Andrea Reads America map of books set in New Mexico
Andrea Reads America: New Mexico

As I thought it would, reading New Mexico made me want to go to the desert. I wanted to experience the solitude, the llano, and the dry painted landscapes, be surrounded by Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, and start practicing Spanish again. One thing that surprised me was how much Catholicism appeared in the New Mexico books I read, including Death Comes For the Archbishop, a New Mexico-set book by Willa Cather not included here. Catholicism was as much a part of life as the sun and the air in three of the books. I wasn’t expecting that.

Bless Me Ultima book cover Novel: Bless Me, Ultima
Author: Rudolfo Anaya, born and raised in NM
Setting: 1940s New Mexico

I love when a book peppers the pages with words from another language. Bless Me, Ultima is the coming of age story of Antonio, a Hispanic boy, and the characters often speak Spanish, which instantly gives the novel a strong sense of place (and reminds me how much I love the Spanish language).

Antonio’s mother comes from the land and from farming. Her people are a static people. His father comes from the windy llano, tied to no-one and nowhere: wanderers. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio wonders which one he is — of the land or of the wind? He feels he must choose, and closely tied to this choice is the conflicting message he absorbs about religion. Especially because of his close relationship with Ultima, a healer of the old ways. Some call her a witch.

Antonio is a devout Catholic, deeply interested in learning from God — why do bad things happen to good people? why are bad people allowed by God to hurt good? Antonio thinks all will be revealed when he takes his first communion, and he takes that ceremony seriously. But he knows no more after communion than he did before. God consistently doesn’t come through for Antonio, while the magic of the curandera Ultima and Nature, symbolized by a golden carp, feel true to him.

Bless Me, Ultima is about navigating the old and the new, the past and the future, and realizing that having to choose between opposing sides doesn’t always make sense: why can’t they coexist?

Night at the Fiestas book coverBook: Night at the Fiestas
Author: Kirsten Valdez Quade, born New Mexico
Setting: Modern day New Mexico

Night at the Fiestas is a book of raw, uncomfortable, and excellent short stories. They are hard. Quade says in an interview, “Because of the long history of conquest and re-conquest, [New Mexico] still feels very much like a contested land, which makes it fertile terrain for fiction.” Her stories explore relationships within New Mexico families, most of which in the book are missing one or both parents, or involve a pregnant teenage girl, or rough leather-skinned men, and they are set against a harsh New Mexico landscape.

The don’t know about the ojo, the evil eye. There is no-one left in this town who can cure me, so for now I sit at the edge of the yard, my feet in the road, turning a piece of broken asphalt in my hands, in case a stranger passes. Are you a healer? I’ll ask her.

— “The Manzanos” by Kirsten Valdez Quade

My favorite story was “Canute Commands the Tides,” in which a white woman, Margaret, moves to New Mexico to retire and paint.

Margaret gazed out the window and collected in her mind the scenes she would paint: an abandoned blank-eyed adobe near the highway exit, a line of leaning mailboxes foregrounding a purple mesa, two dirty children playing in an old blue truck on blocks.

— “Canute Commands the Tides” by Kirsten Valdez Quade

Margaret befriends her Hispanic housekeeper. She think they are friends until something happens to show how truly different are the worlds they occupy. Like the hubris-filled Canute Margaret is trying to paint, who has his throne moved to the waterline of the sea to prove his claim that he could stop the tides (he couldn’t), Margaret, white, privileged, and completely naive, thinks she can overcome the class and ethnic differences, the vastly different worlds, of her and her housekeeper Carmen. But then it all goes horribly wrong and Margaret’s throne — her New Mexico home — is flooded by a tide that cannot be stopped.

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home book cover Book: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home
Author: Natalie Goldberg, taught in Taos, lives in Santa Fe, NM
Setting: 2015-16 Sante Fe, New Mexico

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home is the account of Natalie Goldberg’s cancer: the diagnosis, the harrowing treatment, her partner also being diagnosed with cancer at the same time. In her books, most famously Writing Down the Bones (and my favorite, Long, Quiet Highway), Goldberg writes about Zen practice, about impermanence, about waking up, about being alive. But it is when she faces death that it becomes real, what it means to live. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home is the book where her Zen teachings are no longer abstract.

Zen training harped on death. We won’t last forever. Wake up. Don’t waste your life.

Natalie Goldberg, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home

 

Goldberg writes of her chemo treatments, the eight hours she’s hooked up to the poisonous drip, and the friends who sit and keep her company. At one treatment, a friend and she are ready to burst from their skins from the drudgery. They get out pens and paper and say, “Ten haiku. Go!” As with so much of life, Goldberg writes her way through it.  She faces destruction with creation.

I recalled the Buddha’s last words: All things that are born must die. In any case continue with vigor.

Natalie Goldberg, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home

But this book isn’t just about writing. It’s about looking death in the face, knowing it is coming for you, and figuring out what to do about that. It is a powerful and inspiring book. I wrote more about how it impacted me as I read it in Live with vigor on my Butterfly Mind blog.

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