Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
This book weaves together the lives of five characters, taking readers from fifthteenth-century Constantinople to a twenty-second century starship seeking a home far from an uninhabitable earth. What joins the stories together is a (fictional) ancient Greek text called Cloud Cuckoo Land that each character encounters. The deeper the reader goes into the story, the more the reader learns these five lives are also somehow intertwined. One detail I loved (this is spoiler-y but minimally so) was that for centuries scholars argued over the order of the stories within Cloud Cuckoo Land, but Doerr allows children performing the text as a play to be the ones who find the best way to tell the story (as they are the ones who best understand it).
I’m not sure how to describe this book (maybe an ambitious feat successfully accomplished?), but I felt like I was in really good hands as I went along for the ride. I was sad to see it end. I loved the idea that stories change and shape us, that they are a unifying force across time and space and place.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop was required reading in my high school honors English class. It’s the fictional account of New Mexico’s first bishop (who then became the first archbishop), Jean-Baptiste Lamy (called Jean Marie Latour in the book). It was one of my picks for my Dead Authors Society book club this year, and I think it’s my favorite I’ve read with these friends.
The book opens with Latour’s appointment of bishop in the recently-formed New Mexico territory. Though his appointment comes from Rome, those in Santa Fe don’t recognize his authority at first, and he must ride to Mexico to prove himself. It’s a story of different cultures (the Mexicans and Indians dealing with the newcomer Americans; the French priest learning the ways of his new people), of church politics (what was allowed in this distant outpost wasn’t always acceptable to Rome), of friendship (with Latour comes his seminary friend and fellow missionary, Joseph Vaillant), and of enduring faith. Everything unfolds before the gorgeousness that is New Mexico. Cather had a reverence for my home that fills my heart with joy! Her descriptions are perfection. In one section where she writes about Acoma Pueblo, she spent a page describing cloud formations over mesas. Stunning.
Older books (this was first published in 1926) often contain problematic portions (and this book has some of those), yet I was surprised at the way Cather wrote of the Navajo internment Camp at Bosque Redondo and the subsequent Long Walk (and Kit Carson’s role in the travesty. Carson is Latour’s friend in the book, which makes it even more complicated). This chapter could have been written today.
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
I checked out this picture book biography to read as a mentor text. It focuses on a Audubon’s younger years, and I’m playing with an idea about doing something similar with another figure from history. The story begins with a teenage Audubon new to America and curious about the birds outside his window. He wonders if birds truly return to their nests and if their hatchlings return to nest nearby. He bands the hatchlings with a silver thread — the first person known to band birds in North America — and discovers the theory is true.
With beautiful illustrations by Melissa Sweet, The Boy Who Drew Birds would be a wonderful companion book to The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman.