Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

There is a magical quality to Willa Cather’s writing that greatly affects me. I have long been an admirer of My Antonia and can’t read more than 2 sentences of that entrancing novel without getting teary. It’s not so much the subject matter that moves me (though it does) but the words themselves, the images they create, the feelings of sympathy they evoke.

I found the same quality in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I am not shy to state that this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I felt transported while reading it, lifted above the everyday dinginess of my own life to  a land that is brutal and fierce but where nature rules and is beautifully infused into the lives of the people. I very much admire the way Cather writes about nature. Her respectful and praising attitude toward the landscape of New Mexico or Nebraska or whatever place she is writing about becomes almost central to the story – a character itself.

Ms. Willa Cather

This novel takes place in New Mexico, the land of enchantment. Father Latour, a French priest who has been serving in Ohio, is sent to be the bishop of the Santa Fe mission. The year is 1851 and the journey out to the west is treacherous. After much hardship he arrives among the juniper trees and red hills of his new diocese. The people of Santa Fe will at first not acknowledge his authority, but he finally wins them over and becomes a beloved figure in the town. He soon sends for his best friend and fellow priest, Father Vaillant, to join him. The two men have been inseparable since they were in seminary together and Father Latour relies on his much more energetic and charming friend to grease the wheels of progress among the natives and Mexican citizens of the area. Father Latour is more of a dreamer, a reserved and cultured man who loves the people he serves, but doesn’t like conflict.

The book doesn’t really have a straight narrative. It is comprised of sketches in the life of these two noble men that progress through the years of their service in the area. We meet many of the members of their diocese, many of them simple people who love God and are devoted to goodness. We also meet scoundrels and wealthy villains who make life difficult for the church.

St. Francis Cathedral Basilica of Santa Fe

While this is not a fast-moving novel or what some would call gripping, I was hooked from the first page.  I think it may have more meaning to me because I am from the southwest and enjoyed reading about what life was like here during the 19th century and I love the descriptions of the trees and plants and rocks that are so familiar to me.

Magic and magnificence emanate from this tale. I could enthuse non-stop about how much I loved it, but instead I will urge you to discover the beauty for yourself.

Classics Challenge – January

It’s the fourth of the month and time to post on my current classic for A Classics Challenge! This month’s prompt asks participants to post about their views on the author of the classic they are reading. My current book is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. From my days of having to read A Tale of Two Cities in middle school I have abhorred Dickens. I very vehemently avoided reading anything by him all during my teen years, but I couldn’t escape him in college. Little Dorrit was assigned in my Victorian Lit class and I reluctantly skimmed the book – just enough to be able to participate in discussions and act like I knew what the professor was talking about. I left the class and never looked back on Mr. Dickens. I had no intention of ever reading any of his novels again until my thoughts started to change after watching the wonderful Bleak House tv series that aired a few years ago. I started to think that maybe his stories weren’t as boring and convoluted as I feared.

Now with 2012 upon us and Dickens making a splash (due to his Bicentenary) I decided the time is right to read one of his novels. I started Great Expectations a few weeks ago and have been really enjoying it. I didn’t anticipate the humor of it, the very funny scenes and amusing characters. I am about 1/4 of the way through and appreciate Dickens’s keen sense of human weakness, his marvelous talent for description and his powerful way of conveying the motivations of his characters and the conflicts Pip is tortured with.

I am enchanted with this book and so pleased that I chose to read it as part of the Classics Challenge. I can’t wait to see where Pip’s adventures take him.

Do you like Dickens? What is your favorite Dickens novel?

Christmas Reading: Dylan Thomas + Truman Capote

This past weekend I was craving some cozy, Christmas, comfort fiction so I turned to two stories I had on my shelves. Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a charming remembrance, an adult’s memories of his childhood holidays filled with food, ‘Useless’ and ‘Useful’ presents, and the music that roars on Christmas night. Dylan’s language is colorful and vivid and there is a very jubilant energy bursting from the story. It is really a joy to read.

A Christmas Memory is a bittersweet story that I try to read every year during the holidays. It is told from the viewpoint of a child, Buddy, and recounts his memories of his Christmases in Alabama during the 1930’s. Buddy and his cousin, whom he calls ‘my friend’ throughout the story, embrace the traditions of the season by scraping together all of the money they can find to buy ingredients to make fruit cakes. They make them for friends, family and even President Roosevelt. They also find joy in harvesting their own tree and making presents for each other. This autobiographical tale takes the reader back to a simpler time and introduces us to the unforgettable character of Buddy’s cousin, who was based on Capote’s real relative, Miss Sook. This is a gem that I highly recommend.

If you’re looking for some quick and gladdening reading during this hectic time of the year, try one or both of these terrific stories!

It’s Time to Read the Classics

I’ve decided to jump on the Classics Challenge bandwagon, this one hosted by Katherine at November’s Autumn. This is a different type of challenge – the guidelines are here – but basically you post on the 4th of every month about the current classic you’re reading or that you’ve recently finished. My goal is to read classics that I’ve downloaded to my Kindle and that have been sitting, taking up precious storage space, since I transferred them. They were all free, but I still feel guilty for not having read them for so long. The following are some of the classics I’ve had on my Kindle for the longest. Has anyone read any of these? Love them? Hate them?

One. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Two. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Three. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Four. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Five. Macaria by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson

Six. Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells

Seven. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The Dark Tide by Vera Brittain

The Dark Tide was published in 1923 and was Vera Brittain’s first novel. It caused quite a stir when it was released as it caricatured several Oxford dons and nearly insulted her good friend Winifred Holtby, whom the main character is modeled after. However, Holtby took it “with good humor”. I think I would have been insulted if I were Holtby after reading the first 1/3 of the novel as she makes the protagonist, Daphne Lethbridge, seem like a horrid, ignorant, mean girl. But Brittain does redeem her character in the end.

As the novel opens, Daphne has returned to Oxford after serving as a driver during the War. She’s looking forward to continuing her studies in International Relations, but things go south when she begins coaching with a fellow student, Virginia Dennison. Virginia is simply brilliant. She’s also attractive and dresses beautifully. Daphne can’t control her jealousy and develops a dislike of Virginia that borders on hatred. For Virginia, the feeling is mutual. She thinks Daphne is idiotic, clumsy and ridiculous. Daphne tries so hard to eclipse Virginia’s work, but Virginia’s natural abilities far outshine her own. This antagonism and competition inadvertently leads to Daphne agreeing to marry their coach, a man named Raymond Sylvester, who had really wanted to marry Virginia. The tragedy that erupts from this marriage results in Daphne and Virginia forming an unlikely alliance.

I very much liked The Dark Tide and Vera Brittain’s clear writing style. This is the type of novel that you can get lost in at the end of a long day. It has a tinge of melodrama, not too much, just the right amount to make it addicting. Daphne and Virginia are both engaging characters and the transformations realized in their personalities by the end of the novel are admirable. There is definitely a “feel good” ending to the book that was a tad surprising –  I did not predict the ending at all. More than anything, this is hugely enjoyable and completely absorbing – time well spent.

For anyone wondering about my storytime experience – it went fairly well, but I don’t feel great about it. I had about 35 people and it was chaotic, but I did learn more about pacing and story length. I know that as I do more of them, I’ll learn more and be able to refine and improve the experience for both me and the babies. The babies were the best part – one little boy named Jack let me hold him and his grandparents told me that he never lets anyone outside of the family hold him – that made me feel great!

Gigi by Colette

Translated from the French by Roger Senhouse

Surprisingly, I knew hardly anything about Gigi before I read this novelette. I have never seen the musical and only vaguely remembered hearing anything about it. I think this was good. It made the story more riveting and delightful for me not knowing the characters or the outcome of the story beforehand.

So, unlike me, all of you probably know the Gigi story, therefore I won’t rehash the plot. But I will give my impressions. I loved Madame Alvarez and her sister Aunt Alicia. Their pronouncements on everything from jewels to actresses to motor cars were amusing and entertaining. The everyday details that Colette infuses her story with made it come to life for me. I relished reading about what the characters were wearing, eating and how they were styling their hair. It was endlessly fascinating. It gave me a glimpse into what life was like for them at the end of the nineteenth century in Paris.

How can any reader not adore Gigi? This innocent yet headstrong teen usurps the combined years of wisdom of her grandmother and aunt to achieve the desired outcome they had been scheming for – and more! She is a charming and fascinating character.

Seen through modern eyes this story is distasteful and kind of shocking, but completely entertaining when modern sensibilities are cast aside. I very much liked this and will seek out more of Colette’s writings in the future.

Fashions from 1899 - would Gigi have worn something like these?

The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women was not the book I thought it was going to be. The first five chapters or so concentrate on the three Madden sisters, Alice, Virginia, and Monica, who’ve been left somewhat destitute by the death of their father many years before when they were girls. They each have a bit of an inheritance, but are forced to work as governesses, teachers and shop girls to make ends meet. I thought the novel would continue to tell the story of these sisters and how they survive, but it doesn’t really. And it isn’t even very much about ‘odd women’, women who are husbandless and childless. It is really a novel about marriage and how, though it was the main occupation for women in the Victorian age, it was often highly unsatisfactory.

You see, Monica decides to marry a much older man, Mr. Widdowson, in order to escape her life of drudgery and despair. The main part of the remainder of the novel dissects their failure as husband and wife. Widdowson is jealous, controlling and insecure. His ideal of womanhood is crushed to pieces by Monica’s bold outlook.  He, therefore, smothers her and demands her constant and undivided attention to the point of her desperately seeking a way out of the marriage by turning to another man.

In alternating chapters we read about Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot, a youngish couple who are contemplating marriage. Their manipulations, lies and deliberate hurtful actions toward each other parallel the Widdowsons’s same experience. There are many minor characters, including Monica’s sisters, who we meet throughout the novel, but the main drama focuses on the two sets of lovers and their unsuccessful relationships.

I think Gissing made marriage deliberately unattractive in order to illuminate for contemporary readers why women would ever want to choose a different way of life. Both Monica and Rhoda are strong, intelligent and outspoken women who won’t let men push them around. However, Monica’s options are limited to relying on men, while Rhoda has provided herself a way to live without them. Gissing provides a strong argument, especially in the form of conversations between the characters, for women’s rights and it is a highly questioning novel for its time, addressing not only gender issues, but class issues as well.

For the most part, I don’t care for “message” novels and The Odd Women was very preachy and dry at times, but it is incredibly readable. The narrative moves along at a crisp clip and Gissing makes the fate of his characters as important as the fate of his ideas.

I still would have preferred to read the novel that was formulated in the first chapters about the Madden sisters, not the novel of tangled relationships that it turned into, but I did find it to be very thought-provoking and one of the most engaging Victorian novels that I’ve read.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Before reading The Age of Innocence I was familiar with the basic story of the unrequited passion and doomed love between Newland Archer, a member of high society New York in the 1870’s, and his wife’s cousin, Madame Ellen Olenska. I’d seen the movie and also read many reviews of this classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What I was unprepared for was the depth of emotion and strong mixture of reactions that Wharton’s complex tale provoked in me.

Newland Archer and May Welland have both matured in the strict and fussy New York society that demands adherence to its convoluted codes of “form”. While May fully believes in and rarely wavers from the code, Archer has always maintained his distance while going about the motions of what is expected of a young man in his position. When May’s worldly cousin Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe trailing the scent of scandal (she’s abandoned her husband) Archer is immediately captivated by this young woman so different from the women of his acquaintance. And, he wants her. He is sexually attracted to her like he could never be attracted to May. This exhilarating enthrallment begins to consume Archer and it is reciprocated, if not entirely enthusiastically, by Ellen.

Part of Wharton’s genius is her ability to put the reader in each of the major character’s shoes and cause us to feel their anguish and despair. I completely sympathized with Archer when I wasn’t totally disgusted by him. I understood Ellen’s hesitation toward Archer while she was drawn toward him, yet I felt disappointment that she would betray her cousin. My heart ached for May as, at the same time, I felt irritated by her lack of imagination and her rigid conformity.

This is one of two classics I’ve read in the past few years that have really made on impression on me. The other was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. That they both deal with the issue of following your heart as opposed to doing what your family and society think is right for you says a lot to me. But that is a story for another day…

So who in the novel do I believe was right? It’s hard to say. It would be wonderful if everyone could get what they want in life, but part of Wharton’s message is that we can’t possibly. Choices must be made and how you choose reveals where your loyalties lie. Hearts will be broken and dreams will be smashed no matter what, especially in this situation.

The Age of Innocence is not a happy novel and it certainly isn’t innocent. It is a tragic story of star crossed lovers and the power society and family traditions have on our life choices. It is one of the most memorable and dynamic books I’ve read in years.

Edith Wharton had a wonderful gift for simile. Some from The Age of Innocence that I particularly admire:

“It was the weather to call out May’s radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost”.

“They sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking at a cold spring with the sun on it…”

“She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves”.

“Her color did not change, but a sort of white radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning”.

“…coming back to his wife would never be like entering a stuffy room after a tramp in the open”.

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