Monthly Archives: August 2011

Dr. Zhivago

Last fall my EFL students read a simplified version of Doctor Zhivago and then we saw the movie. Our discussions were quite lively and it was interesting to delve into Russian history and literature. Thus I decided to read the novel this summer.

Both the movie and the graded reader leave out quite a bit from this hefty classic. I enjoyed getting every detail and event. A thoughtfully written novel is one of my favorite ways to come to know history. This novel, published in 1960, gives readers a close up at the enthusiasm, chaos, and violence surrounding the Russian Revolution.

Yes, the names are long and everyone’s got a nickname, but I got a sense of who’s who without a chart, maybe because I saw the movie first.

Most of the Russian literature, I’ve read has taken place before the Revolution, while Doctor Zhivago takes place before, during and after. What a time that was! Pasternak’s novel reminds me of Dickens because not only do readers see the hero’s journey, but we see so much of what happens throughout the society. I found that fascinating. So many people had so many struggles and tragedies.

The hero is Yurii . At the beginning of the story he’s a young boy who witnesses his father’s suicide. He’s adopted by relatives and marries his cousin Tonia, a lovely, smart woman. The sort of girl people think he should marry. (And he does agree.)

As a young man in Moscow and later after the revolution when Yurii’s out in the Ural Mountains, his path crosses that of Lara, an enigmatic, alluring, albeit troubled woman. Her father died when she was young and her mother becomes beholden to Komarovsky, a rich, powerful man who wants Lara when she’s in high school. Lara picks up on her mother’s implicit message that she should do what she needs to for the family. This action defines Lara making her feel a guilt she never completely overcomes. It taints her marriage to Pasha, an intelligent, innocent promising student she meets in university.

All the characters cross paths and influence each other as they strive to make sense of the confusion of the revolution that steamrolls over so many Russians back then. Pasternak constructs a masterful story full of drama and insight.

If you’re not sure about reading the book, try the film or the BBC miniseries.


Posted by on August 9, 2011 in classic, Russian Literature



Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales

From the archives:

My inattention to my Netflix queue landed a documentary on Chaucer, that I placed there last February, but it was unavailable then, in my mailbox. I watched it anyway though I had no particular urge to see it. Chaucer & the Canterbury Taleswound up being an edifying, though sometimes dry, look at Chaucer’s life and times. I learned a lot about the peasant revolt, the early stirrings against church corruption and how Medieval politics and government worked. The people were beginning to be more involved than I expected. I had never heard of this major peasant revolt against the baronage. The peasants wanted a good king to rule with no self-interested class in between. (They’d have seen a self-interested king as a tyrant.)

Terry Jones from Monty Python offered lots of interesting commentary. That was a high point. The weakness of the documentary was the long narration. The visuals were fitting when they should art of the period or some of the building from that time, but often it got repetitive. It seemed they were at a loss as to how to visualize Chaucer’s life and times. I do see this as good for students learning about Chaucer, because they’ll get a lot of information, though I’d probably break down the viewings to half hour segments.

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in British Lit



I want to read “Such Is This World@sars.come”

Kevin sent me this book review. I’d like to read this book.

China’s Big Lie

Such Is This World@sars.come
by Hu Fayun, translated by A.E. Clark
(Ragged Banner Press, 536 pp., $38;
also available as an e-book from Ragged Banner’s website, $14)

There has never been a good time to be an honest writer in Communist China, but the present is an exceptionally bad time. Spooked by the “Arab Spring” and jostling for position in next year’s scheduled leadership changes, the Party bosses have been coming down hard on every kind of independent thinking. The cases of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei have been well publicized, but there are many others.

Essayist Liu Xianbin, released in 2008 after nine years imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power,” was re-arrested last summer. In March this year he was given a new ten-year sentence on that same charge. Along with this lawless brutality towards their own citizens, China’s rulers do all they can to intimidate foreigners who seek to help dissident writers. A Chinese writer needs a translator, and those best equipped to translate are Western scholars making a career in China studies. Such a career will be handicapped, though, if the scholar is denied visas to enter China. The communists make sure Western Sinologists know this. Chinese-literature specialist Perry Link, blacklisted since 1996, has written a fine essay about the problem: “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.”

The misfortunes that have afflicted Hu Fayun’s 2004 dissident novel Such Is This World@sars.come have therefore been nothing out of the ordinary. The manuscript was posted on a website in 2005; the website was quickly shut down. A Beijing publisher brought out a bowdlerized version in 2006, but the book was proscribed the following year as the communists tightened controls prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A Princeton sinology graduate considered making a translation, but backed off on learning that the book was banned in China.

To read the rest of the original review, click here.

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in contemporary, non-fiction


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