Dark Raven: A Sneak Peak!

Me

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.

86bd1af26269ab6cea70b068dcb38582--new-ideas-good-ideas

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.

Volodya

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!

Xenia

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.

White Russians

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).

kinopoisk.ru

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!

shutterstock_85297909.0

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.

Feb22LN-blog480

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.

1811b5ee-27cd-4e69-8c81-f62037a95178

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.)

71rB0O9K-QL

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.

MCDREDA EC022

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.

34570

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.

amerika-review-cover

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.

hqdefault

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

IMG_1825

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.

IMG_1804

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.

Maria

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.

84c7a2b8d028e9ff0d5c413ccc08c9bc--anastasia-romanov-royal-princess

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

image

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

250px-Kurtseyitvesura-poster

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

538589

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.

0_738bef43de4b64b1d109725537479742_1389547363

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)

Voina i mir 3

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.

russian-zhivago-1957

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.

Anastasia

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.

Two Classics Express the Human Condition

doctor_zhivago_cover_1682

A woman loves two men and loses them both amidst a catastrophic war which sweeps away an entire way of life. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst a war and ensuring revolution which ushers in a world unlike that which existed before. Sound familiar? The first is the basic plot (boiled down for simplicity) of Gone With the Wind while the second is the main plot (also boiled down) of Dr. Zhivago. The films are classics, of course, but the novels are as well. Russian literature in particular has great depth to it. I’ve been able to read Zhivago in the original language, as well as the English translation. And I am proud to own a first edition of Gone With the Wind which belonged to my great-grandmother’s sister.

What interests me about these books when compared to one another is that they explore similar themes, though they were written in different times and places. Gone With the Wind was published first, in 1936, but it is nearly impossible that Pasternak could have read it because it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1982 and the movie was not released there until 1990. The fact that love and loss amidst the backdrop of war serves both books so well speaks to universal human condition and emotion. Just as the Civil War transformed the American South, so too did World War One, the Russian Revolution (really a Civil War of its own), followed by the Red Terror transformed Russia. In both books, you have people trying their best to survive amidst terrible hardships.
220px-Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

I love epics, be they of screen or page. There’s something about a sweeping story which catches you up and brings you along for the ride which appeals to me. Sadly, not everyone feels this way. When I was a young single man, I invited a girl to my apartment to watch a movie and popped in Dr. Zhivago. That was our third date. She declined a fourth. 😊

If you want to take this one step further, Sholokov’s masterpiece Quiet Flows the Don can be compared to the two as well. It is a magnificent epic of Cossack life starting in 1912 and ending in the early 1920s. It also involves the story of a man in love with two women who loses them both. Forbidden love. War. Revolution. Death. They are all present. Whereas Mitchell probably never read Sholokov before she wrote Gone With the Wind (though it is remotely possible as the first English translation was in 1934), it is highly likely that Pasternak read it at some point. But how much it influenced his own work is anyone’s guess.

Dramatic times make for dramatic fiction which is why I think historical fiction will always appeal to people. Not only is it escapism into the past, but it can flesh out the traditional history that you get in school where you may only be served up a litany of names, dates, and facts but without any life. You can learn as much from a good historical novel (by that I mean well written and researched) as you can from an academic book.

Of course there are differences between the books as well, but the purpose of this was to mention what they had in common. Also, as a final note, in 2015 Russian television filmed a 14 part masterpiece based on Quiet Flows the Don. You can find it free on YouTube here Be warned that it is not subtitled, but you don’t have to be a Russian speaker to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and you can pick up on the basic plot line too.

And there you have my thoughts, Dear Reader.

L.H.