Friday, June 14, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Birthday Books...

So this is meant to be a very fast post (I hope!), just to occasionally dip my oar into the wonderfully stimulating world of book blogging.  I've been working for three weeks as a medical transcriptionist in the pathology department in a hospital (I've now typed up autopsies! which are intriguing and also sad) and am starting to settle in there a bit.  I'm going to be learning things there for years about medical terminology and all the quirky things doctors do, trying to decipher their written scrawls and their verbal mumbles!  It's not exactly my dream job, but it's also very far from the worst job I've ever had and I definitely like having a desk of my very own and the ability to put on my headphones and just type without having to smile or be friendly or do any customer service at all.  For an introvert, it's a very refreshing change.


Anyways, on to the book discussion!  I've found that when I'm at home, since I've been staring at a computer screen all day at work I don't really want to go online in the evenings, I'd rather read.  This is all for the good for my book-loving soul, but my tumblr has now joined this blog in a state of general neglect.  But since I am reading more in the evenings or at least thinking about books more, maybe I'll try to occasionally blog here on the weekends, as I am now.

I've been trying to think of a few very special books to get for my birthday later this month and going over to my favourite cosy book blogger The Captive Reader to get ideas.  She got me lusting for the new Georgette Heyer editions that are coming out later this year (featured here) - I finally read The Grand Sophy earlier this year and found it absolutely wonderful, so I need my own copy of that soon, plus more of hers.  But then I found out those new Heyer editions wouldn't come out in Canada until September, so then I began considering getting some more Persephone Books.

I just reread Miss Buncle Married (by D.E. Stevenson, one of my favourite British interwar Persephone Books authors) last weekend and oh how much I enjoyed it.  (Here's my review of it the first time I read it.)  It's so utterly adorable and cosy and safe and sweet.  I know not everyone, especially in the grand and progressive era of the 21st century, wants safe and sweet anything, but I love those qualities.  It's why Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel too.  I long for books that give me a feeling of home and security (since I lost my childhood home in the countryside when I was young and had some childhood traumas as well) and safety, a feeling that all will be well, to overcome, even for a little while, my endless fears that all will go wrong.  I don't need to read a book to get worked up, I have an overactive imagination to do that for me, all the time!  I don't quite understand the desire to read sad books either - if I want to have a good cry I can just think about some of the things that have happened to me and how difficult it is to get over them.  I want to read to feel better, not to feel worse!  To use books as anti-depressants in my own form of bibliotherapy.  All that to say, Miss Buncle and D.E. Stevenson and cosy British books that are gentle and calm featuring lovely peace and quiet and 'real friendly love' are exactly my cup of chamomile tea.

I want more Persephone books so I can keep endlessly caressing their lovely smooth grey covers and getting lost in their cosy adorable worlds, but they're also rather expensive to order all the way from England, so I began hunting about for a few cosy books closer to home.  I've also been craving a slightly gothic story or two set in Cornwall, in the tone of Daphne du Maurier or Susanna Kearsley and then my thoughts turned towards Mary Stewart, who wrote a lot of romantic suspense novels in the 1950s.  Many of her books have recently been re-released in adorable editions and oooh I just want an atmospheric (and yet still slightly cosy and reassuring) story set in England or Scotland!  So I may indulge in a book or two of hers for my birthday... (I keep an eye out for her whenever I'm in used bookstores, so I now have two in old editions, but the new covers are so adorably retro!)  I also recently finished reading the Miss Marple collection of short stories, which do feature a few slightly gothic little mysteries set around Cornwall and the moors, but they're too short to really satisfy my craving!  For a while I thought I was really getting smart because I was figuring out every mystery ahead of the solution, until it occurred to me that I'd probably just read them years before.  Sigh.

And then of course there are so many other beautiful and entertaining books that I'd just love to collect (although living in an apartment does limit one's ability to store all of the books one wishes to acquire, especially when one is married to a fellow book lover who has an even bigger book collection than one's self...) that it makes the task of finding the perfect birthday books a rather difficult challenge.  Perhaps I'll go for one Mary Stewart and one Persephone and one something else that is yet to be determined...

As a sidenote: I've currently been reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke and while I love the book lover's atmosphere it conveys and how clever it is about books, featuring larger-than-life characters with wonderful names like Dustfinger (an ambiguous fire-eater) and Capricorn (despite this being a kids book he is legitimately scary to me and I really don't like his run-down village run by thugs in southern Italy!) that have come to life thanks to the magical reading abilities of one man called Silvertongue (who works as a bookbinder by day) and also featuring a stand-off between an author and the characters he's created and his fear when he realizes he can't control his own creations... but it is also so suspenseful and even sad and dark at times.  (And yes, that was one long crazy run-on sentence.  I am quite good at them.)  It's not as safe and cosy as my adored Miss Buncle books, that's for sure, but oh I'm just pulled in by the atmosphere of it and have to find out how it ends!  The opening sentence enticed me:  "Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain."  And since then I just can't leave it, I have to see the story through!  So here I am, reading a book that isn't entirely sweet or safe, but definitely enticing, perhaps strangely bewitching?  Oh how I love all the worlds I can visit through my endlessly delightful books!  Sometimes I get exhausted thinking of all the books I 'should' read and how I'm never reading fast enough to read all the books I want to and how I'm always buying more books than I can keep up with (which is why I gave book blogging a break), but then it's books like Inkheart that remind me of the heady delights and the endless magic that books offer.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Comfort Books (that I actually finished!)

Look, I am blogging again! Maybe a week since last time instead of two months later! I am proud of my accomplishments.

Blogging here last time seems to have helped me get out of my leaving-books-unfinished-left-and-right slump, so now I am returning to blog about my victory. I managed to finish two books in the past week (and for me that's a big deal, ok): The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Hooray for cosy early 20th century books! I haven't read any in a while, since I've been busy experimenting with many other types of books like kids and teen fiction and fantasy and whatever else. (Side note: three good teen fantasy books I read last year are Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, and The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges. The last one is set in 19th century Russia with necromancy and zombie armies and a werewolf and magic and it might not be as popular as the Laini Taylor, but check it out, it's glamorous and exciting!)

I used to take out piles of Agatha Christie (mostly featuring Poirot) from the library as a teenager, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I started reading (and loving) the Miss Marple books in my earlier book blogging days (here's my appreciation of The Body in the Library at my old book blog). Except after my husband's stressful surgeries that year (where he got a huge infection and ended up having about four surgeries in total when it should have been only one and we had to move back to my parents' for a bit because he couldn't work, etc), I stopped reading mystery novels because the death and violence in them, even in cosy mysteries, had begun to upset me too much. In retrospect, I think it was because I was very scared of my husband dying and I just didn't want to read anything that made me think about that at all. (And also when we moved out of my parents' place my mom got rid of all the mysteries I'd left there for safe keeping until I could come back for them. So annoying to lose my small collection of Louise Penny and Agatha Christie books!) But now my husband's doing better and we are back on our feet again mostly (at least we have our own apartment again!) and so now at last I can enjoy a lovely little cosy mystery again courtesy of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. The ending of The Mirror Crack'd still managed to be a surprise to me, even though I was sure Christie didn't have me fooled this time. I was suspicious of the murderer at one point, but didn't have enough clues to figure out exactly what he/she was up to. I also recently bought the complete short stories of Miss Marple and I'll either buy or borrow the rest of her books in time. I love Miss Marple so much more than Poirot -- I can pretend she's my cosy and smart little grandma! -- but eventually I'm sure I'll reread the Poirot books as well. Years of reading pleasure await!

Yesterday I was wanting to finish one more book at the end of April and as I was reorganizing my books (something I just have to do from time to time), I picked up my copy of Cold Comfort Farm. I'd read it years before and enjoyed it enough to buy my own copy of it, but I'd never gotten past the first few chapters when I tried to reread it before. But this time I just flipped it open to the middle, meaning only to glance at it in passing, and before I knew it, I was completely sucked into the hilarious story once again. I read it all the way through to the end and then flipped to the beginning and read that all the way to the middle. :) Unconventional, but highly entertaining nevertheless. I also have a great Penguin Deluxe edition of it with funny drawings all over the cover and flaps, so that added to my enjoyment.

I've been feeling a bit down lately (that is what happens with depression most of the time) and Cold Comfort Farm helped me to laugh my blues away for a few hours. In some ways, Flora Poste's meddling in the lives of her pathetic farming relatives in Sussex reminded me of Emma's meddling in Harriet's love life (and then there's the fact that Kate Beckinsale has played both Flora and Emma), but Flora is much more successful at it than Emma and all of her clever plans for improving the lives of those around her succeed brilliantly, perhaps because she relies on 'the higher common sense' rather than sheer imagination as Emma does. How she succeeds in gently persuading her bizarre relatives into sensible happiness is where the fun lies. A lot of the humour also comes from Stella Gibbons taking the piss out of writers who glamorize the 'earthy soul' of the poor working class by out-purple-prosing them all in hilarious asterisk marked passages. Altogether a very lovely book and I'm sure I'll be rereading it again someday when I need to be reminded to forget my troubles for a little while and just look on the bright side of life!

Today when I started to feel down again, I constructed a blanket fort under my desk and read some Anne of Green Gables down there for a while. These books are balm for the soul.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Books I Haven't Finished Lately

So here I am again, haphazardly writing about random books that I haven't quite finished yet... As I said in my last post (months ago!), I have problems finishing books. Well, I still do. I finished more books when I blogged about them regularly, so maybe I will try that again and see how it goes down....

(As a sidenote, I am such an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality thing. My feelings and my thoughts about those feelings are ALL OVER THE PLACE but only inside my head. Also I have a lot of grand plans for the writing down of feelings and thoughts and the reading and writing of stories, but I don't always achieve those goals. Don't judge me! I am still a nice person even if I am not a finisher of everything!)

So these are the books that I haven't finished recently:

Mansfield Park: yes I blogged about it last time and then I never finished it -- I just hate it when everyone tries to force Fanny to marry Henry! Plus also her going back to her family in Portsmouth isn't really fun times either.

Pride & Prejudice: I've already reread this once this year but The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had me on a big P&P high and it is so funny, I just started it as a comfort thing one evening and then I couldn't stop... until Elizabeth gets to Pemberley and Darcy is all nice. The jokes stop there! (And then Lydia gets a load of slut-shaming and I now think, post LBD, that maybe that's not such a good thing. She's just a kid, right? Wickham is the true villain.) And then I lost interest. And I finished rereading Emma instead because 1. Emma never stops being funny, and 2. the worst thing that ever happens is a bad picnic and since I hate horrible things happening to the characters I love, this is good for me, and actually pretty funny in and of itself.

Les Miserables: I haven't seen the movie yet (don't judge me! I was going to and then my husband hates musicals and then I thought maybe it would be too sad and then... I just bought the book instead because it looked pretty), but I did really like the first 100 pages of the book. Victor Hugo is definitely an idealist and I love his complex view of French history that goes into how the French Revolution affected everything that happened in the 19th century there and I love how he just made me care so much about two characters, the priest and Jean Valjean, through so much layering on of details about them. I've read other classic French authors (Proust, Zola, Flaubert, as well as attempts at Balzac and Stendhal and Laclos) and they're usually always so pessimistic and cynical and everyone is horrible (Proust is the exception, but then I think part of why I love his meandering, long-drawn out, huge book of memories is because he must be an INFP like me) but then! I discovered Victor Hugo and he's trying to write to better society, not just to mock it and for me at least one section of French literature was redeemed. So far as I can tell, he seems like a blend of Tolstoy and Dickens and that's pretty alright by me. So I was really liking it, but then I got stuck on this one part that has all this history thrown at my face and endless explanatory notes and it seemed like too much work to keep going. :/ I wish I could just skip that part; my book says Hugo added it on later and I wish he hadn't. Or I could skim it? Anyways.

Sense & Sensibility: I was trying to enjoy a different Austen and trying to like Elinor more instead of Marianne for once. My new fun literary game is to try and guess the personality of every Austen character, so I think Elinor is an ISFJ (they're called the protectors, so yeah, just try to prove me wrong) and Marianne is probably an ENFP (called the champions and come on, when is she not championing her favourite romantic ideals? I didn't think she'd be an extrovert at first, but then I decided that no introvert would be that annoying about forcing everyone to listen to all of her melodramatic notions All The Time). My personality is closer to Marianne's (I'm just more introverted and therefore less obnoxious) but ugh I have complicated feelings about her. Sometimes I like that she's true to her feelings and other times she drives me crazy. Also she's too much like my overly emotional, overly childish mom and that's not entirely a good thing... So I know Elinor is the more admirable sister of the two, but I also know that I'm just not exactly like her and never will be (although a beloved aunt of mine is and I'm so glad to have someone like her in my life) and ughh I keep rereading this book trying to solve this conundrum for myself of sense vs. sensibility and where I stand on that and how it's best to live and maybe I overthink it but I do come back to this book often so it seems to have some deep meaning for me, but I'm always torn when I read it over which sister holds my allegiance or which way of life I think is better to follow or something. It's hard to put into words even. But right now I am taking a break from that because it's emotionally tiring and also I wanted to read something newer for a change!

(Side note: if anyone wants me to go into more detail about my opinions on other Austen characters' personalities, just let me know! I have made lists about this and I keep randomly thinking about it at odd moments and having mental debates with myself.)

Also I am slowly rereading Jane Eyre right now (partly because of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre on youtube right now, which I am enjoying!) and I looove it more than ever, partly because I now think Jane is another INFP like me! Yays.

And I've also recently decided to read some mystery novels again, after giving them a break for a few years for being too disturbing. But then this year I've gotten really into the tv show Elementary (are there fans out there? It is such a lovely show, don't be a Sherlock snob and avoid it! Jonny Lee Miller is my current British actor crush because oh he's just a doll on this show) and then my husband got me watching Hannibal (scary! But also there is Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen and pretty, gothic imagery, so sort of okay...) and other mystery shows and then we watched LUTHER on Netflix (oh my goodness Idris Elba! and Ruth Wilson!! I am taking a break from it because the first season was so intense but oh that's a really good BBC show, guys) and then I just wanted to read a mystery and not just watch one. So I picked up In the Woods by Tana French because I remember hearing good things about it around the book blogosphere and I'd always been curious about it. So as of this morning I've read half of it and was really liking it (I've also experienced childhood trauma that I couldn't remember, so I liked that being in a book) but then I had an unavoidably strong urge to read the end and then that made me sad. I had my suspicions about the killer all along, so that wasn't it, but oh why Rob and Cassie why? (I'm being deliberately cryptic here so as not to spoil it but if you've read it, please come and talk to me!) Anyways, so now I'm not sure about finishing it either.

And now I'm going to end this post before I ramble any further. Thank you for joining in. (Also in my personal life, I'm now finished my medical transcriptionist course and will hopefully soon have a job at a hospital! So I'm pleased on that front. And I continue to buy too many books that I then don't read right away, so what else is new.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

thoughts on how I like to read and Mansfield Park

So it's been almost a year since I've last written here, but tonight I made myself a cup of chamomile lavender tea (due to reading a passage from Proust about tea) and thought of this blog again (the title Lavender Tisane is a bit of a reference to Proust, even though he talks about lime blossom tisane, not lavender. Close enough.).

I've been taking a break from book blogging because I was tired of feeling forced to read all the right books that everyone else was raving about. Sometimes it's nice to be challenged to read something new and different, but personally, I have to feel free to read whatever I want, whenever I want, and to not feel guilty about being myself when I read.

Last year I read a lot of fantasy, for teens, adults, and kids, including four different takes on the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale (my favourite is Beauty by Robin McKinley), and I went back to The Lord of the Rings because I loved The Hobbit movie. I also read some adorable kids books, like The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (the third in the Penderwicks series, which are about four sisters and are the absolute BEST, so read them if you want modern-day Little Women homages and general nostalgic the bestness). I also read lots of my lovely Jane Austen, as usual, and more Georgette Heyer. What I didn't do was force myself to read a ton of books I wasn't completely into. I didn't even finish 50 books last year! I just felt sick of putting so much pressure on myself over something that's supposed to be a fun, relaxing hobby.

One thing about my reading style is that I start a lot of books that I just don't finish. I have tried to resolve that I will finish more books, but if I'm not in the mood for them, then it's just not going to happen. I started Little Dorrit last year in the fall (at a very stressful family wedding out in the Maritimes--I finally got to see the Anne of Green Gables museum and all that at Prince Edward Island, but my husband wasn't able to come with me and there were crazy family times) and had to take a break from it because it was making me too depressed. I picked it up again this year, but the same thing happened. Will I ever finish it? Who knows, hopefully, but I'm not going to push myself. Part of the reason is because I already have depression and don't need what I do for fun to make me feel worse. I want to read to feel better. Other people have different motives for reading and that's good too, but I no longer want to feel pressured into copying whatever everyone else is doing.

In the past, I've read the entire Twilight series because I enjoyed it. I've also read the entirely of In Search of Lost Time, also because I enjoyed it. I love variety in my reading, as long as it's something I chose and that I'm enjoying.

Anyway, now that that reading manifesto or rant is out of the way... I'm currently rereading Mansfield Park. I love Fanny even if she's not the most exciting Austen heroine (I'm very fond of all of them and can relate in different ways to all of them too), but I find it hard to read about her struggles with Mrs. Norris and the like because I've also been super shy and overlooked or looked down on and didn't always know how to speak up for myself. I've never been a big fan of the Crawfords, although it varies with each reading how more or less sympathetic I feel towards Henry Crawford.

When I read it last year, I felt bad that Edmund couldn't see Fanny's beauty sooner, as Henry Crawford does. I wanted Fanny to be with someone who loved her passionately, like Henry does. But this time, all I see is how selfish Henry's love is. He's all excited that he's going to raise poor little nobody Fanny to a position of importance due to his power and of course she will be eternally grateful to him and since she's so gentle she'll never have her own opinions but always do whatever he wants, blah blah. He never stops to consider if she actually loves him or if he's worthy of someone as good as she is, he simply assumes that because he's rich and charming she'll be thrilled. Mr. Darcy also assumed that Elizabeth would jump at him for his money and whatever else (certainly not his charm), but when she proved him wrong, he went out and CHANGED for the better. He didn't try to manipulate her, he actually listened to her and became a better person because of her. 

(Sidenote, I've been watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on youtube and very much enjoying them, although I hate waiting for the next one! I don't know if other book bloggers are watching them, but hopefully some are so we can talk about it!)

So I am reading Mansfield Park slowly, because I have to stop to feel sad for Fanny and worry about the next drama coming her way via Mrs. Norris and the Crawfords, whether it's an unwanted and pressured marriage proposal or a difficult day out cutting roses in the sun! I'm sensitive enough that a lot of conflict in books gives me grief. I also enjoy just savouring Jane Austen's writing and not rushing through it. There are other books I want to read after this, but I like taking my time to really live in Austen's world.

I read Pride & Prejudice before this (due to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the 200th anniversary of P&P) and also read it slowly. The language and dialogue of Pride & Prejudice especially is so familiar to me, so iconic, that I didn't want to just rush through it and only enjoy the wit on the surface, I wanted to see beneath to the real characters and their motivations. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries really helped me to see the story in a fresh light, when sometimes in the past it's felt a little stale to me, and I was intrigued by the story of Elizabeth and Darcy and seeing them not just in a romantic light, where all their fights are ooh so sexy, but looking at them as people still growing up and finding themselves and how they influence each other and change each other.

Well, I think this is enough for now. I don't know how often I will write here in the future and I certainly don't plan on getting involved in reading challenges and whatnot, I just wanted a place to share some of my thoughts about the books I read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Strolling on a Sunday

Hopefully this will be a short stroll today, but we'll see what happens.

For starters, despite my complaints about Anna Karenina in my last post, after I wrote my review of it, I began rethinking it and also Tolstoy's view of spirituality in the final chapters. Despite my complaints about how Tolstoy portrays women (and how he treated his own wife at times, see a bit of Sophie Tolstoy's diary quoted by Danielle at A Work in Progress here), I must admit that I began to contemplate exploring my own spirituality again.

Those who have been following my come-and-go attempts at book blogging for the last few years may know that I grew up in a very strict charismatic (you'd think that was an oxymoron, but no) Christian home, where I felt pressure and guilt all the time to be the perfect little christian girl and also experienced physical and emotional abuse from my mother for not being perfect enough. Eventually in university, I ended up in a huge depression and was very close to a suicide attempt because I'd pushed myself way too hard to be that perfect christian girl, without allowing myself any space just to be myself and enjoy life without judging myself all the time. So since then while I've been muddling my way through trying to get out of depression, I became very bitter towards christianity.

And oddly, Tolstoy's simplified approach to Christianity (he didn't believe in miracles, thank goodness, since I'm sick of excessively showy displays of faith healing and that sort of thing, which is what I grew up on. He also didn't like smug religious people who thought they had it all worked out either.) was the first time in a while that I found it appealing. Tolstoy was far from perfect, but he tried very hard to live for something more than himself, to do better than the average aristocrat of his day. I began to consider that the point of Christianity is not about trying to be self-centeredly perfect on your own (Tolstoy's failures were also about his ego getting in the way too much, I think. Despite his faith, he was terrified of death, of the cessation of his all-important self. Realizing that about him helped me see that in the past I'd also been trying to go about it in the wrong way, to impress God with my goodness), it is about accepting grace and love in the midst of failure.

I don't intend to become extreme with my faith anymore, since for me, that way leads to depression. I've been quietly thinking these things through for about a week now, looking for books to inspire and encourage me on this new path (the first thing I do whenever I have a new interest is head to the library!) and trying to be gentle with myself in the midst of these changes. So I'm happy for an inner spring renewal just as it's starting to warm up outside and have had some lovely walks this week, full of fresh spring air.

As for what I've been reading, Ana's review (at things mean a lot) of Geek Girls Unite by Leslie Simon intrigued me, so I zipped through it last Sunday afternoon. As she says, it's more written in a magazine style for teens who are trying to figure out where they fit in geekdom and to be supportive of any sort of geeky (she defines this as being passionate about any specific thing) interests. That said, it's not without its flaws -- for one, I'm a literary geek, but I've never longed for my husband to look more like Jonathan Safran Foer! And I far prefer 19th century chunksters to contemporary hipstery writers like Foer or David Eggers, etc etc. Actually, the all-too-brief history she gave of women in writing left me appalled -- she completely skipping over THE BRONTES, GEORGE ELIOT, and other amazing women writers of the 19th century that writers today are still only a pale copy of, and jumped straight to the 20th century and the likes of Dorothy Parker (who's not bad, but she's no Charlotte, Emily, or Anne!), saying something like, well there wasn't really much going in with women writers before.... Excuse me??? British women writers of the 19th century were amazing! She does give Jane Austen a consolation prize/mention later on, so that was covered, but honestly. I'd rather read Jane Eyre and Middlemarch over The Bell Jar any day. For one thing, those women made their own happy endings, despite their lack of Sylvia Plath's more privileged education.

And overall, for a book supposedly about geeks, it had a lot of rather hipstery recommendations going on, especially in the movie, music, and book sections. The point of being geeky is not to become cool, it's just to like what you like. You like musical theatre or ancient history, great. Be passionate about that and who cares if you like the right kinds of art, like Wes Anderson movies and music by Patti Smith.

I do like this book for reminding me that at times I've tried too hard to be cool to impress literary book snobs, etc, and forgot to keep in touch with what I actually like. And at other times, my strict religious approach to life led me to throw out geeky things I really loved. I think that because I denied who I really was at those times, I now have a harder time remembering what it is I really love now. So I've now made a list of things that I've been passionate about over the years to re-explore some of them and rediscover my passion again and I don't intend to abandon those interests (and ultimately myself) anymore. I've gone back to listening to the christian group Jars of Clay since I used to like them in my teens, but I also see a lot of spirituality and meaning in Harry Potter too. So it's all a balance.

And I also just finished reading A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz today. Claire's review (at The Captive Reader) of it last year got me interested and I finally got it out from the library in February. I actually read most of it then and it was what prompted me to go back to Tolstoy in the front place. For starters, I loved it, it's such an insightful look into what Austen had to say about life and how we can constantly learn something new from the everyday of our regular lives. There were so many good ideas there, about learning to grow in love, instead of fall in love (from Sense & Sensibility) and learning how to grow up and take responsibility for your actions, but also to stay young and open and curious in your approach to life (Northanger Abbey). His focus on what you can learn from Jane Austen helped me to go into Tolstoy with the same approach, with ultimately good results. I could say more, but since most of the book isn't fresh in my mind anymore and since this has been long enough already, this is going to be it for now!

As to what I'm reading next... after realizing that there don't seem to be that many christian authors who just write really well (if anyone can think of any, please recommend them! As it is I will probably rely mostly on my 19th century favourites who were also christians in their own varied ways, aka, Austen, Gaskell, Bronte, Tolstoy, the usual suspects. I may also reread the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books the next time I get into fantasy again. There is also Madeleine L'Engle and since I love A Wrinkle in Time and reread it for comfort just late last year, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of her books), I thought I'd do an experiment. I was going to put this off until next year, but I decided that if the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of War & Peace was on the shelf at my local library when I went there yesterday, then I'd read it this year. And there it was. So obviously I am still more than a little bit into Tolstoy! I also found Gilead by Marilynne Robinson on the shelf and since Rachel recommended that to me a while back, I'm giving it a go too and really enjoying it.

And yet again, another long post/stroll. Oh well, off to enjoy a book and a walk on this beautiful spring day.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reflections on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

So I finally finished Anna Karenina last night, but I'm not quite sure how to review it. There's so much I could say that it seems overwhelming. First off, despite my previous post, I ended up not liking as much as I did from my first reading of it three and a half years ago. (Side note: the painting below is titled Portrait of Princess Yekaterina Alekseyevna Vasilchikova by Ivan Kramskoy, 1867, Russia. And also note, there may be a few spoilers here, although nothing that doesn't relate to a basic discussion of the plot.)

The main problem is that although Anna Karenina is billed as a romance and titled for a woman who should be the main character, it is also very much a 'state of the nation' novel and I would say much more about Tolstoy's alter-ego character Levin than Anna herself. The nation under discussion throughout the book is of course Russia in the 1870s (the copious endnotes in the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation helped me to make sense of all the issues being discussed; since I'd originally read it in the Constance Garnett translation without notes, I think I missed a lot of the political meanings in the book the first time), and Levin's many (increasingly tedious) discussions with other men throughout the book on politics, religion, farming (yes, Russian farming in a book supposedly all about romance! See what I mean -- it's been misleadingly categorized!), art, etc, develop many of Tolstoy's own ideas about every topic he thinks is worth writing about. Meanwhile, while he does sometimes write perceptively from the point of view three main female characters (the adulterous Anna herself, plus Levin's pretty, good, and slightly bland wife Kitty, and Kitty's child-burdened sister Dolly), they do not get nearly as much page time as the men, especially Levin.

I know Levin has his fans (for some reason) and at the beginning of the book, I too could empathize with him. He takes delight in working on his country estates with the peasants (called muzhiks, who were formerly serfs until they were freed in 1861, just ten years or so before the action of the story) and it was refreshing to read about his love of nature and working in the country. I grew up on a farm, so I could appreciate that. But during one of several hunting scenes, I began to get impatient. The hunting scene had no real important purpose in the story, it was probably simply there because Tolstoy himself enjoyed hunting (despite also being a vegetarian and against violence at some point in his life...). And that is the problem with the character of Levin: obviously Tolstoy thinks he's endlessly fascinating, because he gets to share all his (Tolstoy's) own endlessly fascinating thoughts about everything! But I'm not interested, especially since Levin is often awkward in society and never seems to catch on to what everyone else is talking about, but spends most of his time criticizing them. Levin often seems child-like, he's willing to admit he doesn't get things instead of just pretending to be as clever as everyone else, and I don't have that kind of social courage to act like that myself, so perhaps all of his constant social embarrassments just made me wish he would at least pretend a little more to be normal and get along.

Levin seems to be an excessively didactic character, there only to act as a mouthpiece for all of Tolstoy's views about every issue in Russia at the time. I wish Tolstoy could have separated out all of those long, boring male-dominated conversations about politics and 'big issues' out of the novel, put them in some kind of ranting pamphlet and left the actual story alone for readers to enjoy without all the sermonizing! Instead, every time any group of men get together, they begin discussing some current event and then Levin has to argue with them and angst over it afterwards, and it doesn't serve the story at all, in my opinion. (I'm sure others, most likely those who share more of Tolstoy's views, would disagree with me.)

The other main character, Anna Karenina, is not entirely sympathetic to me either. The first time I read the book, I was fascinated by her and this was why I considered it something of a favourite. Anna is beautiful, charming, and intelligent, but on this read I've noticed that her main flaw seems to be selfishness. She also deliberately turns a blind eye to reality, literally narrowing her eyes to life so that she can pretend not to see how her own actions affect her, perhaps so she can go on blaming all of her problems on others. Of course Tolstoy means her story to be an object lesson in what happens to women who behave badly and rebel against the conventions of society; although supposedly he found some sympathy for her as he went along, it doesn't save her from her tragic fate.

In contrast, her brother Stiva (Dolly's husband), who also sleeps around, is forgiven by his wife and why? Because women don't have control or power in their relationships. Dolly is devastated that she's worn out from bearing all his children, while he's still able to dress up and live it up like a bachelor. She's no longer attractive to him from having so many children, and yet she's supposed to forgive him and carry on, in part because she simply has no money to raise five (or more) children on her own. (Although it seems that her husband did marry her in part for her inherited land, but he's the one selling it off to raise money for his own indebted goings-on.) So Stiva is able to happily carry on fooling around throughout the whole novel without much censure, while Anna's adultery in comparison is a massive issue, obviously because she's a woman. (I found out from the book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes that Tolstoy himself slept around a fair amount, often with the peasant women on his own estate! Perhaps even after his marriage...??)

Anyway. There's more I've been thinking about this novel, but I don't know how to put all of it into words. Karenin, Anna's husband, is actually quite a sympathetic and sad character in the end, although initially he comes across as cold and rather heartless. He's sarcastic with Anna just when she's trying not to give in to Vronsky's courting of her, instead of showing her the love and attention she craves. And yet the drama that develops around the threesome of Anna, her lover, and her husband, eventually causes Karenin to crack open and face his emotions, to become a better person, at least for a time. Tolstoy can be heartbreakingly perceptive about all his seven main characters (Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Kitty, Levin, Stiva, Dolly -- all of them tied together in various ways, for example, Vronsky is casually courting Kitty until he meets Anna) and various other more minor characters, but to me, he returns far too often to Levin's (ie, his own) perspective. Yes, Levin cares about others, yes he tries to do good when others are selfish, yes he questions his life and wants to find greater meaning for it, yes his slow romance with Kitty is sweet and touching but but but. There's just too much of his story and it's too day-to-day -- almost as if Anna's scandalous side of the story is simply thrown in there just to make Tolstoy's own regular life and thoughts novel-worthy. It seems slightly too self-indulgent, even if it is considered one of the truly great novels.

Despite all this criticism, obviously I did read the whole thing and twice at that, so there are some truly great scenes in it. There's the ball where Anna and Vronsky first dance together, shown tellingly from Kitty's perspective, with her heart sinking as she realizes Vronsky no longer cares for her. There's Levin and Kitty skating together in Moscow and their friendship and yet awkwardness together. There's the night-time train ride with Anna trying to read a novel (someone has suggested it's by Trollope) and not able to stop thinking about Vronsky and then meeting him at a train station at night in the country, with the snow swirling all around them. There's Vronsky's big horse race. There's even Levin mowing at harvest time with the peasants, which has a quiet peacefulness and grandeur of its own. There are truly many great and genuinely entertaining parts in this novel. I don't even mind the very spiritual ending of the book, with Levin finally coming to some sort of religious epiphany. I just wish the story was more tightly focused on the seven main characters, instead of Tolstoy trying to throw in solutions to all the ills of late 19th century Russia at once. Admittedly, given that it's Russia, there seem to have been some major ills going on! But given that the book is supposedly focused around the topic of the importance of the family (as the introduction in my edition states) and how the various families of the main characters function or fail to function, that should have been enough of a topic to go on.

Perhaps the political element was more relevant when it was first published, as novels about 9/11 or what-have-you are now. Maybe including these elements that seem so pertinent at the time dates a novel too much? Jane Austen famously didn't even reference the Napoleonic Wars in her books, and yet she is read with great pleasure today for her still relevant character studies. She tried not to include references to ideas or objects that would date her books and they have a timeless quality to them still, two hundred years later. I do love some of Tolstoy's period specific details though, like how he describes Anna and Kitty's clothes at the ball (which is why I included the painting above, it makes me think of Anna). So I will end with my favourite description of clothes in all literature, written by the excessively moralistic Tolstoy of all people!
 Though Kitty’s toilette, coiffure and all the preparations for the ball had cost her a good deal of trouble and planning, she was now entering the ballroom, in her intricate tulle gown over a pink underskirt, as freely and simply as if all these rosettes and laces, and all the details of her toilette, had not cost her and her household a moment’s attention, as if she had been born in this tulle and lace, with this tall coiffure, topped by a rose with two leaves.

… Kitty was having one of her happy days. Her dress was not tight anywhere, the lace bertha stayed in place, the rosettes did not get crumpled or come off; the pink shoes with high, curved heels did not pinch, but delighted her little feet. The thick braids of blond hair held to her little head like her own. All three buttons on her long gloves, which fitted but did not change the shape of her arms, fastened without coming off. The black velvet ribbon of her locket encircled her neck with particular tenderness. This velvet ribbon was enchanting, and at home, as she looked at her neck in the mirror, she felt it could almost speak. All the rest might be doubted, but the ribbon was enchanting. Kitty also smiled here at the ball as she glanced at it in the mirror. In her bare shoulders and arms she felt a cold, marble-like quality that she especially liked. Her eyes shone, and her red lips could not help smiling from the sense of her own attractiveness.
And then girlish Kitty, who assumes she's the belle of the ball, encounters Anna, whom she expects to have dressed in the clothes of a matron (the colour lilac), but is instead more of a 19th century femme fatale...
Anna was not in lilac, as Kitty had absolutely wanted, but in a low-cut black velvet dress, which revealed her full shoulders and bosom, as if shaped from old ivory, and her rounded arms with their very small, slender hands. The dress was all trimmed with Venetian guipure lace. On her head, in her black hair, her own without admixture, was a small garland of pansies, and there was another on her black ribbon sash among the white lace. Her coiffure was inconspicuous. Conspicuous were only those wilful little ringlets of curly hair that adorned her, always coming out on her nape and temples. Around her firm, shapely neck was a string of pearls.

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had imagined her inevitably in lilac. But now, seeing her in black, she felt that she had never understood all her loveliness. She saw her now in a completely new and, for her, unexpected way. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, that her loveliness consisted precisely in always standing out from what she wore, that what she wore was never seen on her. And the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen — simple, natural, graceful, and at the same time gay and animated.

... She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment.
 The contrast between the two women in this scene, merely through their clothes, is wonderfully done and I often think of it with pleasure. So there you have it, the highs and lows of my experiences in reading Tolstoy.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Anna Karenina & Anna Akhmatova

Just a quick update on my reading over the past week. I tried to finish The Age of Innocence, but wasn't really into it anymore, so I went for the book that was really calling me: Anna Karenina. I've read over half of it now in my week off school and I'm loving it even more than I did the first time I read it almost four years ago. Yesterday I finally had to buy my own copy of the Richard Pevear & Larissa Volkhonsky translation, since I was reading a library copy before and it's such a beautiful book that I needed my own copy! Along the way, I couldn't resist getting Pevear & Volkhonsky's new collection of The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories also by Tolstoy (here's an interview on The Millions with P&V after that book came out) and some of Chekhov's short stories too. (The bookstore was having a sale and I'm wanting to read more Russian literature now, so I couldn't resist.)

I must admit, I was suspicious of Tolstoy before because he had some very wacky ideas on how to run his personal life (like attempts at post-marital chastity and always reading his wife's journals and getting her to read his), but his writing has won me over at last. The last time I read the book, I was a fan of Anna, but found Levin (Tolstoy's alter-ego -- much like a Woody Allen movie, Tolstoy keeps inserting himself and all of his doubts, questions, and insecurities about life into the narrative) to be a bore. This time, however, I am liking Levin and his search for a meaningful life a whole lot more. Maybe because I am slightly older myself on this reread and am wanting more out of life than Anna's simple passion. I found the introduction Richard Pevear writes to be helpful in understanding Tolstoy and the novel itself better, as well as Harold Bloom's chapter on Tolstoy in his book The Western Canon.

I love the simple pleasure Levin finds in nature, while he's farming and hunting (the very parts that bored me before!). Reading this book has increased my own pleasure in walking through the snow that continues to fall here on the Canadian prairie, which after all, isn't that different from the landscape of Russia. Reading Tolstoy is like climbing a mountain and breathing the fresh, pure, bracing mountain air as you ascend. There's very little like it, hence my interest in reading more Tolstoy (I intend to get all the way through War & Peace at some point, but his shorter stories might be easier to go to next) and in exploring more Russian literature in general. I'm also curious about Russian history, since although Canadian students do learn a bit about it in school, I don't remember many specifics. Russia seems to be such a huge country of contrasts, with such a tragic and haunting past, that I am eager to learn more about it. To me, Britain is cosy and France is fashionable, but there is something else about Russia, something beyond either of those things. Something beautiful and mysterious maybe (as Levin thinks of Kitty's life), something about the Russian soul. Even the Russian names seem beautiful, although I still trip over them almost every time!

I've also been reading some poetry by Anna Akhmatova, who began writing before the Russian Revolution and had to carry her poems around in secret in the Soviet era.

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.