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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Woman’s Best Friend

This is Sammy. He’s my ten-and-a-half-year-old Havanese fluff that I don’t know what I would do without. He’s kind, quiet, protective, and the source of a rippled sense of calm that blooms out into my house. I am also increasingly aware of the smoky film slowly lightening his soulful eyes. Every September I try to ignore that another precious year with him has passed. The love of a human lifespan has condensed and intensified to fit his short life, and the sheer power of it might very well drown me when it’s his time to go.

My dearest friend and companion has been with me across the world and back, across heartbreak and back, into motherhood, and beyond. Ever by my side, at times when I felt entirely alone in all of existence, he was there – resting his head in my lap, quietly allowing me to cry into his fur, letting me cling to him like a liferaft. He has always brought me back to a place of hope. This incredible creature has a compassion of such depth you’d be hard-pressed to find a human with such understanding kindness. He deserves every inch of the cozy divot he’s quickly creating on the back cushion of my new couch.

The only angry word he’s ever had for me is a quiet rumble in his chest if I nudge him with my foot when he’s trying to sleep. He’s my forever bathroom buddy, so I never have to pee alone. He’s the first to greet me when I come home after a day away from the house, or the forty-five-minute circuit of dropping off the kids, or the twenty foot trip to the mailbox. He’s lying at my feet right now, curled up with a throw blanket as a pillow. He’s waiting for me to fall asleep before he trots off to the kitchen to finish his dinner. When I wake up in the morning, he’ll be back, staying with me even after his corgi brother has been fed and let out, until I get up and he’s seen me safely to my coffee cup.

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He’s very cute, but not very charismatic. He’s more of a watchful wall flower allowing his brother to hog the spotlight. His excitement and joy lives in his tail, and if I say his name, even at a whisper, it quickly flicks back and forth with happiness even if he never lifts his head. He waits his turn when it’s time to go outside, knowing the corgi will barrel through ahead anyway. He’s a solid indoor dog, only bounding out into the yard for a quick bathroom break before returning to scratch at the door. He loves fetch, Greenies, and a good ear-scratching.

With both of my pregnancies, he’s broken his normal rule of cuddling (lap adjacent, not atop) in favor of getting close to his baby. After each birth, he would always place himself between them and whoever else was in the room. Now he lays at my feet when I read bedtime stories or rummages at their blankets until they lift up a corner so he can stretch out alongside their legs. At dinner time, he smartly sits under their chairs where he has the best chance at table scraps accidentally falling to the floor. He’s an excellent vacuum.

He’s also great at shredding used tissues, and more than once he’s lulled me into a false sense of confidence by not showing any interest in my food for months, only to use a well-timed sneak attack when I’ve stood up to grab a drink and returned to find only half a bowl of leftover casserole. He never puts up with the cat’s cheekiness. Cuddle buddy? Sure. But his tail is not a string of yarn to attack, thank you very much.

Sammy noses his food when he eats, gently picking out a kibble or two, walking them to a nearby doorway, and eating them there. The corgi may or may not have a few extra pounds on him because he doesn’t share his brother’s table manners and loves to hurry him along with the threat of picking up the slack. No, Sammy is a grazer, much preferring to dancing with me in the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner with the radio turned up. He loves the bits of carrot I nonchalantly drop from the chopping board. He doesn’t beg when he thinks it’s an accident, you see. He mostly lets his brother do the talking, but will alert us when the front door is opened…even we are the ones who open it. Yes, Sammy, something might be out there. Thank you.

Sammy believes in me. He has never questioned my life choices, though he does prefer me working from home. He wouldn’t be surprised if I succeeded at this whole writing thing because it would never occur to him to doubt me. He’s loved me when I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and when we could start splurging on fancy, grain-free dog food. The love of a dog is truly unconditional and I am so deeply grateful to receive it.

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Sammy, Sam, Sambo, Sammy Boo, Samalotta, Fluff, Fluffer-Nutter, Fluff-Butt, my little therapy dog, mon cher chien, my best friend. Thank you for your love. You’ve only ever grown more precious to me, and I know you feel the same way. Facing your mortality, hearing your vet call you “senior”, has been an adjustment for me, to say the least, but you’ve seen me safely into true adulthood. I’ll see you safely through whatever comes around the bend.

Please don’t hate me when I try to make an imprint of your paw in clay.

xx

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.

Love: A Favorite Word

We are nearing Valentine’s Day, and while the current traditions of this holiday may be a topic of contention, I choose to celebrate the day in honor of love. Not solely romantic love, but the existence of it in all its many incarnations. It also happens to be a favorite word of mine. It’s a simple word at first glance – just four little letters, after all – but it’s a favorite because it can trigger endless pondering. Like “God”, “universe”, or “soul” it is a word that is exquisitely simple and infinitely intricate. It all depends on how you use it and what it means to you.

I wouldn’t say love is something to be feared, but just like the depths of an ocean or the great height of a mountain, love is something to be respected. You can welcome it for its beauty, for its healing, you can even prop it up against you to crutch through difficult days, but always it must be respected for the power it holds.

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Love holds power that I don’t believe humans can fully comprehend. Just as we know that we have not even come close to identifying all of the organisms in the waters of our earth, we have only begun to catalog and inventory the true purpose and potential of love. Simply put, it’s a word we take for granted. We profess our love for paint colors, coffee cups, and the shoes on our feet. Slightly deeper, we might announce our adoration for a film that particularly moved us to laughter or tears, a song that rippled chill bumps up our arms, even a book that put words to our deepest secrets and a name to our greatest fears.

 

I imagine levels of love to move down as they grow, rather than rising to new heights. To me, the greater the love, the deeper it has burrowed into our souls. Simple love is the bloom on a spindly branch of a tree, momentary but yielding easy appreciation. The deepest of love grows, reaching into the rich earth as roots supplying all nourishment a soul might need.

The love you feel for a partner, for your child, for your family – these all stand solidly in the trunk of the tree. They are foundational loves. They are the loves that you draw strength from when life rattles you. They are the loves that we are most concerned with, the loves we most desperately fear to lose. We agonize over it. For without our trunks, how can the blossoms bloom? How can the roots forage? Death or dissolution of these loves can cease and seize the life from flowing within us if we let it. These sorts are strong and can stir passions, achievement, even heroics, but they still allow the side effects of the earthy human experience. Jealousy, expectation, disappointment. I don’t wish to cast a shadow on them, as I feel them deeply myself, but I acknowledge the fragility of them. While they may not ever break, they can chip and fray with hurt feelings and things left unsaid.  

So what are the roots, you ask. The roots of love are made of the oldest and most ancient of loves. Unconditional. “But I love my children unconditionally!” My husband, my wife, my mother, my father, sister, brother, and on we go. Yes. Yes, of course, you do. But truly unconditional love does not stop with the name or title of one person. Or even many people. Unconditional love, the kind that burrows deep into the very nature of humanity, the very gift of consciousness we have achieved as human beings, is the love of all people without requirement or design. Understanding is not required. Introductions, not required. Sameness, common history, belief, morals, anything at all. The roots of love, as I see it, are for growing past what we can see and easily comprehend, and accepting the sustenance of that power without question.

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At the heart of unconditional love, is the love of self. It is in recognizing that every word misspoke or intentionally aimed, every judgment reflected, every dimple, wrinkle, or scar – they are all perfect. Even in our worst moments, there is purpose. Purpose sprouts from the acknowledgment of, “Yes, I can grow from this.” Loving yourself isn’t conceit, it isn’t prideful, and it is not undeserved. Celebrate that this week. Yes, I’m being bossy-britches about this, but please. Celebrate love unconditionally for what you know of it, what you haven’t yet discovered, for what you feel for others, and what you should feel for yourself.

I love you — now get back to your roots.