Flowery Language & Horrifying Conditions

Image result for Doctor zhivago book coverTitle: Doctor Zhivago
Author: Boris Pasternak
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 456
Rating: 3 of 5

My rating on this semi-autobiographical modern classic reflects my own personal taste more than the  quality of the writing. The only thing I really appreciated about this book was the historically important portrayal of the difficulties and horrors of life in Russia/USSR from the October Revolution through WWII.

Aside from the historical value, this just wasn’t my kind of book. I do not enjoy adulterous love stories and that is a central thread to this somewhat plotless book. Description of events takes a backseat to flowery/poetic description of landscapes, feelings, and philosophies. Characters are known by a bewildering profusion of names (as in many Russian novels) and interact with each other through a slew of amazingly convenient coincidences.

While this didn’t really work for me, your mileage may vary. If you’re the kind of reader who places a premium on “sublime” language, you will probably love this book.

(Also, I am using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge)

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Light vs. Dark (and a whole lot of gray)

Title: Night Watch
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 480
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The age-old war between light and darkness is on hold…kind of. In an effort to limit the massive loss of human life that has occurred down through the centuries, the agents of light and darkness (the Others – whose ranks include vampires, werewolves, seers, magicians, etc.) have agreed to a treaty in which direct intervention by either side is severely limited. The goal is to preserve the current balance of light and darkness, and to this end the Night Watch (light ones who keep an eye on the dark ones) and Day Watch (dark ones who keep an eye on the light ones) were formed. The situation results in behind-the-scenes scheming and maneuvering that is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel (but with magic).

Because the author and characters are Russian, the novel centers around the activities of Russia’s Night and Day watches and takes place mostly in and around Moscow. Seeing a completely different culture/worldview added a lot of interest to the story for me.

The magic system includes another dimension (“the twilight”) that is explained in some detail. However, for the most part there isn’t a tremendous effort to explain how magic works, and it seems to come in many varieties (which I am fine with).

The overall conflict of Light vs. Dark is frequently said to be Good vs. Evil, but the Light side can be pretty morally ambiguous. It’s really more Altruism vs. Selfishness where Altruism can be coldly manipulative and calloused toward individuals as long as what it does is for the greater good. The self-serving dark ones come off as more honest and less damaging than the “altruistic” light ones…it felt like Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness played out as fantasy. While providing interesting moral dilemmas (that our main character wrestles with ad nauseum) it also made the book a bit preachy and despairing. I’ll probably pick up the next book at some point, but I’ve had enough of the “Good is weak and possibly illusory” philosophy for a bit.

The Devil Went Down to Moscow

Title: The Master & Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translators: Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 432
Rating: 2 of 5

A subtitle to this review could be: “What did I just read?” This is one of those books where I have to wonder if some of its critical acclaim doesn’t come from the “I didn’t understand half of what was going on but it sounded so deep!” factor. The book mixes together historical fiction, magical realism, and romance to tell the intertwined stories of Pontius Pilate’s interaction with Jesus and Satan visiting Soviet era Moscow with his entourage (complete with gun-wielding talking cat). I’d probably have to read the book another time or two to fully understand how the stories play off each other, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to do so any time soon.

The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most was the social commentary. I’m not sure  how Bulgakov managed to publish this without ending up “disappeared” or in the gulag. He points out the absurdity of atheism (or at least anti-supernaturalism), the housing shortage, censorship of literature, the greed and privilege of the rich, the climate of silence surrounding arrests and disappearances, cowardice (especially cowardice), and more, but he does it all in a light humorous tone.

Some of the antics of Satan’s associates are entertaining as they expose the nastiness in society, but the overall portrayal of spiritual issues and characters in the book twisted them from their biblical portrayal so much that it irked me. Given the central position of Jesus Christ the Son of God in my worldview, I have a hard time appreciating a book that portrays him as a slightly loony, naively optimistic travelling philosopher of illegitimate birth while playing the devil as a clear-sighted cynic capable of giving people true peace.

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.

Conan the Cossack

Title: Taras Bulba
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 295 (large type/widely spaced)
Rating: 4 of 5

This is one of those rare books that I enjoyed quite a bit even though the main characters were pretty awful people and the author’s worldview is questionable at best…the emotional writing just sucked me in. It felt like a literary version of some of the themes that Robert E. Howard tried to embody in his Conan the Barbarian stories: the joy, honesty, and freedom of being an uncivilized/semi-civilized brute.

The relatively short story follows the exploits of the Cossack Taras Bulba and his two young adult sons who have just returned from school in Kiev. Their journey takes them from the riotous living at Setch Zoporozhia to a punitive expedition against the despised Roman Catholic Poles (to say nothing of the despised Jews and despised Muslims) and beyond. If you know anything about Russian literature, you know that this is not going to be a happy story overall, but Gogol infuses his characters with such life and passion that even when you are disgusted by their atrocities and prejudices you are somehow drawn to their vitality. In the end, I suppose the book boils down to an anti-Polish propaganda piece bragging about the glory of the Russian (Cossack) spirit (while ignoring that they are Ukrainian), but Gogol could sure write!

Also, I’m using this as my Russian Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.