Just how pretty is that cover?!
Without further ado:
For the month of April, Read It & Steep discussed the Russian classic Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The good doctor was submitted by Angela, who speaks a bit of Russian and had enjoyed the title and Russian literature in general. While we usually pick our titles one month ahead (we choose May in March, so we always know the next two titles) when Doctor Zhivago came out of the teapot of truth, we all agreed that it would be better to give ourselves two months to read through the 500+ page novel.
One of the fun things about having so many of our book club members as staff of the library is the discussion of the books that take place in the weeks leading up to our meeting. Many of us spent that time lamenting our inability to keep track of who is who in Doctor Zhivago. For example, Pasternak’s hero is called at least 4 separate names: “Yuri Andreyevich,” “Yura,” “Yurochka,” and “Zhivago.” This happens with multiple characters, enough so that Angela joked that she would make us cheat sheets and flow charts. Steeper Tara and I decided (only half jokingly) that we would rename all of the characters to Americanized names in order to keep them straight. “From here on out, Uncle Kolya will just be Bob!” The frustration with the novel also caused some of us to decide that to express yourself as aggravated you could just exclaim, “Zhivago!” Try it! It makes a decent curse.
While a good number of us still didn’t finish the novel, we did all agree that it was an interesting reading experience. Pasternak describes some terribly bleak events in a vivid and tangible manner. We agreed that perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is the way Pasternak conveys that even in the midst of some incredible horrors, people can still have love and joy and mostly hope. The novel dips into some very deep themes: loss, obsession, revolution, and fear; yet we see that Yuri continues to see beauty and love in his surroundings. Many of us didn’t like a number of the characters, (I know I hated Lara and never understood all of the fellas clamoring after her) but agreed that Pasternak’s characters were realistically flawed and often a fascinating study in how different personalities react to adversity. That being said, 99% of us agreed that Lara is a pretty terrible mother.
Thankfully for all of us, Angela drew us a flow chart on the white board and gave us a good walkthrough this epic novel. I think it should also be said that for a book with so much death and sadness in it, the Steepers spent a whole lot of time laughing about it, or at least Angela’s manic tutorial of it. Please note that a section is listed as “Staycation!” and the descriptor of “Horrors, Horrors!”
You may remember (and if you don’t just scroll back to it) the discussion of Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, where the Steepers lamented the main character’s Diana obsession with toast. Pasternak talks a whole lot about potatoes in Doctor Zhivago, so much so that Angela recommended that I serve a single boiled potato to our group. At least in Pasternak’s case, the characters don’t really have the option to eat much else.
Please note the colorful flow chart that Angela put together for us (with notes from Kate added in the margins, for instance “Kate very sad”). We were all in stitches when we saw that the part that read “Komorovsky reappears -> RATS!” Of course, we came to find that “RATS!” was not a reaction to Komorovsky’s appearance, but a reference to the fact that there were many rats at Varykino.
It was also very interesting to read a book that was not originally published in English (it’s originally Italian since the Russians wouldn’t publish it, who knew?!). How fascinating it is to compare separate translations. Great quote of the night was Angela grasping for a word, “What’s that thing … where a guy fights for money?! … Oh, a mercenary!”
Overall, we found that Doctor Zhivago was a heartbreaking work that describes a world in turmoil. Worth a read … but it may take more than two months.
Next at bat: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Meeting Tuesday, May 21st.