The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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June 19, 2010

Just beyond the turn there, is New Mexico

(photo from Willa Cather:  A Pictorial Memoir, photographs by
Lucia Woods and others, text by Bernice Slote)
Father Latour had used to feel a little ashamed that Joseph kept his sister and her nuns so busy making cassocks and vestments for him; but the last time he was in France he came to see all this in another light. When he was visiting Mother Philomene's convent, one of the younger sisters confided in him what an inspiration it was to them, living in retirement, to work for the faraway missions. She told him also how precious to then were Father Vaillaint's long letters, letters in which he told his sister of the country, the Indians, the pious Mexican women, the Spanish martyrs of old. These letters, she said, Mother Philomene read aloud in the evening. The nun took Father Latour to a window that jutted out and looked up the narrow street to where the wall turned at an angle, cutting off further view, 'Look,' she said, 'after the Mother has read us one of those letters from her brother, I come and stand in this alcove and look up our little street with its one lamp, and just beyond the turn there, is New Mexico; all that he was written us of those red deserts and blue mountains, the the canyons more profound than our deepest mountain gorges. I can feel that am there, my heart beats faster, and it seems but a moment till the retiring-bell cuts short my dreams.'

I've been spending some time, in the last few weeks, reading book blogs, and adding them to my favorites list, and following links to other book blogs. It's like going to someone's house and studying their bookshelves...for me, one of the most pleasurable aspects of being a reader is finding out what other people like to read.

Karen, a woman from Cornwall who writes about 'food, flowers, books, art, yarn and more' at Cornflower and about 'books and other good things' at Cornflower Books (how could I not want to spend time with both?), has been hosting the Cornflower Book Group, and I (late to the party, as always) discovered it just in time to read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.  I've never read Willa Cather, and that's a gap in my love of American literature that needed filling. {Actually, I've never read any of her novels. I did read -- and enjoy -- a book of her essays, Not Under Forty. But more on why, later.} Thank you, Karen, for the opportunity!

Published in 1927 (after O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, and The Professor's House, the books I was a little more familiar with), Death Comes for the Archbishop is a beautifully written story about two French missionary priests, the Spanish priests they come to replace, and their Mexican and Indian parishioners.  The book opens with a prologue, set at a dinner in a Roman Villa, where Father Ferrand, a missionary from America, is trying to convince a trio of Spanish, Italian and French cardinals to support the appointment of a French priest as the new Bishop for the newly-annexed territory of New Mexico. The setting and the subject of this novel would probably never have enticed me on their own, but Willa Cather's writing did, from the start.

It was early when the Spanish Cardinal and his guests sat down to dinner. The sun was still good for an hour of supreme splendour, and across the shining folds of country the low profile of the city barely fretted the skyline -- indistinct except for the dome of St. Peter's, bluish grey like the flattened top of a great balloon, just a flash of copper light on its soft metallic surface. The Cardinal had an eccentric preference for beginning his dinner at this time in the late afternoon, when the vehemence of the sun suggestion motion. The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax -- of splendid finish. It was both intense and soft, with a ruddiness of much-multiplied candlelight, an aura of red in its flames.
This still-young, handsome Cardinal doesn't appear again in the book, but as I read it, I got the sense that this portrait, and the little tangent on this 'eccentric preference' is typical of Cather's writing -- imaginative, evocative, and dwelling here and there on details that aren't necessarily critical to the story.

The book  itself opens three years later, as Father Latour (later the Bishop and Archbishop) and his vicar, Father Vaillaint, find themselves lost in the desert after travelling to Santa Fe to meet (and to be turned away by) the old priests resident there. Some of the vignettes that make up this book tell about the conflict and contrast between the French priests and Spanish priests, and others describe the people and places the priests encounter as they travel to visit far-off parishes.

For something so far outside my usual reading habits, I found myself wanting to spend time with this book, reading it slowly, with concentration and savoring it. For me, the pleasure of reading this book came from Cather's descriptions, and her small flashes of characterization and even humor (the scene where Father Vaillant secures two white mules, instead of one).

I want to read more Willa Cather. A blogging friend suggested My Antonia and The Professor's House, saying that they're very different books. I'd also like to know more about her life. Until I find time to read a full biography (another pleasure of mine) I found a 'pictorial memoir' and a PBS video that I'll spend some time with in the next few days.

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