The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

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Happy Birthday To Me

I’ve had a birthday since the last time we spoke. It was a pretty big one, too.

I turned thirty.

Thirty.

I know the typical reactions to those digits tend to be ones of fear or at least a rapid uptick in blood pressure as we start to ask ourselves, “What in the world am I actually doing?” However, I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ve managed to cram a ton of life into my thirty years, the details of which I’ll save for my memoir if I ever write one, and in doing so, I grew up pretty fast. Even as a child, I gravitated to the adults in a room and didn’t shy away from trying to participate in whatever most astute and mature conversation they were having. Precocious is what they called me, and while I appreciated the recognition that I was able, on some level, to “hang with the big dogs”, there was always a little laugh or a little flippancy hidden in the corner of their smile.

At some point in childhood, we all become aware of the thirty milestone and what awaits us on the other side. Often joked about, a dress-rehearsal for the even more feared “over the hill”, thirty has its fair share of foreboding whispers.

Once you leave your twenties you’re not young anymore. You’re a “real” adult now.

While some of my peers may have slapped a big ole warning label on the distant “thirty” in their psyche, my eyes lit up. Thirty! That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I want to be thirty. I want to be an indisputable adult. I want the mantle of respect and acceptance of my adult peers. I want the simpering smiles and chuckle of surprise when I speak to stop so that my words are actually heard.

Now, I’m not naive. I know now that my initial idea of what turning thirty would mean isn’t how the world works. There will always be someone older than me, assuming that wiser is a given. And I’m okay with that. I welcome the opportunity to give them something to think about.

I know that what was and is beyond thirty is entirely what I make of it. Thirty is youthful and wise. It’s hopeful and serious. It’s excited and prepared. It’s believing in your dreams in a solid way. Tying the balloon of imagination to a platform where it can take root in reality. It’s earlier nights and earlier mornings. It’s coffee, but even more water. It’s recognizing health as a privilege and something you have to work to maintain. It’s looking back at the last thirty years in appreciation for their tempo, and not allowing it to quicken as you continue.

The years ahead of me are sweet. There will be inevitable bites of bitterness, but growth and development follow closely on its heels. When I close my eyes, I imagine a little girl hunched over a pile of kindling. She is rocked by sudden gusts of wind that threaten the ember she is coaxing to life. As she grows before my eyes, the flame rises and the soft fibers of wood begin to burn. The young lady carefully places twigs around her fire, feeding it, nurturing it. As she turns to retrieve a larger branch, the light catches her face and you see the fine lines forming on her brow and in the creases of her eyes. She slowly sets the log on the growing fire before her. She does so with such meticulous care that you worry her hand will burn. How can she bear to stand so close? But as the wood hits the flame, it ignites and sparks fly. The woman steps back, watching the fire she has created and mothered into strength. And she smiles, feeling the heavy presence of the mountain of fuel set beside her.

Thirty isn’t the finish line of youth. It’s not the end of anything. I carry forth what I know, and my lust for life and all its treasures just like any other day. Thursday was no different than Tuesday. I’m still feeding my kids, I’m still running the laundry, I’m still writing.

But still, I’m thirty.