The narrator of We the Animals is never given a name, but this brilliant debut novel is so strikingly autobiographical that you know he’s author Justin Torres, and you know you’re hearing an extraordinary new voice. He’s the baby of three brothers, a tight little band careening through childhood, now battering each other, now huddling together, now trying to understand their young, raw, quick-to-anger parents, Puerto Rican “Paps” and white “Ma.” As the boys grow older in darkly radiant short takes, Torres manages to be inside his characters and outside at the same time, looking at the world first with a child’s eye, then seeing with an alienated grace that only comes with time.
A MEETING IN MANHATTAN
Raise your well-chilled martini glasses in a toast to Amor Towles for his debut novel set in perfectly evoked 1930s New York, Rules of Civility, and to Rebecca Lowman for her perfectly pitched audio performance. Our appealing heroine was born Katya to immigrant Russians in Brooklyn. But as Katey, with nothing more than her sharp savvy and preternatural poise, she moved to Manhattan to claim her place among the smart set, with its blithe, trust-funded spirits, and in the elite offices of Condé Nast. On New Year’s Eve, 1937, Katey meets Tinker Grey, a cashmere-clad, seemingly seamless Ivy League-polished banker, and we follow their roller-coaster ride through 1938, a year that will change them both forever.
ONE MAN’S LIFE
It only takes two and a half hours to listen to Denis Johnson’s impeccably crafted novella Train Dreams, but these 150 minutes capture Robert Grainier’s entire life, from his vague memories of arriving in the Idaho panhandle in 1893, an orphan with his destination pinned to his shirt, to his death almost 70 years later in an isolated cabin which he rebuilt after a ferocious wildfire consumed the original one, along with his young wife and daughter. He worked as a logger on the railroad, ended up delivering goods with a horse-drawn wagon, had only one love, owned only one acre. His solitary life, punctuated with slow, steady labor, is the opposite of a sweeping saga, yet it becomes heroic, an American epic in miniature.
TOP PICK IN AUDIO
Aravind Adiga’s second novel, Last Man in Tower—even better than his first—poses many of the same questions as The White Tiger about right and wrong, rampaging capitalism and the price of “progress.” The “last man” is retired science teacher Masterji, and the “tower” is the now-shabby apartment cooperative in Mumbai where he has lived for more than 30 years, home to middle-class Hindus, Catholics and Muslims. Into this micro-village comes Dharmen Shah, a mega-developer who wants to buy them out so he can add another glitzy structure to his empire. Shah’s promise of big bucks and Masterji’s determination to stand in the way send shock waves through this little community, exposing its members’ frailties and lethal greed. Sam Dastor narrates and is one of the very best I’ve heard in all my many years of listening.