Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

We’re all familiar with stories centering on people pulling off herculean tasks. Sometimes people just have need to do something that ends up seeming staggering to others, likely even themselves if they aren’t simply foolhardy. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a little bit different though, and that intrigues me. The early massive cattle drive from Texas to Montana when no one had done such a thing was certainly herculean…but it does seem a bit unusual in the fact that they didn’t really have any need to do it.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Arthur Golden)

Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call are aging men, widely famous for years of service as Texas Rangers. An old Ranger buddy shows up with stories about Montana and Call decides to rustle a massive herd of cattle from Mexico and head on up there, despite having more than enough money and all the adventures he really needed to ever have. Gus sees the pointlessness in it, but goes along anyway. Despite his carping, he wouldn’t miss it. Really, it’s more about facing the sunset in a way that is how they have proudly lived their lives than any actual need to accomplish the massive endeavor.

It was that they had roved too long, Augustus concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.

Indeed, it seemed to Augustus that that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.

Augustus had not expected that Call would be satisfied just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.

“I tell you what, Call,” Augustus said. “You and Deets and Pea go on up there to Montany and build a nice snug cabin with a good fireplace and at least one bed, so it’ll be waiting when I get there. Then clear out the last of the Cheyenne and the Blackfeet and any Sioux that look rambunctious. When you’ve done that, me and Jake and Newt will gather up a herd and meet you on Powder River.”

Call looked almost amused.

But don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t just about Gus and Call. There’s love, people trying to love, people trying to survive and make a living, people trying to deal with their pasts, and people being cruel to each other. There’s a lot to Lonesome Dove, as complex a maze of human stories as one might expect in a book this massive. It’s not just a pulp western, regardless what I may have originally feared when I picked up the book.

I’m not usually one for epics or westerns, so I didn’t expect to think a huge amount of an epic western. However, there is a reason why Lonesome Dove is regarded as perhaps the best epic western around. If someone thinks more highly of another, I haven’t heard about it.

Despite a staggering number of characters, I didn’t have any problem keeping people straight. Also, despite a staggering number of pages, McMurtry didn’t seem to have any problem keeping his eye on his scope, a statement about how humans live their lives made in such a way that you can always grasp but perhaps not completely articulate. Lonesome Dove moves, it thrills, and it does so in an unpretentious fashion. In short, which is perhaps not a term really applicable to Lonesome Dove, it’s some very fine writing.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Rome!

I hardly think anyone would find it odd if I admitted to a certain fascination with ancient Rome. Greece too, but definitely Rome. It’s hardly uncommon. Western civilization has long, long had on obsession with Rome…pretty much back to the time of Rome, or close thereafter.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves has that going for it right off the bat. It’s set up as a fictional autobiography of Claudius, the weakling stutterer and assumed idiot who ends up somehow becoming emperor. It’s amazing enough that he manages to survive at all, much less that he manages to survive through all of the poisonings, betrayals, and frantic infighting that accompany the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Arthur Golden)

Claudius suffers much throughout the book, picked on and pushed around by almost everybody, but it’s certainly clear that he isn’t an idiot. He’s highly intelligent, honest, and fiercely committed to the ideals of the Republic. Unfortunately, he has to mostly keep to keeping his head down and trying not to die. He just doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, and this is Rome at a very bloody time.

I have mentioned Briseis, my mother’s old freedwoman. When I told her that I was leaving Rome and settling at Capua she said how much she would miss me, but that I was wise to go. “I had a funny dream about you last night, Master Claudius, if you’ll forgive me. You were a little lame boy; and thieves broke into his father’s house and murdered his father and a whole lot of relations and friends; but he squeezed through a pantry-window and went hobbling into the neighborhood wood. He climbed up a tree and waited. The thieves came out of the house and sat down under the tree where he was hiding, to divide the plunder. Soon they began to quarrel about who should have what, and one of the thieves got killed, and then two more, and then the rest began drinking wine and pretending to be great friends; but the wine had been poisoned by one of the murdered thieves, so they all died in agony. The lame boy climbed down the tree and collected the valuables and found a lot of gold and jewels among them that had been stolen from other families: but he took it all home with him and became quite rich.”

I smiled. “That’s a funny dream, Briseis. But he was still as lame as ever and all that wealth could not buy his father and family back to life again, could it?”

“No, my dear, but perhaps he married and had a family of his own. So choose a good tree, Master Claudius, and don’t come down till the last of the thieves are dead. That’s what my dream said.”

Frankly, if you wanted to distill I, Claudius down to a couple, simple paragraphs, that would be it. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Course, we all know that Claudius is going to die sooner or later…whether or not in this book. We all know Claudius has been dead for almost two thousand years. We know at least one of the thieves wasn’t dead when he came down from his tree. Still, the above is pretty much the story of Claudius.

I’ve got to love I, Claudius for the historical period Graves manages to convey. I still go both ways on some of the more modern language elements Graves uses, though. A lot comes off as if Claudius was from the current era. It’s more readable than if it was more period accurate language-wise, but it does make it seem a little less Roman. Let’s not forget that my fascination with Rome is one of the reasons I was in I, Claudius to begin with.

Regardless, I did enjoy I, Claudius. I’m just not sure I’m going to read the other volume (Claudius the God). I, Claudius was kind of enough.

The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin

The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin is another instance for me of ‘me and my big mouth,’ as Bugs Bunny frequently said (the latter phrase, not the entire sentence). It looked interesting, and since it was old I figured I could get a free pdf copy for my Kindle (I have a Kindle, but I only use it to read free books). So, I told Kim I’d take this one. However, each pdf I found was a different length, with differing numbers of chapters. I couldn’t figure out whether I had the whole thing or not, so I just went and bought hard copy…all five volumes (Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, and Volume V). Yup, I’d put myself down for a five volume, 2480 page, monster of 18th century Chinese literature.

And, some people are going to start railing right away when I even call it The Story of the Stone. Apparently, the book has been translated with various titles: The Story of the Stone, Dream of the Red Chamber, Red Chamber Dream, and A Dream of Red Mansions. Heck, the book itself gives more titles than even that. I’m told that Dream of the Red Chamber is most correct, but my copies all say The Story of the Stone and The Story of the Stone is what was listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.  As such, for this review I’m going to keep talking about The Story of the Stone.

Nor is the title the only confusion. There seems to be some dispute over at least part of the authorship. There is little dispute (at least as far as I know) that Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters, though apparently there were one or two people after him who did some editing. The last 40 chapters, however, may have been written by Gao E. Or, depending if you believe another set of people, the bulk of the material for the last 40 chapters was written by Cao Xueqin and then heavily edited by Gao E after Cao Xueqin’s death. Really, I have no idea. Heck, even when first published there was already different versions floating around. A complete text, and a real idea about who really wrote what, appears impossible to determine at this point.

For our purposes, let’s just stick to the story in the copies of the books that I have.

 (Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Arthur Golden.)

For the most part, The Story of the Stone details a wealthy and influential Chinese family (and some other closely related families), the Jia family, and their fall from fortune and favor. Of this family, Bao-Yu is pretty much the major character, a son who prefers hanging out with his girl cousins and such to study and advancement. Also, he is the human incarnation of a magical piece of jade that was rejected as building material for the heavens. He loves Dai-Yu, another immortal incarnated in human form who loves him as well, but is fated to be married to another. Around all this there is an incredibly richly woven tapestry of the incredible wealth of the Jia family, the debt they turn out to really be in, terrible fighting and betrayal, the crash of the Jia family, and so on. After all, this is a hell of a big book.

Really, though the life depicted is considerably old, the book does seem pretty modern for being almost three hundred years old in terms of characterization, realism (other than the spiritual elements that wander in and out), and structure. It definitely contains some interesting contrasts.

For example, as one might expect, there is a considerable amount of attention to status, politeness, and ritual that characterized the society from which the book came:

As she did so, she raised her head and saw Zhou’s wife with her two charges already standing in front of her. She made a confused movement as if to rise to her feet, welcomed the old lady with a look of unutterable benevolence, and almost in the same breath said rather crossly to Zhou Rui’s wife, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

By this time Grannie Liu was already down on her knees and had touched her head several times to the floor in reverence to her ‘Aunt Feng’.

‘Stop her, Zhou dear!’ said Xi-feng in alarm. ‘She mustn’t do that, I am much too young! In any case, I don’t know her very well. I don’t know what sort of relations we are and what I should call her.’

At the same time, there are certainly some crasser moments than I would have expected in a book of this time period (note, Qin Zhong and Darling are boys who are friends with Bao-Yu as a boy and attend the clan school with him):

            Jokey Jin, now thoroughly cock-a-hoop, wagged his head and tutted in a most provoking manner and addressed wounding remarks to no one in particular, which greatly upset Darling and Previous for whose ears they were intended. A furious muttered altercation broke out between them across the intervening desks. Jokey Jin insisted that he had caught Qin Zhong and Darling in flagrante delicto.

            ‘I ran into them in the back courtyard, kissing each other and feeling arses as plan as anything. I tell you they had it all worked out. They were just measuring themselves for size before getting down to business.’

This is a huge book, so it is hard to talk about everything inside. Summation is extremely difficult. The life of this family is meticulously detailed, both in the pomp of their extravagance and in how they meet their downfall. Amidst all this and a hundred other things, there are also some startlingly beautiful moments:

It was with such apprehensions that she made her way stealthily towards Green Delights, her intention being to observe how the tow of them were behaving and shape her own actions accordingly. Imagine her surprise when, just as she was about to enter, she heard Xiang-yun lecturing Bao-yu on his social obligations and Bao-Yu telling Xiang-yun that ‘Cousin Lin never talked that sort of rubbish’ and that if she did he would have ‘fallen out with her long ago.’. Mingled emotions of happiness, alarm, sorrow and regret assailed her.

Happiness:

Because after all (she thought) I wasn’t mistaken in my judgment of you. I always thought of you as a true friend, and I was right.

Alarm:

Because if you praise me so unreservedly in front of other people, your warmth and affection are sure, sooner or later, to excite suspicion and be misunderstood.

Regret:

Because if you are my true friend, then I am yours and the two of us are a perfect match. But in that case why did there have to be all this talk of ‘the gold and the jade’? Alternatively, if there had to be all this talk of gold and jade, why weren’t we the two to have them? Why did there have to be a Bao-Chai with her golden locket?

Sorrow:

Because though there are things of burning importance to be said, without a father or a mother I have no one to say them for me. And besides, I feel so muzzy lately and I know that my illness is gradually gaining a hold on me. (The doctors say that the weakness and anaemia I suffer from may be the beginnings of a consumption. So even if I am your true-love, I fear I may not be able to wait for you. And even though you are mine, you can do nothing to alter my fate.

So how do I sum up something that is too big for me to sum up? I guess I’ll just have to wing it and hope for the best.

The Story of the Stone is a captivating story. It’s one of the longer books I’ve ever read (though not the longest I don’t believe), but it’s well worth hanging in there. There aren’t a whole lot of books that take on something of this depth and scale, and not all that do manage to do so well with it. It’s a classic, and disapprovingly a classic that few I know are familiar with. I know it’s long, but I think more people I know should have read it. Those who manage it will have honored their literary ancestors.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Anyone who knows me would in no way be surprised that I had fun reading Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. After all, I love a good laugh.  One thing that is certain is that you do get that with Wodehouse (though I was more snickering throughout as opposed to laughing out loud at any point, but still). Mind you, I didn’t know that for sure until this book as I’d never read any Wodehouse before, but I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams and Molière and such and had every reason to think I would go for Wodehouse.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Arthur Golden.)

So what do we have with Right Ho, Jeeves?  Well, we start with Bertram Wooster (Bertie) and his man (butler) Jeeves in a bit of a standoff over a white mess jacket.  Apparently, Bertie purchased this jacket (which he is quite fond of) while away at Cannes and Jeeves does not approve of. Bertie knew this was going to happen and is ready to spar with Jeeves on the matter. As a result of this jacket situation, when Jeeves is approached by a reclusive and newt-fond friend of Bertie’s for help landing a girl (apparently people are always seeking the help of Jeeves as opposed to Bertie) Bertie seizes control and tries to help on his own. Instead of fixing things, Bertie complicates the situation excessively. Hopefully, Jeeves will eventually manage to step in and straighten things out. After all, there is apparently a good reason why people don’t ask Bertie for help.

One particularly interesting thing to me, though, is that even though everyone knows that Bertie’s advice will go wrong and that they really want the help of Jeeves, they still listen to Bertie when he advises. He talks and it sounds like a good idea, though it ends up not being such, and people listen to him. For the life of me, I can’t see why they do this as opposed to insisting on Jeeves. Yet, they do. Hilarity, of course, results. I suppose things would be rather dull if people just ignored Bertie and insisted on Jeeves as there would be no catastrophes and thus no humor.

Really, the humor is the main feature of this book for me. There are a few love stories going on, and a few things other than that, but I never felt that they were particularly significant or important. I wanted the various situations to turn out well, but I didn’t worry about them too much. I figured Jeeves would be listened to eventually and things would all be good by the end. I suppose there could be come argument for a dissection of wealthy English society in here, but I personally don’t find that as interesting as a good laugh.

By way of example, take a look at this section where Bertie’s affectionate aunt addresses him regarding the current state of affairs after Bertie has screwed some things up:

‘Gone to bed, eh?’ I murmured musingly.

‘What did you want her for?’

‘I thought she might like a stroll and a chat.’

‘Are you going for a stroll?’ said Aunt Dahlia, with a sudden show of interest. ‘Where?’

‘Oh, hither and thither.’

‘Then I wonder if you would mind doing something for me.’

‘Give it a name.’

‘It won’t take you long. You know that path that runs past the greenhouses and into the kitchen garden. If you go along it you come to a pond.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Well, will you get a good, stout piece of rope or cord and go down that path until you come to the pond–’

‘To the pond. Right.’

‘– and look about you till you find a nice, heavy stone. Or a fairly large brick would do.’

‘I see,’ I said, though I didn’t, being still fogged. ‘Stone or brick. Yes. And then?’

‘Then,’ said the relative, ‘I want you, like a good boy, to fasten the rope to the brick and tie it round your damned neck and jump into the pond and drown yourself. In a few days I will send to have you fished up and buried because I shall need to dance on your grave.’

Frankly, I think this passage conveys the entire point behind reading this book all in one little package. I wouldn’t want to quote any more than that because it would spoil the ability to read these lines fresh for oneself.

Now, I’m not sure that I think all that much of Right Ho, Jeeves beyond the humor value (and I still would put Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest higher), but does there really need to be anything more than that? I certainly don’t think so. Sometimes a good laugh is all that separates us on a daily basis from going completely insane (if we aren’t already) in the face of what life throws at us.

I had fun reading Right Ho, Jeeves. Really, I think that’s plenty. I might not rank this as one of the best books of all time, but I certainly want to read more Wodehouse. For me, that’s an important indication. I don’t tend to keep reading someone who didn’t impress me one way or another.