I read newspaper articles, or blog posts, or facebook shares of stories about parents who are trying to ban books from their children’s school libraries. Books like Captain Underpants, and Paper Towns, by John Green, and Harry Potter, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Books written before 1900, after 1999, and every where in between. And I am simply bemused by all of it.

I grew up in a ranch-style home in Boise, Idaho, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. My parents were voracious readers, and YA literature as a genre was extremely limited. I graduated to reading adult books the same year I graduated from elementary school – leaving behind the books of my childhood, Trixie Belden, The Chronicles of Narnia, Edward Eager and Nancy Drew at approximately the same time I put on my first training bra and got braces. I had loved reading children’s books as a child, but they no longer challenged me. I began “shopping” for books in the general fiction section of our library, and in used bookstores.

Beyond the age of 12, I read the same books that my parents read.

In our house, we had a study, and my father built a wall of bookshelves. I was lucky. My dad was a doctor, and we were relatively affluent for the 1970’s. We owned books. A lot of books. Anatomy books, because, as I said, my dad was a doctor. Neither parent ever even considered, apparently, telling me that, no, I was not permitted to look up the plates of the male reproductive system in the anatomy books. Because I totally did this. My first sight of adult male genitals was in one of those medical illustrations that showed me where all of the veins and the urethra were located and how it all worked. I found this hilarious. So did some of my friends.

In the fifth, or maybe sixth, grade, one of my friends brought Judy Blume’s first adult novel, Wifey, to school. Some of you will have read Wifey - it is the story of a married woman who has an affair. I didn’t “read” this book, exactly. Rather, we passed it around so everyone could read the scene with the blow job in it. All I really remember about this passage was my eleven-year-old mind silently screaming “ewwwww” as I passed it, giggling hysterically, to the next girl so she could read it, too. Also, the male character with whom she had the affair was described as hairy. This was revelatory to me.

Neither of these experiences made me decide to lose my virginity at the age of eleven. In fact, truth be told, I was a rather late bloomer, and didn’t rid myself of my by-that-time-unwanted virgin status until after I had entered my freshman year of college.

And these were not my only experiences with adult books. I read everything. I read The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I like to refer to as “Prehistoric Porn” when it was all the rage. I read Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Harlequin romances (these were actually pretty much squeaky clean), and Harold Fucking Robbins, so named because, to my recollection, pretty much every character in his books was getting in on with someone. I read spy thrillers – Helen MacInnes, Len Deighten, Ken Follet. I read 1970’s romantic suspense: Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and regency romance written by Georgette Heyer and Clare Darcy.

And I read the 1970’s and 1980’s sweeping epics: The Far Pavilions, Sho-Gun, Trinity, The Winds of War, North and South, Chesapeake Bay. M.M. Kaye, James Clavell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, John Jakes, James Michener. I read all of these authors, in original hardback, when I was 12, and 13, and 14, and 15. And let me tell you, as in life, in those books, there was sex. Married sex, unmarried sex, rapey sex, consensual sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. You see, sex is part of life, and life is the stuff of books. There was violence, too, but no one ever seems to object to their children reading books because they show realistic depictions of war and other forms of violence.

I took D.H. Lawrence’s supposedly naughty classic, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, off of the bookshelves and was mightily disappointed with it after I struggled through.

So when I see parents who are freaking about Paper Towns by John Green, I just can’t wrap my mind around this. I’ve read Paper Towns. It’s funny, and charming, and the narrator is endearing, and it speaks to universal themes of being a teenager. It is sparkling, and literate, and at times laugh out loud funny. It deals honestly with sexuality, and let’s face it, teenagers are sexual creatures, as much as we rather wish that they weren’t. The fact that a book acknowledges that they are sexual creatures doesn’t mean that it is promoting teen sex, but being honest with the fact that high school seniors are sexually aware even if they are not sexually active is hardly a piece of groundbreaking news.

These same parents will often suggest that they expect their teens to be reading “classics” that don’t have “that kind of filth” in them. Like Of Mice and Men, or 1984, or The Lord of the Flies. And, even more, I can’t wrap my mind around this, except to conclude that these parents have not, themselves, read the books that they are promoting. Of Mice and Men is a bleak, and deeply dismaying, tale in which a (spoiler alert) developmentally-delayed man is essentially put down like an unwanted dog, by his only friend, with a bullet to the back of his head, as a kindness. It is crazy devastating to read. 1984 is a book that discusses the evil and incredible utility of propaganda, so trying to ban books in order to force teens to read Orwell is a prospect fraught with so much cognitive dissonance that it almost makes my head explode. And The Lord of the Flies. Jesus Fucking H. Christ, that is a book about teenagers who kill each other.

You won’t let them read about teenagers who are finding their own way in age appropriate romantic relationships with each other, but flat-out murder is fine?

Don’t get me wrong – smart teens should be reading hard books, with serious themes. Their minds are so agile, so ready, so demanding and desirous of being filled with good stuff that it is a waste of talent if we don’t encourage them to read great books. To stretch their intellects. Serving them pablum is a terrible, utterly awful, idea. It is insulting to suggest that they are incapable of processing hard themes and reading deeply and seriously.

I was so lucky. My parents never tried to prevent me from diving into their open bookshelves. I read from pulp to classics, and everything in between. I read Anna Karenina – a book chock full of adultery and suicide. I read The Gulag Archipelago – a mind-blowing indictment of Soviet oppression (another culture that enjoyed banning books).

My bookshelves were always open, too. So, for all of those parents out there who think that they are doing me a favor when they try to ban the National Book Award Winning book about the masturbating teen, Junior, from Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Emily Danforth’s great big gay coming of age novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, let me tell you in no uncertain terms that I would emphatically prefer that you keep your eyes on your own paper, and your nose in your own book.

Leave my children out of your crusade. You don’t speak for me.

  1. Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
  2. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (releasing October 21, 2014)
  3. Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope
  4. Jackaby by William Ritter
  5. An Inquiry into Love and Death by Simone St. James
  6. Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu
  7. Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
  8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  9. The Gifted Dead by Jenna Black
  10. Rooms by Lauren Oliver
  11. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
  12. Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourne (releasing September 30, 2014)
Classics Spin: Summer by Edith WhartonSummer by Edith Wharton
Published by Penguin Classics on 1917
Pages: 127
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Considered by some to be her finest work, Edith Wharton’s Summer created a sensation when first published in 1917, as it was one of the first novels to deal honestly with a young woman’s sexual awakening.

Summer is the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners adopted by a family in a poor New England town, who has a passionate love affair with Lucius Harney, an educated man from the city. Wharton broke the conventions of women’s romantic fiction by making Charity a thoroughly independent modern woman—in touch with her emotions and sexuality, yet kept from love and the larger world she craves by the overwhelming pressures of heredity and society.

Praised for its realism and honesty by such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James and compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Summer remains as fresh and powerful a novel today as when it was first written

People refer to this as Wharton’s most erotic book. I disagree with that characterization – I think that The Age of Innocence, with its unrequited, simmering passion between Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is much more erotic. This one is sexier.

Charity Royall is a young woman who has been raised by Lawyer Royall in North Dormer, a small New England town. Her family comes from the mountain, a poverty-stricken area. At some point, Lawyer Royall finds himself attracted to the young woman and proposes to marry her. This is squicky as all hell, since he has basically been her father since she was a small child.

Charity understandably turns him down, being attracted to Lucius Harney, man about town, photographer, and the nephew of another one of New Dormer’s finest citizens. He is clearly above her in social position. Charity, recklessly, falls for him, and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship. This is a Wharton book, however, which means that the reader pretty much has to guess what has happened.

It isn’t just the lack of explicit sex that wasn’t erotic. It was the shallowness of the connection between Charity and Lucius Harney. There is no reason to believe that Harney wasn’t absolute rubbish as a lover, self-absorbed and concerned with neither Charity’s pleasure, nor her plight. (Did I just accuse a fictional character of being crap in bed. Why yes, yes I did. And I stand by the accusation. There is no chance that poor Charity had an orgasm. None at all.) It is easy to sympathize with Charity, and to deplore her poor choices, but it was so obvious that Harney was just exploiting her, and it made me want to shake her.

Wharton’s books explore the border between social expectation and human agency. I have read three of them – The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now Summer, and all of them describe and condemn the way in which individuals are oppressed by society. Honestly, I think that Wharton is at her best when she is writing about the upper classes – she came from wealth and extraordinary privilege, and was related to the Rensselaers, the most prestigious of the old patroon families – so she understood and was able to describe the suffocating constraints of that society on, in particular, women. She lived in a time when the social customs were confining and even subjugating, and her books reveal the airlessness and the arbitrary nature of many of those customs. They were a social cage, designed to separate classes and maintain distinctions lacking in substance or merit. Having an intellectual life was out of the question for most individuals, including most men, but definitely all women.

Wharton’s books explore what happens when the individual steps outside of those lines, seeking more for him or herself than that which birth has conferred.

Usually, it is pretty much a disaster. In this book, actually, Charity managed to pull out a win for herself. While the twenty-first-century independent romantic in me was pretty much completely grossed out by the way it ended, by 1917 standards, Charity does pretty well, with a solid, middle-class existence. She fared a lot better than Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth. Interestingly, she doesn’t share Lily Bart’s honorable qualities. That’s probably sort of the point – when hunger conflicts with honor, hunger must, and usually will, win. Or, you die.

Anyway, reading Edith Wharton is like opening a vein. She is depressing as hell, but always worth reading.

Talking about female independence: Lady of Quality by Georgette HeyerA Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1972
Genres: Romance
Pages: 307
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
The spirited and independent Miss Annis Wychwood is twenty-nine and well past the age for falling in love. But when Annis embroils herself in the affairs of a pretty runaway heiress, Miss Lucilla Carleton, she is destined to see a great deal of her fugitive's uncivil and high-handed guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton. Befriending the wayward girl brings unexpected consequences, among them the conflicting emotions aroused by her guardian, who is quite the rudest man Annis has ever met...

Georgette Heyer's historical novels have charmed and delighted millions of readers. Her smart, independent heroines and dashing heroes brilliantly illuminate one of the most exciting and fascinating eras of English history, when drawing rooms sparkled with well-dressed nobility, and romantic intrigues ruled the day.

"In this delectable Georgette Heyer novel, the lady of quality and her bit-of-a-rake swain are the ones on whom our eyes are fixed. They don't play us false. Miss Heyer is in top form...romantic, amusing, and full of tart-tongued comment on the mores of the time."—Publishers Weekly

This was Georgette Heyer’s last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing Lady of Quality in her late sixties.

I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.

Now, onto Lady of Quality.

Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf – a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.

A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero’s character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.

There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis’ of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.

Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren’t, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all – we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.

The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.

Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla’s fate unresolved – Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.

Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her – not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a “domestic tyrant,” and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying:

‘You have paid me so many extravagant compliments, that I need not scruple to tell you that yours is not the first offer I have received.’

‘I imagine you must have received many.’

‘Not many, but several. I refused them all, because I preferred my – my independence to marriage. I think I still do. Indeed, I am almost sure of it.’

‘But not quite sure?’

‘No, not quite sure,’ she said, in a troubled tone. ‘And when I ask myself what you could give me in exchange for my liberty, which is very dear to me, I – oh, I don’t know, I don’t know!’

It takes some convincing, and a bout of influenza, to convince her that marriage need not mean an abandoning of self, and that, indeed, Oliver Carleton is not looking for self-abnegation in a wife. But ultimately, as in all Heyer novels, the heroine agrees to marry the hero, after perhaps one or two kisses.

I think I might have liked the book better if she had said no.

We never do find out what happens to poor Miss Farlow, and must trust to the goodness of characters who treated her so poorly that they did not simply set her next to the curb to be hauled away on trash day.

I didn’t dislike this book, and Heyer’s writing, as always, is nearly perfect. But it is not her best, lacking much of the charm and all of the sparkle of the best of her earlier works.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
on 1934
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 315
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
The French Rivera in the 1920s is 'discovered' by Dick and Nicole Diver, who turn it into the playground of the rich and glamorous. Among their cycle is Rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful starlet, who falls in love with Dick and is enraptured by Nicole, unaware of the corruption and dark secrets that haunt their marriage. When Dick becomes entangled with Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his relationship with Nicole, and the lustre of their life together begins to tarnish. Tender is the Night is an exquisite novel that reflects not only Fitzgerald's own personal tragedy, but also the shattered idealism of the society in which he lived.

Tender is the Night was published January through April, 1934. As an exercise in understanding, I am going to list a few things that were happening in 1933 through 1935 in the United States (per wikipedia):

The U.S. was in the midst of a deep depression. 25% of the workforce was unemployed. FDR implemented the first New Deal beginning with his inauguration in March, 1933.

Bonnie and Clyde began the rampage that would ultimately end their lives by murdering two young highway patrolmen. They were shot dead on May 23, 1934, after their behavior transfixed the nation for two years.

The Dust Bowl began on November 11, 1933, in South Dakota. In May, 1934, a two day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust.

This is what it looked like in America:


This is what he was writing about,

the murphys

in his epically self-indulgent book about rich, pretty people with rich, pretty people problems, like what to do when you drink too much booze, have sex with beautiful actresses half your age, and generally behave like a hollowed out husk of a human being.

Is it any wonder that it flopped?

In the final analysis, sure, it had redeeming literary value. But the characters were soulless and charmless (as Fitzgerald’s characters often are) and the world that they lived in was shallow and superficial. It left me utterly empty. Sort of like Dick and Nicole Diver.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette HeyerThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1950
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 372
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
New York Times Bestseller! "Sophy sets everything right for her desperate family in one of Georgette Heyer's most popular Regency romances."

When Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her young niece, no one expects Sophy, who sweeps in and immediately takes the ton by storm. Sophy discovers that her aunt's family is in desperate need of her talent for setting everything right: Ceclia is in love with a poet, Charles has tyrannical tendencies that are being aggravated by his grim fiancee, her uncle is of no use at all, and the younger children are in desperate need of some fun and freedom. By the time she's done, Sophy has commandeered Charles's horses, his household, and finally, his heart.

The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, between Arabella and The Quiet Gentleman. It is set in 1816, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

In spite of one glaringly problematic aspect, which will be further discussed below, The Grand Sophy is my absolute favorite Heyer of all that I have read because I adore Sophy. She is a simply wonderful heroine – outspoken, self-confident, and well-liked in spite of her occasionally unconventional behavior. She is basically the Annie Oakley of regency England right down to the pistol.

Her verbal sparring with the ultimate hero, Charles Rivenhall, is laugh out loud funny:

‘I’ll take care of that!’ he retorted. ‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’

‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’

Charles is obviously confounded by Sophy, when she shows up at his house with a dog, a monkey and an attitude. He likes her, at times a great deal, but is befuddled by her lack of fainting spells, her out-spokenness, and her meddling nature as she starts to set things right with his family. Charles is engaged to the antithesis of Sophy, Eugenia Wraxton, who is well-bred, humorless, and smug. One of the funniest aspects of this book is watching Charles struggle with the priggish Miss Wraxton because he is completely loyal to his family, and while he is perfectly comfortable criticizing them, woe betide the person who has the audacity to be critical of them in his presence. Eugenia makes this unfortunate mistake on more than one occasion.

There are two events in the book that really establish the worth of both Sophy and Charles Rivenhall, though. The innocent young man stumbling into debt through gambling is often a feature of Heyer’s stories, and this one is no exception – Charles’ younger brother, Hubert, has found himself deep in debt from gambling and tries to recover his fortunes by taking out a loan from a usurer and betting on a horse race. This – of course – goes badly, and Hubert is deeply ashamed as well as completely demoralized. Sophy is able to extract the truth from him with some skilful and sympathetic questioning, and offers to loan him the money to repay the lender, which he refuses. When Hubert is too ashamed to come clean with Charles, Sophy, naturally, takes matters into her own hands and visits the moneylender.

This could be a successful and funny device to show Sophy’s intrepid nature because she handles the whole thing with aplomb and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Heyer endows the blackmailer with many of the most pernicious stereotyped character traits of a Jewish moneylender, which makes the entire interaction uncomfortable for the modern day reader. Whether or not Heyer was actually anti-Semitic I will let scholars who have studied her critically address. All I can say about this part of the book is that it detracts from the story in the same way that the unfortunate caricaturing of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s detracted from that fine movie. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, although I can see how it could for other readers. It is doubly unfortunate because there was simply no need for it, so the only conclusion I can draw is that Heyer did it on purpose for effect. Her narrative goals could have been served by any character that was greasy, unpleasant, and criminal. There are – were – plenty of character types from which she could have drawn without bigotry.

Leaving aside that blight on the book, Charles, as well, shows to advantage as a result of this episode. Far from reproaching his younger brother, he takes Hubert into his confidence and explains that the gaming of their father has left the family essentially destitute, and accepts responsibility for the rift that made it impossible for Hubert to confide in him.

‘Well, I had better make a clean breast of the whole! I went to a rascally moneylender, and I borrowed five hundred from him, for six months. I thought I should have won every penny back, and more beside, at Newmarket. But the damnable screw was unplaced!’ He saw his brother’s expression, and said: ‘You need not look like that! I swear I shall never do so again as long as I live! Of course I ought to have come rather to you, but –’

‘You should have come to me, and that you did not must have been far more my fault than yours!’

The second event relates to the youngest sibling, Amabel, who becomes extremely ill during the course of the book. Charles returns home to find the house in disarray, his mother taken to her bed, and his sister, Cecilia, and Sophy, in charge of nursing the ill child.

‘Oh, yes, tell about the time you were lost in the Pyrenees!’ begged Amabel drowsily. Sophy did so, her voice sinking as the little girl’s eyelids began to droop. Mr Rivenhall sat still and silent on the other side of the bed, watching his sister. Presently Amabel’s deeper breathing betrayed that she slept. Sophy’s voice ceased; she looked up, and met Mr Rivenhall’s eyes. He was staring at her, as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Her gaze remained steady, a little questioning. He rose abruptly, half-stretched out his hand, but let it fall again, and, turning, went quickly out of the room.

Am I crazy, or does this remind of this:


Swoon. No, seriously. I just died.

For the ending, Heyer brings together all of the disparate and mostly unwitting participants in Sophy’s plans, and shuffles the partners until everyone ends up with their proper match. It is a consummate game of romantic chance, deftly managed, with an eye toward perfect propriety, and only the clever Sophy could have pulled it off. There are a few important side stories that are worth mentioning, most particularly Cecilia’s romance with Fawnhope and Charling, and the indolent Sancia, Sophy’s putative and unwilling step-mama. This is, to my mind, Heyer’s most enjoyable novel to date – witty, sparkling, and genuinely funny.

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook

It has taken a few weeks to come back to finish the Doctor Zhivago discussion. I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the beginning of Book 2:

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.