Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina—that 140-year-old tome by Leo Tolstoy. I read it on the recommendation of another old book—If You Want to Write (first published in 1938) by Barbara Ueland. (By the way, Ueland’s book is one of the most inspirational books on writing you’ll find anywhere.)

I did read Anna Karenina many years ago while trekking through Europe. But I must have absorbed very little because it felt like a brand new book to me.

What a read!

It’s a story set in Russia before the Communist Revolution (first published as a serial from 1873-1877, as a complete book in 1878). The characters belong to the nobility class. Anna Karenina of St. Petersburg is married to statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. While visiting her brother Stepan Oblonsky in Moscow she meets the dashing Vronsky (an army man) at a party. Vronsky is immediately smitten by her beauty.

A parallel story is that of Levin, a friend of Stepan’s. Levin owns a rural estate and comes to Moscow only occasionally. But he is lonely and the story opens with him summoning his courage to ask Kitty, whom he has courted sporadically and shyly, to marry him. (Kitty is the younger sister of Stepan’s wife Dolly).

However, before he meets Anna, Vronsky has been paying a lot of attention to Kitty. Though she is fond of Levin, Vronsky—who Kitty and her family expect will pop the question any day now—is a better catch. So Levin’s proposal to Kitty comes at a bad time while Vronsky meeting and falling in love with Anna permanently dashes Kitty’s hopes of marrying him.  That’s the beginning…

Some of the things I loved about this book:

  • The psychological understanding and depth with which Tolstoy portrays his characters. He captures nuances of feeling and motivation that are quite remarkable. A passage late in the book where Anna descends into madness is one I thought particularly brilliant.
  • There are large chunks of prose I found poetic and beautiful, for example the peasant life seen through Levin’s eyes and Levin’s wedding.
  • The insights the book gives into the social life of the nobility in Russia at the time (I think of Tolstoy as Russia’s Jane Austen in that way). He addresses themes of religion, the position of peasants, and status women in society documenting particularly society’s double standard regarding acceptable morals of men and women.
  • The plot is, for the most part, captivating.

Some things that put me off:

  • All the Russian names, diminutives and variants. Confusing!
  • Long passages where Levin and his friends discuss the place of the peasants in society and religion. I got the feeling that Tolstoy was working out his own thoughts and positions on these things through Levin. (Others who comment on the book describe Levin as the most autobiographical of Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.)

If you haven’t read what some describe as”the greatest book ever written,” you owe it to yourself to do so. Plus it is such a fat volume (paperback = 752 pages) you won’t be needing another book for a long time with this one. (I got mine as an e-book, though, so no hand strain with that edition!)

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East of Eden (review)

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East of Eden - 1962 Edition

East of Eden – 1962 Edition

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn’t a proper review, just a list of things I noticed / liked / disliked about the Salinas Valley California family saga East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

The book started out like books written in the middle of last century do—slowly, with lots of description. But I didn’t mind as it was all grand, large-stroke painting. Though I do remember thinking, somewhere around page 50, I wonder when he’ll have all the furniture in place.

At the beginning I was confused over who was who. Steinbeck embarks on telling several family histories which, at the start, have no connection with each other. A family tree or a who’s who section would have helped.

There are some pretty dark characters. Kate / Cathy is incredibly evil and though her activities are mostly only hinted at, there was a point at which I wondered if I should / wanted to read on. I persevered and I’m glad I did.

I really enjoyed the way Steinbeck explored the theme of good and evil, whether we’re born pre-determined to be evil (with evil genes, so to speak) or whether we have choice. He riffed on the bad-brother, good-brother archetypes Cain and Abel, creating two sets of C&A brothers (Charles and Adam Trask; later Adam begets twins Caleb and Aron).

His character Liza Hamilton, wife of Samuel Hamilton is the most recognizably Christian of the characters. Steinbeck first portrays her in an almost Dickensian way:

“She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do” – p. 7 (1962, or thereabouts, edition).

However, by the end of the book she comes across as Samuel’s anchor, his true north. Steinbeck’s softening portrayal of her sheds a much more serious and sympathetic light on the faith aspect of the book than I expected when I read the beginning.

In closing, here are a couple of my favorite passages from this incredibly well-written book. The first is Samuel Harrison, talking to Adam’s servant Lee just before they name the twins. He is referring to Liza’s mother’s Bible and Bible use in general:

“’This one has been scraped and gnawed at,’ he said. ‘I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places they are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly’” p. 237.

The last quote sums up, in my mind, the book’s theme. It’s a passage in which the author stands back momentarily from telling his story and reflects:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught … in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” p. 366.

If you want to know more about East of Eden’s plot and characters, check the East of Eden entry in Wikipedia.

Oh, and here’s a gem from the yellowed old book I read. It’s in the forematter, on the right-hand page facing the copyright and printing editions information.

Note in East of Eden

Note from John Steinbeck to Pascal Covici

Thanks B., my son, for pressing me to read this grand classic novel!

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