Tag: LittleBrown

Review: The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

Review: The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

At the end of the day, all he really knew was that he was a Mexican father. And Mexican fathers made speeches. He wanted to leave her with a blessing, with beautiful words to sum up a life, but there were no words sufficient to this day. But still, he tried. “All we do, mija,” he said, “is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.”

Big Angel is dying, but before he goes, he wants his family—all of the twisting branches of it—gathered for his last birthday. Nothing will derail Big Angel’s party—not borders, not internal family feuds, not even his own mother’s death.  Told over the span of the days leading up to the party and the party itself, The House of Broken Angels is the story of an unforgettable Mexican-American patriarch and the life he built for his family, spanning decades and borders alike.

There is a distinctive voice to The House of Broken Angels—though I am an adult myself, Big Angel’s story is presented so intimately and warmly, I felt as if I were a child, drawn onto his knee, to hear a story from my grandfather. The prose is beautiful and enveloping in a way that invites the reader to join the family—this messy, imperfect, sprawling, grieving, celebrating family. Every word felt deliberately chosen and just right. The tone of the vignettes swing wildly from sad, to shocking, to funny, to irreverent—and yet every swing was just right.

As I read, I lost myself in this book—I wasn’t sitting in bed holding a kindle—I was in Big Angel’s backyard, smelling the food, listening to the children shriek, and waiting for Big Angel to come out of his house. For entire stretches at a time, I was in Big Angel’s world in Southern California, only to snap back after thirty or forty minutes to my quiet bedroom. Those moments when you can lose yourself so completely in a book that you are no longer aware that you are reading are so rare, and yet they became common for me on the nights I read this book.

This family is far from perfect—there’s sadness and violence waiting in the wings for many of these characters, there’s machismo and terrible choices—and yet I loved them. I loved Big Angel’s son Lalo as he grieved, as he fumbled around his definition of what it meant to be a man. I loved Little Angel (so named because Big Angel’s philandering father reused the name on his youngest son) as he sought his place within this family as the half-brother, chosen by their father over them and then ultimately abandoned as well. Minnie, dutiful daughter, yet still missing something—torn between exasperation at being treated far younger than her thirty-something years and yet wanting to stay the baby of the family if it means her father is alive to treat her that way. And Big Angel—imperfect patriarch, yet capable of such dedication to his wife and his children that he seemed larger than life, though trapped in his wasted body. These are complicated people, defined by their blood to Angel and also their humanness, their ordinariness. I half expect there to be a real De La Cruz family in San Diego throwing Big Angel his birthday this weekend.

Immigration and current events
The De La Cruz family and Big Angel himself are Mexican-Americans. They are of one place, living and contributing to the community and economy of another. Some of the members of the family, including Big Angel himself, are undocumented. And here again is where I come back to Urrea’s presentation of Big Angel as larger than life and yet so very ordinary.   The House of Broken Angels is the story of the family next door, or maybe across town. You buy groceries next to Big Angel’s wife Perla and you sat next to his son Lalo in high school bio.

I noted in my last review that The Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a single story that explains why so many people might leave their homes in South American to come across our border. The House of Broken Angels is another. Immigration is never simple once actual human beings are involved. It is one thing to speak of policy and “illegals.” It is another to look a human being in the face—a veteran, a long-time employee, and favorite neighbor—and tell them they do not belong. You are not us. The stories of Big Angel’s families are not all stories of lives well-lived. Not yet. And yet they are lives of value. They are lives that belong. Books like The House of Broken Angels seem vitally important in this current climate—in a climate where it is not safe for a neighbor to confide over the fence that he is undocumented and scared. When maybe you don’t know whether you know anyone who is undocumented and it’s not really the thing you ask right now. Read books like The House of Broken Angels and Fruit of the Drunken Tree to remind yourself that what is at stake is the dignity and lives of people.

Published: March 6, 2018 by Little, Brown, & Co. (@littlebrown)
Author: Luis Alberto Urrea
Date read: July 11, 2018
Rating: 5 stars* (I swear I don’t usually give this many books 5 stars, I’ve just had a really good streak of reading).

Featured Image credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman


It scarcely matters what is actually happening. She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it. She lets the power tickle at her fingers, scorching the varnish on the underside of the table. She can smell its sweet chemical aroma. Nothing that either of these men says is really of any significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs.  It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

The Power tells the time period during which the power balance shifted—women (starting with teenage girls and waking in older women) have gained the power to electrify those they touch and, as a result, have become the default stronger, more powerful sex. Suddenly men find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape where every interaction with a woman can suddenly turn dangerous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Power has drawn numerous comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—I understand this comparison but it is somewhat misleading. In plot, The Power is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Rather than men running the world and a shortage of women, the world of The Power flips the power dynamic entirely and places women at the apex of power with men being the ones subjugated. Where the comparison rings true is the message and POV of the book. Alderman was literally mentored by Atwood and both books highlight the evils that arise when men are the sole sex in charge—Atwood by describing the extremes of men in charge and Alderman by narrating what happens when women take over and the gender-roles of power are flipped.

Structure and Writing
Alderman’s writing is well-constructed and snappy—there aren’t long poetic runs of prose, except in the religious “excerpts” where the prose fits the Biblical-style. Despite presenting four major viewpoints, Alderman is able to distinguish the voice and present distinct points-of-view for each character. Adding to the narrative are selected “primary” documents – letters, pictures of artifacts, excerpts from The Book of Eve. This could easily become gimmicky but because Alderman uses them sparingly, they add to the story. It is worth noting that with the use of the female-based religion (venerating the Mother over Jesus specifically), this book could easily become distasteful (or downright blasphemous) to devout Christians. The book is presented as a countdown to some unknown event so the timeline remains in flux—while the book doesn’t need a mystery element like this to be page-turning, it does add an additional element of the unknown—the book had a very clear climax that it worked towards.

Depth and Breadth
Arguably The Power’s greatest strength is also it’s biggest flaw. I was hard pressed to think of any gender role, stereotype, or gender crime that didn’t get flipped and addressed. I’m sure I missed some but the list includes religious-based sexism/gender-roles; how women can “control” sexual impulses (for both genders) by just keeping their (in this case) arms crossed; the plagiarism of women’s writing and the need to use nom de plumes in order to have women’s writing reach a wider audience; the rates of domestic violence and murder of women; gender-based gang violence; women who are opposed to feminism/women having power; women wanting to be men because of their power; women needing to take self-defense classes; parents worried about how girls are being victimized in school; gender roles in newscasting with a patronizing man covering business topics and the giggly woman covering serious topics like bobbing for apples; having a war correspondent be known/popular for how hot she looks when reporting; gender roles within families; having to have permission to travel/having to be with a guardian in public; genital mutilation; internal classes within gender where those who have less of the traditional (or new traditional) features of “masculinity” or “femininity” are judged/less than; and historians interpreting historical artifacts based on the current understanding of power (and discounting that which doesn’t fit).

There was a point at which it almost felt like too much—like Alderman was trying too hard to fit absolutely positively every gender issue into The Power. On the flip side, I know there are many who think this is an impressive feat that Alderman accomplishes and that each of these issues deserves to be mentioned, if for nothing else, than to show the impact misogyny has on absolutely every area of life. At the end of the day, for me it felt like hammering just a little too hard but wasn’t so distracting that it took away from the reading experience for me.

End game
It is easy to rue men’s current leadership and latch on to the idea that if women ran things the world would be better—everyone would be more gentle, there would be no war, and we’d all skip through fields of daisies, holding hands. Had this been where Alderman took The Power, it would have been a weak utopia. In contrast, Alderman’s message (one of the many) may be the idea that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where Atwood left open the possibility that a female-run world would be better, it’s not clear that Alderman’s world is actually better. Certainly, it’s better for women and you can make a convincing argument that men have had the run of things for a couple millennia so it’s our turn. But Alderman doesn’t buy the idea that women in charge automatically means a more harmonious world. It wasn’t entirely where I expected the book to go but it was the right choice—both logically and for purely for the story’s sake as well.

As noted, this book is a bit gritty and raw in plot—it is unapologetically and in-your-face feminist. I loved it and am glad it was my Book of the Month pick this month—it is still available a la carte to add for future months if you’re a current member. It is also well-crafted and well-written, hitting those notes in my grammar-and-structure-loving heart.

Published October 10, 2017 (in the US) by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Naomi Alderman (@naomi_alderman)
Date read: October 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie


 The thing is, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is an extended elegy for Lillian Alexie, mother of Sherman Alexie, award-winning Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American author and filmmaker. Simultaneously cruel and kind, truth-teller and liar, selfish and selfless, Lillian Alexie helped form the man her son came to be, both by nurturing him and by driving him into the world away from her.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a book I would recommend particularly in audiobook. Earlier this year I listened to Alexie’s frequently-banned and National Book Award-winning book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and loved the cadence his speech gave the book. Here too, Alexie’s cadence and rhythm, particularly when reading his poems interspersed throughout the book, add a layer not found in the written text. There are a few moments when he literally sings sections that include chants.

He’s also not a perfectly polished audiobook reader—there are times he is literally fighting back tears and others when he is chuckling—like when he talks about the cousin who was honor-bound to come pull his car out of a ditch but still angry with him so he didn’t say a word the entire time he was pulling the car out of the ditch. Because these are Alexie’s stories, the emotion adds poignancy to the book. When Alexie talks about his scars, these are his scars. I’m sure the book alone is lovely but the audiobook is masterful and shouldn’t be missed.

Because I listen to audiobooks while driving and doing chores around the house, it took me a little longer to notice than I might have if I were reading, but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is repetitive, like stanzas in a poem, even within the sections that are prose. In any other book, this would scream of the need for a better editor. In Alexie’s hands, because he is a poet, the loops of thought drive home the points Alexie is making.

The section where this became the most obvious to me (and initially made me check to see if the Overdrive app had accidentally backed up a section) is where he talks about his mother’s and grandmother’s sexual assaults. He cycles back, analyzing what happened, what these events meant to him, meant to his mother, meant for his family, mean for the larger context of the history of rape on a reservation. He repeats refrains while drawing different conclusions each time, such that his work is almost a mind map, returning to the central theme and following a new branch with each section.

Collective Memory and Rape on the Rez
Because of how common it is on the reservation as well as within Alexie’s own family, he spends a fair amount of time talking about rape—how it impacted him, his family, and the larger social context of rape on a reservation including its use as a means to destroy and subjugate and how victims sometimes become the perpetrators. The moment that hit home the most about the use of rape against First Nations came when Alexie read:

If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people. Of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And finally that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people. My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment. In my most blasphemous moments, I think of that evil scientist as God.

While nothing is graphically described, this book is not recommended if sexual assault is a trigger.

In discussing larger issues than just his individual memories of his mother, Alexie’s book is remarkably timely, with chapters addressed to his life as a minority in the Trump era. Admittedly, I was surprised to hear these chapters as it was my impression that books take longer than seven months to write-polish-publish, even if these chapters were a late addition. I am glad they made it in, as the book is better for them—we need to listen to more minority voices telling us what life is like now. What it means that in 2017 White Supremacists are emboldened to throw off their bedsheets and appear in public unmasked. What it means for them to feel safer in society than people of color.

Because the reservation schools were/are so dismal, Alexie chose to leave the reservation to obtain an education and opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. This meant he was essentially the only First Nation person in the sea of whiteness at the Reardan High School. Alexie was apparently quite popular—elected class president, star of the basketball team, and academically excellent. His experience in the early 80s was of being accepted there.

Yet, Lincoln County, the home of the town of Reardan, went 72% for Trump in the 2016 election. What does it say about the people Alexie grew up amongst—that they seemed to love him as a teenager, even with all of his liberalness and brownness—while they voted so solidly against his interests now? For those who would say that a vote for Trump wasn’t a vote for racism, Alexie writes:

Dear Reardan, I am afraid of you. Does that make you sad, or angry at me?

Dear Reardan, dear old friends, dear old lovers, do you realize that when you voted for Trump, you voted against me? Against the memory of the person I used to be in your lives? I was the indigenous immigrant. The first generation of my family to fully commit himself to world outside of the reservation. I was the eccentric brown boy. I was the indigenous leftist. And, for five years in the 1980s, I was a transformative figure. I made that little white town into a slightly more diverse and inclusive and accepting place. Or maybe I didn’t do any of that. Maybe I was just a cultural anomaly.

This is the message the election of Trump sent to the marginalized—whether this was the message you meant to transmit or not, this was the message. This is what it feels like for one man to not be safely in the majority. To realize he is less safe this evening than he thought he was when he woke up that morning.

Within the overall narrative, Alexie briefly mentions a few times his own sexual assault as a child as well as his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I love him for acknowledging these things have happened to him, are happening to him. That you can be a successful novelist/poet/filmmaker, win awards, and be someone who is a survivor. Someone who has a mental illness. That these things do not make you unworthy, unlovable, or incapable of success. That these things are not things to be ashamed of or to hide.

Also read….
Both in the poetic prose and in theme, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me reminded me of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. Both take the event of their mother’s death and use it to look both back at life with them and forward at life without them, drawing parallels and connections—for Williams to migratory patterns of birds and for Alexie to the larger socio-political history of the treatment of First Nation peoples—that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to others looking at the singular event of one woman’s death. If you enjoyed one, I believe you’d enjoy the other.

While I focused on the serious themes, because those are largely what I took notes on as impactful to me, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is equal parts humorous and serious. There are numerous points at which Alexie is chuckling, as is the reader. His life and, as he comes to see, his mother’s life had moments of beauty and comedy. She was many things to many people and, indeed, many things to the son who mourns her. So long as a reader is not triggered by discussions of sexual assault, this is a book with wide range and wide appeal and one I recommend whole-heartedly.

Published June 13, 2017 by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Sherman Alexie
Date read: September 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars