11. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
I love Willa Cather. My Antonia is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I think it is her best as I did not like this one quite as much, and I liked Oh Pioneers! less. So, my relationship with Cather's work is the inverse of my relationship to Amy Tan's work, I suppose. Still, I enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop as I believe it was meant to be, the stories of some persons of interest in a place of interest. Cather doesn't dress this novel up, it is simple and honest human experience, with no other plot. And this, she achieved in complete sentences! I wish some of the experimentalist modernists and stream-of-consciousness whatnots had read Cather or paid attention to her if they did.
As I was reading, I felt that she had just the right combination of detail, neither too sparse nor too florid, and she related stories of the characters as they would occur or be contemplated upon in real life. The Archbishop of the title is Father Latour, a relatively young French priest who is assigned the "new" archdiocese of New Mexico when it becomes part of the United States. These parts had already been Catholicized long before, but the old institutions were out of repair and most of the people had not received religious instruction in a generation or two. Father Latour, and his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, who accompanies him, were real historical figures whom Cather found interesting. She evokes an intriguing Mexican and Indian culture and landscape for them to encounter, and she seems to be as familiar with this territory as her own Midwestern lands, where she grew up and her other novels are set. One can imagine Cather learning and falling in love with the land in order to write this book.
I've read some criticism suggesting that the relationship between Latour and Vaillant is meant to be homoerotic. I wouldn't discount that notion, there are hints that Latour, at least, feels more strongly about Joseph than he should, but I also believe that their relationship could be a portrayal of what a true friendship could be like. Father Latour exemplifies the isolation that I think everyone feels without their closest friends, but Father Vaillant is the sort of person who at least appears to make friends everywhere. I think people like that might secretly feel just as lonely as everyone else, but I guess Cather didn't.
I think I might have gotten more out of this book in a class, but as it is, I'm glad I finally read it.
12. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Where to start? I really enjoyed this, I'm into dystopias and scifi and not only does Atwood combine the two (a frequent combination, but still), but she has plenty of amusing mutants and genetic products etc. that sound almost possible to the bio geek side of me. I really appreciate a science fiction author who knows her stuff, and she at least knows her history of evolution extremely well and is quite good at faux-genetic technobabble, shall we say.
Snowman is the last human on Earth. At least, so far as he knows. However, there are a strange mutant people, whom he calls the Children of Crake, with many helpful genetic modifications. The book flashes between Snowman's present and his life leading up to the present, focusing particularly on his friend Crake and lover Oryx. I'd heard it said that Jimmy (Snowman's real name) is annoying and Oryx and Crake are more interesting, but on the contrary, I found him an apt and charming narrator, whose character I liked and related to. I couldn't imagine anyone else telling the story.
Atwood offers a convincing portrait of a Malthusian future where population growth and supply demand have finally outrun even the best of human ingenuity, with sickening video games and web sites, false empirical utopias within a greater devastation (the elevation of the elite at the expense of the masses), and finally a twisted mastermind, Crake, who destroys it all and creates his own DNA-encoded utopia. But what occurs to me about Crake's method is the gist of a quote I once heard somewhere, I can't remember where, it could have been Richard Dawkins or something else, but that to be truly viable, the genome needs to be able to err, to make mistakes. A human intelligence would create perfect beings if it could, but perfection cannot adapt. The Children of Crake are built to survive in a certain kind of world, but one disaster, the same disaster repeated enough times, could wipe them all out, because they could not learn from their mistakes. Fortunately, we can and that's a fact dystopias like Atwood's strive to remind us of before it's too late.