Book Review, “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating:
5 of 5 stars

Anna Karenina
is widely considered to be one of the top novels of all time, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. There are aspects of this book’s greatness, however, that keep bringing me back to it every few years. As I get older, I see more and more amazing insights into human nature in this book than I ever noticed before. Tolstoy tells us, without telling us, that we should serve others, go deeper, and travel further in, and we leave his novel wanting these things for ourselves.

Here we see two all-time great personalities with incredible depth, Anna Karenina and Kostya Levin and eagerly follow their lives. Many other interesting characters live inside these pages, but in general they exist to shine more light upon the two major ones. Sadly, the reader isn’t aware for much of the novel that one character is on the ascent and the other is descending. Both are very sympathetic and engaging in very different ways.

Themes that this book undertakes that might have been unpopular at the time of writing abound. One major theme is that of the loosening of restrictions on the common class, the rural peasants who were enslaved serfs not too long in the memory of the characters. This change in the social fabric of Russia is seen in clear contrast to the often-frivolous, excessive lives of the urban wealthy elite. Another major theme is that of sanctification versus decline. Sometimes characters who early on appear to have a broad excess of humanity find themselves in a downward spiral just as other characters who struggle to understand themselves and others improve and begin demonstrating goodness and grace to others. As Kostya Levin, an impulsive and argumentative landowner discovered late in the book, “if goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.” This realization is a major breakthrough for Levin, who is struggling mightily to discover his purpose and place.

Throughout the book, it is hard not to adore the character Anna Karenina herself. She reminds one of the classmate in school who was confident and well-liked and didn’t understand or care about why. Anna comes from a lesser background but has easily made a charming path into the acceptance of the nobility. Her ability to be very decisive during challenging times turns into a flaw, though, and her life — unnoticed by anyone — begins to unravel.

This is a long book with incredible amounts of detail. As a writer myself (mediocre at best in comparison to Leo Tolstoy), I found many admirable examples where Tolstoy fits a beautiful, surprising set or event into the story in ways that seem natural and obvious. The book will be challenging, and therefore valuable, to any who struggle with the attachment of too much value to material things. Tolstoy reminds the reader over and over that the elements of one’s life that constitute goodness owe no debt to wealth and possessions.

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Book Review, “Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic of Russian literature, “Fathers and Sons” describes the conflict between generations in a way that may be quite recognizable in our modern era. Bazurov is a talented force of nature who studies medicine and proclaims loudly that he believes in nothing at all, “I look up to heaven only when I want to sneeze.” Arkady is his admiring friend, who probably doesn’t believe nearly as strongly as Bazurov does. Turgenev uses Bazurov as a foil against his believing and eager parents’ generation, some of whom look upon the idea of rejecting all truth and reality rather skeptically, “The fact is that previously they were simply dunces and now they’ve suddenly become nihilists.”

“Fathers and Sons” is written beautifully and economically and provides great depths of knowledge about families, love, heartache, religion, and even the institution and elimination of serfdom in 19th-century Russia. The beauty of Turgenev’s mind is his compassionate treatment of all the generations present and his unwillingness to take a side. This should be exemplary to all writers, but in fact, it infuriated the sophisticated reviewers of his day, much in the same way it would irritate the elite of our day. Because of this even-handedness, however, Turgenev has created a thoughtful and timeless novel that reveals the power of an author who truly loves his characters and their stories, no matter how absurd they may seem.

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Book Review – “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov

Ward No. 6

Ward No. 6 by Anton Chekhov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Ward No. 6, one of Anton Chekhov’s novelas, readers are introduced to the colorful residents of Ward 6, a gloomy facility for the mentally ill attached to a run-down Russian hospital. The patients are diverse and interesting, but the story centers around the doctor in charge of the hospital, Andrei Yefimitch, who comes to the hospital with vision and energy, but is then ground down by the despair of not having resources or abilities to have any real impact. Chekhov’s description of the horrific downfall of this middle-class doctor due to his intellectual conceit and tendencies to idle routine is fascinating. The reader just can’t take their eyes away.

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Book Review, “The Princess and the Goblin” by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin  (Princess Irene and Curdie, #1)

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Irene is the bright and joyous Daughter of the King and lives in a place crawling with the worst sorts of goblins. Amazingly mature for her young years, she is of interest to the goblins for some reason. Two people intervene to protect her life, Curdie, the young son of a miner and her ghostly and powerful great grandmother who lives in the castle, but only Irene knows she’s there.

MacDonald’s works on the Faeries were intended for the entertainment of children, but there is great wisdom buried therein. MacDonald’s depth of learning and indeed, understanding, about the world is on full display, such as when Irene learns from her mysterious grandmother, “We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.′
‘What is that, grandmother?’
‘To understand other people.‘”

The genius of MacDonald is that even when being entertaining, his books constantly whisper to us about the need to humbly respect and seek to understand the others who travel with us.

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Book Review, “The Black Monk” by Anton Chekhov

The Black Monk

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of Chekhov’s novelas, The Black Monk explores the contrast between “the mania of greatness”, or what we today might call grandiosity or even narcissism, and the joy that comes from selfless devotion to one’s work and family. Kovrin receives a visit from the Black Monk, a vision from the distant past, who tells Kovrin that he is one of the great and is highly favored by God. This becomes an obsession and the Black Monk’s visits become more frequent. Kovrin’s new wife and father-in-law suffer as Kovrin’s madness is discovered and treated and Kovrin sinks into a sort of bitter depression. “How happy were Buddha, Mohammed, and Shakespeare, that their relations and doctors did not try to cure them of their ecstasies and inspirations!” Kovid relays to his well-meaning and shattered family.
The Black Monk is a very thoughtful exploration of the individual and society and has much value in our current age where self-centered individualism is often celebrated.

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