[Book Review]Anna Karenina

Rating: ★★★★★

In the beginning, reading Anna Karenina can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books. You can’t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you. You expect to like it. You want to like it. But you don’t want to feel like you have to like it. You worry a little that you won’t. But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you. You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn’t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle. You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax. (Maybe that simile reveals more about me than I’d like.)

Plot

The novel begins as Anna Karenina arrives in Moscow from Petersburg to help her brother and sister-in-law settle a domestic dispute. Members of Russia’s privileged class, “Dolly” Alexandrovna discovers that her husband “Stiva” Oblonsky has engaged in an affair with one of their maids. Affairs being a long unspoken of part of upper class life, Dolly desires to leave her husband along with their five children. Anna pleads with Dolly to reconcile, and the couple live a long, if not tenuous, marriage, overlooking each other’s glaring faults. While settling her brother’s marriage, Anna is reminded of her own unhappy marriage, setting the stage for a drama that lasts the duration of the novel.

Tolstoy sets the novel in eight parts and short chapters with three main story lines, allowing for his readers to move quickly through the plot. In addition to Stiva and Dolly, Tolstoy introduces in part one Dolly’s sister Kitty Shcherbatsky, a young woman of marriageable age who is forced to choose between Count Vronsky and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. At a ball in Kitty’s honor, Vronsky is smitten with Anna, temporarily breaking Kitty’s heart. Even though Levin loves Kitty with his whole heart, Kitty refuses his offer in favor of Vronsky, and falls into a deep depression. Levin, seeing the one love of his life reject him, vows to never marry.

Anna becomes a fallen woman and rejects her husband in favor of Vronsky, fathering his child, leaving behind the son she loves. Even those closest to her, including family members, are appalled. Yet, Anna does not value her loved ones’ advice and chooses to live with Vronsky. Despite a comfortable, upper class life, Anna is in constant internal turmoil. Spurned by a society that clings to its institutions as marriage and the church, Anna chooses love yet isolation from all but Vronsky and their daughter. Her ex-husband is viewed as a strict adherent to the law, cold, and unsympathetic, and will not grant a divorce. Anna’s frustration and anxiety grew every day doubting Vronsky would have an affair with other ladies.

Comment

 

When it comes to talking about Anna Karerina, some people would ask “isn’t it Tolstoy novel about an aristocrat lady having an affair?” as if the book is more or less than a soap opera or chick lit in late 19th century. Well, it is universal that affair stories add some spices on storylines. Actually, the story between Anna and Vronsky(the affair partner of Anna Karerina) is more fractional than you would think.

There are three principle couples: Stiva and Dolly, Vronsky and Anna, and Levin and Kitty. Of course, the most widely known among them is Vronsky and Anna but we also need to pay attention to the two other couples. In fact, Tolstoy depicted Levin and Kitty is the most ideal couple and Levin himself is what Tolstoy thought of an ideal man should be. My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing by Levin—chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor. When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something “happen” and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work.

 The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.

It’s not just lawn mowing that Tolstoy would like to describe but also Tolstoy shows that one needs to involve into the action regardless of the class. It’s the moment that Levin grows to be more mature human being and Kitty started to admire him. Levin and Kitty is  developing their relationship in more mature way while the relationship between Anna and Vronsky ended tragically and the relationship between Stiva and Dolly ended up being stagnant.

His characters are unbelievably complex. The edition of this book that I read was over 900 pages, so he has some time to do it. His characters aren’t static, but neither are they in some kind of transition from A to B throughout the book. They are each inconsistent in strikingly real ways. They think things and then change their minds. They believe something and then lose faith in it. Their opinions of each other are always swirling. They attempt to act in ways that align with something they want, but they must revert back to who they are. But who a character is is a function of many things, some innate and some external and some whimsical and moody.

So all the characters seem too complex to be characters in a book. It’s as if no one could write a character that could be so contradictory and incoherent and still make them believable, so no one would try to write a character like Anna Karenina. But people are that complex, and they are incoherent and that’s what makes Tolstoy’s characters so real. Their understandings of each other and themselves are as incoherent as mine of those around me and myself.

One of the ways that Tolstoy achieves this is through incredible detail to non-verbal communication. He is always describing the characters movements, expressions, or postures in such a way that you subtly learn their thoughts.

He does an amazing job in the internal monologues the characters experience. You frequently hear a character reason with himself and reveal his thoughts or who he is to you in some way, and all the while you feel like you already knew that they felt that or were that. Even as the characters are inconsistent. There are times when he can describe actions that have major implications on the plot with blunt and simple words and it still felt rich because the characters are so full.

The book takes on love, marriage, adultery, faith, selfishness, death, desire/attraction, happiness. It also speaks interestingly on social classes or classism. He also addresses the clash between the pursuit of individual desires and social obligations/restraints. There is just so much to wrestle with here.

And you go through a myriad set of emotions and impressions of the characters as you read. At times you can love or hate or adore a character. You can be ashamed of or ashamed for or reviled by or anxious with or surprised by a character. And you feel this way about each of them at points. But it isn’t at all a roller coaster ride of emotion. It’s fluid and natural and makes sense.

[Book Review] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Rating: ★★★★(maybe around 4.5)

Whoah! I just finished to read this 1100-page-book. Reading a thick book is like a journey that you travel all the 50 US states but is still counted as one-country visit.

After the trip to Croatia in last July, I learned Croatia and other former Yugoslavian countries have entangled and interesting history. People are usually familiar with history of Western European countries(UK, France) or US history  but the history in Balkan peninsula would be less familiar to many people. The trip to Croatia encouraged me to learn deeper about its cultural background and history. Before the trip, I never imagined that Croatia history would go back to very first century AD.

At first, it was quite challenging to search. You can much more easily find history books about Henry the 8th and his six wives rather than this part of history, to be honest. While searching, I encountered this book in one of travel blogs(I think it might be Rick Steves) and decided to give it a try. Then, I went to my school’s library. After half an hour, I found it and my very first impression was “daunting”. ‘How can I carry the book?’ That was my first concern. But luckily, I have a kindle so I didn’t have to suffer from the weight of the physical book.

Rebecca West and her husband traveled to Balkan peninsula from Croatia to Albania. This book was written on the brink of the World War 2, so it might have been different from current situation in that area. But a magnificent blend of travel journal, cultural commentary, and historical insight, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon probes the troubled history of the Balkans and the uneasy relationships among its ethnic groups. This book is much beyond Lonely Planet. 

The cover of the book is the famous bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was a terrible genocide in 1993 in Mostar. It was a cruel conflict between Croatian(catholic) and Bosnian(Muslim). Eventually, they ended the siege and the bridge (Stari Mostar),connecting Muslim area and Catholic area, now symbolizes as peace resolution between them. Rebecca West might have foreseen this tragedy.

The landscape and the people of Yugoslavia are brilliantly observed as West untangles the tensions that rule the country’s history as well as its daily life. Rebecca West not only has vast knowledge on politics and history but also she had a lot of good and thought provoking conversations with local people.  On the sentence-by-sentence level, her writing is exceptional in its clarity and its striking imagery, by turns witty and beautiful. ‘She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands seem specially dead’, she says of one woman; and of another, ‘It is true that she was plump as an elephant, but she was so beautiful that the resemblance only served to explain what it is that male elephants feel about female elephants.’ On another occasion, after a long description of Orthodox priests chanting hymns, she concludes with extraordinary sensitivity:

If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only goodness, it is still a logical tribute.

It is rare to find a travel book that builds a cumulative argument, let alone an argument that can be sustained over more than a thousand pages. Ultimately what makes Black Lamb so astonishing for me is that Rebecca West uses the gifts I outlined above to probe the depths of the human condition in a very clear-sighted way. As West travels, Europe is on the edge of war: as she publishes, the killing is well underway. What makes humans behave like this?

It’s the sort of grandiose question that usually gets grandiose, evasive answers. But not here. West thinks long and hard about it and she is characteristically blunt in her conclusions. For her there is a systemic problem with the Christianity that underpins western culture, simply because it’s built on the idea of a human sacrifice, and that leaves us fundamentally unsure about right and wrong.

We are continually told to range ourselves with the crucified and the crucifiers, with innocence and guilt, with kind love and cruel hate. Our breasts echo for ever with the cries ‘In murdering goodness we sinned’ and ‘By murdering goodness we were saved.’ ‘The lamb is innocent and must not be killed,’ ‘The dead lamb brings us salvation,’ so we live in chaos.

She goes further than this, though. (She always goes further.) When, in Macedonia, West witnesses a lamb being sacrificed in real life, she grasps that this internal chaos mentioned above has very dark consequences for human society and conflict; indeed, for civilised nations this is a paradox that can make us want to be defeated, even when – especially when – fighting for a good cause.

We believed in our heart of hearts that life was simply this and nothing more, a man cutting the throat of a lamb on a rock to please God and obtain happiness; and when our intelligence told us that the man was performing a disgusting and meaningless act, our response was not to dismiss the idea as a nightmare, but to say, ‘Since it is wrong to be the priest and sacrifice the lamb, I will be the lamb and be sacrificed by the priest.’ We thereby set up a principle that doom was honourable for innocent things, and conceded that if we spoke of kindliness and recommended peace it was fitting that afterwards the knife should be passed across our throats. Therefore it happened again and again that when we fought well for a reasonable cause and were in sight of victory, we were filled with a sense that we were not acting in accordance with divine protocol, and turned away and sought defeat, thus betraying those who had trusted us to win them kindliness and peace.

The implications of this extraordinary passage, when it comes to war, are fully explored. West hates war, but she also hates ‘the fatuousness of such pacifism as points out the unpleasantness of war as if people had never noticed it before’.

That non-resistance paralyses the aggressor is a lie: otherwise the Jews of Germany would all be very well today.

Some causes are worth fighting for, even though doing so feels abhorrent. As far as I’m concerned, this insight has never been better expressed:

I had to be willing to fight for it even though my own cause could not fail to be repulsive to me, since the essence of civilization was disinclination to violence, and when I defended it habit would make me fear that I was betraying it.

This is the meaning of the book’s title, drawn from a Serbian fable about religious sacrifice. In the global conflict erupting around her, Rebecca West could see emerging the same impulses and psychological currents that she had been studying and thinking about for years, ebbing and flowing throughout history and crystallised in the story of Yugoslavia: because human beings are a species that have evolved just enough intelligence to know that what we do is terrible, but not enough to go beyond it; and that leaves us unable to fight for our better nature with conviction.

For we have developed enough sensibility to know that to be cruel is vile, and therefore we would not wish to be the priest whose knife made the blood spurt from the black lamb’s throat; and since we still believed the blood sacrifice to be necessary we were left with no choice, if we desired a part in the service of the good, but to be the black lamb.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon finishes with bombs falling on London. The author reflects Often, when I have thought of invasion, or a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb.’ Amen. How extraordinary these people are and how extraordinary it is that we have understood them so little. How extraordinary this book is, a true masterpiece.

 

 

[Book Review]Moab is my washpot-Stephen Fry

Rating:★★★★(maybe around 4.2)

I am not English
I am not Jewish
I am not Gay
I am not Male
I did not go through an English public school system or prison.

But I understood and related to every single beautiful syllable of this beautiful and honest memoir.

Stephen Fry’s first autobiography was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. He is a true master of words. This ‘celebrity tell all’ is heavy and pungent with words. Nice sweaty words filled with flavour and colour.

I love his attitude to life, his sense of humour and unflinching ability to stand up and speak out for what he believes in. He here tells a brutally honest account of his growing up and how he first came to realize that he was gay. He takes the reader through his days in a boarding school where he struggled to fit in and constantly rebelled against, without knowing quite why. He tells of his troubled mind and how it led him to spend time in prison prior to completing his education at Cambridge, he also speaks of his first love and questions his own thoughts and feelings. Fry attempts to analyze his own behaviour, struggling himself to understand why he grew up the way he did when he was treated no differently to his brother.

It is everything a good/great memoir should be, open, indulgent, philosophical, passionate, truthful, extravagant, confessional, with a hint of inaccuracy that only personal memory can provide.But it is never apologetic. Good for you, Stephen.

This is a treasure of a book.

 

[Book Review]The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Rating:★★★★★

Whenever my friends ask which authors are favourite, the list of my favourite authors sometimes has been changed a bit but I always include Oscar Wilde especially for his sharp wit and say ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is my favourite among his writings. It’s one of few books I’ve read over three times.

 

Then, why ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray?’

Well, simply put, it’s well-written. From the word from Oscar Wilde,”Books are well written, or badly written.” and this one is well-written.

Or in more complicated manner, because it’s arguably literature’s greatest study of shallowness, vanity, casual cruelty and hedonistic selfishness with lots of Oscar Wilde witty and acute insights. Here is the plot:

Plot

 

The picture of Dorian Gray started with Dorian Gray’s desire of eternal youth looking. At the beginning, the portrait painter Basil Hallward fell in love with Dorian’s pure beauty and painted him. After finishing it, Dorian Gray immediately loved the painting as if Narcissus fell in love with his reflection on the pond. When Dorian visited to see his portrait, Dorian met Lord Henry who is a friend of Basil. Lord Henry is a hedonist that posits the only worthwhile life is one spent pursuing beauty and satisfaction for the senses. He said to Dorian Gray:

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

and Dorian Gray became enthralled with cynic Lord Henry. At the moment Dorian Gray saw his portrait, he wished that he could keep his young beauty eternally and his wish happened to come true.

More Dorian is hanging out with Lord Henry, his pure mind became more tainted,more shallow and more hedonistic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray was mesmerized by Sibyl. Sibyl is an actress and who performs Shakespeare plays in a dingy, working-class theatre. Dorian approaches and courts her, and soon proposes marriage. The enamoured Sibyl calls him “Prince Charming”, and swoons with the happiness of being loved. Dorian invites Basil and Lord Henry to see Sibyl perform in Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl, too distracted by thinking of Dorian, performs poorly, which makes both Basil and Lord Henry think Dorian has fallen in love with Sibyl because of her beauty instead of her acting talent. Embarrassed, Dorian rejects Sibyl, telling her that acting was her beauty; without that, she no longer interests him. On returning home, Dorian notices that the portrait has changed; his wish has come true, and the man in the portrait bears a subtle sneer of cruelty.

After getting to know Sibyl killed herself after the harsh rejection, Dorian Gray felt guilty first but soon he became addicted to opium to escape from guiltiness. Over the following eighteen years, he experiments with every vice, influenced by a morally poisonous French novel that Lord Henry Wotton gave him.

One night, before leaving for Paris, Basil goes to Dorian’s house to ask him about rumours of his self-indulgent sensualism. Dorian does not deny his debauchery, and takes Basil to see the portrait.

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”-Dorian Gray

The portrait has become so hideous that Basil is only able to identify it as his work by the signature he affixes to all his portraits. Basil is horrified, and beseeches Dorian to pray for salvation. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death.

One day,on returning to London, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he will live righteously from then on. His new probity begins with deliberately not breaking the heart of the naïve Hetty Merton, his current romantic interest. Dorian wonders if his new-found goodness has reverted the corruption in the picture, but when he looks he sees only an even uglier image of himself. From that, Dorian understands that his true motives for the self-sacrifice of moral reformation were the vanity and curiosity of his quest for new experiences.

Deciding that only full confession will absolve him of wrongdoing, Dorian decides to destroy the last vestige of his conscience, and the only piece of evidence remaining of his crimes – the picture. In a rage, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil Hallward, and stabs the picture. The servants of the house awaken on hearing a cry from the locked room; on the street, passers-by who also heard the cry call the police. On entering the locked room, the servants find an unknown old man, stabbed in the heart, his face and figure withered and decrepit. The servants identify the disfigured corpse by the rings on its fingers which belonged to their master; beside him is the picture of Dorian Gray, restored to its original beauty.

 

<Dorian Gray by Ivan Albright at Art Institute of Chicago>

 

Comment

While this story is often mentioned among the classics of the Horror genre (which I do have a problem with) this is much more a study of the human monster than it is some boogeyman. My favorite parts of the story were the extensive dialogues between the characters, usually Dorian and Lord Henry. They were wonderfully perverse and display a level of casual cruelty and vileness towards humanity that make it hard to breathe while reading.

“It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.”

“If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat.”

“Genius lasts longer than Beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place.”

“You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”

“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”

“I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.”

Every time I re-read it, there are always some new highlights. Why had I highlighted these lines? Do they still mean the same thing to me, as they did when I first took note of them, enough to highlight them? Or maybe I’m seduced by cynic and decadent Lord Henry as Dorian did?

 

For Oscar Wilde with this novel, I think this quote describes him the best,

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”-Oscar Wilde

[Book Review] The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt-Albert Camus

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I should say this essay shows the capability of Camus as a philosophical essayist as much as how he presented his depth and width of knowledge in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus has a very complicated upbringing and background . Camus is a man who lived through Nazi occupation, and through the trials of Nazis and Nazi collaborators; and was, albeit briefly, a member of the Communist Party, a committed socialist in his early adult and professional life, a darling of the Leftists of the Paris Intelligentsia until the publishing of this book and finally a disaffected anti-Stalinist/Soviet and pro-mediation, not independence, in his native nation of Algeria.

Camus highlighted the multifaceted aspect of the rebel(or revolution) and emphasized its importance for the society and I think his message, ‘I rebel, therefore we exist.’, is still clear and meaningful these days where there need to have reformation to restructure the corrupted and disorganized society around the world, not only the French Revolution.

As long as mankind has told stories, the topic of rebellion has been central.

“Man’s disobedience and the loss thereupon of Paradise”, as well as Satan’s rebellion against the oppressive authority of God in Heaven are the two main strands in Milton’s classic Paradise lost, to just name one of countless examples, summing up human experience in unforgettable drama.

Camus analyses the topic from a philosophical and historical viewpoint, and gives a perfect example for his thesis on revolution and the development of mankind by writing this long reflective essay, rebelling against the predominant ideas of his own time.

Starting with the metaphysical revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, but always with the disastrous contemporary world post 1945 in mind, Camus embarks on a quest to establish the nature and consequence of revolts and revolutions, and to define the limits within which it is still possible to justify violence and stay human.

Camus slowly guides the reader through the various causes and effects of religious, historical and political revolts and revolutions, as well as artistic revolutions in modern society. He explains the initiatives deriving from a sense of justice, and the consequences of absolute faith in the revolutionary cause, leading to its proverbial eating its own children and turning into its opposite, until a new revolution takes place.
This book is challenging, more challenging if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge in history,philosophy and literature since many of his examples stem from these areas. While reading this, I had to take some side trips to google some more information on his examples. But it is a great book that makes you feel you are having a highly intellectual conversation with Camus. It is time to rebel and say NO! To dogmatic violence. And it is time to say YES! To all of humankind, by respecting every individual’s right to freely develop their identity within the limits of justice.