Friday, September 25, 2009

Anna Karenina: The Official Haiku Review

Finally! After three renewals, six weeks, and 850-plus pages, I have managed to finish reading Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina. It didn't take so long because I thought it was boring; it took so long because I've been very very busy. Anyway, let's get to the haiku review:

Poor Anna; she found
passion, but could have used more
mundane happiness

As the title suggests, Anna Karenina is a main focus of the novel; but the first sentence hints that she is only part of a wider story: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Besides Anna's family, which includes her boring, passionless husband and her son, there is the family of her brother Stiva, a spendthrift who cheats on his wife Dolly; Dolly's sister Kitty, who rejects the honest earnestness of Levin for the pretty face of Count Vronsky; Levin the farmer and his tubercular brother; and Vronsky and his class-conscious mother. When Anna meets Vronsky and they fall into passionate, obsessive love, it sets in motion several plot threads that end in both happiness and despair.

Anna's story is the tragic one; she finds real love and passion with Vronsky, but can never be satisfied after consummating the relationship. She becomes pregnant, the affair becomes public, and she must choose between giving up her son or giving up her lover. She chooses the former, but cannot feel at ease: she misses her son, and cannot bond with her new daughter because of it; she cannot marry Vronsky because her husband will not give her a divorce; she cannot go out in public because she has been made a pariah; and as a result she cannot stop worrying that Vronsky will abandon her and she will be left with nothing. Her anxieties eat at her, poison her relationship with Vronsky, and ultimately lead to her destruction.

This is all set in contrast with Levin's journey, and I would argue that Levin is really the main character of the novel, with Anna serving mostly as contrast and object lesson. Levin is of the nobility, but makes his living farming and is always seeking ways to improve things—not just for his own profit, but for those who work for them. He is a man of deep and sometimes contrary thoughts, which we see laid out in great detail as he considers farming, Russian politics, religion, and love. After Vronsky's affair with Anna, Kitty reconsiders Levin's suit and eventually marries him. This brings Levin great joy and great pain, as he must fight his jealous impulses and learn to be a good husband. In the eighth and final part of the book (in which Anna does not appear, as she met her end in Part Seven), we see Levin enjoying the mundane happiness of family life, appreciating his new son, and discovering his faith. Levin seems to be a stand-in for Tolstoy, who wrote about religious struggles of his own, and it's hard not find Levin the book's hero as he concludes that his discovery of faith may not change his character, but now "my whole life, regardles of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!"

One last note on Anna Karenina: yes, it's very long. Yes, it's filled with details about farming, Russian politics, social movements, and religious musings. But unlike Melville in Moby Dick, Tolstoy knows how to make these interesting. We consider all these topics through the eyes and mind of Levin, who is continually struggling to make sense of the world. Where Melville's narrator gives us endless lists about whale parts, Tolstoy's Levin considers what new farming techniques mean to him as a landowner, an employer, even a human being. Anna Karenina has the quality of good historical fiction, where the details transport us into another world and another life, rather than bore us into a stupor.

So, you might have noticed it's now the fall. So much for my good intentions of reading lots of foreign-language classics for this summer's Remedial Lit Project. All those French classics will have to wait until next summer. I'm going to take a few weeks to read just for fun (I've also spent the last six weeks reading biographies for work), and then I'll bring back Janespotting. The library just ordered a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (!), and then I think I'm moving on to Northanger Abbey and its offspring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I don't care what the calendar says...

... when I look at recent additions to my garden, I think it's still summer! Last year I planted a white climbing rose, and this spring a pink one:

The white rose didn't do a whole lot last year, but this year it's thriving and spreading beautiful blossoms all over the side of the garage. The scent is sweet, but even nicer are the beautiful buds, which start out a lovely blush peach before turning white. When the pink climber gets going next spring, it's going to look incredible.

Not long after we returned from England in 2002, I dug up little beds along each side of our garage, so that I could plant bulbs and annuals. The bulbs never did well; between bunnies and our very clay-ey soil, they were doomed. But I've tried different annuals over the years. I did begonias a few times, and they spread very nicely. They're not very bright plants, though, so last year I tried red and white salvia. Those were bright enough, but they didn't spread very well. I didn't want to try impatiens because they are so prevalent, and I worried they might not do well in an area with so much sun. So I tried vinca, aka periwinkle, and we have a winner! Look how many blooms and how much color I have after a few months!

So although fall is my favorite season, and I prefer cooler weather, I'm going to dig my fingernails in and try to hold onto summer a little longer this year.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Photo of the Week--9/21/09

Here we have the first in our ongoing series, "Boy Terrorizes the Pigeons of Europe." This was our first major trip, a week in Italy with my parents and my paternal grandmother. (Her first trip to Europe, taken at age 79!) The six of us flew into Florence, where this photo was taken, and then after a few days took the train to Rome. Boy was pretty portable then; we could get a couple of quiet hours in a museum by promising a trip to the gelateria (ice cream store) afterwards, and by pointing out all the naked people in the pictures. When you're almost five years old, that's a sure giggle. And this photo, taken in front of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, includes a copy of Michaelangelo's "Naked David," as we liked to refer to it. Bonus! So Boy was in a pretty good mood and cooperated for this shot, where he's giving those fat pigeons some exercise.