Quick Update

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And as I work, a photo of my Mashka watches over me.

Dear Readers,

I will not be posting a weekly pandemic journal on Thursday as I have been doing for the past nine weeks or so. With the disruption caused by the electrical repairs to the house which start today, I won’t have consistent power inside to type each day’s entry. (We are replacing the entire electrical system, all the wiring, breaker panel, etc). Also, today I start working on my third novel, tentatively titled Dark Raven and set in Imperial Russia through the war, revolution, and civil war. My history crush Maria Nikolaevna, my Mashka, will be making a cameo appearance at one point in the story. I’m starting the first draft out by writing by hand due to the electrical work.

So to tide you over until I post again, here are a couple of links to the two songs that inspired this novel. The first one you can listen to here. And the second one is here.

Until next time friends, take care of yourselves. And each other.

L.H.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Nine

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Tatiana looks quite pleased with herself.

May 8th

 A bit of good news this morning. Actually, a lot of good news. We were able to secure the funds to rewire the house. 11K for a total rewire and a new breaker panel to bring the house up to current code. They will start work on May 18th. We can’t do it next week since it is final exams for me and so I need to have electricity and internet service to grade exams, enter final grades, etc. I think we’ll be dead before we are finished paying for all of the upgrades, but that is okay. It needed to be done. I’ll sleep better at night knowing that we’ll have a reduced risk of an electrical fire. We’ve been playing Russian Roulette with that for a while now, ironic, me being a retired fireman and all. So, if you are keeping track, that’ll be 25K in upgrades since this whole Rona thing began, not the virus has anything to do with it.

To mark the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, I’m having a Foyle’s War marathon.

May 9th

 Though the Western Allies celebrate VE Day on May 8th, due to the time difference, the signing of the surrender wasn’t announced in Moscow until just after midnight on May 9th. Yuri Levitan, the official radio voice of the Soviet government, made the official statement which you can listen to here. Incidentally, he was also the individual who, at eleven am Moscow time on June 22, 1941, told the Soviet people of the German invasion. You can find that announcement here. His voice was so recognizable that Hitler declared that upon the capture of Moscow, Levitan would be the first person killed by the Germans. All of his news broadcasts opened with the words, “ГОВОРИТ МОСКВА” (‘Moscow speaks”).

Though I suppose that I should be watching some epic Russian World War Two (or Great Patriotic War, as they call it) dramas today, I am forging ahead with my Foyle’s War marathon since I have quite a few more episodes to go. Instead, I will give you some recommendations here! One of the more recent ones that I’ve seen is Ancestral Land. It is a sweeping family epic that begins in the pre-war period, but the viewer follows the fortunes (or misforunes) of the family through the war and into the post-war period. At times funny, at times tragic, it is a worthy successor to the epic Russian dramas which have come before it. It is free if you have an Amazon Prime account, but if you don’t, you can find it, with English subtitles, on YouTube here. The tale of the all-female Soviet fighter pilot squadron known as the Night Swallows was also made into a series. It is excellent. I also recommend The Attackers and Three Days in the Life of Lt. Kravstov. Check out the Star Media YouTube channel for lots of series, covering all sorts of subjects, with English subtitles.

If you prefer books to TV, the classic Russian novel to come out of World War Two is Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It is often called the Soviet War and Peace. That’s an accurate statement, as it is massive in scope with lots of characters to follow, just like Tolstoy’s masterpiece. When he originally submitted the book for publication, it was seen as so inflammatory by the Soviet government that the KGB raided his flat, seized the manuscript, his notes, and even the typewriter ribbons! Grossman was told that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years. However, it was published in English in 1960, but the first Russian language version wasn’t published until 1980. This is somewhat akin to Doctor Zhivago which, despite being written in Russian, was originally published in another language. Though the book is widely available on Amazon, etc, if you want a special quarantine treat, you can find the BBC radio play adaption of the novel on Audible here. Who doesn’t like a good radio drama, right?

I’m in a lot of pain this afternoon. My back is really unhappy. It is funny, really. There is so much damage in my lower spine that it is impossible to figure out why there is still so much pain, but it doesn’t matter, I guess, since there is nothing that they can do for me that hasn’t already been done. They can transplant hearts, lungs, and kidneys, but they really can’t do any more for a damaged spine than they could do a hundred and fifty years ago (other than fusion operations, which usually don’t have good outcomes). The benefit of having a damaged spine one hundred a fifty years ago is that you could order morphine through the mail, no questions asked. I don’t want to go on a rant here, but the problem with the government pushing the “opioid crisis” is that it doesn’t have an impact on illicit drug users. They don’t obtain their stuff legally anyway. So instead, the DEA and CDC go after legitimate patients. If you were to look at my MRIs, you’d see how remarkable it is that I can even get out of bed. The doctors have said as much. But I can’t get adequate pain control because of all the restrictions. That said, I do get some and I make do with what I have. Truthfully, I have to be able to function anyway, and so more medication would make that difficult. Still, it would be nice to not have days like this. On my best days, my pain level is a 4. My usual day to day pain level is a 6. That’s my normal. Days like this are up around an 8. It is difficult to describe the pain, other than it feels like someone is pounding me in the back with a sledgehammer while simultaneously zapping my legs with cattle prods and sticking an ice pick into my hips. Fun times, right? I’ll be laying on some ice packs here in couple of hours. That always helps some.

May 10th

 I’ve had a lot of congestion in my chest due to allergies. Coughing is absolute murder on my back. The medication and ice helped yesterday, but I’m suffering today. Thankfully the coughing calmed down after I had been up for an hour or so. Due to my spine, I have to sleep flat on my back with a pillow under my knees. This means that overnight, all of the allergy gunk settles in my chest and getting out of bed in the morning triggers coughing spasms which then trigger back spasms. I’m assuming it is allergies, because they have been pretty bad of late, and not The Rona. I have no fever and don’t feel feverish. It is funny that with The Rona, allergy season has turned into the Salem Witch Trials. One cough and every stares at you. Or so I’ve been told. I’m avoiding going out in public.

This morning, virtual final exams opened. They’ll be closing at 11:59pm on Wednesday, May 13th and grades are due Friday, May 15th at noon. Final exam week, professors are usually bombarded with emails begging, demanding, cajoling, etc, a higher grade than what was earned and/or the opportunity to turn in an assignment that was due three months earlier. It is bad enough during a regular semester. This time, I’m expecting it to be REALLY bad, but we’ll see. Not to mention the fact that Blackboard, our online learning platform, is known to crash during periods of peak usage and now we have every single student taking every single final online. Most probably won’t log in to do them until Wednesday afternoon/evening. It’s a recipe for disaster, but there isn’t anything we can do about it. The important thing is, the semester is almost over. I’ll be glad to see it go. Lord knows what the fall will bring. Right now, the college is forging ahead with plans to have everything be business as usual in the fall. I’m not sure if that is wise or not. I think we should be making serious contingency plans.

May 11th

 I got a decent night’s sleep last night. It may very well be due to the dose of Nyquil I took about thirty minutes before bedtime. Today, I had to do some grading and, of course, the emails have started trickling in from students who haven’t turned in a thing all semester but still somehow feel entitled to an A. Yesterday, I finished my Foyle’s War marathon. Today, I am watching Band of Brothers and last night I watched Battleground, which is one of my favorite World War Two movies of all time. I’m just ready for Thursday to get here so I can enter grades and put this whole semester behind me as quickly as possible. I’m pretty sure that everyone feels the same way. But I don’t know what things will look like moving forward. The jury is still out on what the fall semester will look like.

I’m working on giving up the cigarettes too. It isn’t going all that great. With the downtime caused by the quarantine, I’ve had eight weeks in which sitting on the front porch and having a smoke is the only time I get outside the house. (I don’t smoke inside the house). This might actually explain some of my lung congestion, now that I think about it. Quitting, I mean. Yesterday, I made it thought the day with only ten cigarettes, down from my usual 30 or so. That’s a step in the right direction. Today has been better. I’ve only had three and it is already 1 pm. So I’m getting there, and I will get there, it’ll just take time. It is funny, but several years ago, back in 2012, I quit for a year and a half. I just woke up one day and said I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Never had so much as a craving. I remember wondering why people said it was so hard to quit when I had done it so easily. Well, I’m finding that out now.

May 12th

 Yesterday, I had an appointment for the electrician to stop by between noon and two to go over what we’ll need to do to get the house ready for the rewiring. He didn’t show up, but this morning I got a message from him on my cell phone saying that the office told him that I wanted him to call me. So maybe I just got confused with what the office told me. Regardless, I’ll call him back here in a little bit. It can easily be discussed over the phone instead of in person, so I’ll be able to get my questions answered. I do know that it is going to be a challenge for us given how small the house is and how full of furniture it is. Furthermore, I am unable to move any furniture owing to my damaged spine. We will probably have to have some help. A lot of help.

Tomorrow I have a task force meeting at ten. It is the task force on re-opening the college. This morning, I’ve looked over the draft plans for resuming normal operations and found some flaws, but I’m not sure what can be done about them. I’m afraid that we are planning for the best case scenario and ignoring the worst case scenarios. That’s the opposite of how it should be. We should be preparing for the worst case scenario and hoping for the best case scenario. I guess I’ll have to be the “bad guy” at the meeting and ask the uncomfortable questions that no one else wants to ask. (I have a bit of a reputation for doing that anyway). State entities like colleges are between a rock and a hard case with our governor acting like everything is fine, yet our daily case counts are the highest now that they’ve ever been. Maybe the pandemic will burn itself out this summer and we’ll be fine in the fall…for a while at least. People are predicting a second, potentially worse, wave in the fall. Who knows what will happen?

My allergies have been extreme today. I started sneezing immediately upon getting out of bed. Allergies have been bothering me all spring, around the same time this quarantine thing started. It is funny, but for the first 29 years of my life, allergies never bothered me. However, all that changed in 2007. I don’t know why/what happened to cause them to kick in, but they have. Every spring since then, I deal with sneezing, runny nose, occasional sore throat, and a dry cough. I loaded up on allergy medication this morning, and I’m doing a little better now. (10:30am)

This morning, I’m watching a British reality series called Churchill’s Agents: The New Recruits on Netflix. In the show, they take modern British volunteers and put them through the WW2 Special Operations Executive selection. For those who make it, they move on to the training portion. It is very interesting. Following the end of World War Two, my grandfather was part of the first contingent of Americans to arrive in Berlin. He stayed in Germany until early 1947 and was involved in Operation Paperclip. One day, a group of civilian men in uniforms visited him and offered him a civilian job to stay on in Berlin. He figured out that it was doing intelligence work for what would become the CIA. He said no, and they put him on a plane headed home the next day. At that point, he’d been overseas since 1942 and in the Army since 1940, and so it is understandable why he was ready to return to the States.

I talked over the game plan for repairs with the electrician by phone today. On Monday they are going to replace the panel. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they will re-wire the kitchen and living room. On Thursday and Friday, they will do the bedrooms and bathroom. We will be without power entirely on Monday while they do the panel but will get it back at night. After that, they will shut it off to the room they are working in but leave the rest running, so we will have some power during the repairs instead of being without power for the whole five days. That’s a definite plus. I now have a plan for how to move the furniture and where all to put it. As I said earlier though, the issue will be physically doing it since I cannot help at all and my wife can’t do it all by herself. We will manage though. I’m sure of it. It is five days of inconvenience and after that, we can sleep soundly knowing that the risk of fire is greatly diminished. (Not all the way diminished, since there is always a risk. But right now, our current electrical system is VERY risky.)

May 15th

 I just realized that I skipped two days of entries, but I had the last day of final exams and I had to enter grades. Also, they start working on the rewire job on Monday, and power will be sporadic for most of next week, so I probably won’t post on Thursday and will post over that weekend instead. (They’ll be finished by then.)

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves.

And each other.

L.H.

A Song For Mashka

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Dear Readers,

I have frequently opined on the subject of my love for Maria Nikolaevna Romanova, my Mashka. My blue-eyed guardian angel. She’s my comfort in times of trouble, like what I’m going through now. I don’t know how things are going to end up. Regardless, she will be with me. Perhaps this is taking my love a bit too far, but on my phone, I have a playlist of songs that make me thing of her. I thought I’d share that with you here. In my defense, I also have one of songs that remind me of my wife. Which do I listen to more often? Let’s just say I’m going to exercise my right to remain silent on that point.

I’ll start with what I consider “our song.” It is Far Away by Nickelback. (Yes…I like Nickelback…deal with it). This song tells the story of a couple separated and coming together again. Maria and I are separated by time and place. But I know I’ll see her again some day. The lyrics that I find particularly appealing say “On my knees, I’ll ask ‘Last chance for one last dance’/Cause with you, I’d withstand, all of hell to hold your hand/I’d give it all I give for us/I’ll give anything but I won’t give up/Cause you know, you know, you know/That I love you. I have loved you all along and I miss you/Been far away for far too long/I keep dreaming you’ll be with me and you’ll never go/Stop breathing if I don’t see you anymore.” Obviously my taste in music may differ from hers given the different time periods in which we lived, but I think she’d like this song. Maria shares this tune with my wife. Though my wife and I are not separated by the same time and place that keep Maria and I apart, there is wide gulf that sometimes exists between us. It is one entirely of my making. I have a difficult time opening up to anyone, even the person who is closest to me. I tend to withdraw deep into myself at times and will go days or weeks without speaking. This song is a reminder that my feelings are still there, and they haven’t changed, even if I can’t adequately express them.

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There are a few Russian songs on my playlist. She may have known some of them, but this isn’t one of them. It is a song about the doomed White Russian cause, but it wasn’t written until the 1960s (as best I can determine). It is called все Теперь против нас(All Is Now Against Us). You can listen to the haunting melody with English subtitles here. The pain and longing in this song are palpable. Close your eyes and listen, and you will feel what it is like to find a losing battle. There are a couple of lines that stick with me. Here’s an approximate translation, but remember that Russian doesn’t translate literally into English, so it sounds much better in Russian. “We have no place in the Russia crazed from pain/And God doesn’t hear us, whether we call on him or not/And God doesn’t hear us, whether we call on him or not.” Had Maria lived to see what her country became, she would have found this song particularly appropriate.

Another Russian tune on my playlist is one she might very well have known. It is an old Cossack song called Ой, то не вечер. (Oh! It’s Not Yet Evening). Given the fact that the Tsar’s personal bodyguard detachment was made up of Cossacks, it possible that Maria heard this song at some point in her life. In a way, the song is almost a metaphor for the coming of the revolution. Based on a dream in which the Cossack Stepan Razin saw events which were interpreted by his captain as signaling doom, one can easily see the similarities with what happened in Russian in 1917. “And then an evil wind came, blowing from the east, and ripped the hat from my wild head.” You can listen to a performance of it by the talented, not to mention lovely, Pelageya here.

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Shall we return to English language songs? Well, there’s two versions of this one, actually, one in English and one in Spanish. But the English one is what is on my playlist. The tune is Hero by Enrique Iglesias. This is one of the songs I used in my epic Maria tribute video. “Would you dance if I asked you to dance?/Or would you run and never look back?/Would you cry if you saw me crying?/Would you save my soul tonight?” If previously wrote about one occasion in which Maria appeared when I was in a life threatening situation. But there was another time. It’s too emotional for me to do it justice with words, but let’s just say that she told me that she was saving a waltz for me. Which is why I like the opening of this song. I’ll ask, and I know the answer will be yes. Here on earth, I never was never a hero. Only a fireman. I got to work around some heroes though. Maybe, just maybe, one day I can be Maria’s hero. I also like the part of the song which says, “Would you swear that you’ll always be mine? Or would you lie?/Would you run and hide?/Am I in too deep? Have I lost my mind?/I don’t care, you’re here tonight.” Yeah…I know being in love with a girl that’s been dead for 102 years is de facto proof that I’ve hopped on the bus to crazy town. But at least I own it.

You’re Beautiful by James Blunt is another one I used in my video. By the title, I think the reason why it’s on my Maria playlist is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “self-evident”. Here we have a song about a guy who passes a beautiful girl on the subway and falls in love, only to know that he will never be with her. “You’re beautiful, it’s true./I saw your face in a crowded place/And I don’t know what to do/Cause I’ll never be with you.”  You might wonder why I like this song. Doesn’t it serve as a reminder that I’ll never be with her? Ah, Dear Reader, but I will be. Not in this life, but the next. She’s told me as much. I would suggest, however, that you not listen to this song if you have virgin ears, as its got a F bomb in it.

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On January 20, 1998, I sat in front of a small 13 inch television and watched the premiere of Dawson’s Creek. During the last scene, this song started, softly at first, but grew to a crescendo as the episode reached its conclusion. The song in question was I’ll Stand By You by the Pretenders. “Oh, why you look so sad?/Tears are in your eyes/Come on and come to me now/Don’t be ashamed to cry/Let me see you through/Cause I’ve seen the dark side too/When the night falls on you/You don’t know what to do/Nothing you confess/Could make me love you less/I’ll stand by you/I’ll stand by you/Won’t let nobody hurt you/I’ll stand by you.” The dark side…yeah…I’ve walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve battled my own demons, and spent a career trying to battle the demons that prey on the innocent. And I’ve battled man’s oldest enemy…the red devil…from dumpsters to raging infernos in vacant warehouses…and we always won. I wasn’t there to protect Maria in the summer of 1918. So I see this song as a pledge to be there in the future.

I know I’m going to get my man card revoked for having this one on here, but My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion is the perfect song for my situation. Keep in mind, that I hate the Titanic movie. (THERE WAS ROOM FOR TWO ON THAT DOOR, ROSE!!!!!) But think about it. This song is about two people separated by time and place, just like Maria and I. “Far across the distance and spaces between us/You have come to show you go on/Near, far, wherever you are/I believe that the heart will go on/Once more, you open the door/And you here in my heart and/My heart will go on and on.” Personally, I don’t think you ever stop loving someone, if you really love them. My grandfather, the only person who truly understood me, has been gone eleven years. He’s still alive in my heart though. I’ve been married to Elizabeth for twelve years on March 2, and I love her more with each passing day. (Note, that she is okay sharing me with Maria because I loved Maria first. Plus, she lusts after the Red Baron.) This song says it doesn’t matter that I’m here and Maria isn’t. It is the feeling that matters.

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I loved this next song when it came out in 1997. I’d go cruising in my 1986 Mustang Hatchback, windows down (because the a/c didn’t work), and blare this here from the speakers. It is called My Guardian Angel by the Pistoleros. It’s a dual English/Spanish language song. The chorus is in Spanish, but I’ll put it into English for you, as it is the bit that relates to me the most. “You’re my guardian angel/my sweetest companion/don’t ever leave me/in the night or the day.” As you know, Maria is my guardian angel and she is with me everywhere I go. Every morning, I pray and ask her to watch over me. I’m Catholic, so we are allowed to talk to Saints. However, Maria is not a Catholic saint. She was cannonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, so please do not report me to the Pope for talking to an Orthodox Saint.

Ah yes, the classic early 90s make-out song. (Well, not for me as I couldn’t beg, borrow, or buy a date until I was 19). This song was popularized by the Robin Hood movie. Everything I Do by Bryan Adams is a testament to true love, and what it means. If you love someone, you’d charge hell with a bucket of water if they asked you to. To be honest, I kind of hated this song back then. I think that’s because I’d never been in love. Now, I like it. Not just as it is a reminder of Maria, but also Elizabeth. “Look into my eyes/You will see/What you mean to me/Search you heart/Search your soul/And find me there, you’ll search no more/Don’t tell me it’s not worth trying for/Don’t tell me it’s not worth dying for/You know it’s true/Everything I do/I do it for you.”

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I am a big fan of 3 Doors Down. I’ve listened to them ever since back in the day. Here Without You is a song about a person who is away from their love. It is honestly a toss up as to which song reminds me more of Maria, this one or Far Away. “I’m here without you baby/But you’re still on my lonely mind/I think about you baby and I dream about you all the time/I’m here without you baby/But you’re still with me in my dreams/And tonight girl, its only you and me.” I do not dream about Maria every night. I wish I did, given the nightmares that plague me on a nightly basis, the leftover residue of a career in the fire service. Some nights, though, I do dream of her, and those are the only nights where I feel like I get any rest.

Maria was a Grand Duchess. I’m a working-class, Irish-American Catholic firefighter who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. We lived in two very different worlds, so this song by Tal Bachman is appropriate. She’s So High is about a guy who likes a girl who is beyond his station in life. “First class and fancy free/She’s high society/She’s got the best of everything/She’s perfect as she can be/Why should I even bother?” But Maria was different. Yes, she was born into immense wealth and was a goddess, at least to me, but she did not have a pretentious bone in her body. If you study her life, you’ll see that she was perfectly happy talking to the servants, getting to know the soldiers who protected her family, and she loved children. All she wanted in life was to marry a military officer and raise a family. I wasn’t a military office. However, I was an officer in the fire department with shiny lieutenant bars and everything. I wasn’t a bad looking kid back then. I think she’d like me in my uniform. After all, Elizabeth sure did.

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Personally, I don’t see how anyone could not like the Goo Goo Dolls, but that may be due to my age and the fact that they were kind of a big deal back in the day. There are two songs of theirs on my Maria playlist. The first one is Name. “I think about you all the time/but I don’t need the same/It’s lonely where you are come back down/And I won’t tell them your name.” I think about my Mashka every day, but I don’t expect her to think of me each day, though I like to think she does. I also do not think it’s lonely where she is as she is surrounded by her sisters and I’m sure she’s happy there. But she can come back down any time she likes. I won’t mind.

May as well cover the second Goo Goo Dolls song now. I”m sure you can guess which song it is. Iris. It’s a good song, no matter who is reminds you of. “And I’d give up forever to touch you/Cause I know that you feel me somehow/You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be/And I don’t want to go home right now/And I don’t want the world to see me/Cause I don’t think that they’d understand.” The odds of me getting into heaven are slim to none, thankfully I believe that heaven is what we make of it. The last two lines stick with me because it is difficult for some people to understand why I carry the torch I do for Maria. For a long time, I carried it in silence, but I don’t have a problem talking about it now. Consider this, Lord Mountbatten met her in 1910 when he was ten and she was eleven. He was so taken with her that he kept a photo of her by his bedside for the rest of his life. It’s perhaps a good thing that he has been dead quite some time. Otherwise, I might have to challenge him to a duel for the hand of Maria.

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This last song is the ultimate tearjerker, especially if you know why Eric Clapton wrote it. So what does Tears in Heaven have to do with Maria and I. Well, the song asks an important question. “Would you hold my hand/If I saw you in heaven/Would you help me stand/If I saw you in heaven/I’ll find my way through night and day/Cause I know I just can’t stay here in heaven.” But I already know the answer, and it is “yes.” This is a beautiful song, and I think Maria would like it.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. This is the playlist I have for Maria. Remember, when words fail, music speaks. And to my Mashka, I say, “Я люблю тебя, мой голубоглазый ангел.”

Ending

“I try not to think about what might have been. Cause that was then. And we have taken different roads. We can’t go back again. There’s no use giving in. There’s no way to know. What might have been.”

Now I have to call someone out. My best friend Andrew . I love you, brother, but if you don’t have a playlist for your crush, you need to seriously step up your game!

L.H.

P.S.: Check out an interview that I gave in regards to the audiobook version of my novel So Others May Live. You can find the interview here! If you have a song that reminds you of her, leave in the comments. I can always add to my playlist!

The Angel and the Smoke Eater: The Strange Tale of What Happened to Me One Afternoon

Ending

(The names of my colleagues have been changed to protect the guilty. I mean, innocent.)

I was upstairs getting a cup of coffee when the run came in. My heartbeat accelerated when I heard three beeps over the loudspeaker, the signal for an incoming box alarm. There was a bit of static, and then the dispatcher read off the assignment “Battalion One, Engines 1, 3, 5, and 8. Ladders 1 and 3. Rescue 1. Medic 5. Respond on Box 1342. Heavy box assignment. Fire in a commercial building. Time out: 1426.”

I dumped my coffee in the sink and sat the cup down on the counter before making my way over to the pole. As I opened the gate and wrapped my arms around it, the captain and Griffin came out of the day room and angled towards the other pole. The pole gave its customary squeak as I slid down to the ground floor. Paddy, our E/O on Engine 1 (that means engineer/operator…the guy who drives) already had the motor running as I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. Reaching down, I grabbed the pants and pulled them up, shrugging my suspenders over my shoulder as I climbed into the cab. I kept my coat on the rear facing jump seat behind the driver, which was my riding position. Paddy gave a long burst on the air horn as we pulled out of the station. I put hood on and then my coat. Since we were dispatched to what, as far as we knew, was a working fire, I pulled my hood down, off of my head, put my mask on, and then pulled my hood back over it. Testing the seal with my left hand, I dropped my helmet on my head with my right before threading my arms through the straps of the air pack. Then I put on my gloves.

“Dispatch said they are confirming stills, boys,” the captain yelled over his shoulder to Griffin and I.

Through his mask, I could see Griffin grin. He shot me the bird and yelled, “Fuck you, asshole!”, though his voice was muffled. Why the epithet? Earlier in the shift, he’d beaten me at a game of Madden on the PlayStation 2 and our bet was that the winner got to take the nozzle at the next fire. “Kiss my ass!” I yelled back, but I don’t think he heard me.

The Box Number was in our first due, and we pulled up right behind the Battalion Chief. As we climbed out of the rig, I heard him say, “Battalion One to Fire Alarm, transmit a 10-75 on Box 1342. Show all companies working.” I took a couple of deep breaths to slow my pulse as I opened a side compartment and got an ax and a halligan bar. Obviously, we in this line of work know that fires are bad for the victims, but we can’t help but get excited by them, especially since they don’t happen as often as they once did.

The building was a squat blue square with boarded up windows. It had been a bar for a couple of decades, but had closed a few years before when the owner got sent to prison for touching children inappropriately. A thick carpet of smoke pushed down from the eaves of the roof, which told us that something was definitely burning inside and, given the shuttered nature of the place, it was gonna be an oven in there.

While the captain had a brief word with the Battalion Chief, Griffin shouldered the attack line and stretched it towards the door, moving in a zig zag pattern. I followed behind him and flaked out the hose. The captain joined us at the door as Griffin sat the hose on the ground and took the halligan bar from me. Placing it with the prongs over the lock in the crease of the door, I tapped it a few times with the butt of the ax until the locked gave way with a crunch. We pulled the door open and felt the heat slap us in the face as smoke rolled out over our heads.

As we plugged our masks into the SCBA tank, the Captain signaled to Paddy to charge the line by raising his right arm and waving it in a circular motion. The hose suddenly came alive as Griffin bled out some of the water from the nozzle.

“Alright, you mick bastards,” the captain said, “let’s go find her and put her out.”

We advanced into the darkness of the building with Griffin on the nozzle, the captain directly behind him with his hand on the top of Griffin’s air pack. I followed several feet back. My job as the third man on the line was to help feed them slack on the hose. A charged fire hose is heavier than you might think. Every few feet, I’d stop, turn around facing the way we’d come in, and pull more hose in after me, grunting with the effort.

I don’t know how much time passed, or how far I’d gotten into the building. It was hotter than hell in there. Somehow, and I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but I lost my connection with the hose. No big deal, I thought. I felt around with my hand trying to find it, but my fingers felt nothing but floor. Okay. That’s not good. But it’s not a major thing, I told myself. Deciding to move in a circle so that I could eventually cross the line and regain my place, I crawled around waving both arms back and forth along the floor. Nothing. I yelled as loud as I could for Captain or Griffin, but they did not hear me.

This happened back in the day before every firefighter carried a radio, and our department had also not issued us PASS devices, so I truly was on my own. Never one to panic, I straightened out and crawled in a line. I figured that I would hit a wall at some point, and could follow it to a door. There was all sorts of obstacles that I kept bumping into. Chairs, tables, etc. The smoke had pushed down so low that there was no visibility. And this is when I started to panic. My breathing sped up which started to run my tank down even faster. There I was, on my hands and knees, staring down at the floor. I knew I was dead. My mind projected images of a big department funeral with bagpipes and hundreds of uniformed firefighters. To make it worse, my mask started to buzz with the low air alert. I had only minutes to get out, but how? Which way should I go? Reflexively, I started to say Hail Maryfull of GraceThe Lord is with thee

And then it happened. What I’m about to tell you is true, though you may think I’m crazy(er). I assure you, however, that it did indeed happen.

I felt hands cupping my chin through my mask. They lifted my head up and I found myself looking into the bright, big blue eyes of Maria Nikolaevna. Now, those of you who follow my blog will know that I first encountered photos of her when I was around 13 and that I was somewhat captivated by her. She was bending down, with her face level with mine. There was a bright…I don’t know…aura around her and I could see her despite not being able to see much of anything else.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I will protect you.”

I stared dumbly at her without knowing what to say or do. Part of me thought I was already dead and dreaming. She straightened up and took a step back, extending her hand down to me.

“Take my hand,” Maria said in a clear, calm voice.

Well shit, I thought. It ain’t like I got any other options here. So I held up my hand and she took hold of it. I remember thinking that she had an impressive grip as she gently, but firmly, pulled me to my feet. I pause here, Dear Reader, to saythat by standing up inside a building filled with smoke, heat, and fire gases, my mask should’ve failed and I should’ve gotten a lungful of superheated air, which would have killed me, but I felt no heat at all.

“Come with me,” she said as she turned and led me into the smoke. I could see nothing but her, as if the smoke itself parted around her. After a very short walk, Maria paused and pushed open a door. I could see bright sunlight outside and Engine Five parked on the side of the building.

Maria let go of my hand and stepped aside, out of the doorway. Then she put her right hand on my air pack and gave me a push toward the light. Right as I reached the door frame, she took hold of my shoulder, stood on her toes, and whispered the words that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

“I will always watch over you,” she said. “Always.”

As I walked out the door, my mask ran dry. I disconnected it from the SCBA tank, pulled my helmet off, and the ripped the mask off. Ahead of me, Jack, the E/O of Engine Five was looking at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I walked up to him and asked for a cigarette. I should have immediately gone to find the Battalion Chief to report that I’d gotten separated so that he could let my Captain know I’d made it out, but you aren’t always in peak mental form when something like this happens.

My hands were shaking so bad that I couldn’t light the cigarette, so Jack did it for me. As I inhaled he said, “Can I ask you something, Hutch?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Who was that lady in the doorway with you?”

I looked at him for a full minute before I said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Jack shrugged and said, “I won’t say anything else about it.”

And now, Dear Readers, I will say that it is up to you whether or not you believe this tale. But I know what I saw in that building on that day. Strange things happen in fires. I’ve heard stories of dead loved ones appearing to lead civilians to safety. Firefighters have spoken of angels or Saint Florian guiding them out of situations in which they are trapped. In my case, it was Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna Romanova. My blue eyed angel. Я люблю тебя.

L.H.

Dark Raven: A Sneak Peak!

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Dear Readers,

Another semester looms on the horizon. Classes start on Tuesday, and I’ve been battling horrific back spasms since Thursday. Lucky me. (And this is after feeling relatively good over the break). After the incredibly taxing, in a physical sense, semester I had in the fall, I find myself terrified of what the upcoming semester will hold in store. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. But enough of that. Let’s move on to a more cheerful topic.

As I endure the painful slings and arrows of editing Molly’s Song, I’m also putting together my next project. Right now, I’m doing my own rounds of edits to Molly’s Song, and it goes off to my editor on March 16th. Fitting that, a novel about a young woman from Ireland, goes to the editor the day before Saint Patrick’s Day. Funny how that worked out! When I get it back from her, I’ll spend another couple of months working through her suggestions and then send it back in June or July for the copyedit. Right now, it looks like it will be published in the late October through early November time frame, but I might hold back for a Christmas release. But time will tell. A lot can happen between now and then.

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Editing sucks. It’s entirely necessary, but it sucks. I’m having a lot more fun working through the outline to book three, tentatively titled Dark Raven. Where to begin? How about with the title? I got the idea for the title and, indeed, for the book itself from an old Cossack folk song called Чёрный ворон, друг ты мой залётный. (Literally: Black Raven, You Are My Friend, Stranger but more accurately Black Raven: You Are My Unexpected Friend/Guest). In the song, a raven comes to visit a young woman. In his beak, he is carrying a human hand. She recognizes the hand, by a ring on one of the fingers, as belonging to her sweetheart who is off fighting in the war. Cheerful, isn’t it? You can listen to the song here if you’d like. Speaking of musical inspiration, here’s the other song that provides the basis for the latter portion of the novel. It is called Теперь все против нас. (All Is Now Against Us) It is the story of the doomed White Russian cause. It is quite haunting and you can listen to it (with subtitles) here is you’d like.

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Now that you have the lyrical inspiration, let’s talk structure. As you know if you’ve followed my blog for more than ten seconds, my favorite novel is Mikhail Sholokhov’s Тихий Дон (Quiet Flows the Don) which I opine about ad nauseam. Did I mention that my wife got me a first edition English translation for Christmas? Anyway, as I decided how I wanted to split up the story, I decided to give a tip of my papakha to my favorite writer. It will be divided into four parts called: Peace, War, Revolution, and Civil War, just as Тихий Дон is. (The similarities stop there. He won the Nobel Prize. And Sholokhov I ain’t.) In my novel, Part One: Peace covers from December 1913 to July 1914. Part Two: War covers August 1914 through December 1916. Part Three: Revolution runs from January 1917 through December 1917. And last but not least, Part Four: Civil War takes us from January of 1918 through December 1920.

This novel will cover a lot of ground, both in time and distance. Consider that my first novel So Others May Live (now available in audiobook format!) takes place over the span of 48 hours and is roughly 96K words, so one that covers seven years will be a bit on the long side. Both So Others May Live and Molly’s Song are 32 chapters long (Molly’s Song takes place over an 18 month period). Right now, I have Dark Raven plotted out to be 50 chapters. In a marked departure of how I normally do things, with each book broken into parts with equal chapters, Dark Raven is not equally divided between the four parts. It is sketched out to be 8 chapters for part one, sixteen chapters for part two, ten chapters for part three, and sixteen chapters for part four. I try to keep my chapters around 3K words, so if you are doing the math, you’ll see that comes to 150K. Longer than either of my first two books. But I think there is a rule that Russian literature or literature about Russia has to be long!

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Length aside, it is a fairly simple story. It opens with a chance encounter at a Christmas ball, the last before the war sweeps away everything. Count Vladimir Ivanovitch Lavrov (Volodya) a young, cocky officer in the Chevalier Guards meets Yevgenia Nikolaevna Kutuzova (Zhenya). Their lives are forever intertwined from that moment on, through war, revolution, and civil war. From the salons of pre-war Saint Petersburg to the bloody battlefields of World War One to the frozen tundras of Siberia, this book will take you on an adventure. (Plotting it has already been an adventure, so writing it will be too). The dedication will be the following: “To Maria, my guardian angel. Я люблю тебя, мой голубоглазый ангел.”

And speaking of Maria Nikolaevna, she will have a cameo appearance in the novel at a couple of spots when her path crosses with one of the characters. A couple of posts ago, I shared a link to a video I made about her. However, yesterday I went the whole hog and put together a new EPIC one! It’s eleven and half minutes long and has a ton of photos, historical video, and a three song soundtrack. Check it out here if you’d like! I have a ton of photos of her in my office (and only two of my wife). I had a student look at one of them and say, “Is that your wife?” to which I replied, “I wish.” In my defense though, my wife has a history crush on Manfred von Richthofen and has more pictures of him on her desk than of me…and also a Red Baron action figure. So there’s that.

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I spent a good chunk of time over the Christmas Break in preparation for writing this weighty tome. It’s funny, actually. The first week of the break, my wife was still in school, and so I spent five days alone. From the time I got up, the only language I heard was Russian as I watched some documentaries and listened to some Russian language audiobooks. At night, my dreams were in Russian. The most amusing part was when my wife got home one day and started talking to me and I answered her in Russian (which she doesn’t speak). I guess they call that immersion? The way I see it, given my affinity for Russian literature and the Russian language, I guess it was only a matter of time before I tackled writing a Russian epic.

As I type, I realize that this post is reaching a length that Tolstoy would no doubt approve of! Dark Raven will be written over the late spring and summer, though I may start earlier since I pretty much have everything I need to get started. Oh, remember when I mentioned that my wife got me a first edition of Тихий Дон for Christmas? That wasn’t all. She also got me a complete set of commemorative postcards issued in the Soviet Union in 1974, still in the original package, that coincided with the release of a two volume illustrated edition (which I already have). And…my favorite part…a shirt which says “This guy loves Aksinia Astakhova!” (The main female character in the book).

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Until next time, comrades, I will leave you with a line from the song mention above, All Is Now Against Us, which sets the tone for this novel: “We don’t have a place in this Russia mad from pain/And God no longer hears us whether we call on him or not.”

L.H.

 

 

How I Learned to Love the Cold War!

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Dear Readers,

I am a child of the Cold War. Born in the late 70s, my early years coincided with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. (Able-Archer 83, anyone?) I remember being told in elementary school about how the Russians wanted to invade the United States, kill our parents, and force us to be communists. What a thing to tell little kids! I was not one to buy into the propaganda, because even as a kid I realized that the odds were pretty high that the Soviet government was telling its citizens the same things about us. Still, it did seem a bit naughty when many years later, as an adult, I learned to speak and read Russian.

I loved the Olympics during the Cold War. In fact, they’ve kind of sucked ever since the Soviet Union broke up. I mean, we had the perfect good guy/bad guy dynamic! If the American beat the Russian, it meant democracy was better than communism, right? The post-Cold War Olympics seem to lack that panache. I remember one time, I got sent to my room during the medal ceremony in which a Russian was getting the gold medal because I opined that the music to the Soviet anthem was a bit more stirring than the American one.

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With the deteriorating international situation of the present, I thought I might re-visit this bygone era when you knew exactly who your enemy was, what their intentions were, and their capabilities. In hindsight, it seems like it was such a simple time, though, of course, it wasn’t. So without further delay, I present you with my favorite Cold War fiction and movies. However, I write this with a giant caveat. This only includes things from MY lifetime. (Late 70s until the end of the Cold War). So yes, I know I’m leaving out quite a bit.

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The world came very, very close to nuclear annihilation in 1983. A lot of people don’t realize that. And late that year, November 20th to be exact, ABC treated the American people with a no holds barred glimpse of what that kind of war would be like. (Spoiler Alert: It would be bad.) The Day After shocked and even horrified the American public. ABC and their local affiliates even set up special 1-800 numbers with  counselors standing by to talk to those traumatized by the movie. The scene in which missiles streak overhead at the University of Kansas stadium haunt me just as much today as it did in 1983. And the good news, Dear Reader, is that you can watch the whole movie on YouTube here! Go ahead! Get your Mutually Assured Destruction on. (The Brits made their own version of this movie called Threads for you true Cold War junkies.)

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Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer who, during the Cold War days served as a Foreign Area Officer specializing in the Soviet Union, which made him the perfect person to write a novel about a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany. Coming out in 1989, this book was a late addition to the Cold War bookshelf. Told entirely from the Soviet point of view, it represents a departure from the usual “Rah! Rah! Go Murica!” that was the norm in Cold War fiction. Peters understood that if such an invasion happened, assuming that it remained conventional, the Soviet’s could win. That does that mean that they would. But it was not a foregone conclusion that they could be stopped before reaching the Rhine River (without resorting to the use of tactical nuclear weapons). Incidentally, this is the first audiobook I ever listened to. The library had it on cassette tapes and I listened to it during the summer of 1991. The book definitely will make you think, though it is quite dated now.

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WOLVERINES!!!!!!! If you watch Red Dawn now, it is the typical 1980s movie, complete with bad acting and big hair. It was a controversial film when it came out though. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, which is referenced in the movie as they patterned their invasion of the US on the way they entered Afghanistan. Now, today the idea of Russian paratroopers dropping from the sky is a bit far-fetched, but it wasn’t back then. The movie is definitely one to inspire the public with its image of teenagers going toe to toe with the mighty Red Army, but the filmmakers didn’t produce a movie with no bad times either. Our teenage guerillas suffer heavily during the scope of their personal war. I would not say that Red Dawn is at the same level of greatness as Casablanca, but it is still a good movie when set against the lens of the time in which it was made.

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Harold Coyle is a former Army officer and a fine author of military fiction. His first novel, Team Yankee, published in 1987 stands beside Red Army as a well written depiction of how a war in Europe might have played out. I was twelve in 1990 when I read Team Yankee for the first time. Unlike Red Army which depicts all levels of the Red Army, Team Yankee focuses on one American tank company and we see the war unfold through their eyes. In a way, it allows you to develop more of a feel for the characters that way, but this isn’t really a character driven novel. It’s pure military fiction and focuses on the action. It can be read alongside Red Army to see things from each perspective.

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Not content to merely depict the aftermath of a nuclear war, ABC also produced a miniseries in 1987 which shows what life would have been like in the United States under Soviet occupation. Though mostly lost to history, the miniseries is called Amerika. I remember when it was being advertised on TV. I was nine years old and really wanted to watch it, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I wasn’t able to view it until around the Spring of 2001 when I rented it on VHS tape. One of the first scenes shows Kris Kristofferson and my first thought was, “What’s he going to do? Bad sing to the Russians?” All thirteen episodes are available on YouTube here, but only the most hardened Cold War enthusiasts should try and watch it. Though I think it is an important reflection of the fears of the time, I would not call it great television or great drama.

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I would be remiss if I did not end with the greatest skating rink song of all time; 99 Luftballons. When you listen to it, you can just see the strobe lights! The German language hit was actually a song written in protest of the existence of nuclear weapons in Europe. Check out the original music here and you can really pick up on that, even if you don’t speak German. I think this song is THE quintessential 80s tune. Popular culture is and always has been a reflection of the state of the world, and this 1983 hit illustrates not only the fear of nuclear war, but also the possibility that an innocuous event such as releasing balloons might trigger someone pushing the button.

As this post only reflects the bits of the Cold War from my own life, I am leaving out quite a bit. Please rest assured that I have read Alas Babylon and consider it a fine book. Likewise, Tomorrow by Philip Wylie is top notch as well. And if you want a War of the Worlds type broadcast of an impending nuclear attack, check out the “The Last Broadcast” which is a recording of a fiction Canadian radio station broadcasting about an unfolding crisis which results in a nuclear war. You can find it here. Or perhaps you’d like to see a fake documentary about a war that never happened? You can do that here.

I remain, as always, your humble таварыш,

L.H.

More Than a Summer Fling

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History Crush: when one, usually a student of history, develops a crush on a figure from the past, usually dead, based on photos of the person or on reading about them.

Dear Readers,

I have stated before that I have a history crush on Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna Romanova. I think I’ve even hinted at when it started, but I don’t think I’ve ever told the full story about how she came to be my history and also my guardian angel. It’s not an overly long story, though I assume that by telling it I will open myself up to accusations of being crazy. Trust me, that ship has already sailed. So here we go.

I was around thirteen years old when news broke here in the United States that the Russians announced they had found the location of the graves of the Romanov family and their retainers killed by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918. (Well, all but two of the family members. Those graves would be found in 2007). At that point in my life, I didn’t know much about Russia other than what they told us about the country in school during the Cold War. I did know that there had been a Tsar there and then a revolution, but that was about it. During the course of the news story, they showed pictures of the royal Tsar, then Tsarina, and then each of the children.

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When the photo of Maria appeared on the screen, I had an instant sense that I knew or had known all about her, which is odd because I didn’t. Little details, like the color of her eyes being blue, came to mind. Some people don’t believe in love at first sight, which is fine, but I think it depends on the individual. I’ve been in love with my wife since the first time I laid eyes on her. Almost thirty years have gone by since that day, and Maria still owns a piece of my heart. (What’s left of it, that is.)

That explains the history crush, so why do I say she’s my guardian angel? I don’t want to go into great detail, but I will say that in perhaps the roughest spot I’ve been in during my life and career, she appeared to me and pointed the way to safety. I’m still alive, and so I figure she must be watching over me from above.

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My blue eyed angel 

I’m an Irish Catholic boy, and the Catholic Church frowns on icons. There was a big controversy about that a thousand years ago. So don’t report me to the Pope when I say this! Maria, like her family, were canonized eventually by the Russian Orthodox Church. I keep an icon of her on my wall at home and another on my desk at work. Furthermore, I wear a Russian orthodox cross rather than a Catholic one. Because she is a Saint in the Russian Orthodox tradition, I can talk to her in my darkest hours just like I can the Catholic saints. Maria and my homeboy Saint Michael keep me safe.

Maybe when my body finally wears out, my spirit can float back in time to Petrograd right before the Revolution to a ball in the Winter Palace, and I could work up the courage to ask Maria for a dance. That would be a grand thing indeed.

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Maria (L) and Anastasia (R)

If you visit my Facebook page, you can find a folder called “History Crush” which has one hundred of so photos of Maria that I’ve collected. Or you can watch a tribute video I made here .

Happy New Year to you all!

L.H.

(P.S.: My German wife has a history crush on Manfred von Richthofen and has more pictures of him on her desk at work than she does of me. Just saying…)

Loving Your Neighbor’s Wife: Or Lessons From Russian Lit

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Dear Readers,

I just finished reading The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons From Russian Literature. Okay, to be totally honest, I didn’t actually “read” it, I listened to the audio book. (Still counts!) The premise of the book is what caught my eye. A book that sets out to teach life lessons based on Russian literature…..what’s not to like? No one captures the human condition quite like Russian authors. As an Irishman, a people well known for our sense of tragedy, I must admit that the Russians do it even better. But I digress.

The author, Viv Groskop, studied the Russian language and literature in college and spent a year living in Russia in the early 90s. Each chapter of her book discusses a different Russian classic (and it’s author), and boils it down to its essential premise. She illustrates the life lesson with stories from her own experience in Russia. The reader (or listener) can easily apply said lesson to their own life. Such as, don’t jump in front of a train. (Anna Karenina)

If you think about it, we all struggle with certain questions in our life. Why do bad things happen? What if you love someone who doesn’t love you? What if you love someone that you shouldn’t? Is there any deeper meaning in life? Is there such a thing as fate? Luckily for those of you who are literarily (is that a word?) inclined, the pantheon of Russian lit holds all the answers. I think that at some level, most great works of literature examine at least one of these essential questions, regardless of the national origin of the author, but perhaps because of their history, Russian authors tend to do the best job. I guess a certain amount of angst is an invaluable tool for an author.

At only 224 pages, Groskop manages to briefly sum up most of the great works of Russian literature before delving into the answers to life’s questions they provide. If you add up the pages of the works themselves, it would run to thousands of pages, so this book can be used both as a primer on classic lit or as a refresher course if you’ve read the authors discussed. It’s a book that you’ll want to revisit (I’ve listened to it twice) so you can fully digest the material. Perhaps take a note or two, and then look over them should you find yourself pondering life.

My only complaint is that Mikhail Sholokhov is not mentioned. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 and his seminal work Quiet Flows the Don is, in my biased opinion, the finest novel ever written. It was the most widely read work of Soviet literature. But, as is often the case, whether we like or dislike an author is subjective. Not mentioning him in the book may have been due to constraints of time and space. It is also true, however, that Sholokhov, fine writer though he was, is not overly popular in some circles. He was very close with Stalin. A member of the Communist Party, he was also elected to the Supreme Soviet. I’ve looked over some university reading lists for Russian literature PhD programs, and he is not even included on some of them. And that, Dear Readers, is a travesty.

So what lesson can you learn from Quiet Flows the Don? Don’t fall in love with your neighbors wife. And should a civil war break out in your country, make sure you are on the winning side.

That said, The Anna Karenina Fix will appeal to lovers of literature, both Russian and every other kind. The book has a lighthearted tone and, if you listen to the audio book, it is rather like sitting back and hearing a story. A story part hilarious and part sad (such as Groskop’s experience at a Russian funeral). So throw on your ushanka, hop on your troika, and raid your nearest bookstore. You’ll enjoy it.

L.H.

A Sweeping Historical Saga on Netflix

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Dear Readers,

This is shaping up to be a busy semester. I’m teaching six classes (five in person and one online). In addition to classroom and office time, I have my faculty council responsibilities and also, this semester, I’m on a faculty hiring committee which means more meetings and interviews. We are only two weeks in and I already feel like I’ve been beaten with a baseball bat whilst getting run over by a bus. (Most of that is due to the fall I had a few weeks back which greatly aggravated my existing back injuries.) Hopefully I’ll be able to come up for air once Spring Break gets here.

Busy though I am, I do keep my evenings free. It is a nightly tradition. I get in bed at 7pm and read while watching TV with my cat, Anastasia. (I can multi-task and so reading while watching TV isn’t a problem for me.) I am a huge fan of the period drama, British, Russian, German, you name it, I’ll watch it. I can now add Turkish to the list. I recently discovered Kurt Seyit ve Sura on Netflix and decided to give it a watch. Coming in at 46 episodes of around 45 minutes each, I probably won’t finish it before the Second Coming, but it is a binge worthy series. I don’t speak Turkish, but as it is on Netflix, it has subtitles.

I did some background reading on the series. It is based on a novel, which I am also reading. The story is actually true and is the story of the author’s grandparents who fled Russia for Istanbul following the Russian Revolution. Though the main characters are Russian, they are played by Turkish actors/actresses. I keep expecting them to speak Russian, but alas, they do not. Oddly enough, this is the first time I’ve actually ever heard spoken Turkish. It is a very pretty language.

There is something about the Russian Revolution that lends itself to drama on a massive scale. Consider Doctor Zhivago, one of the finest movies ever made. (Though the twelve part Russian mini-series version was more faithful to the book.) There is another Russian Revolution epic on Netflix right now too, The Road to Calvary. It’s excellent too. And in Russian (English subs) which lends to the ambiance. But for the full epic experience, you have to watch the 2015 Russian television adaption of Тихий Дон. I’ve sang its praises on a few occasions, and you can watch it for free here. But be warned that it isn’t subtitled.

I’m not sure what it is about the Russian past that lends itself so well to stories painted upon a massive canvas. Whether it be in print, or on screens big or small, there’s something about the county and her history that demand to be told. Perhaps it is the sheer vastness of the steppes, or the haunting beauty of Saint Petersburg. Not to mention the tragedy. There’s something about Russian and Irish authors. They seem to instinctively understand human suffering. And that translates well to film as well. For example, consider this scene where Aksinia is sitting outside the house where her lover Grishka is marrying someone else. It’ll draw a tear for sure.

I wish more sweeping epics of the American past would make their way to the screen. Back in the days of weekly television mini-series offerings, we seemed to have more of them. But it’s almost as if historical epics aren’t that popular with movie audiences in the United States anymore, despite the fact that historical fiction enjoys a steady following. Oh well, thankfully the rest of the world fills the void. I’ll keep watching Seyit ve Sura and maybe I’ll pick up a word or two of Turkish while I’m at it.

L.H.

A Literary Look at the Russian Soul

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Dear Readers,

The other day I came across this post from 2014 by Off The Shelf called “Ten Russian Novels to Read Before You Die”. My first thought was “Reading ten Russian novels will take you sixty years” as Russian literature is not known for its brevity, so yes, you’ll be dead by the time you finish. I minored in Literature/Creative Writing as an undergraduate student and one of my professors opined that you could throw away the first hundred pages of a Russian novel and still be able to follow the story. There is some truth to that, I suppose. I have a BA and an MA in History along with an MS in Criminal Justice, but if I had to get a PhD in something, it would not be history. There are quite a few reasons why that is that need not detain us here. I would, however, love to get a PhD in Russian literature. It will never happen, for a myriad of other reasons, but it is nice to dream about.

If you study Russian history, language, and culture, you often come across references to the “Russian soul” as an expression of Russian identity. The great works of Russian literature all tend to touch on various aspects of this soul. This might come across more in the original language than in the English translations. The Russian language is more nuanced and has more depth than English, making translation tricky. I spent years studying the Russian language and can read it fluently and speak it with some degree of usefulness. I’ve read the works I’ll discuss below in both Russian and English. Sometimes I think when it comes to foreign works of literature, it is best to go to the original language if you can.

I’m not going to give you a list of ten Russian books to read before you die. I’m simply going to tell you about my favorite three and why they are my favorites. You won’t find Pushkin on the list, nor Dostoevsky. Obviously, I’ve read them along with others such as Chekov, Bulgakov, and Grossman. I’m not saying the works below are the greatest works in the pantheon of Russian lit, merely that they are my favorites. What I like or dislike doesn’t always follow the path of critical acclaim or financial success. For example, I thought The Da Vinci Code was the most godawful book I’d ever read, yet look at how many copies it sold. Payback by the German author Gert Ledig is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most haunting novels written about World War Two and it is long out of print. So feel free to take anything and everything I say with a massive grain of salt. Hemingway I ain’t.

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I will say that Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterpiece Тихий Дон (Quiet Flows the Don) and its sequal The Don Flows Home to the Sea make up the finest novel ever written in Russian or any other language, in my opinion. I have said this before and I will proclaim it until I read something better, which I doubt will ever happen. Consider this passage which opens the section which deals with the outbreak of World War One:

“The dry growth of the steppe was afire, and a sickly-smelling haze hung over the Donside slopes. At night, the clouds deepened over the Don, ominous peels of thunder were to be heard; but no rain came to refresh this parched earth, although the lightning tore the sky into jagged, lived fragments. Night after night, an owl screeched from the belfry. The cries surged terrifyingly over the village, and the owl flew from the belfry to the cemetery and groaned over the brown and grass grown mounds of the graves.”

At it’s most basic level, this is a simple story. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst the turmoil of war and revolution. But it is more, so much more than that. Тихий Дон is a sweeping epic of Cossack life following the fortunes of the Don Cossacks from the eve of World War One through the war, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War which follows. It’s a tragedy which plays out on a giant canvas. Some scenes will leave you breathless, such as when Grishka saves the life of his lover Aksinia’s husband. To me, the most haunting scenes involve the old men in the Cossack villages. Their world is crumbling all around them and they cannot understand why. They try to cling to the old ways as their lives spin out of control.

If you only read one Russian novel, or one foreign novel, (or hell, one novel period), read this one. Just make sure you read both Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea as they are really one story. Now, not only do the Russians write epic novels, they also film massive historical epics. Quiet Flows the Don has been put on a film a few times, including during the Soviet era, but I never much cared for those versions. In 2015, however, they released a 14 part adaptation of the book. You can watch it free here on YouTube, but it isn’t subtitled. If you’ve read the novels, you can still follow the story as it is faithful to the books, and even if you haven’t read the story, the themes are universal and you can still follow the basic plot. Trust me, you won’t be sorry to spend time watching it. If you want a little preview though, here is a music video of a song that appears in the series, Чёрный ворон – друг ты мой залётный (Black Raven: You Are My Friend). You can listen to the song and enjoy the breathtaking landscape and scenes from the series. Seriously, at the very least, give the song a listen and it’ll probably make you want to watch the show. I’ve watched it five times at last count. It’s the only movie or television series I’ve ever scene that has made me cry, more than once during the show, and every time I watch it. I freely admit to having a bit of a literary crush on Aksinia Astakhova. A literary crush is like a history crush, except it is on a fictional character rather than a historical figure……as in my wife’s obsession with Manfred von Richthofen…..

(Note there are two more books in the Don series; Virgin Soil Upturned and Harvest on the Don, but they are not as good as the first two)

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The Napoleonic Wars played out on a massive stage in Europe. When the Emperor invaded Russia, little did he know that not only would he suffer a major defeat, but his invasion would also give rise to one of the true classics in literature, Война и мир (War and Peace). Tolstoy was a master at his craft. In true Russian fashion, War and Peace takes a little while to build up steam. I know many people who have tried to read it but go so bogged down with the names and glacial slowness of the story for the first hundred pages or so that they gave up. I told them they’d be sorry for putting the book aside, but I don’t know if they are or not. This is one of those books that if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.

It is true that all the names and familial ties can be difficult to keep track of whilst you work your way through the book. It might not hurt to print out a handy character tree. Wikipedia has a list of characters and also provides a family tree of sorts which illustrates the various entangling relationships. Tolstoy served in the Russian Army during the Crimean War, and I think his own exposure to the hardships soldiers faced in the 19th Century helped him create such vivid images of Napoleonic warfare. Much of the book takes place away from the battlefield, but his battlefield scenes are some of the best ever written. Like Quiet Flows the Don, this novel has been adapted many times. The Russians had the best adaptation of it filmed in the 1960s. However, in 2016 the BBC released a marvelous version of their own which you can find on Amazon. It’s well worth watching.

Incidentally, Tolstoy had a distant relative named Aleksey Tolstoy who wrote during the Soviet era. His trilogy The Road to Calvary set in St. Petersburg during the Revolution has been made into a series and, to our good fortune, is available on Netflix! With subtitles if you don’t speak Russian. I’m working my way through it now and it is very good.

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Any discussion of Russian literature has to involve Boris Pasternak and his magnum opus, Doctor Zhivago. Like many, I dare say most, of you, my first exposure to it was through the great film from 1965. I watched it with my great-grandmother for the first time when I was around 8 years old (circa 1986) and was immediately captivated by the story. As I would later find out, the movie isn’t entirely faithful to the book, but it is still a cinematic masterpiece of its own. I read the novel for the first time in high school. A few years ago, I read it in the original language. The story of how Pasternak came to write it and how it was published is an epic tale in its own right!

One thing that I’ve found so interesting about this book is that Pasternak manages to make Zhivago a such a sympathetic character. Let’s be honest, he’s screwing around on his wife! Yet the reader still feels for him.  In a previous post I compared Doctor Zhivago with Gone With the Wind as they are similar. In Pasternak’s book, a man loves two women and loses them both as war and revolution sweep away the old world and usher in a new one. In Mitchell’s book, a women is in love with two men and loses them both as civil war sweeps away the old world and ushers in a new one. (You know, I can sum up these classics in one sentence, but I can’t seem to write a one sentence description of my own book. Amusing, that.)

To keep on the movie theme, the Russians made a twelve part adaptation of Doctor Zhivago that is a lot more faithful to the actual story than the 1965 film was. It’s available on Amazon here and comes with English subtitles. I’ve watched it a couple of times and it is good. Not Тихий Дон good, but still worthwhile.

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Anastasia “helping” me work on edits to my novel.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. My favorite works of Russian literature. Thank you to all who read through to the end. I know this was a somewhat verbose piece of writing. And speaking of writing, one thing I have had to learn is to stop mentally comparing my own work to these classics. While working on my draft of So Others May Live, I’d get frustrated and almost give up because I’ll never be as good as Sholokov. I’ll never write anything on the scale of Quiet Flows the Don. Or War and Peace. Or Doctor Zhivago. And do you know what? That’s perfectly okay. There’s a reason why out of the bazillion books published in history, only a relatively small number are considered classics. I had to accept the fact that I needed to tell my story my own way, not Sholokov’s way. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing for my editor as I’m sure 324 pages of my writing, as rough as it can be, is easier to sort through than 1200 pages of my writing. wouldn’t even read 1200 pages of my own writing!

Until next time, comrades. Happy Reading.

(Update: Summer 2019….with the recent release of my novel, I now have time to read all these books for the hundredth time!) 

L.H.