Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy Review

Happy Thanksgiving to all my bloggers. Is Thanksgiving a strictly American holiday? I never took the time to think about things like that until I became a blogger. What I find particularly perplexing is that the most faithful of my followers aren't American. I've found a way to see the density of viewers in different countries, and thus I've discovered that I seem to have a heavy following in Russia of all places. 

Therefore, I guess it's rather fitting for me to be reviewing Anna Karenina, the novel dwelling on the artificial and hypocritical upper class society of late nineteenth century Russia. Usually I have some highly personal or consequential story behind picking up a novel, but Anna Karenina came by mere chance. I closed my eyes, ran my fingers up and down the school reading list a few times, and it just so happened to land there. Finding that it didn't strike my interest enough to buy a fresh one from Barnes and Noble, I picked up a tattered copy from my school library and groaned, mentally cursing myself for choosing a 900 page book when I was expected to do a chapter-by-chapter summary. However, bracing myself, I delved into Leo Tolstoy's world of Russian royalty and nobility, filled with sexual, intellectual, and religious chaos.

Anna Karenina, despite its name, does not merely focus on the repressed and entrapped housewife of a Russian aristocrat, but is instead one of those entrancing novels that ties together the stories of many characters in various situations. Anna is drawn from her wealthy husband in St. Petersburg to Moscow to assist in the marital troubles of her brother, Stiva, who has been unfaithful to his hardworking wife and is now seeking to rescue his family. Around the same time, Kostya, an unreligious country intellectual, arrives in the same city to propose to the younger sister of Stiva's wife. Meanwhile, Stiva goes to the train station to pick up Anna who has been traveling with the mother of Vronsky, whom Kitty (the girl Kostya is proposing to) is in love with. (Are you starting to see what I mean about the intentional connections between characters?)

In the midst of this blur of relations, impressively long names, assorted shortened titles, and strange coincidences, Anna and Vronsky begin an affair that estranges her from her wealthy husband, Karenin, and wages a war of divorce and child custody issues. The aforementioned obstacles are synonymous with scandal and destruction in Anna's world, and thus she slowly begins to sink. Anna conceives Vronsky's child and he fervently pleads for her to legally divorce her husband and marry him. Unable to bear any stain upon his family name (and bitterly hurt by the blow to his conceit), Karenin refuses to grant a divorce and further stipulates that if Anna leaves him that she must give up seeing the son they had together. In the midst of this, Kostya and Kitty make a life together that begins to intertwine with that of Vronsky and Anna. The novel closes rather suddenly, almost peacefully; the end to a chaotic, brain-wracking, and heart-wrenching tail.

While Anna Karenina is indisputably one of the greatest examples of dictional, syntactical, and linguistic literary excellence, it is a lot to swallow. The book is about 900 pages of calamity so vivid in its description that it at times may dizzy the reader. Anna Karenina is a controversial character whose moral and mental strength is subject to strong debate. The social commentary on nineteenth century high society is evident in her plight. However, it was not Anna's story that I found to be the most captivating piece of the novel, but rather that of Kostya. It is his maturation that I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book, and in many ways I might consider him Anna's foil. While Anna's story is the testament to the social, mental, and emotional degradation that often came as the result of real love, Kostya symbolizes the possibility of doing things right and receiving the "happily ever after."

The book is perplexing, alluring, and even appalling. The great strength in that is that the reader is constantly engaged and always reluctant to tear their eyes away. Yet, there is also something mysteriously forbidden about Anna Karenina, as if you are gluing your eyes to something you should not see or perhaps cannot handle. It is much too heavy for the delicate constitution of a Jane Austen lover, of an entirely different breed than that of Jane Eyre, and its conflicts are much more realistic than those of Wuthering Heights. I might perhaps group it more within the range of Tess of the D'urbervilles. However, as confounding is it is, I would not wish for any devoted literature fanatic to miss out on it. Opinions on the plot and characters may vary, but the beauty of Leo Tolstoy's use of language is undeniable. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte Review

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall fell into my lap shortly after I had read Wuthering Heights. By then, I was hungry for anything "Bronte", hoping that perhaps Charlotte's sisters might reach the heights she had when writing Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights had only disappointed me and left me feeling barren. Jane Eyre had made such a profound mark on my way of reading, my thirst for literature, and my life in general that I felt it impossible to look at any other written piece the same way. So, throwing down Wuthering Heights in frustration, I took another trip to Barnes and Noble and tried the third Bronte sister.

Anne Bronte is often forgotten and pushed into the shadows of Charlotte and Emily. With Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights often vying for first place in the limelight of literature, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Anne's other piece, Agnes Grey are usually forced into the background. Being the youngest child myself, I felt a slight pang of sympathy for Anne when reading the introduction of the book. From that page on, I was somewhat convinced that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would suit me and perhaps even fill the void I felt after having completed Jane Eyre. 

The first fifteen chapters of the novel are told through the first-person eyes of Gilbert Markham, a resident of the local village outside of which Wildfell Hall sits. Gilbert makes a comfortable living and leads a complacent existence, sharing a home with an unspectacular family and courting a charming and conventional village girl. When rumor intimates that Wildfell Hall has been let by a single lady, Ms. Helen Graham, Gilbert's family and several other locals pay their visits while Gilbert himself remains behind.

 Helen is an introverted and rather secretive single mother who leads a solitary life within the Elizabethan walls of Wildfell Hall. The details of who she is and where she came from are rooted in obscurity, and her insistence on concealing them eventually taints her with suspicion. Gilbert hears of his new neighbor only through the talk of others until he finally happens to see her at church. Put off by her glacial and seemingly condescending air, Gilbert makes up his mind not to like her. However, that (of course) does not last long. Gilbert abandons all affection for his former love interest and instead endeavors to pursue the mysterious and strange Ms. Graham, whose character is now under heavy scrutiny. After offering his heart to her, Gilbert is finally admitted to the secrets behind Helen's sudden appearance at Wildfell Hall and the circumstances that hinder him from attaining her. What he finds out might have the potential of ruining her. In a novel filled with feminist views and moral questions, it's hard for the reader not to fall under the spell of Anne Bronte's writing.

After finishing the novel, I was dazed, awed, and, above all, confounded. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is straightforwardly written and yet so heavily laden with emotion. Anne possessed a less romantic view of the world than her sisters (if that's even possible), but her literary skill equaled theirs in every aspect. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is heavy but a sincere joy to read. Though Charlotte's Jane Eyre is often touted as the epitome of the feminist novel, I actually believe that Anne did a much better job of portraying the true extent of suffering in the life of a nineteenth century female. In fact, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is much less a romance than it is a social commentary that plunges the reader into the world of dogmatic male chauvinism. Helen Graham is symbolic of the restrained wife in the 1800s, torn between her social duty and her moral conscience. In her case, neither can be reconciled.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a good follow up for those who wish to find the balance between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and might even be a source of interest to those previously interest in Jane Austen. However, it is also a great choice for those who have yet to become acquainted with the Brontes. The language combines the artistry of poetic prose with the poignant sting of realism and contains just enough conflict to keep the Wuthering Heights fan engaged without throwing the Jane Austen reader into depression. Anne Bronte's balance might have cost her the popularity given to her melodramatic sister's, but her work is much too strong to be completely ignored. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Emma" by Jane Austen Review

I'm completely unable to believe my eyes. Here I was thinking that I had a faithful Bronte following of eighteen, and yet I am commencing to write the review for Emma by Jane Austen. I didn't think I'd see the day when my blog followers would choose Emma over The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yet, that day has come. Despair not, Bronte fans. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will be reviewed next, followed by Anna Karenina. After that, I'll be back to depending on the whims of my fancy. This would also be a nice time to remind you that if you don't pay attention to the poll margin on the right side of my blog, I suggest you start doing so. I take you responses into heavy account, and I always enjoy seeing which way your fancy leans. Often times (such as now) I'm more inclined to follow yours than my own.
Emma is Jane Austen's fourth published novel, and she immediately makes the difference from the others known in the opening line of the first chapter. "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her," Austen quotes. 

Emma Woodhouse isn't a daughter robbed of her fortune and home like Marianne or Elinor Dashwood. She isn't one of five daughters living under the roof of a struggling father and a frivolous mother. She is beautiful, rich, and possesses all the elegances that ensure a comfortable life. And yet, Emma is determined that she will never marry and instead devotes her time to finding husbands for those who don't enjoy her fortunate position. When our heroine looks in the mirror, she sees a successful matchmaker, and when she becomes acquainted with Harriet Smith she is provided the perfect opportunity to put her "skills" to work. 

Taking Harriet's strings in hand, Emma decides to turn her puppet's head towards a local gentleman, Mr Elton. She persuades Harriet to reject the proposal of the infatuated wealthy farmer, Mr. Martin, and pursue Mr. Elton. This decision leads to an unforeseen catastrophe. Emma fails to comprehend that the gentleman's affections are, in fact, for her. The plan results in an obvious failure that proves Emma's devoted friend and inner conscience, Mr. Knightley, correct. But Emma's intrigues don't stop here. The arrival of two new additions to Emma's social circle throws she and those connected to her into a tangled web of mistaken affections, misread signals, and emotional misconceptions that all succeed in strangling the main character. Somewhere in the midst, Emma may have lost the chance of ever being with the man she loves and has perhaps damaged the hearts of those she's trying to help. 

While the plot has its fair share of twists and tonal shifts, altogether I found Emma to be boring and decidedly the least entertaining of Jane Austen's novels. Lizzy Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and Anne Elliot all had financial, emotional, and even physical conflicts to overcome. The aforementioned protagonists each had something to fight for. Emma Woodhouse has nothing. Believing herself to be in the right at all times, she manipulates those around her to secure her own amusement and self-satisfaction. Why? Because she has nothing else to do. She's directly characterized as wealthy, beautiful, and intelligent. In giving life to a character like Emma, Jane Austen failed to do what I personally found to be her best talent. She forgot to create a relatable protagonist. 

The faults don't stop at the protagonist, however. They extend to the plot as a whole. There is an obvious lack of conflict in Emma that makes it hard for any reader to honestly take the novel seriously. Upon its release centuries ago, Emma was criticized for its lack of substance. That same fault still holds true now. It's hard to see reality in Jane Austen novels where characters with distinct faults always attain a happy ending without the least bit of punishment for their failings. All the same, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility are all masterpieces regardless. Emma is incapable of obtaining such a legacy. It might be a favorite to read on a sunny day, but it has not been (and will not be) in the conversation of the greatest pieces of literature. 

I do not mean to be pessimistic, though that may be hard to believe after reading the above criticisms. I merely mean to say that Emma, though it possesses all the irony and wit common to Austen novels, is much too superficial to give the reader any sense of real attachment to the story or its characters. However, there are many in the world who would count this as their favorite novel. Opinions will continued to differ until the world ends. Humans were made with distinct mindsets. It will, therefore, do nothing to read my review and abstain from picking up the novel because of what you've read here. That would hold me somewhat responsible for withholding you from a potential favorite book of yours. I actually insist that you do read Emma and form your own opinion. And once you finish, I'd love to see a comment from you. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen Review

I'm determined to try to juggle school, Nanowrimo authoring, and this blog all at the same time. Thankfully, November is an "easy" month when it comes to school. We literally spend more days out of school (fall break, thanksgiving, etc.) than we do in it. On the other hand, that also means more work assigned to us during off days. Either way, I've found time to continue reading during this hectic schedule.

I'm a strong believer in rereading. I've always had the belief that some things are liable to change though others might remain constant. My love for Jane Eyre is a perpetual and concrete constant. My feelings towards The Scarlet Letter underwent a change after my second reading. There are moments when you feel the rather inexplicable want to read a novel you've already read. Perhaps you're going through a time in your life where you feel like it would help. Maybe something popped out of the blue and just ignited you with the urge to read it again. Who knows?

As you can probably infer from the post title above, I reread Sense and Sensibility for about the third time this past week. It's been a pretty trying time for me. Relationship troubles have been weighing me down and making me feel kind of hopeless, wondering if there's really a happy ending when things seem to be as low as they can get. Cue Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. If anyone knows anything about coping with heartbreak, it would be these two girls.

Sense and Sensibility is another one of Jane Austen's witty and ironic novels, including the predictable plot twist and a mechanically inserted conflict. As you can probably tell, I've always preferred the gothic Brontes over Austen, but I hold this book to be one of Jane Austen's best and would probably even place it ahead of Pride and Prejudice. This novel captures the reality of life better than the rest of her novels. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the stepdaughters of a rich man who is dead almost as soon as one opens the front cover (yes, that's quite a hyperbole). Forced to succumb to the good old tradition of primogeniture, Mr. Dashwood leaves all of his property to his only son, John, the product of his previous marriage. Influenced by a petty and meddling (to say the least) wife, John breaks his promise to his father and leaves his stepmother, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters pretty much penniless. They're also being kicked out of their house and into the gritty world of which they know nothing. Forced to toughen up and face reality, Elinor and Anne witness firsthand the agony of heartbreak, the uneasy task of perseverance, and the lesson of growing up the hard way.

The book is great. The plot is good. However, it is (as is usual with Jane Austen) the characters themselves that steal the show. Their complexities are what make this novel so amusing to the reader. Elinor Dashwood, the eldest, is the stereotypical older sister. Levelheaded, responsible, and reserved, she is used to repressing her emotions in order to appear strong to those around her. With so many people depending on her for stability, she is afraid to show the least bit of vulnerability. Marianne is the exact opposite. The middle girl is often dramatic, romantic, and even impertinent. She is in love with the idea of love and the expressions that come with it; an imaginative and artistic teenager with a passion for music and adventure. In the end, the opposing characteristics of the two will end up being their worst enemies. Elinor experiences the heartbreak of having to see the man she loves be with someone else, and she doesn't possess the courage to speak out and confess her feelings. Marianne throws herself  headlong into a romance without the least bit of caution and her lack of carefulness almost proves to be the end of her.

There comes a time in her life when a girl realizes that she can relate to one (or both) of these characters. Elinor and Marianne aren't just admirable heroines like Lizzy Bennet. They're real people that make the same mistakes in love and have the same flaws. They're you and me. They are a true testament to the idea that love isn't always a fantastic and sappy romance. We don't always end up with the dashing young gentleman because most of the time he isn't all that he's cracked up to be. Sometimes the person you weren't looking for ends up being just the guy to come out of nowhere when you really need him. Love isn't perfect. It's just as influenced and battered by humanity as anything else.

So you probably know my usual conclusion by now. If you haven't read this book, read it. If you've already gotten a taste of it, help yourself to some seconds. It's a good book with a real message. It's truly uplifting if you just glue the pieces together and take it for what it is.

Have any of you read it? What do you guys think?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Nanowrimo Holiday

Does it feel like I'm neglecting you yet? I'm really not trying to! And yet, I'm sorry to announce that it'll only get worse from here. National Novel Writing Month has come, and with it comes the new (well, new to me, at least) challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. Yes, I am an official certified Nanowrimo author. Yes, I am going to tirelessly devote the next thirty days of my life to actually finishing something I've made an effort to write! Yes, I will achieve thus goal because I don't think i'll be able to live with myself if I don't. So far I'm off to much too fast of a start. I've got 10,000 words in a day. I sat down at the computer this morning and have been traveling in the car all day so I've been given all the time in the world to write. What's even better is the fact that new ideas have just been overflowing for the first time in a long time and my fingers just won't quit typing!

Anyway, I truly am sorry that I won't be around that much. I miss you guys dearly. But, I do have good news. The name of my novel is Edward F. Rochester. You guessed it! My Nanowrimo novel will be nothing other than sitting and writing for hours on end about Jane Eyre from Rochester's perspective only.   A fragment of inspiration came to me this past week and since then the words and ideas won't stop coming to me. If I make it to my goal, my dearest wish is that I might share this novel with you. Instead of  reading my opinions on the work of others, you will get the (rather frightening) chance to critique my work. 

For any of you who have accounts on Nanowrimo, please add me as a writing buddy. My username is Litlover13.