A Bestseller: Nelson has watched this charming, irreverent tale by first-time Swedish author and blogger Backman steadily climb the New York Times Bestseller List ever since she was hand-selling it at Time Enough last summer.

Plot Notes: Ove is an old grump set into conflict with a young family when, on the first day they move into the house next door, they accidentally flatten his mailbox. What “A Man Called Ove” reminds us of is there might be more going on under the crusty exterior of an old curmudgeon than we initially realize.


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