Sunday, May 23, 2010

Anna Karenina Read Along: Part Four

Mari at Bookworm with a View is hosting a Read Along of Anna Karenina.  We are reading one of the novel's eight parts each month.  Here are the links to my thoughts on Parts One, Two and Three.

Mari has posted discussion questions for Part Four on her site.  Feel free to jump in with us and participate in the Read Along!

Part Four Synopsis (Wikipedia):
Anna continues to pursue her affair with Vronsky. Karenin begins to find the situation intolerable. He talks with a lawyer about obtaining a divorce. In Russia at that time, divorce could only be requested by the innocent party in an affair, and required either that the guilty party confessed (which would ruin Anna's position in society) or that the guilty party was discovered in the act. Karenin forces Anna to give him some letters written to her by Vronsky as proof of the affair. However, Anna's brother Stiva argues against it and persuades Karenin to speak with Dolly first.

Dolly broaches the subject with Karenin and asks him to reconsider his plans to divorce Anna. She seems to be unsuccessful, but Karenin changes his plans after hearing that Anna is dying after a difficult childbirth. At her bedside, Karenin forgives Vronsky. Vronsky, embarrassed by Karenin's magnanimity, attempts suicide by shooting himself. He fails in his attempt but wounds himself badly.

Anna recovers, having given birth to a daughter, Anna ("Annie"). Although her husband has forgiven her, and has become attached to the new baby, Anna cannot bear living with him. She hears that Vronsky is about to leave for a military posting in Tashkent and becomes desperate. Stiva finds himself pleading to Karenin on her behalf to free her by giving her a divorce. Vronsky is intent on leaving for Tashkent, but changes his mind after seeing Anna.

The couple leave for Europe - leaving behind Anna's son Seryozha - without obtaining a divorce.

Much more straightforward is Stiva's matchmaking with Levin: he arranges a meeting between Levin and Kitty which results in their reconciliation and betrothal.

My Thoughts:
Part Four has allowed me to fall back in love with Anna Karenina.  I love the focus on the relationships and the love story.   I have such a soft spot for Levin and am thrilled that he and Kitty have found each other again.  The dynamics between Anna and her husband are intriguing and I am still trying to come to grips with my feelings about Anna and Vronsky's love.  Having previously hated Karenin, Part Four has shown a new side that has made me like him more - maybe it is the vulnerability that he is showing both in his political and public life, as well as in his marriage.

Discussion Questions (from
1.  Reflect upon Karenin's predicament. He can't easily divorce his wife, yet she has moved beyond the pale of his influence. If he were to handle the situation in a morally upstanding way, what would be his best course of action?

This is such a difficult situation.  I have a hard time not placing a modern solution to this problem, where a divorce would allow both Anna and Karenin to go their separate ways, and Karenin would not be looked down upon for having separated from an adulterous wife.  I think that divorce is still the best option for Karenin, although with his new-found magnanimity in Part Four, he will struggle with this option, because it does not bring he and Anna back together in the most morally acceptable and religiously appropriate solution.

2.  How is Kitty and Levin’s courtship different from the courtship earlier in the novel? I think that both Kitty and Levin have grown up and are willing to share their love for one another.  Kitty has realized her true feelings for Levin, and was not ashamed to ask for his forgiveness.  I was very pleased that they only had to be together again for one evening to know that they should never be apart again.

3.  At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Anna has a very close bond with her son Seryozha. Talk about what it means for her to leave him in order to be with Vronsky.
In my opinion, Anna must be sacrificing everything for Vronsky by leaving Seryozha behind.  As a mother, it seems a selfish act to choose a lover over a child, without even mention of a fight to keep him.  I think in Part Four we see Anna at her very bottom.  She is annoyed and disgusted by her husband and she is willing to give up her son in order to be away from him.  I question her motivation despite her confessed love for Vronsky, I wonder whether he is truly the reason that she is leaving.

Part Five, here we come!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephan Benatar (Spotlight Series)

I am reviewing Wish Her Safe at Home as part of the Spotlight Series tour for the publisher NYRB Classics.  Welcome to those who are stopping by as part of the tour.

Wish Her Safe at Home
by Stephan Benatar
NYRB Classics (January 19, 2010)
280 pages

Source:  Personal Copy

Publisher Synopsis:
Rachel Waring is deliriously happy. Out of nowhere, a great-aunt leaves her a Georgian mansion in another city—and she sheds her old life without delay. Gone is her dull administrative job, her mousy wardrobe, her downer of a roommate. She will live as a woman of leisure, devoted to beauty, creativity, expression, and love. Once installed in her new quarters, Rachel plants a garden, takes up writing, and impresses everyone she meets with her extraordinary optimism. But as Rachel sings and jokes the days away, her new neighbors begin to wonder if she might be taking her transformation just a bit too far.

In Wish Her Safe at Home, Stephen Benatar finds humor and horror in the shifting region between elation and mania. His heroine could be the next-door neighbor of the Beales of Grey Gardens or a sister to Jane Gardam’s oddball protagonists, but she has an ebullient charm all her own.

My Thoughts:
**This review may contain spoilers, however for this book, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing…

Wish Her Safe at Home was a beautifully written story. The character of Rachel Waring was extremely complex and challenged me throughout the entire book. I am normally not a person who wants to know the plot before I read the book, but I felt that it may have assisted me with understanding the novel more fully, had I known just a bit more about where Rachel’s character was headed. Immediately after finishing the book, I want to read it again, with a “if I knew then what I know now” perspective.

As the summary shows, Rachel Waring inherited a home from her great aunt. Having never lived on her own before Rachel saw the possibility of infinite adventures to be had from the inheritance. She spent all of her time creating her perfect home, and the friendship she made with the young boy who created her garden was one that lasted through the rest of the novel.

Rachel’s character was interesting. I first thought that she was extremely eccentric, but came to learn (later than I wanted to) that she was slowly losing her mind. Her interactions with people around her were often humorous, however some of the conversations and scenes were frustrating and almost uncomfortable. I found myself confused during parts of the story. Rachel had a very active imagination and the book often walked through her imagined conversations with others. Near the end of the story, having always assumed that she wasn’t really speaking out loud to the people she was with, I began to wonder whether she was in fact saying the things, instead of just keeping her thoughts to herself.

The development of her love for Horatio was also unique. She went from simply looking to learn more about his history related to her home, to purchasing a painting of him, to eventually thinking herself married to him and expecting his child. The slow evolution of this relationship brought Rachel from being just eccentric, to odd, and eventually to crazy.

I am so happy that I chose this book as part of the Spotlight Series, and I do fully intend to read it again. The writing was beautiful and Stephan Benatar eloquently captured the mind and soul of Rachel. The book was set in the 1980’s, however only minimal references gave away this time period - it could easily have been an early nineteenth century novel in both style and story. Though a truly unique and challenging read, I highly recommend the book to lovers of fiction.

About the Spotlight Series:
The Spotlight Series is designed to "spread the word on quality books published by small press publishers all across the blogiverse." [more]

About NYRB Classics: 
The NYRB Classics series is designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life. [more]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
by Wendy Burden
Penguin Group (April 1, 2010)
288 pages

Source:  Review Copy received from publisher as part of the Spring Reading Series hosted by Lisa at Books on the Brain.

Synopsis from the Author's Website:
For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy's birth, the Burdens had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink.  In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

My Thoughts:
Dead End Gene Pool was very entertaining.  It was an interesting glimpse into the world of the very rich, and I especially enjoyed the perspective that author Wendy Burden was able to show of her young life in these surroundings.  The explanations of the strange personalities of the author's family were outrageous.  Burden has quite a talent for speaking of her family with humor, despite the overt craziness of the bunch that could have turned her into a bitter person.

This book is a perfect example of "truth is stranger than fiction."  It is quite remarkable that Burden went on to be as successful as she is, and that she managed to avoid the addictions that many members of her family suffered.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the book that showed how Burden's family interacted with others outside of their family.  The scene where Burden and her brother would go out to shake their butts at onlookers sailing by their grandparents' Maine mansion were hilarious.  I think that it was a very funny way of coping with growing up in a bit of a fish bowl.  Burden also spoke a bit about how the hired help took care of the family and how the family took care of them into old age.  It was good that Wendy and her brothers had some of these people in their lives to pay attention, when their mother and grandparents were not.

There was enough history mingled into the book to make it just that much more interesting for me.  I liked Dead End Gene Pool very much, and feel like I was given a bit of a peek into a world that I didn't know much about.  I recommend this book to lovers of memoirs, especially memoirs where the author (fortunately) does not take themselves too seriously.

Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell
Signet Classics (January 1950)
328 pages

Source:  Personal Copy, Audio

Goodreads Product Description:
Portrays a terrifying vision of life in the future when a totalitarian government, considered a "Negative Utopia," watches over all citizens and directs all activities, becoming more powerful as time goes by.

My Thoughts:
So how have I made it this far in life without reading this book?  After finally taking the opportunity to finish it, I wonder how I made it through high school and through a Political Science degree without having read Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

I chose to purchase this book on audio and loved the narration.  I felt as if I could feel Winston's thoughts as he made a journey to question the life that he was living and question "the party."  This book reaffirmed my love for the freedoms that I enjoy in so many different ways - the freedom to love, to travel, to have a family and friends, to ask questions, to write and acknowledge my feelings, to READ!  This world that Orwell created, and described in such realistic detail, was a nightmare and was in such contradiction to the democratic freedoms that I know.

I think that what struck me the most was the love affair that Winston shared with Julia.  That it was forbidden was horrible, but the lengths that they had to go to be together and to hide their relationship was astounding. Winston risked everything to trust Julia, and he did so with full force, with everything that he had. 

The optimist in me hoped for an overthrow of this world that was described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  I wanted the characters to experience the world  that I live in, because the alternative that was presented was so unspeakable.  This novel was amazing for its ability to make me appreciate what I have, to describe something so very opposite to what I know.

I hope that everyone has an opportunity to read it and is able to appreciate their reality just a little more, because they have received a little glimpse of Orwell's alternative.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Trout Lake Media (Oct. 16, 2009)
Source:  Personal Copy (Audio) Description:
In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write "something new--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned." That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author's generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's--and his country's--most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning--" Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

It's also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means--and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel's more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.

My Thoughts:
The Great Gatsby was one of the books that I read in high school that I have been meaning to re-read, in an attempt to see whether it would mean more to me when I was older, than it did when I was young and easily bored.  I took an opportunity to download an expensive audio version of The Great Gatsby, and count this as my renewed experience with the book.
In my mind the book is still OK.  I agree that it shows countless flaws in the the character's pursuit of the American dream.  I'm not sure which errors in judgement were more pronounced in this story - trying to solve problems and win love through money, or the acts of infidelity themselves. 

I was left wondering what I would have thought if I had been in the position of the narrator Nick Carraway.  It seemed as if he moved to West Egg only to find himself in the middle of the affairs of Daisy and Tom Buchanan and then unexpectedly he became the confidant of J. Gatsby.  How strange it would have been to be expecting to start a new career and life, and to be caught up in so much drama.
In all, I enjoyed the story and I am glad that I took the opportunity read this classic again.