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.

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.

Edify

There’s nothing like the perfect word. The number of times I’ve delayed conversations because the word I’m racking my brain for is playing hard to get…countless. To someone who tries her hardest to take the time to articulate exactly what she means, it feels incredible to finally close your figurative fingers around it. Like itching a scratch you’ve been contorting yourself to reach.

A Thesaurus is a fantastic tool to combat this annoyance, but it’s one to use with care. We’ve all heard stories, or *cough* lived them, where people got so carried away with synonyms that their finished product was barely understandable.

For example, has anyone seen this scene from Friends?

But, Kelsey! Don’t you use a Thesaurus?! All the damn time! However, I mostly employ it as a search engine for my brain. I run to the Thesaurus when a word is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t remember quite what it is. Sure, I could use a replacement, but it would likely fail to convey exactly what I’m intending.

I also use it when I can’t find a word that feels just right. As I’ve mentioned, words have nuance, and when I find the words I already know aren’t adequately providing the feeling or understanding I’m going for I go learn some new words! I read through a variety of synonyms that are close but not quite right until one is. I’ve then expanded my vocabulary AND imparted exactly what I want to my reader.

Today, I want to talk about the word “edify”. Wait! Don’t look it up yet. I’m getting there.

If you learn something new, you are educated on it. If you teach something new, you are educating someone. Facts, figures, languages, grammar, rules, etc. — these all fall under education. But what would you call it if you learned something on an emotional level? A moral level? A spiritual level?

The Merriam-Webster definition of edify is: to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge : uplift; also : enlighten, inform.

Doesn’t that fit the bill? I first heard this word being used to define art. This person’s argument was that art isn’t something you just see, hear, read, or taste, it’s something that educates your soul. Art is edifying.

Most of the pains and struggles of life are edifying. They help us reach a deeper understanding of self. A good book can be edifying. A play can be edifying. Anything at all that makes you stop and go, “Huh.” A small door in the catacombs of your brain has opened to reveal something you weren’t aware was there. An understanding, a compassion, a relatability, a connection.

Education is a horse led to water. Edification is the horse taking a drink. Education is memorizing vocabulary words. Edification is learning the depth of meaning beyond the typed definition beside them. Education is fact. Edification is feeling. These are my interpretations, of course, but they are also the reasons I love this word so very much.

Education and edification are equally important, but serve different roles in our world. They are each other’s compliment. They balance and weave together to form more complete understanding and appreciation of whatever they encounter. Two very different creatures living in harmony and promoting the harmony of their users.

I ask that you take a moment to reflect on how they might be working together in your life. And if you find you can’t think of something that’d edified you recently, seek something out. It’s good for the soul.

Until next time.