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.

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