Death Comes for the Archbishop

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“It was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history.”

In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his Vicar Joseph Vaillant travel to America to lead the new diocese of the Catholic church in the territory that the United States had acquired from the Mexican-American War. Cather narrates the Bishop’s life from his arrival in the diocese to his death.

Cather describes accurately and in detail the setting of this novel. She takes into account the effect the Gadsden Purchase would have on the missionaries, as well as the effect of Americans’ continued westward movement. She also shows the racism of the time, especially against Mexicans and Native Americans. Even the least racist characters are still condescending; Father Vaillant, the least judgmental of the missionaries, likes to think of the Mexican members of his church as confused children.

This book is written more like biography than fiction. Since the story begins with the Bishop in his early twenties and ends with his death, it lacks the usual arc of a story. In addition, most of the events in the book happened in no particular order and without relation to each other. I could not find a driving force behind the plot, which made it difficult for me to invest in the story.

Overall I thought Death Comes for the Archbishop was okay, but I do not think I fully understood the subtleties of Cather’s writing. If you read it and find it interesting, please let me know why!

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The Art of Quitting

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I literally could not put this book down. I read it all in under two hours. I think I do have a problem with not being able to quit things . . .

In The Art of Quitting, Evan Harris explains the many attitudes, techniques and styles that can be applied to quitting. She also discusses different things that can be quit: objects, people, locations, habits, jobs, and ideas. This book is for people who are ready to quit, but do not know how or when to do so. Harris believes that many people have forgotten that quitting is even an option, becoming entrenched in their lives. I first heard about her book because of a This American Life episode (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/7/quitting.) I listened to the story a while ago, but just barely decided to read it because I have recently thought about quitting several activities. I tend to trudge along miserably and endure what I hate rather than quit it. (Of her techniques, “Get Fed Up” most accurately resembles my situation, except for the actual quitting part.)

Harris encourages you to take control of your life. If you do not like something or someone, why bother? Make a scene. Be passive aggressive. Burn bridges. Quitting is all about pleasing yourself. (Not all of her techniques are as aggressive as the aforementioned; many are simple and effective, such as “Give Up,” “Muster Willpower,” and “Be Reasonable.”) Harris rejects the supposed moral superiority of “sticking it out.” Quitters, she explains, “have the good sense to admit their mistakes, cut their losses, and move on.” She gives twenty suggestions about the execution of the quit, most of which are practical, but others are hilarious and not applicable to everyday situations. “Deny Involvement”—one of the more extreme options—is my favorite; “Claim you have never heard of the company you work for. Say that you never even applied to the college you are dropping out of. Insist that you’ve never met the person you are married to.”

Yet, although this book does tailor itself to people like me, who have no idea how to quit anything, most people do not have this problem. Many people are far too good at quitting, and could instead use a lesson in sticking with things. And even I knew the various ways to quit before I read the book, and did not learn anything new.

If you have something you might want to quit but are unsure of your options, I would recommend reading this. Yet, although this book did list ways to quit, I must admit that it did not transform my nonquitting self into a quitter who can just drop everything (or even anything) and stop caring. Nevertheless, if you want to quit something and really have no clue where to begin, give the book a try. Maybe it will work better for you than it did for me.

Profiles in Courage

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“Democracy means much more than popular government and majority rule, much more than a system of political techniques to flatter or deceive powerful blocs of voters. A democracy that has no George Norris to point to–no monument of individual conscience in a sea of popular rule–is not worthy to bear the name.”

In his book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy records eight senators’ acts of political courage. Each senator, in his own way, defied the will of his constituents to follow his conscience. Due to their courageous acts, many of them lost popularity–stopped winning elections, made enemies among their constituents, or were even kicked out of their political party. Kennedy argues that although the will of the people is important, in order for democracy to function properly we need to trust elected officials to make decisions for the country. There needs to be a compromise between what the people think is right and what the politician thinks is right.

One example comes from Daniel Webster, the greatest orator of his time, who chose to back the Compromise of 1850 even though it cost him his popularity among his constituency. He and his party were firmly against the extension of slavery, but even more important to Webster was the safety of the Union. He decided that preventing civil war came before party platforms. He delivered the “Seventh of March” speech, the most famous of his career, and defended the words he had spoken in his debate against Robert Y. Hayne in 1830: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Edmund G. Ross, much less famous than Webster, showed his courage in voting instead of in speeches. He served in the Senate during Reconstruction, when Andrew Johnson was president. Republicans, such as Ross, were tired of having to force bills past the president’s veto, and were angered by Johnson’s sympathetic approach to the South. They passed Tenure of Office Act–one Johnson would almost certainly violate–and then impeached him when he did not follow it. The Republicans had all the votes needed to oust the president. But Ross was having second thoughts. Ross did not like Johnson, but he did believe in the right to a fair trial, and he did not believe this impeachment was fair. In spite of threats and pressure from his party and constituents, he voted not guilty, and Johnson remained in office because of that one vote.

Kennedy’s book is interesting and well-written, and could be enjoyed by anyone. (I would, however, suggest a basic knowledge of United States history pre-1956. If I were not enrolled in AP U.S. History right now, I would not have known half of the names Kennedy mentions.) It is also interesting to think about how Kennedy’s ideas are applicable today; in an age of instant communication, it is much harder for politicians to be courageous and move apart from the will of their constituency.

The Great Gatsby

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“The whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes.”

In F. Scott-Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway narrates his summer spent with his cousin Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom Buchanan, and their neighbor Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is the traditional American self-made man; he went from being a poor fisherman to a rich bootlegger in only a few years. Five years before the novel begins, Daisy and Jay were dating, but then Gatsby went to fight in Europe and attended Oxford for a few months, and while he was away, Daisy married Tom. Gatsby now lives across from the Buchanans in a huge estate and throws parties every Saturday night, hoping that one day Daisy will attend.

Gatsby expects too much. He romanticizes his relationship with Daisy to such an extent–he even thought the green light on the dock near her house was romantic–that when he finally meets her again, he is disappointed. As Nick Carraway notes, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.” Gatsby almost lets his enchanted ideas ruin his perception of Daisy.

Tom Buchanan has a very different relationship with the women in this book. He spends a lot of time with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, but always comes back to Daisy. He tells Myrtle that since Daisy is from a Catholic family, they can never divorce. (That’s a lie; Daisy is not Catholic.) His intentions for Myrtle differ from Gatsby’s for Daisy–Gatsby wants to marry Daisy, Tom just likes having Myrtle as a mistress on the side. Gatsby has a sort of selfless extravagance; everything he does is just to get Daisy’s attention. Tom has an abusive form of greed; he wants to control Myrtle and Daisy and is mean to both of them–at one point he even breaks Myrtle’s nose. Though both characters are greedy in a way, Gatsby’s type of greed is more appealing than Tom’s.

The Great Gatsby is a classic work of literature, which you probably have read or will read at some point. I would suggest reading it slowly, to aid your interpretation of the repetitions, themes, and word choice.

A Room with a View

“If they were hypocrites they did not know it, and their hypocrisy had every chance of setting and becoming true.”

In A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett, take a trip to Italy. They meet some odd characters, such as the enthusiastic novelist Miss Lavish and the rude but well-meaning Mr. Emersons. As their trip becomes overly exciting, Lucy decides to return home to England, but she is followed by reminders of Italy, whether in books or in the people themselves. When Italy and England begin to clash, Lucy must discover what (and who) is most important to her, and choose between her two lives.

Lucy is a wonderful character to focus on; she is independent and fun-loving, yet she is full of endearing contradictions. At one point she says “I want to be truthful [. . .] absolutely truthful” but two pages later the author remarks “she no longer wished to be absolutely truthful.” During most of the story, Lucy is trying to figure out what she wants, and this indecision adds to her charm. The other characters are great as well–Charlotte constantly annoys Lucy with her martyristic tendencies, the Emersons always confuse Lucy with their unconventional behavior, and Miss Lavish often shocks Lucy with her ability to talk about dreadful occasions (e.g. murder) with such excitement.

With such great characters, I expected a great storyline, but I did not enjoy the ending of this book. In the climax, Lucy gets caught up in a “muddle” because she has been lying to everyone, but her solution to her problems feels more like an escape than a fix. Still, my dislike of the ending probably reflects my personality more than the quality of the book–I am the kind of person who likes to do everything, and this book sends the message that accomplishing everything and pleasing everybody is simply not possible. That is a lesson I have not learned yet.

Overall, A Room with a View is a great read. I would recommend it to any audience. After I finished the book, I also watched the movie, which, although quite good, lacked the book’s subtlety and character development. The instance that most annoyed me was an early scene in Italy, when Lucy goes on a trip with the clergymen, Charlotte, Miss Lavish, and the Emersons. Lucy goes to look for someone, but ends up falling into a bed of flowers and before she can figure out what is happening, George Emerson is kissing her. The movie removes all the innocence and surprise from this situation–Lucy simply walks up to George and then he kisses her. Although the fall may seem like a simple detail, it is not. When they took out the fall, they redefined Lucy’s character, giving her a motive of which she is supposed to be unaware until more than halfway through the book. In this respect, the book was better than the movie.

A Woman of No Importance

“The one advantage of playing with fire, Lady Caroline, is that one never gets even singed. It is the people who don’t know how to play with it who get burned up.”

In Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance,” young Gerald Arbuthnot is offered a position as a secretary for Lord Illingworth. Gerald is excited to rise in society, but the opportunity generates conflict when his mother and Illingworth meet for what is supposed to be the first time. The main theme in the play is purity–an ideal his characters either defend, mock, or change to fit their personal definitions.

Wilde employs witty commentary to amuse the audience and question societal values. Oftentimes his remarks make little sense if left unanalyzed. For example, Lord Alfred mentions (when speaking about gold-tipped cigarettes) that “They are awfully expensive. I can only afford them when I’m in debt.” This statement seems odd at first, but looking closer it can be determined that Lord Alfred really means is that when he is not in debt, people expect him to pay for his cigarettes, while when he is in debt, he can put off paying for them until later or just take them from friends. Other times Wilde uses his rhetoric more seriously; one of the most famous lines from the play is “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

Yet this banter is reserved for specific characters, and, as the play continues, the most amusing people are removed from the action. In the end, the more boring, serious people (such as Hester Worsley, a devoted Puritan, and Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald’s antisocial mother) are left to carry out the climax. The only comic relief that remains is Lord Illingworth, but even he is less humorous towards the end.

Reading Wilde is always enjoyable, and although this is not his best work, it is certainly worthwhile. I would suggest “The Importance of Being Earnest” before this one. Wilde is best read by someone who enjoys intellectual humor and has at least a little understanding of what was acceptable in British society in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Portrait of a Lady

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was having a mind of her own at all.”

In The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Isabel Archer, a young American woman, is taken by her aunt to explore Europe. Isabel, proud of her independence, eagerly seizes the opportunity to learn and travel. From the moment she arrives in England she receives one marriage proposal after another, but is uninterested. She wants to retain her youth and independence for as long as possible, which makes maintaining her personal ideals and friendships simultaneously extremely difficult.

The characters bring this story to life. Isabel, witty and independent, pulls the story in whichever direction she chooses (and many of her choices are unconventional). Her cousin Ralph and her uncle Mr. Touchett are sickly, but also clever and amiable. I was most fascinated by Isabel’s friend, Henrietta Stackpole, and her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. Henrietta is an outspoken journalist from America who is determined to hate Europe, and constantly confuses the more polite Ralph and Mr. Touchett. Mrs. Touchett, also outspoken, defies societal expectations in other ways. For example, she left her husband to live in Florence yet is entirely unconcerned about their unusual relationship. She can very easily live without him and sees no reason not to. (As Mr. Touchett remarks, “She thinks me of no more use than a postage stamp without gum.”) These characters’ lively wit make the novel a constantly enjoyable and occasionally surprising read.

Yet despite James’ apparently feminist portrayals of the women in this book, he ends by reestablishing societal convention. Isabel’s determination to be independent falters. She becomes entangled in an unhappy relationship and loses all the freedom and friendship she once had. James seems to be saying that no matter how different, independent, or intelligent a woman is, she will be crushed by male society. Although many people at the time the novel was written (1881) might see Isabel as an improper young woman who gets what she deserves, James’s realistic and lovable female characters make this intrusion of normality intensely depressing.

This book is a beautiful classic; the characters and writing are spectacular. I would recommend this book to anyone. I am simply sad that Isabel, who was so in control that I was sure she would would get her own way, did not live up to my expectations, however unrealistic they might have been.

As a quick note for people who have experience reading classics, this book begins in a very similar manner to Jane Austen’s works. The marital prospects and situation are quite similar, but while Austen tends to end the book at marriage, James extends the frame a few more years to show the tragic aftermath. The Portrait of a Lady also reminded me of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, due to the similar characteristics of the female protagonists and the unfortunate outcomes of each.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu (and Other Stories)

“Little human child, the time has come to be afraid.”

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke uses the same setting (England) and theme (magic) of that novel to write these, although not all of her  stories occur at the same time or with the same characters. The first and main story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” is about a clever witch trio that meets Mr. Jonathan Strange while one of them is trying to avoid marriage with his brother-in-law. Other stories include a version of Rumplestiltskin, journal entries from a half-fairy parishioner, and a legend of the Raven King (the most powerful magical figure ever to exist).

Clarke perfectly combines fiction, history, and legend in each of these stories. The individual plots read like fairy tales but have the advantage of highly developed characters, including fiercely independent women, arrogant fairy princes,  kindly middle-aged doctors, and more. She also ties in historical characters, such as the Duke of Wellington and Queen Elizabeth I, while remaining true to her own magical world. Yet Clarke’s most interesting stylistic detail is that she frames everything in the collection as if it were entirely historically accurate, even though she has created it herself. For instance, she includes an introduction by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, when neither the person nor the field of study exists. She acts as if this professor has compiled these stories as a way of studying magic, and even includes detailed footnotes to add to the feeling of historical truth.

The biggest problem I found while reading was that the stories–due to their similar theme and setting–tended to blend in my head and I occasionally had difficulty matching characters to plots. However, this does not have to be considered a disadvantage–since these are quite similar to fairy tales, the purpose of the author is probably to leave general impressions of plot rather than exact character names.

Overall, each story is highly enjoyable and I would recommend these to anybody. Though I would like to point out that this collection is to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell  as The Tales of Beedle the Bard is to the Harry Potter series. Although you can read the collection first and it would make sense, most people read it only to gain more insight into the world of the larger novel(s). I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell first, and would recommend that others do the same.

Beloved

“Her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day. . . . Other people went crazy, why couldn’t she?”

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, an escaped slave named Sethe is haunted in the house of her recently deceased mother-in-law. She lives with Denver, the only child she has left, and the angry ghost of the baby she murdered. Throughout the story, Sethe attempts to distance herself from memories of a past filled with fear and slavery, but she cannot free herself. Eventually she must confront her actions, face to face.

When the book begins, Sethe and Denver are being attacked by the presence that haunts their house. Morrison explains how the two of them have been abandoned by friends and family, and are fighting a constant, exhausting battle against this troublesome spirit. Immediately they have the reader’s sympathy, and retain it throughout the novel, even as the horror of the murder Sethe committed is revealed. Morrison presents their pain in such a way that in spite of this murder, the connection between the reader and the characters only grows stronger.

Morrison also has a powerful writing style. Her novel reads like poetry, because she often uses fragments, repetition, and various rhetorical devices to bring the book to life. For example, she begins the novel with personification and a fragment: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Her most striking repetition is towards the end of the book, when the thoughts switch between Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, each claiming “She [Beloved] was mine.”

Yet Beloved can be confusing. It is told from the perspectives of different characters at different periods of time in segments that are rarely placed in chronological order. For example, even though Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, is mentioned as dead within the first few sentences of the book, she still appears throughout. Morrison blends past and present so that her characters’ thoughts evolve into former conversations which then prompt other memories. There is no distinction between then and now. However, if attentive, the reader will be able to navigate through these transitions easily enough.

I read the last half of Beloved in one night because I could not put it down. It is a powerful story and its complexity, rather than detracting from its charm, encourages a second read. However, because of its adult topics, I would recommend this book to older audiences only.

Tender at the Bone

“Most mornings I got out of bed and went to the refrigerator to see how my mother was feeling . . . the more odd and interesting things were in the refrigerator, the happier my mother was likely to be.”

In Tender at the Bone, chef Ruth Reichl describes her experiences with cooking, from her early years warning guests not to touch her mother’s “Everything Stew” to her job as a food critic for a San Francisco magazine. Reichl always loved food, and understood the power it had over people. Cooking for her was “a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”

This memoir has a perfect combination of humorous and serious. It starts off very lighthearted, with a story from Reichl’s childhood: her mother wakes her father up to taste something, which he spits out immediately and describes as “cat toes and rotted barley” and “antique anchovies and moldy chocolate.” Her amusing stories and conversational tone draw the reader’s attention, and keep it through the tougher sections of the book, where Ruth confronts racism, drugs, weight problems, and more.

Reichl guides the reader with a steady hand until about three-quarters of the way through the book, where the narrative becomes a little choppy. Each chapter has a different setting with different people and different problems, and although Reichl may be staying true to the twists and turns of her life, the constant changes disrupt the flow of the story. For instance, in the last chapter she introduces the character Cecilia, gives quite a bit of background information on her, and then ends the book five pages later! However, if you trust Reichl to develop the story on her own, the abrupt switches won’t bother you.

I would recommend this book to any reader. Don’t think it is just for chefs–I am not particularly fond of cooking (I like eating a whole lot more) and I found the book to be both interesting and enjoyable. But there is an additional reward for those who like cooking: Reichl includes a recipe at the end of every chapter.