2009-07-21

Book Review: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

While I was reading the book:

I just read a review on this site about this book, saying that the it was boring and strayed away from the "main plot" too much on "tangents" and "thoughts". I think the reader missed the point. By the way, she started reading it because she... BA-dum BUM... heard about it from Oprah.

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After I was done:

Partially in reference to the review I mentioned above, let me reiterate a point I made in a prior review, in which I described my theory of what makes a "good" book: "main plots" suck. Seriously, if you've got some motivation, moral, conflict, crime, romance, or whatever pulling you through the pages just to get to the end, you can't enjoy each page. For me, the pages have to be interesting in order for the book to be good, and many-a-time a driving plot ruins this. J.S. Foer almost falls victim to this in Everything is Illuminated, but everyone knows how great a book that is. He almost forgot the trees for the forest.

Tolstoy didn't. He remembered the trees, and he built the forest out of them. I've had someone ask me, "Isn't Anna Karenina a total love story?" And my answer was, "no." Sure, there are a few loves stories running through the entire book, and they might even be the main focus, but considering marriage and social relationships were possibly the most important thing amongst 19th Century Russian gentry, it's only logical. This book is about life in a specific time, in a specific place, among specific types of people. Plus, immediately after I finished this book, I began a real love story (on recommendation from my aunt), and the two books are worlds apart.

Anna Karenina is for those readers who like to transport themselves into the shoes of people probably very different from themselves, and spend a little time there, learning about their perspectives, friends, ideals, and dreams. And, from the shoes of these other people, you can (I did) learn bits of wisdom about yourself and your own life.

I highly recommend this book, but be aware (if you're not already) that my version was 980 pages, with more words per page than average. It took me about six or eight times longer to read than a standard 250-page book. But I honestly never got bored reading it, and was a little bit sad when it ended, because I wanted to read more about Levin and Oblonsky.

7 comments:

THE KRIS said...

this is an interesting book to me because it exposed one of my flaws as a reader. i find it hard to enjoy a book if i don't like the main character(s). in this case, i was morally offended that she was so self-centered that at no point did she acknowledge that there wasn't anything really wrong with her husband except that she didn't love him. now i'm a product of the times, so i don't fault her for wanting out because she didn't love the guy, but she acted like he was this terrible person that had been forced on her, when in fact she had freely (as much as was possible in the day) chosen him. also, she didn't give a rat's ass about her kids. and she was a dumb-ass for thinking that her "lover" was the type of person who would want to settle down. so basically i found one of the great characters in literature to be bothersome.

your review reminded me that sometimes i get too caught up in judging characters, and don't spend enough time just learning from them.

having said all that, i think tolstoy knew people, which is to say that his characters are real. when the title character does something that annoys me, i'm still forced to admit that it is what that type of person would do in real life. this seems simple, but i think it's often overlooked.

i'm reminded of hemingway who put such emphasis on writing what was true.

fbg said...

Perhaps I have a talent for ignoring aspects of creative works. I don't care much about Anna, except that she had some weird effect on everyone she met. That's pretty cool. Vronsky sounded like a tool, too, so I didn't get too attached to them.

Levin carried me through the book, perhaps quite literally, because Levin is supposedly fashioned after Tolstoy himself. And, I found myelf getting excited every time Oblonsky popped in. Maybe I have a man-crush.

Koznyshov was also interesting, but he wussed out when he was supposed to ask out Varenka, so he got downgraded.

The translator of the version of Anna Karenina that I read wrote that Tolstoy's talent can be called a "lack of style", which equates to telling the truth and nothing but the truth, and of course painstakingly selecting which details you include. Hemingway was indeed like that, although a bit drier, and without the philosophical ideas.

What was your punishment for being a flawed reader?

THE KRIS said...

reality tv.

RM said...

Holy crap - Kris' insight was mad smart.

"it exposed my flaws as a reader"

My flaws as a reader are that I can't read.

And the third exchange/pun was classic. If the previous two posts weren't so long, they would have made an excellent text conversation or something on a sitcom. Maybe we can paraphrase to shrink it down.

It's like the setup for a joke that's really really long but then classicly funny and simple at the end.

fbg said...

Yeah, Ryan, Kris is like my go-to guy for literary wisdom. It makes me wished he had talked more back when I lived in Baltimore (or, I wish I had listened).

If you want a sitcom, we can work on that. I think most of the stuff Kris writes sounds either like a punchline or a catch phrase ("I'm just sayin'.") But it makes me laugh. Give him Ben or myself as a jumping-off point, and he's golden.

Ryan, you're like The Fonz.

RM said...

Don't worry, I came up with sweet new sitcom and movie ideas tonight, and website ideas as well. Alyssa and I brainstormed for a little bit.

And in case you try to say something like "brainstormed - is that what they're calling it these days" you are incorrect. Ha.

Oh and you definitely weren't around long enough to really appreciate the cool factor of Kris, but he definitely didn't say much while you were here either. Do you guys share your books on that website that everybody but me uses?

fbg said...

Is someone a little sensitive on the "brainstorming" issue? You're the one who brought it up...

Yeah, there are a lot of us "sharing our books" (that's what they're calling it these days) on goodreads.com: Kris, Sara Spears, Kipchirchir, Emily, Thais, and there's probably someone else.