I finished reading the last Tournament of Books novel a few weeks ago, but I waited with the review until I could gather my thoughts about the whole experience. That’s a little unfair to what’s turned out to be one of the best books in the tournament, so my apologies to Urrea. The “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea was up against “So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith in the sixth round of the competition.
To call “The House of Broken Angels” heartwarming seems somehow insufficient. It is a heartwarming tale of a man celebrating the last days of his life with his extended family. It’s also an immigrant story, a story of overcoming abuse, poverty, racism, and your own preconceptions even when you’re on the verge of death. It’s a story of one generation passing the torch on to another. It’s a story of women finding their voice in a world of men. It’s a story with tremendous tragedy and a lot of humour. It’s a story about the poetry of everyday life.
But most of all it’s a story of family and love, created without cynicism or cliche: unique, realistic, flawed, and intensely powerful.
In two days life, in its mundanities and most profound and heroic moments, unfolds before your eyes and leaves you at times laughing, crying or merely breathless with anticipation. Urrea moves you from past to present, from one character to another, effortlessly and seamlessly. It’s one of the few cases that I’ve seem where a complex narrative structure feels like a light read simply because it’s so well created.
This is a must read, especially these days, when the Mexican and Latino population in the US is constantly under attack.
There’s not much in common between “So Lucky” and “The House of Broken Angels” apart from them both being centred around people who have fallen seriously ill. “So Lucky” deals with the first days of dealing with illness, and the “The House of Broken Angels” with the last. The protagonist in “So Lucky” is a lone woman, and in “The House of Broken Angels” it is a man surrounded by a large, loving family. The trick lies in reading the acknowledgements in the end, as it is then that you discover that both narratives are based on the true life experiences of the authors. That adds impact to the stories in some ways, but I think that it mainly creates a level playing ground where they both have a similar gravitas and you can simply judge them by their merits. I highly recommend reading both, but that being said “The House of Broken Angels” is a much better work of fiction. It’s also more enjoyable to read despite its oftentimes tough subject matter, and unlike “So Lucky”, it’s a literary novel and a story of its time that is also timeless. Imagine comfort food that isn’t boring and provides you with all your daily nutritional needs and you’ve got “The House of Broken Angels”.
Have you not read it yet, mijo?
“There There” by Tommy Orange was originally going to be the last Tournament of Books novel that I read, but because “The House of Broken Angels” was delayed by the post office, it turned out to be the penultimate book to be read. It was up against “America is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo in one of the toughest rounds to judge, at least for me.
Wow this book was quite a ride. There are 12(!) protagonists in this book, and a good deal of the subject matter is difficult, but the challenge is worth it. The stories of several Urban Indians converge as they gather to celebrate the Great Oakland Powwow.
Are all the characters necessary? No. But most of them are, and the story that emerges, of urban Native American life is worth reading. It’s a tight-knit and small community so there are a lot of ties between the various characters, and it could have been a very small, very anecdotal story if not for Orange’s moving interstitial background passages. The tragedy of the characters’ lives is made manifest through these pieces, and the result is not unlike a patchwork quilt, where a lot of small parts make a beautiful, interconnected whole.
Not an easy read, well worth your time.
“The Parking Lot Attendant” was up against “The Mars Room” in the Tournament of Books, and it was no surprise when (spoiler alert) it won. I have no idea how “The Parking Lot Attendant” got into the competition proper and books like “America is Not the Heart“, “Speak No Evil“, and “A Terrible Country” had to fight it out in the play in round. “The Parking Lot Attendant” was one of the few books in the competition that was genuinely I-have-no-idea-how-this-was-published bad (the other two were “Warlight“, which somehow almost won the competition, and “Call Me Zebra“).
I have no problem with books that have complex and often confusing narrative structures, provided that the difficulty presented is justified by the work of fiction you end up with. In short – it had gotta be worth it. “Milkman” was worth it. “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” was worth it. “The Parking Lot Attendant” was not. The narrative was jumbled, confusing, vague, and all for nothing. I could not have cared less about any of the characters, as none of them materialized as a real person, and the plot was beyond preposterous. There was nothing here worth spending any time with, and even the premise was uninspired. At the very most, in the hands of a very skilled storyteller, this could have been a decent short story. As it was, it was a 200+ page waste of time.
“The Mars Room” was the book that I most dreaded reading once the final list of the Tournament of Books 2019 contest was published. The story of a stripper sentenced to three life sentences in a California prison for killing her stalker didn’t seem like the kind of reading that I’d enjoy. In some ways I was right — this wasn’t a fun read. What I hadn’t anticipated was being moved and touched by a story not so dissimilar from those that I’ve recently read and heard about in the news or in “This American Life”.
“The Mars Room” is about as far from light reading as you can get. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s violent. It’s relentless. It’s excellent.
We are living in a time where at least in parts of America there seems to be a growing awareness of the failings and injustices of their criminal justice system. There are a lot of non-fiction pieces coming out now that are bringing to light the toll mass incarceration, the “war on drugs” and prison privatization have taken on communities. So why read a work of fiction, no matter how well researched, when you can read an article or a book, listen to podcasts or watch documentaries on the American criminal justice system and the people at its mercy?
Because Kushner lets you into Romy’s mind, into her fellow inmates minds, into her victim’s mind. You see the people working in the system and incarcerated in the system as intimately as you possibly can – their mistakes, the tragedy of their lives, their big and small moments, their cruelties and their kindnesses. They aren’t opaque any more, they aren’t invisible. You get to see not only the systems of poverty, injustice, racism and abuse that started them on their respective journeys to prison, but you get to see them, to experience them as full human beings. That’s what makes it so terrible, and such a great work of fiction to read.
I’m still charging ahead on my Tournament of Books challenge, even though the competition has long ended (what a weird choice of a winner and a finalist. I don’t get it). Since I’ve been trying to read the books as fast as I can, I’ve limited myself to notes on them in my reading journal, and so the updates on the site have been somewhat delayed. It’s just easier to write my book thoughts with pen on paper.
I was going to read “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea first, but for some reason it was pulled off the kindle store, so I had to wait for the paperback to arrive. That meant that I went on to read “So Lucky” by Nicola Griffith next as the 14th book I read in the competition. It’s up against “The House of Broken Angels” in the sixth round of the competition.
It is so rare to find a work of fiction that centres around a young, healthy, active person discovering that they have a serious disease that isn’t cancer. There’s nothing sexy or hip about the subject matter. There’s nothing about MS that inspires the same kind of charity and feeling as cancer or AIDS. And Mara, the protagonist, is so aware of that.
That’s just another layer of realness in a novel that reads like a work of non-fiction while still showing us Mara’s inner world in a way that only fiction can. It moved me, it rattled me, it made me furious and it gave me hope. This is a must read not because it’s great literature with-a-capital-L, but because it is a profoundly human and humane piece of fiction that is both deeply personal and utterly universal. It says a lot about how we treat the sick and the disabled, it says a lot about what it’s like becoming sick and disabled (these days in America, but not only), and it says a hella of a lot about our ability to evolve and adapt to the most harrowing of conditions.
Also, it really made me want to learn karate.
The latest books to arrive today:
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, which is the last Tournament of Books 2019 book that I still haven’t read.
Provenance by Ann Leckie, which ties into her masterful and award winning Imperial Radch trilogy.
Spring by Ali Smith, which is the third in her season’s project. I loved Autumn and Winter and I can’t wait to dig into this one.
I’m in the middle of Lies Sleeping the latest Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London book and it’s difficult to put it down, but I’ve decided to put it on hold and finish with the Tournament of Books as I originally planned.
Field Notes is a major sponsor of the Morning News’ Tournament of Books, and every year they celebrate the tournament by creating a specially themed notebook for the occasion. The notebooks are sold as singles and 100% of the proceeds from them are donated to the 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth. This year, the Rooster Book looks like this:
The party is all in the back, with this year’s ToB Rooster logo:
I really feel like colouring it in crazy psychedelic colours.
The notebook is lined, and the craft front cover is pretty standard for a Field Notes:
Again the back is where it’s at, with a list of this year’s Tournament of Books contenders.
You can check off the books that you’ve read, and I admit it was pretty fun checking almost all of them off.
This is a cool little edition that helps out two wonderful causes. The only thing I would change about it is its publication date. If Field Notes would have issued it at the time the list of contenders was announced then you could really use this notebook to follow along with the tournament. But I bought a few notebooks as a memento of my plan to read all the books in the tournament this year, and excellent for that.