Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finishing Anna Karenina . . . and Other Late January Achievements

Well, to be honest, there weren't many other late January achievements, as I didn't get too much reading done while traveling the last week of the month. However, finishing Anna Karenina was a high point!

Tricky 22, by Janet Evanovich
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

I had planned never to read another Stephanie Plum mystery, as they have become tedious (how often can a blown-up car be funny?), but this one was available as an audiobook via OverDrive and I fell for it. Shouldn't have!

In a Dark, Dark Wood has gotten a lot of ink--treated as a successor to Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Unfortunately, it doesn't deserve that attention, as the plotting is not as creative or tight as in either of those books, the structure is not as interesting, and the suspense is lukewarm (and I say this not being the biggest fan of Flynn's and Hawkins' books). The protagonist of In a Dark, Dark Wood, Leonora, is invited to a "hen weekend" (British version of a bachelorette party) for a childhood friend she has not spoken to in a decade--and she hasn't been invited to the wedding, meaning she doesn't know who Clare is marrying, a fact that turns out to be important. The weekend is being held in a remote lodge in a forest--where there is no cell service and, as a number of weird things start happening, the landline stops working too. So why would Nora go to this weekend? And why would she stay when things got ugly and contact with the outside world was impossible? And why are people, including me, reading this book? Those are the real mysteries.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

The first surprise in Anna Karenina--besides the recognition of just how long it is (almost 1000 pages)--was that Anna did not actually appear until quite a ways into the book. I had foolishly expected her to be the sole focal point of the book--but it is a Russian novel after all. As the novel opens, we learn she will be arriving in Moscow soon to intervene with her brother Stepan Oblonsky's wife Dolly, who has learned of his affair with the family's governess and is in a state. We also meet the character who turns out to be an equal to Anna in importance in the book--Konstantin Levin, a landowner who is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty. Kitty, however, is in love with Count Vronsky, who will eventually become Anna's lover, for whom she will leave her husband and eventually ruin her life. While Anna Karenina, like the few other Russian novels I have read, has many characters, these six are central and it is through their lives that Tolstoy explores his themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, family/marriage, social and political change (the changing role of the peasant, education reform, changes in women's roles and marriage law), and the contrast between rural and urban lifestyles. Despite the many characters, themes, and topics, I still found Anna's story the most affecting part of the novel. In the section of the novel when she has been rejected by society, she is cut off from her son, and her relationship with Vronsky is troubled, Tolstoy uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style to convey Anna's breakdown, leading to her suicide. While the discussions of political and social issues are interesting, Anna's tragic end--brought on by a combination of her own bad decisions and a rigid society--is what lingers after the last page is turned. I don't find this the "best novel ever written" as William Faulkner did (and he was way more qualified to make such a judgment), but I'm glad I finally read it. On to War and Peace?

Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, by Kate Kerrigan

I thought this book sounded good because it was described as being the story of a bride using her grandmother's recipes to work on her marriage--and I'm a sucker for a novel with recipes. However, the bride is an obnoxious character and her grandmother, whom she idolized as having a perfect marriage, is her own kind of pain in the butt. If that sentence isn't enough to convey that I didn't enjoy this book, then I'll just say it: not recommended!

Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou

Here, too, I had a misconception about this book--I thought it would actually be a letter, written to all the young women who looked up to Angelou. Instead, it is a collection of largely autobiographical essays and poems, many previously published. Overall, the collection fell flat for me, though I did enjoy the pieces on Fannie Lou Hamer and on poetry.

Pick of the Litter:  Anna Karenina

Favorite Passages: 

Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.

All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.

From Anna Karenina

Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America's great novel that You Can't Go Home Again. I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one's skin, at the extreme corners of one's eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

From Letter to My Daughter

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