Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

publication date: 1985
pages: 857
ISBN: 978-0-684-87122-6

It is rare to find a book that makes you race along reading it because the plot is so spirited, while also pressing you to stop and ponder humanity and mortality because of its scope and language. A book that introduces you to characters so complex and whole that it doesn’t matter if you find them “likable” or “relatable;” instead, they just exist. A book that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you question, worry, wonder, remember, approve. Lonesome Dove is that book.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted an epic Western that was sweeping, but never pretentious; long, but perfectly paced. The book followed the Hat Creek Cattle Company as it moved cattle from newly-settled Texas to the unsettled territory of Montana in the late 1800s. The Company consisted of two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Captain Call; young Newt; Bolivar the Mexican cook; unthinking Pea Eye; and steadfast Deets.

As these characters rode through the American West, McMurtry used description so expertly that a sense of atmosphere was evoked in almost every scene. Here was an example:

Jake looked off across the scrubby pastures. There were tufts of grass here and there, but mostly the ground looked hard as flint. Heat waves were rising off it like fumes off kerosene. Something moved in his line of vision, and for a moment he thought he saw some strange brown animal under a chaparral bush.

As mentioned above, McMurtry was also deft at crafting characters. Because of the encompassing nature of the book, McMurtry introduced dozens of characters. However, I can picture almost all of them distinctly. One of my favorites was Lorena, a tough prostitute who showed little affection but was the unrequited Manic Pixie Dream Girl of almost every man who met her. Here’s a cowboy’s description of her:

Looking at her, though, was like looking at the hills. The hills stayed as they were. You could go to them, if you had the means, but they extended no greeting.

One of my favorite things about the book was how the characters were so realistic that they were not merely reflections of the author’s message or plot. Instead, all the narratives were slightly biased toward that particular narrator and were subtly false. It was nothing blunt or confusing, but the dialogues and the narratives wove together to create a picture of the character, not necessarily a picture of the world in the book.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by how alien these characters’ lives were. No electricity, no refrigerators, riding on horseback all day – usually voluntarily. However, much was the same. Some people sought adventure, some just wished to stay at home. Some people were lazy, some would work until you stopped them. Some people would do almost anything to get laid or have any kind of companionship, others would be content to see another person once every few years. Although the setting was foreign, the book itself never stopped being understandable.

6/6: instant classic

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
World’s Strongest Librarian
Wendy Reads Books

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

pages (including back matter): 346
publication date: 1811

By most accounts, Sense and Sensibility was the first novel written by Jane Austen. In my opinion, it is also her wittiest and her most biting.

Sense and Sensibility begins after Mr. Henry Dashwood has died and left his three daughters and wife with little inheritance. Elinor, the eldest daughter, maintains a keen sense of proprietary and practicality. Marianne, the middle daughter, is spirited and fervent. The youngest daughter, Margaret, is too young to be married off. Consequently, Austen does not bestow on her a personality. The novel follows Elinor and Marianne as they move to a new home and fall into, and out of, love.

Elinor is arguably Austen’s most sarcastic heroine., which leads to many humorous passages. One example is when Elinor and Marianne are speaking with Edward Ferrars after the sisters have moved away from their birth home, Norland. Elinor asks Edward if he has recently been near Norland and this exchange ensues:

“I was at Norland about a month ago.”
“And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.
“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”
“Oh!” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall!”

I love how charming Marianne is in that passage, but she is absolutely ridiculous, too. And Elinor calls her out on it.

As hinted at in the above passage, Marianne and Elinor are fully-realized characters. They have flaws and virtues, just like anyone else. Austen makes them utterly likable, however, and you root for them. Most of the other dozen or so characters in the book are likewise fully-formed. The plot of the book is also intricate and, for the most part, convincing. There are credible plot twists, and even some well-crafted suspense, especially toward the end of the book.

Austen additionally sprinkles delicious satire throughout the book, most of which still applies today. For example, this passage, in which the Dashwoods meet Sir and Lady Middleton:

On every formal visit, a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case, it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and everybody was astonished at each other’s opinion.

How many times have we all gone through that conversation with parents? Well it turns out we’ve been part of a time-honored tradition of feigning interest and stifling boredom.

I hadn’t read Sense and Sensibility since high school. I’m glad I revisited it, because it is Jane Austen at her finest.

6/6: instant classic

Here are some other reviews of the book:

Notes from the North
Torch under the Blanket Books
Russ Allberry

Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner

9780226644929Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner by Vivian Gussin Paley

publication date: 1986
pages: 128
ISBN-10: 0226644928
ISBN-13: 978-0226644929

I stumbled upon Boys and Girls while reading a The Atlantic article about Swedish grammar schools that remove all references to gender. The article described Boys and Girls as “a classic book on children’s play.” I’m pleased I found that description intriguing because Boys and Girls was an absolute joy to read.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a teacher, a parent, a feminist, or a psychologist or who simply wonders how innate the differences between men and women are. Even if you don’t fit into those categories, I would still recommend the book, if only to experience Paley’s concise, artless, and passionate writing.

In Boys and Girls, Paley, a kindergarten teacher, documents and reflects on the happenings in her class for one year. It sounds deceptively simple, but the book is multi-layered. Paley spends most of the book recounting the differences between boys and girls. For instance, boys hop and girls skip. Boys run during gym and girls somersault. Once Paley is forced to deliberate on the children’s behavior and her reactions to it, she realizes that she treats boys more negatively than girls. That is the second, more subtle, layer to Boys and Girls. Paley explores her own, and – by implication – society’s preconceptions about boys’ behavior and learning. A third layer to the book is Paley’s struggle to be an inspired teacher. She clearly loves her job and she attempts to correct any misstep of her own—no matter how minor. These layers lead to a book that doesn’t so much as argue a point; it informs the reader and persuades. Paley doesn’t end the book with one over-arching implementable thesis. Instead, she tells the reader what she did and provokes the reader to come to her own conclusions

Boys and Girls is not without fault. Paley’s most regrettable flaw is her decision to use a separate dialect for Franklin, the only black child in her class. She informs us Franklin is black, so I don’t know why she needed an awkward, and probably inaccurate, separate dialect for him. Clearly, Paley admires and appreciates Franklin, so I sense no malice in her treatment of him. However, her use of a “black” dialect is unnecessary, clunky, and coarse.

Also, the book is older, so some of the information could be obsolete. For example, Paley notes that many of the children in her class do not have a TV at home. Also, none of the connective technology that fills ours homes today, such as wi-fi and smart phones, were available when Boys and Girls was written. Even though the book does not, and could not, discuss the consequences of these technologies on children, I still found it relevant.

Overall, Boys and Girls is interesting and charming. It is not necessarily an exciting book, but it is still one I would recommend.

As an aside, the foreword in my edition, written by Philip W. Jackson, was terrible. At one point he actually asks whether there is “at least a grain of truth in stereotypes?” That’s certainly a sentiment Paley would never agree to.

6/6: instant classic

Here is a collection of reader reviews of the book: