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 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.
Out: Campfire Night. I loved using this notebook despite my initial apprehensions about the orange grid and the photo covers (my favourite Field Notes Colours edition is “Balsam Fir”). The covers wear really well, and the orange grid isn’t as distracting as I thought it would be. I’ll still use this one for a while, until I finish reading the Tournament of Books books, as it has my logs in it.
In: Fire Spotter. I’ve started this notebook before, filled in two pages and abandoned it (I’m not a fan of dot grid). Decided to start using up the Field Notes notebooks that I started using and haven’t finished because it’s just a shame not to. Firespotter is a great edition if you like dot grid, and I love the debossing on the back cover.
I finished reading the thirteenth (how appropriate) Tournament of Books 2019 book, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, Serial Killer“, which is running against Richard Power’s “The Overstory” in the fifth round of the competition.
This was a fast, sharp read, so I’ll try to make it a fast, sharp review.
I was worried that this would be horrible slasher novel, and it was far from it. Yes, it’s full of dark humour, but it’s also full of intense understanding of how family ties work, especially ties between sisters. It can be read as a lightweight, lighthearted humour piece, or as something that explores the darker sides of female bonds and male and female power relationships, but either way, you’re in for an enjoyable two hour ride.
Read it, ma. It’s worth it.
I finished reading the twelfth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Richard Power’s “The Overstory“, which is running against Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, Serial Killer” in the fifth round of the competition.
“The Overstory” is a good book that’s difficult to recommend. Why? Because this is not an easy read, both in terms of material and structure. The question in this case is always: “Is it worth the effort?” In this case, the answer is “sometimes”.
There are parts of this novel that could have been pollarded, parts where Powers was clearly very much in love with the words that he was producing. Other parts are a joy to read, pure poetry brilliantly written. The structure is stunningly complex: Powers introduces each character in a story of their own, and then weaves some of those stories together tightly, and others just tangentially. The result is a dizzying book that will make you love trees and love those who love them.
If the book was shorter and the structure clearer (note that I say structure. The book has very little going on in terms of pure plot), it would have been a must read. As it is, if you decide to put an effort in a book of this kind, allow me to recommend “Milkman“. If you’ve read that and are ready for more, much more, then “The Overstory” is for you.