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.

An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

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An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

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I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.

What Are We Bleeding For?: A Special Edition

When I started this blog, I made a quiet decision to keep my political inclinations out of it. I felt like there was enough commentary on the goings on of the world and another voice would just add to the cacophony. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about my beliefs and will readily share them on my personal pages. It’s just not why I started this blog and I didn’t want to get distracted from my intentions for it. Today I’m breaking my own rule because I’ve been completely immobilized for the last eight days. I publish new blog posts every Thursday and Sunday, but what I had planned for these past two deadlines seemed trivial and entirely inauthentic to my feelings and thoughts right now. So, for today, I’m baring it all.

On Wednesday, February 14th, fourteen children, and three adults were shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old man, a previously expelled student, opened fire and slaughtered them during a six-minute long shooting spree using an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. A favorite among mass murderers, this type of rifle was used in the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas music festival shooting, and the Sutherland Springs church shooting just three months ago.

This rifle was designed to kill quickly, and kill easily. And that’s exactly what it does. Originally designed for the military, this semi-automatic version of the M16 is everywhere. The NRA estimates that Americans own over 8 million of them. That’s enough for 1 in every 40 Americans. Sadly, this particular gun is not the only problem.

There are things like bump stocks, which are legal gun stocks that allow semi-automatic firearms to fire like an automatic. I had never even heard of one until after the shooting in Las Vegas and was shocked…but not really… that, while a ban on automatic firearms has been strictly regulated since 1934, there is no current federal ban on bump stocks.

Real quick, the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon is in the firing. An automatic rifle will continuously fire while the trigger is held. A semi-automatic weapon will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled without needing to cock the weapon hammer between rounds and while preloading the next round from a magazine. An experienced shooter can fire around 90 rounds in one minute from a semi-automatic rifle, that’s including buffers for the time it takes to reload. The average magazine for a semi-automatic rifle holds 30 rounds, however, it is possible to purchase larger magazines that hold up to 100 rounds.

I tell you all of this so that you, my dear reader, will have a better understanding of what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about these guns. I have listened to and read a lot of testimony about semi-automatics and why they are so popular and something that I keep hearing, particularly regarding the rifles, is that they are, “a lot of fun.” Generally speaking, the people who purchase semi-automatic rifles are invested in the hobbyist side of gun-ownership. They may have a 9mm Glock (another semi-automatic weapon, by the way) hidden in their bedside table, or, hopefully, stored in a safe in case of a home invasion, but more often than not, they have entered into a culture that seems centered around a lighthearted collector’s mentality rather than one that truly understands the gravity and responsibility of owning a weapon like this.

It’s important to me that we understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic because knowledge is power, right? Let’s all have a deeper understanding of what we’re all fighting about. Let’s at least acknowledge that banning automatic weapons, but allowing semi-automatic weapons, especially with modifications like bump stocks, is disingenuine and frankly, a load of BS. It’s kind of like the difference between standing in the middle of an Interstate and standing in the middle of a highway. Yeah, the traffic isn’t as fast or as busy, but I certainly wouldn’t call it safe.

Now, I’m from Texas, daughter of a gun owner, and I’ve been to a few gun shows. Frankly, I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. I wouldn’t quite say I felt unsafe because there are some safety measures taken. There are uniformed officers on the premises that check that all guns being carried into the gun show are unloaded and lock tied with plastic ties. These ties are cut with scissors or box cutters when you leave. All guns on display are required to be unloaded and lock tied as well. Vendors in Texas are required to have a Federal Firearms License only if they sell firearms for their livelihood. However, private sellers are not required to perform background checks. The last time I was at a gun show, the few tables with licensed vendors were pointed out to me with a not-so-quiet conspiratorial tone of, “Don’t go to those tables unless you want a background check.”

Interestingly, brass knuckles, ASPs, and nunchucks are prohibited because they are illegal to own in the state. The ASPs have some exceptions for security guards and things of that nature, but overall these weapons have been deemed too dangerous for the public to own.

I know I’m getting long winded, but please bear with me because I’m still grieving the death of nuance. Too many arguments are treated like the answer is black or white. Here’s a clue, it’s not. While you’ll know my thoughts and feelings by the end of this article, I invite you to use your amazingly developed brain to do some thinking and processing on your own. Follow your emotional reactions to what you read and see what’s hidden underneath that rock. I can almost guarantee there will be creepy-crawly biases chilling out.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, I’m for better gun regulation. I do not, and will never, believe that the right to own a certain type of firearm is more important than the safety of our children. Period. I know that’s upsetting to some, and I understand that it goes against the culture that we have here in America. That is ALWAYS uncomfortable for people. Change is scary no matter what kind it is. I get that. However, 150 years ago, our culture in America included owning other people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t change overnight, but we’re overdue for a cultural shift around firearms. Gun regulation has been around in some form since 1837 in the United States which means we attempted to regulate firearms before we abolished slavery. We’re overdue.

The Second Amendment is constantly debated and tossed around as the ultimate and irrefutable argument of why the legislature should never, under any circumstances, touch our right to own guns. First, here’s the actual Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘militia’ is defined as:

1: a: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
    b: a body of citizens organized for military service
2: the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service

I don’t want to derail this whole conversation by going into the history of the militia in our country, but take this information and do some research. It’s pertinent, relevant, and will give some context for the Amendment itself.

My point in bringing up the Second Amendment is to highlight the hypocrisy of how so many of our citizens wear this particular Amendment as a badge of honor while choosing to ignore the many other Amendments and Acts that have been passed since the Bill of Rights that clarify how they are to be followed. We added the 15th Amendment to allow black men the vote because it was not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights, and that omission was recognized as something that needed to be fixed. The same was done for women in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Times changed, we grew as a country and realized that the laws in place in 1776 were no longer adequately applicable to our country and its people.

I think we’ve more than proven that, as a country, we are not mature enough to handle owning semi-automatic guns. We have not shown to be collectively capable of handling the responsibility of this level of gun ownership. We have the highest rate of gun ownership of advanced nations and the highest rate of gun violence by…a lot. Guys, it’s not even close. There are tons of comparisons of us versus other “advanced” nations, but let’s frame it a different way. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, when compared to the ten countries in North Africa and the Middle East…you know, the ones with all the brown people we’re supposed to be afraid of…with the highest rate of gun violence, the United States of America has a rate of gun violence higher than all of them except Iraq. In 2016 our rate of violent gun deaths was 3.85 per 100,000 people in our country. That equates to roughly 12,439 violent gun deaths in one year.

We hide our household chemicals and cleaners under the sink because our children do not fully realize the potential harm they may cause. Well, what do you do with a toddler who keeps getting into the chemicals and cleaners under the sink? You install a child safety lock until they are old enough to understand and give these unsafe materials the proper care and respect they merit. Until the citizens of this country have proven themselves to be mature and stable enough to handle the great responsibility of modern gun ownership, we shouldn’t own or purchase guns without the necessary regulation that protects our people, and most importantly, our children.

Mental health is the newer, trendier scapegoat of gun violence. It easily harmonizes with the infamous NRA propaganda, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” It places blame on the person shooting with no fault falling with the weapon. Hey, I’ve seen the memes. I know that a gun isn’t going on a killing spree all by itself, however, it’s not just the gun we’re really talking about. We’re talking about how easy we are making it for mentally ill or unstable people to acquire them. I cannot fathom the argument against a waiting period, sometimes referred to as a “cool down” period in other countries that recognize that a delay in purchasing ability can save lives when a hothead’s impulse is to kill someone. I cannot comprehend the argument against mental health checks. Is it because it’s inconvenient? Or are you afraid you won’t pass? Either way, my kids’ lives are more valuable than any argument against it.

Japan not only requires mental health examinations before purchasing a gun but yearly reexaminations to minimize the cracks and loopholes people can fall through. They also require gun training prior to purchasing a gun and a rate of accuracy over 90%. There are other laws and stipulations in place, but that’s another rabbit hole. Let’s just say Japan’s gun violence rates are so low that it’s not uncommon for the police officers to have a single-digit rate of even needing to fire a gun. Countries like Australia and the U.K. have had great success in decreasing their gun violence rates with better restrictions and regulations for gun ownership.

Oh, and we can’t forget the age-old argument about criminals. If they want to get a gun, they’ll get a gun; a silly law isn’t going to change that. Well, let’s make it a bit harder for them, please. You know, like we did at the airports after 9/11? If you aren’t willing to make it harder for people who intend harm to acquire a gun because you think the laws to prevent it won’t do any good, let’s just go ahead and do away with vehicular laws, or regulations that require fire escapes and alarms. You know, as a matter of fact, the minimal laws we have to protect our children at school, they obviously won’t stop a criminal, so let’s just chuck those, too. An argument against regulation because criminals will be criminals is an argument for anarchy.

So, Kelsey, aside from a firearms buy-back program and waiting for our legislatures to agree on gun reform, what else can we do to protect our communities and our children from gun violence? Shouldn’t we arm our teachers? Or at the very least, place armed guards in all the schools? I have a better question: Do you really want to be the kind of country that needs to militarize our educators? I don’t. We honestly aren’t paying our teachers enough as it is. We aren’t funding education adequately enough to provide everyone with enough pencils for the school year, but you want to spend the billions of dollars it would take to even begin to properly train and arm all the teachers in schools? How about we take that money and fund a better teacher/student ratio. I’d also love to see better ratios of counselors to students, so the fringe kiddos who feel rejected by the world have better resources available to them. Let’s demystify mental health and create a culture that welcomes therapy and medication when it’s needed. Universal healthcare that makes that care accessible to everyone would go quite a long way. Just saying.

I’d like to close this article with a few quotes I’ve come across in the past week that I think it’s important that we acknowledge. At the end of the day, people are hurting. People are mourning. People had to bury their children this week. People are angry. People are scared. And people have a right to be. Let’s do our part and set our egos aside. Being wrong isn’t a crime. Being wrong doesn’t make you weak. Being wrong, and accepting it, is the greatest opportunity for growth you will ever encounter.

I will not give names as I did not ask permission to provide them.

 

“Let’s take a moment to honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to bear arms.”

                                                                                                                           – a concerned citizen

“just know, i love you” “I love you too” “forever and you’re the best brother”

“We’re gonna get out of here I promise” “are the cops here? my teacher died”

                                                              – texts exchanged between two brothers during the                                                                  shooting at Stoneman Douglas

“‘Wait, Miss.’ she said, ‘If you lock us in the closet, doesn’t that mean you’ll be out here?’…’You would do that?’…’In a heartbeat. Just stay quiet so you get out alive. Make it worth it.’”

                       – A teacher’s account of the conversation she had with her students at                            a neighboring high school while they reviewed protocol for an active                              shooter situation while waiting to hear if anyone they knew had died.

“But nobody died in my classroom today. Just a piece of my heart.”

                                                                                                        – The same teacher, in closing.

 

I chose not to source my resources today because I want you to do some work. You can read this and any other article you stumble across and have some feelings about what it says, but I doubt you can do yourself the honor of formulating an honest and authentic opinion on a subject without doing some digging of your own. Nothing you read here today is hard to find information about. Check your sources, fake news is actually a real thing. And hey, learn some stuff. Surprise yourself with what you know and what you don’t know. Our children are worth it. Beyond that, let’s stop the name-calling and the finger-pointing. Something real must be done. I don’t want to be the kind of country where children feel they have take to the streets and march for their lives because us grownups can’t get our shit together.

I didn’t write this to change anyone’s mind. I just absolutely needed the catharsis of doing the research and putting my thoughts onto paper. Apparently, this is my current stage of grief. My heart and prayers meet you at yours.