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ANNA KARENINA

by Leo Tolstoy

4/5

I read this book in a record 11 days. Then, I wrote this review after finishing and had a literary crisis. Then, I had a think and now I’m revising my thoughts. This is just so Tolstoy (probably). This is the first book I’ve read from Tolstoy, and while I’m familiar with him as an inspiration to other literature in which I’m more versed, reading this work in a short amount of time has given me a very precise scope in which to view his… “vibe” and “whole deal.”

I was impressed with Tolstoy’s modern (and maybe Western?) philosophies and insight for Russia in 1873. His opinions on agriculture, government, women’s rights, education and religion were acute and open minded. This probably has as much to do with Tolstoy being a progressive at the time, as it does with the Russian Empire thriving with industry and artistic and social freedoms, which unfortunately don’t last long after this period. Or anyway, they weren’t at all the same due to various revolutions and a rotating cast of regime changes. Less than 50 years after Anna, would mark the start of the Soviet Union and with it, a world of changes from the previous Empire.

While the book is named after one of its main characters, Anna Karenina, I wouldn’t have guessed before hand that maybe only a little more than a quarter of the pages would be devoted to her throughout the nearly 900 page book. This book is as much — actually more – about her friends, relations and their interconnected lives. Characters are drawn to show parallels between one another as well as societal and economic classes. So, be ready for long talks about local government elections, farming, peasantry, and speculative internal dialogs about… again, peasantry.

I had also expected something romantic and fantastical when it came to Anna and her affair, but Tolstoy is blunt and gives raw scenes without embellishment. He’s a cold hard realist, and in this way you could say his writing is pure (which I’m sure is what we was going for). The characters say a lot to one another, by saying very little. Anna is about reading into your acquaintances cordial greeting, a flush of the face, a hand graze. Emotions are intensely restrained publicly, but also clearly defined. This book is predicated on Anna having an affair with the care free and handsome Count Vronsky, but do we get to see the crucial moment of their passionate first kiss? Nope. He skips the fun romance entirely. One minute they are making eyes at a party, the next it’s a year later and things are on the decline. That being said, the scenes where Anna herself is present, leave you inexplicably anxious and wild with a slow burning passion you later realize you’ve somehow had for her the entire time without really knowing why.

While I liked how he chose to draw the lady characters, there was a clear disparity in the sexes. He sympathizes with a woman’s place in the world, and acknowledges them as having little rights or ownership to anything. But he doesn’t give them big questions to ponder like the men. And at times, he was quick to drop their problems as more insignificant to the men, which was most evident in the amount of pages allocated to each.

I was fully wrapped up in all the intricacies of this book and the themes behind the imagery (see: trains and the color black for ominous foreshadowing throughout). And while I give this book a high rating, I will say I was really disappointed at the end. After tragedy strikes Anna, Tolstoy is quick to drop her, those affected, and what they think or feel. She is literally not mentioned again. Instead, he passes the last of the book off to Constantine Levin (based clearly on Tolstoy himself), a responsible, informed, moral man who progresses in his spiritual journey and decides that yes, he does have faith after all and life is worth living for the greater good and glory of God.

It feels like Levin is subtweeting Anna and the others who struggle with morality and passion pretty flippantly. He decides to not think on Anna or anything that has happened previously to get them to this point because it was immoral. It’s all well and good to advocate for women’s social freedoms, but it’s a bourgeois mentality to consider them worthless if sex plays any part.

I can’t help but wonder if that means Tolstoy was kind of arrogant or if it was just natural for men at the time to feel superior and more enlightened given the time and place (again, see page allocation to the thoughts of each gender). But given that Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen (though in Western England) were giving insatiable life to intelligent women years before Tolstoy, I tend to think arrogance and moral superiority played a role in the books 180 degree ending.

But…

In some ways, I think the ending is Tolstoy flipping the script. Saying, look, all of this, this isn’t about you. This isn’t about you being butt hurt because I didn’t describe in more detail love and hate and failings. This is about making tangible changes to our governments, our communities and our poor, and finding faith instead of unforgiving passions.

And chin up- after you read this, you can go over to Netflix and watch Anna Karenina, where you can fully indulge in colors, dresses, beauty and various people breathing hard. The movie was slightly wacky in style, but actually quite good and accurate to JUST the tumultuous Anna portions (leaving out basically the 75% of the book).

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL

by Susanna Clarke

5/5

I had been wanting to read this book for some time as it combines my favorite things: 1800’s shit & Magic. Although it was published in 2004, you wouldn’t know it by scanning through the pages as Susanna Clarke writes purely in Austen-esque pastiche. More recently, I have made it a priority to study Victorian literature on my own, and felt rewarded by Clarke, who sprinkles in fact with her fiction. For example, the fictional character Jonathan Strange, publishes his book History Of English Magic with John Murray, a real life publisher in the 1800′s who put out books by none other than Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Byron (who also makes an appearance in the book). We hear tales from the battle field during the French Revolutionary Wars with England, headed by Napoleon Bonaparte himself, only this time, magic is used against him.

This book is perfectly dated, complete with outdated spellings (shown = shewn), London high society, academic magical texts, magical history, forays into faerie and a crabby old man magician who prizes nothing so much as his massive book collection. 

The main difference between this book and a book straight from 1800, is I think, the tone–which is unmistakably more fun. At 782 pages, you would expect to find long swaths of government meetings where members of Parliament try to decide what to do with tax revenue, or maybe a long monologue from a local vicar preaching on the pitfalls of promiscuity in a modern age losing its morality, but there’s very little of that. That’s not to say there aren’t portions that drag a bit here and there, but I found them to be important to the story rather than a dry historical account of daily life.

J&N, has features that make me giddy. Foremost, the fact that it contains extensive footnotes (some a page or two long), that reference or include excerpts from magical text and magical history–all entirely fictional. It was as if Clarke, took me to the Hogwarts Library and let me read whatever I wanted from the Restricted Section. With access to these texts, we are privy to differing opinions on magic and its use, what is old magic and modern magic, what is thought to be the proper use of magic and what is not. This is what I loved most about The Magicians Trilogy (review a few posts down), which showed the main characters exploring what fabric of Magic was, rather than just allowing it to be.

I believe this book will be forever one of my favorites. If you love the Victorian Era, dry and witty British humor, magic and academia, it will be one of yours, too. And I know I’m not alone because I was watching The OC the other day, and Seth Cohen was reading a copy. SETH COHEN!

1984

by George Orwell

1/5

Dear Members of the Literati,

I hate this book something awful. I’ve never hated a book so much in my entire life.

News for you: This book is written by a jaded, old, crabby man who became disillusioned with communism. That’s right, disillusioned, meaning at one time, he thought highly of it, but it didn’t go his way. Why? because communism never does.

In the year 2016, everyone thinks Ted Cruz and Trump are raging lunatics who place fear at the top of their agenda to scare everyone their way. Turns out, Orwell is that same guy. He’s the antithesis of an intelligent doomsday prepper, suffering from paranoia, hiding from Chem Trails. Also, if you haven’t read much about him, I recommend taking a glance at his Wikipedia page, and you can see for yourself that he was an asshole who thought highly of himself and his prejudice views.

This book is long and it’s boring and it’s meant more than anything stir up fear about the Russians in a Cold War era. Lame.