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#61….Death Comes for the Archbishop

November 11, 2011

“The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless–or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike.”

We’ll start this review with what this book ISN’T. Just so we’ll all be on the same page:

1)It isn’t fast-paced, heart-racing literature. The plot is slow and meandering, almost more of a gentle meditation than a true story.

2)There are almost no women in this book, which was weird. It’s like the Giant Sausage Party of literature.

3)So there’s no romance (or bromance, sorry) either, which is a good thing, because the main characters are Catholic priests.

4)Even though the title might fool you, this book is not really about death. At all.

So after reading the above, you might ask, what is Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop about, already? It is the story of two French missionaries, the newly bishoped Father Jean Latour and his childhood friend and vicar Father Joseph Vaillant, and their low-drama escapades to bring the Catholic religion to the Indians and Mexicans in the territory of New Mexico. The priests have their work cut out for them, as the Indians are still firmly entrenched in their mystical beliefs and the Mexicans are firmly anti-foreigners after being cheated and abused by the Spanish. Luckily Fathers Latour and Vaillant are hardy, devout, and compassionate souls, who acclimate quickly to the harshness of the New Mexican terrain and reach out to their parishioners.

I read this book for the first time back in 2009. Reading this book is really what jump started me to begin this blog, as I was reading through the Modern Library list and the title of this book caught my eye. I was not disappointed then, nor was I this time. What I love about this book is how epic it is in its non-epicness. There is plot, there is movement, there is drama, although it’s not high drama by any means. The book is really more of a character study than a true novel. We’re tempted to exalt the characters of both Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, since they are priests. For sure both are low maintenance men of God, with few possessions and fewer vices, yet there are still some moments in the book where both men are imperfect and flawed. Cather continues to hammer at our stereotypical views of the clergy when she introduces other corrupt priests and missionaries that Latour and Vaillant encounter during their travels in New Mexico. Those guys are a bunch of dirtbags that make even the imperfect Latour and Vaillant look like saints.

Ironically, my favorite parts of the book involve women characters, who are definitely at a premium in this book. I love when the doves land on Magdalena, who (like Mary Magdalen was saved by Jesus) was saved by the French priests who rescued her from a hellish and abusive relationship. I also love when Father Latour brings Sada, a slave girl shivering in the cold, into the church to pray with him, as she is forbidden to openly practice her faith by her owners. Sada’s appreciation of the little things brings Father Latour’s sagging faith back to life during a difficult time.

It’s interesting that Cather would choose to title her book as she did, considering that maybe the last 20 pages of the book are in any way really about death. Ironically, I felt the book was not about death, but about life….. a reflection on how we live our lives day-to-day, the choices we make, the regrets we might have, and what we will leave behind us when we go, because Death will eventually come for all of us. The book is presented as a series of vignettes, jumping around in time sometimes days, sometimes decades, and not always chronicling major life events, which is why many might think Death Comes for the Archbishop is pretty weak on plot-line. Most lives, though, are like this. Admit it. It’s okay. If someone dropped in on nine random times in my life, like this book did with its French priests, it might get boring (and ugly) pretty quick (Sunday morning would be the worst. I’d be sitting around in my sweatpants, on my third cup of cold coffee, reading my Nook and arguing with my husband about when I’m going to clean the catbox. But I digress). I feel that Cather chose these seemingly random scenes from their lives to tell us more about her characters and the kind of people they were, even though the events may not have been overtly important or even interesting. The quote from the book that I opened the posting with illustrates this perfectly…a life featureless, yet crowded with features, as the hills around Santa Fe were.

I was sad to finish this book, as it was so relaxing to read every night before I went to sleep. A very peaceful and thought provoking read.

Grade: A-

#64….The Catcher in the Rye

May 6, 2011

“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.”

A digression for a review today, folks. You all know the story.

I remember vividly my first read of JD Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye. It was the perfect time to read this book, knee deep in tenth grade angst (it doesn’t get any better than that, right?). Holden Caulfield was my hero. He thought just like I did. I hated everyone. I wanted everyone to like me. I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to grow up NOW. I didn’t understand why people around me were in such a hurry to grow up, and everyone seemed to be doing it better than me. Everyone was ‘phony’ and obsessed with appearances. My parents might as well have been from another planet; they didn’t get it. And the crazy thing was, sometimes, even though I was old enough to drive a car and have a job, part of me still wanted to go home, have my mom make me a PB&J, and color. Maybe even take a nap.

I have to admit, when I opened this book as a grownup, Holden and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. My first general feeling was irritation. Man, what is wrong with this kid? Can’t he just relax and have fun? My high school years were the best of my life.  Stop complaining. Stop ‘horsing around’. Do your damn schoolwork. Stop getting kicked out of schools. Be nice to people! And then I realized I was no better than everyone else Holden came in contact with during the book. 

How soon all of us adults forget what it was like to be locked in the angst of those years. There was no ballast. I could understand why Holden wanted to go back to the years where he walked through the Museum, roller skated in the park, danced on the bed with Phoebe (while smoking, no less!) and could be the general goofball that he was without the world judging him for it. Childhood, if you think about it, is so short, and growing shorter these days. When you were a kid, if you saw another kid, bam, they were your friend, regardless of how they looked, what color they were, what religion they were, or how popular they were. Kids don’t care if other kids have Hollister tshirts on. At least they didn’t when I was younger. Nowadays, they do. Trust me. I was buying designer stuff for my kid in 5th grade. And she was on the later end of the spectrum.

When I thought about my teenage daughter, the dichotomy that is Holden Caulfield actually made more sense. My daughter longs to see movies I think are too old for her, and wear shorts I think are WAY too short, yet she still sleeps with five stuffed animals and runs through the sprinkler. She’s learning how to wear makeup, but I still find rocks in her jeans pockets. Throughout the horror of her teen years, it’s the little bits of childhood I still find laying around that make me smile.

I wish all of us parents could be more like Holden, and be the catchers in the rye for our kids. I wish we could keep them from going over the cliff, or put them in one of those glass cases at the museum so they never grow up. But they do. Sigh.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there! And enjoy your kids while they are still young. 🙂

Grade: B

#62…From Here To Eternity

April 26, 2011

“All love has hate in it. Because you are tied to anyone you love, and it takes away part of your freedom and you resent it, you can’t help it. And while you are resenting the loss of your own freedom, you are trying to force the other to give up to you every last little bit of his own. Love cant help but make hate. As long as we’re living on this earth, love will always have hate in it. Maybe thats the reason we’re on this earth, to learn to love without hating.”

James Jones’ pre-WWII epic, From Here to Eternity, chronicles the rather mundane lives of two career Army men stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii a year before the events of Pearl Harbor. Both of the main characters, Sergeant Milton Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, have much in common. Both are “30-year men” meaning they have 30 year enlistment terms. Both love the Army more than anything else in their lives, and will make several personal sacrifices because of that love. Both have women troubles in their lives; Warden with his commanding officer’s wife Karen, and Prew with a beautiful prostitute named Alma. Both soldiers have a grudging, unspoken respect for each other, and both men are sensitive under their hardened Army shells. And both’s lives will be changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, located only miles from where they are stationed.

Sgt Milt Warden pretty much runs G Company, __th Regiment, although he’s not the commanding officer. Thanks to his organizational skills and his knowledge (and care) about the men under him, he’s able to keep the company together and keep his men happy. Although a bit gruff on the outside, on the inside, Warden is a softie, who would do anything for his fellow soldiers. His advice to his superiors throughout the novel is compassionate, knowledgeable and supportive, preventing them from making rash decisions. Like the rest of the men in his outfit, Warden enjoys his spare time gambling, drinking and chasing women…and since there’s no war on, there seems to be A LOT of free time. Rather than sticking with the town prostitutes like the other men, Warden sets his sights high and dangerously, on his commanding officer’s ice-cold, proper wife Karen, who is stuck in a loveless marriage and feels de-womanized by the hysterectomy she had to have after her own husband gave her an STD. Both fall in love with each other, but the stakes are high. Karen won’t leave her husband unless Warden becomes an officer…and to Warden, becoming an officer is almost like handing over your manhood. Although he grudgingly agrees to put himself up for promotion for Karen’s sake, he doesn’t like it, which can only lead to trouble later on.

Private Prewitt was the head bugler of another company, until his commanding officer promoted another, less competent bugler over Prew. Unable to take being second place to someone less talented, Prew gives up his easy life in the Bugle Corps and asks to be sent back to straight duty, preferring the harder life of a soldier to suffering the effects of favoritism. Ironically, when Prew is sent to G Company, he will continue to suffer thanks to a different kind of Army favoritism. In addition to bugling, Prew also happens to be an amazing boxer. We see a bit of Prew’s sensitive side when it’s discovered that he quit boxing after blinding the last person he fought. Even though he knows he is going into a regiment where athleticism and participation in sports is rewarded, and in his case, expected, Prew sticks to his guns and refuses to fight for the team. This results in a type of hazing known as “the Treatment”, where, Prew is forced to do extra calisthenics and endure verbal abuse from his superiors. It’s not all horrible though. Like Warden, Prew gets out on the town with his buddies, spends all of his payday money on beer, women and cards, and meets a wholesome looking prostitute named Alma. That’s about the last good decision Prew makes for the majority of the book. After attacking one of his superiors, Prew is sent to the Stockade (the military prison) and when forced to watch the Stockade men beat another prisoner to death, Prew goes all vigilante on us and kills the man who led the beating. Knowing that he can no longer return to his unit, as he will surely be blamed for the murder, Prew goes AWOL to Alma’s house, where he hangs out and drinks and reads books until the day he hears about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This news puts Prew over the edge, because it is then that he realizes he cannot leave the Army behind.

The book was not what I would call conventionally enjoyable. If you’ve read the book, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is straightforward and callous at times, much like the life of a soldier. Even the romances aren’t warm and fuzzy. If you’re looking for mushy-gushy love stories, you won’t find one in this book. And don’t let the movie fool you. There are many major aspects of the book’s plot that don’t occur in the movie; I think the romantic angles were played up a bit for Hollywood. What for me was most heartrending was what the book had to say about men, and the relations they have with other men and women. Stuck behind the manly facade of a soldier, the men struggle to reach out to one another to avert loneliness and form friendships or talk about their feelings, and in the cases of Prew and Warden, to love women, and in the cases of Prew’s friend Pvt Angelo Maggio and another superior officer, Nathan Bloom, to be with men. Prew is drawn to the kind and friendly Pvt Salvatore Clark, who unlike most of the other men in the outfit wears his heart on his sleeve, and while in the Stockade, to the calm, philosophical bookworm Jack Malloy. Maggio is exactly the opposite…outgoing, outspoken, angry and, by the end of the book, crazy…but even he is drawn to the calm Malloy. When Warden is caught in a small act of kindness, he usually follows its discovery with denials, bluster, or a torrent of verbal abuse. It was sad to me that these men were essentially trapped inside themselves, and were all emotional islands, not unlike Hawaii.

Jones’ book, upon its publication, was a watershed work in many ways. His original manuscript had much more profanity in it than was considered socially acceptable in 1951. The book also contained many passages relating to gay sex, as I mentioned in an earlier posting on FHTE. Jones wanted his book to be published as a Book of the Month, which was a really big deal back then, and the publishers would not do it unless the bad language and homosexual references were removed, so he gave in. Since passages that were shocking half a century ago are almost old hat these days, those of you who want to check out the original format and have e-readers will get that chance on May 10, when Jones’ controversial unedited version of FHTE will be released. I’d be curious to hear from anyone who reads the full version to see if it added anything to the storyline.

Overall not one of my favorite books, but profound in its own way.

Grade: B-

Thoughts at the Halfway Point…From Here to Eternity

April 12, 2011

Things are not fun and rosy halfway through James Jones’ WWII tome, From Here to Eternity….and Pearl Harbor hasn’t even been attacked yet.

Prewitt went and fell in love with a town prostitute named Alma, whom he’s now shacked up with on weekends and has proposed to twice, but she won’t marry him because he’s ‘only a soldier’. Picky, picky. Plus he’s routinely getting his ass busted all week long by the officers in his regiment because he is still steadfastly refusing to box. They’re not starving him or beating him up or anything, but they’re not being nice either. So far Prewitt is withstanding it pretty well. Then good buddy Maggio goes off the deep end one night by beating up some MPs and gets his butt landed in the Stockade (the military jail).

Warden isn’t doing so hot, either. He gets mad at someone all the time, and I mean really mad, usually taking the form of three page-long rants where Warden just hauls off on someone, not even for a halfway decent reason. I think he is losing it, a little bit. He of course has gone off the deep end with Karen, his commanding officer’s wife, and although he thinks he’s being Mr Slick by going under the radar with her and sneaking around town, someone knows what’s going on and confronts him about it. When I last left off, the person who confronted him, who not surprisingly had also hooked up with Karen in the past, was chasing him in the dark with a meat cleaver.

There was also quite a big section devoted to ‘queers’, or the men in the town near the base who prefer other men. From what I read, it sounds like the soldiers take advantage of these men for one of two rather compelling reasons: 1)loneliness or 2)when they need money. Maggio has a friend named Hal, whom he freeloads alcohol and money from, although it’s not clear if there are benefits for Hal. Jones originally intended to include several homosexual scenes and references in the book…but publishers didn’t have the world’s most open minds back in 1951, and would not publish the book with the scenes. Only recently, the full, unedited version of the book is now available as an ebook through Open Road.  Here is a great posting on why the changes were made:

Update on From Here to Eternity

April 3, 2011

Schofield Barracks, Wahiawa, HI

Since this book is a hefty 850 pages, and I am about 1/3 of the way through, I thought I would update everyone to let you know how it’s going.

From Here to Eternity is touted as a World War II book, but so far it’s different than most traditional ‘war’ books in that it describes the peacetime activities of servicemen in Schofield Barracks, located in Wahiawa, Hawaii. During the rainy season, regular outdoor exercise and drills were suspended, so the men engaged in lectures and weapons drills. To keep entertained after-hours, the men hung out, played cards, gambled, drank, and chased women (and sometimes men), usually spending (or overspending) their entire paychecks in one night on any of the above.

Robert E. Lee Prewitt is an amazing bugler, who decides to leave the easy life of the bugle corps for straight duty as a soldier after a less-talented bugler is promoted over him. Prewitt is also an amazing boxer, but after blinding someone in his last fight, has sworn off boxing forever. That’s a big problem for Prewitt. During the monotony of peacetime, the Army regiments kept adrenaline and corps morale up by competing against each other in sports, like boxing, baseball and basketball. Soldiers who participated on these sports teams were referred to as ‘jockstraps’ and were usually given preferential treatment and/or promotions more consistently than the others. The unit Prewitt transfers into is desperately seeking his help on the boxing squad, but once Prewitt makes it clear that he will not box, he seals his own fate. The officers begin to give Prewitt “the treatment”, consisting of physical and psychological punishments designed to break him and force him to reconsider boxing. Prewitt, however, holds his ground, and is so far surviving okay, even though they’re beating the crap out of him.

Like Prewitt, First Lieutenant Milton Warden is a principle-bound soldier. Although he’s second in command, he practically runs the regiment, helping out everyone from the supply room guy to the kitchen cooks. His CO, “Dynamite” Holmes, has the unfortunate propensity to promote his ‘jockstrap’ soldiers or soldiers from his previous regiment to leadership positions, even though some of them lack any leadership talent. This leaves Warden the difficulty of running the regiment with doubtful and inconsistent help, but he somehow manages to keep things going smoothly. Unfortunately, like Prewitt, Warden seems to have a taste for the dangerous, because he makes the dumb move of getting involved with his CO’s wife, the ice-cold Karen Holmes, who, it is reputed, has had affairs with many of the other officers. That just cannot turn out well for anyone.

The book has plenty of suspense. I find myself silently begging Prew to just give in and box so that he doesn’t have to suffer, but at the same time, I admire his integrity and resolve. I worry what is to come for Prewitt, and how far the military will go to break him. And I sure hope Warden doesn’t get caught with Karen. That could get ugly.

I’m baaaaaack

March 29, 2011

Alright, already. After months of letting A Clockwork Orange taunt me from my bedside table, I re-shelved it, moved on and am back at it here at Journeys. I picked up James Jones’ From Here to Eternity last weekend when I was cleaning off my bookshelves and became instantly hooked. Would love to hear from anyone else who has read it. I haven’t seen the movie either so I am excited to check that out afterwards.

Nonfiction Challenge 2011

January 2, 2011

I hope everyone had a great New Year!

I have decided to jump into the reading challenge pool on my nonfiction blog, Past as Prologue. Click on the button on the left to get the URL….check it out and sign up if you’re interested, and spread the word to those out there who might like to join up.