One-Minute Book Reviews

March 18, 2010

The Perfection of ‘Anna Karenina’ — Quote of the Day / Elif Batuman in ‘The Possessed’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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Anna Karenina is probably the most popular 19th-century Russian novel in the U.S. today and certainly the only one tapped for both Oprah’s book club and a forthcoming steampunk-influenced mashup. But there is no obvious reason why it should have more appeal than others by Leo Tolstoy and his compatriots. Anna Karenina lacks the scale of War and Peace. It tells a tragic story when many readers crave happy endings, and it reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all, a theme that clashes with a cultural fantasy.

Why is Anna Karenina nonetheless so alluring? Elif Batuman suggests an answer in her quirky and amusing essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 286 pp., $15, paperback). Batuman writes of finding a 1970s edition of the novel during a summer visit to her grandmother’s apartment in Turkey:

“Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel – ice skating, balls, horse races – were beautiful, dignified, and meaningful in terms of plot …

Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherwordly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a super-charged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small – so serious and so light – so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for 19 more chapters after her death, and Anna’s lover and her husband had the same name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and Levin’s half brother were both called Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life.”

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted!  How about you?

So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Scaling the Mount Everest of literature through print and audio editions

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Constance Garnett. Modern Library, 1,386 pages, $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading War and Peace is like walking into a large cocktail party at which you don’t know anybody until, hours later, Napoleon turns up fresh from his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. How do you get your bearings on a novel that has more than 500 characters and, even in the relatively compact Modern Library edition, 1,386 pages?

More than most masterpieces, War and Peace asks you to make a leap of faith and repays the effort. The characters who at first swarm at you in a mob soon coalesce into sets. Chief among them are three well-to-do families – the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs and the Bolkonskys – whose fates rise and fall in the years just before and after Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in the winter of 1812.

Leo Tolstoy sets their stories against a teeming panorama of Russian history as he develops the fatalistic theme that free will is an illusion. The choices people make reflect powerful historical forces: The higher someone’s social standing, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”

Tolstoy’s fondness for this theme involves digressions that have defeated many readers. Listening to an unabridged audio edition may help you ride out the philosophical and historical detours from the plot. A recorded version will also give you pronunciations of those 500 Russian or other names, and could add far drama to your commute than any all-news radio station. The radio may give you reports of one-alarm blazes in dumpsters. Tolstoy gives you: “The valet on going in informed the count that Moscow was on fire.”

Best line: The first, a line of dialogue at a party: “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” This isn’t nearly as famous as the first line Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike …”). But it has its own genius. Part of it is that it reates the impression that you are eavesdropping with tantalizing effects.

Worst line: Tolstoy elaborates on his view of history and free will in the second of two epilogues in the book: “Napoleon could not command a campaign against Russia, and never did command it.” Is that clear? If not, he adds: “Our false conception that the command that precedes an event is the cause of an event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and those few out of thousands of commands, which happen to be consistent with the course of events, are carried out, we forget those which were not, because they could not be carried out.”

Caveat lector: This review uses the Russian spellings in the Constance Garnett translation in the 1994 Modern Library hardcover edition www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/. Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.

Published: 1869

Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible www.audible.com.

You can also follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 7, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of ‘War and Peace’ Coming Wednesday

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:02 pm
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You think nobody can review the Mount Everest of literature in a post you can read in a minute? O, ye of little faith! Check back Wednesday for a review of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Tomorrow: Another post in the occasional series “Backscratching in Our Time,” which calls attention to the trading of blurbs and other favors by well-known authors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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