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review 2020-09-09 17:26
The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Captain's Daughter: And Other Stories - Alexander Pushkin

There’s a little sense of dissonance when I read a classic and my response is “huh, okay.” This is especially true when I read the classic in translation; in this case, the translation is very smooth, contemporary, and easy to read, which causes its own form of dissonance. These now feel like contemporary stories rather than something written in the early 19th century, and compared to contemporary stories they don’t particularly stand out to me, but then I neither read them in their original language nor am familiar with the history of Russian literature so as to appreciate the ways in which Pushkin was blazing a new trail.

The stories:

“The Captain’s Daughter”: This novella occupies almost half of the book. It involves a romance between a young officer and the angelic daughter of the captain, set during the time of Pugachev’s rebellion, and Pugachev himself is the most vibrant character in it. The story moves along briskly and is fairly satisfying, though the characters are not particularly complex. This edition also includes an omitted chapter, which is interesting in that Pushkin ditched a bunch of melodrama and overt paternalism.

“The Tales of Ivan Petrovich Belkin”: These five stories, mostly around 15 pages each, are given a framing device in that they were all collected by a fictional young dead man, but they aren’t actually linked, so I’ll discuss them separately.

“The Shot”: The narrator pieces together the story of a multi-episode duel from others. It’s a bleak world in which men are expected to kill and die in duels over the most mundane insults, and those who refuse lose all respect from their fellows. (Pushkin, sadly, died himself in a duel at age 37.)

“The Snowstorm”: A prank disrupts a love affair. This is a cleverly structured story, in which after reading the end you go back and read over the earlier parts with fresh eyes, something I love in a short story. It made me uncomfortable in that I didn’t find Burmin’s behavior deserving of a happy ending.

“The Undertaker”: A man has ungenerous thoughts and is punished with a nightmare. Um, okay.

“The Postmaster”: Another narrator piecing together someone else’s story, this time of a postmaster and his prodigal daughter. This didn’t do much for me.

“Mistress Into Maid”: A sweet little story about a forbidden romance, also involving some pranking, but this time harmless. I enjoyed this one.

“The Queen of Spades”: This is a somewhat longer story about gambling and obsession, in which a calculating young man will go to almost any length for a guaranteed win at cards. I found this one pretty good and with a satisfying ending.

“Kirdjali”: Eight pages about the legend of an Eastern European bandit. Okay.

“The Negro of Peter the Great”: This is an unfinished fragment, around 40 pages long, of what was perhaps intended to be a novel. The title isn’t politically correct these days but the “Negro” in question is a (lightly fictionalized?) version of Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather, Abram or Ibrahim Gannibal, who was brought to Russia as a boy, adopted by Peter the Great as his godson, sent to France to study military engineering, and later returned to Russia to be an important figure in the military and the court. The fragment deals largely with Ibrahim’s love troubles, as well as his relationship with Peter the Great, who’s presented in a very positive light. This is interesting from a historical perspective though a fragment is unlikely to satisfy in a storytelling sense.

Overall, I’m glad to have read some work by a classic author I hadn’t been exposed to before, and appreciated the window into 18th and early 19th century Russia. But while the writing is perfectly fine, I can’t say any of it blew me away. I also have the sense that this collection doesn’t represent Pushkin’s best work, much of which was poetry and plays.

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review 2020-05-22 22:21
Bondage by Alessandro Stanziani
Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries - Alessandro Stanziani

I picked this book up with the hope of learning about how serfdom actually worked in 18th century Russia and eastern Europe, and I did learn from it, though as with a lot of academic books it seems to have been written with the expectation that only about 12 people would ever read it, all of whom are other researchers in the same or related fields. The writing is unnecessarily dense and there are a lot of unexplained references to authors that this one is apparently refuting.

 

That said, the author’s thesis is an interesting one: essentially, that in the early modern era, Europe wasn’t so much divided between states where workers were free and states where they were serfs, as on a continuum. Workers in England and France weren’t nearly as “free” as you might believe, and labor laws were actually getting stricter at the time. Workers were often required to sign long labor contracts (a year was common, much longer was possible), and there were criminal penalties for leaving before a contract was completed, with the result that “runaway” workers could be jailed, fined, or even in some rare cases, whipped. Meanwhile, Russian serfs had more freedom of movement than some sources have given them credit for, with some going back and forth between town and the estates, and some areas of the country not sending back runaway serfs at all. Serfs could also initiate lawsuits against landowners, and some won their freedom this way (generally it seems because the landowners as non-nobles weren’t actually qualified to own populated estates), though as always the poor winning lawsuits against the rich was quite rare.

 

As someone unfamiliar with the literature the author is responding to, I found the arguments related to England and France (and the general descriptions of forced labor in Eurasia and in certain Indian Ocean colonies of the European powers) more coherent than the arguments about Russia. In some places it seemed like Stanziani was being overly technical, as when he points out that the laws establishing serfdom were all really about establishing who could own populated estates rather than delineating serfdom per se. I’m unclear on why this is important. He also seems to gloss over a lot of abuses described in other sources – granted, my other reading on this topic involves popular rather than academic sources, and this book is much too technical to engage with works of that sort at all. But while he states that Russian serfdom was nothing like American slavery, he doesn’t provide much basis for this conclusion.

 

At any rate, I’m clearly not the intended reader for this book, but I did get some interesting ideas from it. I’d love to see a book on this topic that’s a little more accessible for the general reader.

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text 2020-04-24 18:40
Ebook on Sale $1.99 at major retailers
Russka: The Novel of Russia - Edward Rutherfurd

I bought my copy from Amazon due to several authors on Twitter revealing that NOOK isn't paying royalties from purchases in February 2020. I wanted to make sure this author got his money.

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review 2020-02-13 03:03
Not lacking in characters
Disappearing Earth - Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips had a great premise and sounded like it could be the Russian equivalent of Broadchurch which I found very excitingThe story opens with the disappearance of two little girls from a small community and the suspicion and unease which come about as a result. Unlike the TV series, the book introduces a cast of characters that did nothing to add or move along the narrative plot. [A/N: There's one character's story in particular that really made me question its addition. If you read the book you'll recognize her as the lady that visits the hospital. What was going on there?!] I can only guess that they served as a kind of backdrop for the area which the author took great pains to describe (and which I knew nothing about prior to reading this book). I can't fault Phillips' writing or ability to engage the reader because I was fully hooked by this story...that is until I realized (nearly at the end) that so many of these side stories (not to mention the main plot) had no real conclusion. I read quite a lot of mysteries and crime procedurals and my favorite part is generally the dramatic tying up of the loose ends of the case which you don't get with Disappearing Earth. Instead you get more questions than answers. (Why was Denis obsessed with aliens?!) So I'm afraid the overall rating suffered as a result and I can only give it a 6/10. (This hasn't stopped me from encouraging others to pick up this book though. I keep waiting for one of them to come back and rage at me because they're annoyed by the ending.)

 

Absolutely stunning cover. [Source: Amazon]

 

What's Up Next: The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2019-12-11 23:47
It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour
It all started with Marx;: A brief and o... It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour

I finished this one and it took forever because I didn't like it. And then I more or less immediately started English Lit Relit. It could have been a bad choice: if I was just tired of Armour's sameness, then another would have been an awful idea.

But I'm really enjoying English Lit. Yeah, my degree is in English lit, so I know more about the topic, which probably helps some. That isn't the big difference though. The big difference, in my considered and re-considerd opinion, is that Armour doesn't know as much about communism and/or Russian history.

In Marx the jokes rarely rise above "he was short". So, not quality humor.That's both terribly obvious and not actually amusing.

English Lit, though, that's his specialty. So the jokes are more clever, more subtle, and for that matter, probably better auditioned and rehearsed. It's easy to imagine Armour the Professor lecturing on early English poets. You're plowing through a thousand years of literature in a semester, your text is a fat, heavy Norton Anthology printed on tissue paper to fit in as many pages a possible. Some of it is familiar, or stirring, or new to you, but much of it is just a tedious droning on and on about the same tired symbolism and such. You maybe get something three things that stopped being amusing a couple of centuries back, and once in the whole class if you're lucky there's something that really amuses you. In that setting a lighthearted lecture, or a throw-away line, can really wake you back up.

 

So, that was an interesting thing to realize.

 

Library copy

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