If books were buildings, this would be a cathedral – Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I first encountered Willa Cather back in college with her most anthologized short story, Paul’s Case. It’s about a young man’s frustration for people’s failure to understand him. Aside from that, I don’t remember much of the story, but I do recall how beautiful and dainty the writing is.

So when I read this novel, I was not tremendously shocked with its delicate beauty. I already have good expectations so there’s no big revelation that took place. What I find shocking is that I go out of my way to read something that is mostly about theology, one of my least favorite subjects, and yet I end up loving the book.

What does that say? That no matter what a writer writes about as long as the writing is good, the subject does not matter. And so I opened this book without fear of disappointment and with an instinct that this would be an unforgettable one.

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

This novel is about two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillant, who travel to the then isolated sands and rocks and shrubs and boulders of New Mexico to spread the Catholic faith. Aside from that, there is not much going on in the novel. We read about the characters crossing the states for months on mules, dealing with the Mexicans and the Indians, dreaming of building churches, hoping for peace and unity to prosper in that barren land.

They also meet various people in the town and in the surrounding areas who would touch their lives one way or another. They are good priests, and in this novel as it is in real life, not all priests are good. They encounter corrupt priests who know nothing better than to set themselves as icons of greed and avarice and lust in their respective towns. But Father Latour and Father Vaillant are different. They do their best to do their duties as faithful missionaries.

The two characters, despite being best friends, have striking differences. Father Latour is the calm and intellectual type, while Father Vaillant is the temperamental and courageous one. These two are well-defined characters that you can only hope for them not to get caught in the middle of the Indian wars and for their health to be robust enough to withstand the various elements that can weaken the human spirit.

The setting is also vividly depicted. Just thinking of the novel and looking at the cover of my edition makes my throat feel parched. True, I only envision the color of adobe when I try to recall the events that transpired in the novel, but that’s better than black and white, no?

But what is it saying? What are its themes? The spreading of the Catholic faith versus the preservation of culture is one. The bringing of order in an untamed land is one more. Restoring the good reputation of the Catholic priest from the corrupt and vile image propagated by the unpriestly priests is another.

4 star - really liked itAll three of them are the tasks imposed upon the shoulders of our protagonists. They are Herculean ones, even for a trusted priest like Father Latour and Father Vaillant. Surely, they need something more than merely being priests to perform these, right? Miracles are likely in this context, but one cannot solely rely on them. So what do they need to fulfill their mission?

Discipline. Ultimately, Father Latour and Father Vaillant are striving for a civilized world guided by discipline and following an order dictated by faith. I’m sure there’s more to pick from this novel and that there are allusions here and there to the many stories found in the Bible.

Just imagine the number of theological stuff here, and although theology is my weakest point, I still found it possible to love this novel. In the pen of another writer, this novel might have sounded too preachy, but Cather’s prose is not limiting. It encompasses everyone, planting seeds of faith and hope in any reader who closes the last page of the book.

Telling a lie can make a person alcoholic – Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

It is hard to appreciate a book that you have set yourself not to like. This is what happened with this novel. Whenever my friend and I go book hoarding, he would always point to a stray copy of this and tell me that this could be the book of my life. It exasperates me, not because I have preconceived notions of the novel but because I do not like the title.

Sounds callow, but the two words, set together, grate on my nerves. A common name and a common adjective. Really, one could think of something better, right? And really, I would have appreciated it more if it were just Billy, or Charming, but not Charming Billy.

And so I steeled my guts to read this. I tried my best not to think of the annoying title. I imagined that it were Alcoholic Billy or Billy the Drunkard. It sort of worked, but that first chapter disappointed me. I was reading about cut-out characters who weren’t sure or convinced of what they were saying, stuff like, Billy was like this, right? Didn’t he do this, and do that, I think he did. Wasn’t he at this place at that time? Yes I think he was. Is that right?

Shut up everyone! It would have been worth all that talk if the townspeople were talking about a great and noble man, but they were just wasting their time at the funeral of a pathetic alcoholic named Billy.

Billy drunk, in those days, was charming and sentimental. He spoke quietly, one hand in his pocket and the other around his glass, his glass more often than not pressed to his heart. There was tremendous affection in Billy’s eyes, or at least they held a tremendous offer of affection, a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most. Dennis came to believe in those days that you could measure a person’s vanity simply by watching how long it took him to catch on to the fact that Billy hadn’t recognized his inherent and long-underappreciated charm, he’d drawn it out with his own great expectations or simply imagined it, whole cloth.

I didn’t find Billy the least charming. Unless charming is synonymous to being overwhelmingly pathetic, yes, he is charming. And charming is something lovely, something that makes one attractive for reasons beyond logic, so I think that charming is not the adjective one would use for Billy.

Billy is sorrowful and forever haunted by a lover he met in his youth. This lover, who flew from America to Ireland, jilted Billy as soon as he sent her airfare money. Sure, he has all the reasons to be sad and melancholy, but how long should one brood over a thwarted love affair? One year? One decade? The rest of your life? The rest of your married life?

But there’s something else. Billy was lied to about what really happened to his lover. The little lie came from no less than his best friend. And he would uncover the truth many, many years later. The way he receives the news is the only charming thing about him, but that doesn’t change my opinion on him and the whole novel.

The narrative is not bad. The author can build beautiful prose, but I think one great flaw that the novel has lies with the choice of narrator. A person who barely knows Billy and who only gets second-hand unreliable information from his father Dennis, Billy’s best friend, will not be able to make us fully understand why Billy is like that. Why not let Dennis tell the story?

Apparently, the author probably wanted Billy to be this enigmatic character that the townspeople will look at with a mixture of concern and pity. But they are not capable of fathoming the gravity of his sorrow that is drowned in alcohol. Still, they condone his excessive drinking and the weight that he thrusts on his wife. They would approve of the strength of the wife’s character. They would smile and give their sincerest condolences when Billy dies. They would reminisce.

1 star - didn't like itThey annoy me.

And when I finished the book, I told my friend that I tried my best to at least appreciate this book, but this book will never be the book of my life. I gave it many chances. I somehow wanted my friend to prove me wrong. But I couldn’t care what the heck is wrong with Billy.

And there you have it. I won’t add more details so you might at least have a reason to read this. Read it when you are in good spirits. Read it along with your favorite book. Read it when your temper is controllable. oh well, just read it if and see if you’ll agree with me or not.

Freebies, Super Cheap Deals, and Extra Copies

A quite intimidating stack

Look here! It’s been a while since I had a moderate stack of books.

  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – I was not supposed to buy a copy of this since I already read it and I have a much loved trade paperback of it. However, when I saw this blog post from my bookish friend, I got so jealous that I went to the nearest book store after office and inquired where I could find a striped edition of this book. And oh, I’m on a mission to collect those stripes. (June 18, 2012. NBS Bestsellers – Galleria. Php 549.00)
  • Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller – I nearly screamed and sputtered profanities when I saw this one. Not that it’s such an important book, but it is a very uncommon early Pulitzer winner. Its claim is that had it not won the Pulitzer back in the 30s, Gone with the Wind might never have been published. How true? (June 22, 2012. Book Sale – Makati Square. Php 50.00)
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday – I already have a copy of this but I hate it because of all the highlighted text. But there’s one thing worse than highlighted text, and that is multi-colored highlighters, which makes you wonder if the previous owner thought of the book as a wordhunt puzzle or a coloring book. Anyway, my new copy is clean and not a single word is highlighted. (June 22, 2012. Book Sale – Makati Square. Php 75.00)
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson – I’ve always been curious about Guterson and the PEN/Faulkner award winners. They seem pretty good compared with the NBA winners. I have not yet decided whether I should start collecting them as well or not, but when I saw this super cheap and very good copy, I just went ahead and bought it. (June 23, 2012. Book Sale – SM Megamall. Php 25.00)
  • Home by Marilynne Robinson – I was dusting my shelf and looking for books that I’d like to read for July when I saw that my existing copy of this has a major crease at the front cover. I went a little ballistic because I can’t have a Robinson book with a crease at the front cover. The next day, I went hunting for it and luckily, I found a super cheap and creaseless copy. (June 25, 2012. Book Sale – Makati Square. Php 25.00)

And here are freebies from friends during our book discussion last June 23, 2012:

  • Small Memories by Jose Saramago – This is given as a token of Atty. Monique’s appreciation for my guesting at her blog’s regular feature, The Spark Project. I wanted to have a Saramago book from her because Saramago is, as you may have known, my literary grandfather. And I just love the front and back covers!
  • The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – Again, this is from my book buddy. Isn’t she such a valuable friend? I asked her to pre-order this one for me at Book Depository, and that meant piggybacking on her card. We agreed that I’ll pay for it once it arrives, but she won’t let me when she gave it to me. Of course, I knew right from the start that she won’t. I’m just kidding! Thanks a lot, Buddy!
  • The Appointment by Herta Muller – This one is from Ayban, the same friend who gave me The Land of Green Plums last Christmas. I’m really glad that I haven’t bought this yet because I was really tempted to right after we finished reading The Land of Green Plums. Thanks, Ayban!

Reading: Absalom, Absalom!; Last Orders; Ghostwritten

The Sunday Salon - June 25, 2012

I’m trying to catch up on my June books. There’s only a week left so what I did was to finish the Faulkner book that I started last week and practiced bigamy on the remaining two books.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Date Started: June 17, 2012. 12:00 AM.
Date Finished: June 23, 2012. 1:00 AM.
Book #35 of 2012
The Classics Challenge: Book #05 of 75

Where Sutpen Hundred is

Where Sutpen Hundred is

I was totally swept away by this book, not while I was reading it but a few minutes after I closed it and brooded on the events. I breathed deeply, let out a sigh, muttered something like ohmygod, and felt a little ache in my heart.

Faulkner’s prose works its effect right after the whole thing blows ever. I still cannot assume that I fully understood the novel, but what the hey, I don’t care. I love it. I love it, I love it!

Write-up to follow.

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Date Started: June 24, 2012. 2:00 PM.
Current Page: 61 of 295
Book #36 of 2012

Vince, the son, ain't the main narrator

Vince, the son, ain’t the main narrator

It was a little hard to get into this because it strongly reminds me of the last one-star novel that I finished. I do not wish to mention the title but it’s about an alcoholic who dies and the people close to him talk about his life and stuff like that.

The protagonist of Last Orders, Jack Dodds, is less of an alcoholic than a frequent customer of a bar. In here, he requests anyone it may concern that his ashes be scattered on some harbor. The people who take on this request are three of his friends and his son. They ride on a luxurious Mercedes, one which Jack will approve, and talk about their dead friend and their own wives and whatnot.

The novel’s chapter headings alternate between the narrating character and the place they are currently on. The narrator of the “place” characters is Ray, one of Jack’s friends. Why him? Why not the son?

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Date Started: June 24, 2012. 7:45 PM.
Current Page: 35 of 436
Book #37 of 2012

This is going to be a world tour

This is going to be a world tour

I’ve agreed to read this along with my super loyal book buddy Atty. Monique. We’re going to do one chapter a day, so that will be nine days, which means I won’t be finishing my June reading on time. But that’s okay because this is a Mitchell book.

As always, the writing is amazing. The description is pitch-perfect, and we are only at the first chapter. The description at the first page of my edition says that it’s a novel in nine parts. I assume that the chapters can be standalone stories. I felt that way after finishing the first chapter.

I wonder what David Mitchell cannot do. This is my fourth reading of him. I will try my best to be objective (read: not act like a fangirl), but what can I do? He really is good!

* * * * *

The Sunday Salon

My PC broke down! It didn’t die instantaneously. It was a gradual process. First, the optical drive stopped working properly. I ignored it. Then the power supply. I replaced it with a new one. Then the LCD monitor. I replaced it with a LED monitor. Then the video card. I thought of replacing it. Then it just went on and off at its own whim, like it were a sickly patient slipping in and out of consciousness.

I was so mad at it for dying on me just when I needed it for some video editing. The last time that it worked properly was while I was in the middle of typing my write-up of The Grapes of Wrath (it turned off by itself and I was not able to save what I typed). I realized though that I’ve been abusing it for the last five years. I finished my undergraduate computer system on it, I downloaded my art films and classical music on it, I played my games on it. I wrote some fiction and most of my blog posts on it (because sometimes, I write them at our office when I don’t want to work). So yes, my computer has done good.

And I never gave my computer a name (someone said that I should give computers their names)!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about getting a laptop, something that is sturdy and economical. Some of my office mates recommended Dell and Asus. One office mate told me to steer clear off HP and Compaq due to overheating issues. I secretly desire a Sony.

How about you? What do you think? Do you have any recommendations? By the way, you might think that this is completely irrelevant since it has nothing to do with books, but this will affect my blogging activities, and that is mainly why I am yakking about this.

The Jalopy of the Joads – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Let me tell you why this book is important to me. Let me tell you first how I came upon my copy. When I first attended the meetings of our book club, I brought an Anais Nin book with me for the book exchange. One of them, the moderator Jzhun, expressed interest in it. He showed me the little stack of books that he brought for the exchange, then I chose this.

Tina, now one of the moderators, heard my choice and said, oh, serious books. Well, that sealed my reputation in our book club: a reader of serious books. I don’t mind that at all, but I sometimes flinch when I hear it because people might expect me to always have luminous thoughts on every book that I read.

And then a couple of months later, Atty. Monique and I read this book together. Book buddies was a hit fad then; there was always a pair or more reading books together. So yes, we made the reading plan and prepared for the struggle of reading a serious book.

So the book is important because through it I found book buddies. And enough of that already. I am drawn to this book because of its title. There is something forceful in the choice of words. I like grapes the fruit, but when you say grapes of wrath, my taste buds tingle, expectant of some utterly sour flavor to flood them. And wrath is too strong a word. And why grapes? Why not apples or oranges?

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

This novel is about the Joad family. Set during the dust bowl tragedy, it tells us the journey and struggle that the family undertook from Oklahoma to California. Why that journey? The unforgiving land of the midwest would not yield anything despite the seeds sown into it. People’s loans are defaulting, families’ houses are being sold back to the banks. There’s nothing left for them to do except eat the dust until they die.

But all is not lost. California, on the west edge of the American bowl, gleams like a bursting sunset filled with dreams of orchards heavy for picking. The Joads hear of this and take the chance; they sell everything that they have to take that journey in a persistent jalopy, a term that I first encountered here. And while they are on the road, they realize that everyone in their town, in their state, and in the surrounding states, are flocking and filling up the interstate roads.

Will they manage to settle in a new house? Will they manage to find jobs? Will they manage to get food?

Unfortunately, no one in this novel is going to sit down a comfortable sofa with a plate of oatmeal cookies and a glass of warm milk. The most luxurious thing that they will experience in California is a federally funded resettlement camp. It will do, but it is not much. So what happened to all the hopes and dreams, the fruits heavy for picking?

The landowners are threatened by the overwhelming arrival of migrant workers. They fear that they will take over the land that their ancestors have worked hard to acquire. So what they do is that they hire these migrants at impossible wages. There are just too many people who need jobs to feed rumbling stomachs, so they take these impermanent jobs. It is abusive and inhumane for the landowners to wreak more misfortune on the dispossessed migrants, and the circumstances are added weight to the already unmovable burden that tests their sense of self-respect and dignity.

And no, the problems do not end there. Family structures shift, and the smell of death strengthens after each page. One just can’t help wondering if these people will have a break. They have all the right to be angry; their cup is filled to the rim, threatening to spill over anytime. Sooner or later, the anger will be released. It is long overdue. The divide between the landowners and the migrants will have to be redrawn.

4 star - really liked itAnd through all these circumstances, the Joads still manage to reach out to their fellow starving people and give whatever that they can to help them fend off hunger further. What is good about this novel is that it does not attempt to be overtly sentimental. Everything is narrated with stark realism.

The universality of the novel’s theme is magnified further in the way the novel is structured. The chapters alternate between cinematic stories from around the town to focused stories about the Joads. This makes the reader view the story through a camera that first rolls up the sky, then swoops down low, then captures scenes here and there, and then finally settles on a fixed angle inside the Joads’ household or jalopy.

It takes a lot of skill to perform this alternating chapters thing. The same is true with recording a now almost forgotten part of the American history. And before I forget, I want to share one more thing: my favorite character in this novel is not one of the Joads, but a random old turtle.