Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

There is so much to say about this novel, one hardly knows where to begin. I suppose the best place to start is with the notion that this novel is “the greatest love story of all time.” Well, it’s not really a love novel, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Many who have read this novel, or who have heard of the story, have often believed that Anna Karenina committed suicide because she was a hopeless, wretched romantic, slighted by love. On the contrary, Anna was indeed loved intensely by two separate men, both of whom she destroyed emotionally and even socially/politically. The comparison which Tolstoy makes, and which many ignore, is between Anna and Levin. It is Levin’s epiphany at the end of the novel, that intellect and “book learning” mean nothing if they distract one from the love and salvation of God. This is what Anna herself could not do. She was consumed with self-absorption and with her own power over male minds and passions. This narcissism led to her despair and, eventually, to her death. Levin, in a similar situation to Anna, unhappy with life, with his lover, and with his family, stumbled upon the answer to happiness in a higher power – not in religion, but in the grand idea of God’s supreme knowledge and plan. This, perhaps, is the notion behind the “greatest love story,” though I doubt most realize this; instead, people seem to focus on Anna’s ostracized position in society. What Tolstoy is saying, though, is that Anna chose this life and therefore deserves it. She set aside two husbands and two children, by two different husbands, in search of personal, selfish happiness. The novel, truly, might be one of the greatest of all time – but the real reason for this seems lost on the majority of readers. I find much similarity between this novel and Tolstoy’s other famous discussion on the meaning of life, realized at the moment of death, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As for this edition itself, there are quite a few surface errors but the translated prose is quite beautiful – I only wish I knew Russian so that I could read the story in its original language. The flow is quite moving.

Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0

Review: The Wings of Merlin by T.A. Barron

The Wings of Merlin is the fifth and final book in T.A. Barron’s “Lost Years of Merlin” series. While I found this last of the series more concentrated with cliches – moments reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia– I also found it the most touching of the five parts. The characters finally seemed well-developed and interesting; the relationships were truthful and the fight stirred in the many creatures of Fincayra, when facing it’s final hour and possible extinction, was believable and – as embarrassing as it is to say – almost tear-jerking. There were losses, and gains. Tough choices placed before all the major characters, with an understanding of how and why these choices were made, in the end. Old characters were brought back again, and new characters woven in, effortlessly. Even the blatant nod to Barron’s sequel “Avalon” series was acceptable, though not too cleverly or craftily disguised. All-in-all, this final book, with it’s flaws in repetitive themes, motifs, and vocabulary (yes, I’m that picky) is still the best, most well-developed of the bunch and – if you’ve made it this far, I don’t see how you could be disappointed.

Review: Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s hard to believe that a person could be such a brilliant, en pointe writer for so very long. Many of the stories (if not all?) in Look at the Birdie seem to have been written later in Vonnegut’s life. The illustrations are all from the few years before Vonnegut died in April, 2007. Somehow, incredibly, these works are as mesmerizing, as darkly humorous, and as meaningful as any of his previous works – including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. I have more experience with Vonnegut the novelist than I do with Vonnegut the essayist or short story writer (though I did read A Man Without A Country – also brilliant!) but, I must say, I am so grateful to the publishers and family for allowing a posthumous printing of these incredible pieces. Particular favorites include “Petrified Ants,” “Confido,” and “Hall of Mirrors.” The Sci-Fi/Fantasy element is certainly still there, as well as Vonneguts interest in the super/paranormal; still, as always, Vonnegut manages to incorporate these elements so naturally, so realistically, that it’s almost impossible to separate them as fiction from the fiction. This is an absolutely solid anthology of short fiction from one of the best and greatest American writers and satirists of all time – and a must for any Vonnegut fan.

Review: How I Paid for College by Marc Acito

Acito’s first novel, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater is an hilarious, honest in an “I don’t believe this” sorta way re-telling of a coming-of-age story. Of particular praise is Acito’s way of making a gay (technically bisexual) story-line important, without having it overshadow the true essence of the novel, which is that of self-realization, growth, separation, maturity/immaturity, and loss of innocence. That one of the main character’s challenges is being unable to cry as an actor says much about the connection between stage and real-life; stage emotions come from true emotions, and if we cannot be honest with ourselves and learn how to reflect, to be introspective, then how can we ever project truth in emotion (not just on stage, but as an interacting adult). Though this novel takes place in 1984 and, thus, does not mention newer technologies, such as cell phones, internet networking (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, etc.) I found an interesting connection between the disconnect of youth/adults and stage/reality – a parallel to the disconnect occurring amongst the general population today. How can we relate to one another, understand one another, help and learn from one another, if we cannot express ourselves and communicate? The book was just as hilarious, fast-paced, and jovial as I imagined, but it was also much more (deceptively) deep and inspiring. The author’s note at the end, too, is touching. Four stars.

Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Where to begin with this novel? First, the prose & style: While I find Rushdie to be a supreme story-teller and master of language, it is sometimes difficult for me to enjoy reading his particular Indian-dialect English. The mix of cultural Indian-English grammar and style with lofty English vocabulary is, at times, uncomfortable and discombobulating. Also, Rushdie’s obsession with the eminence of London, England (as, like his writing style, is present in other works) is sometimes a bit much to swallow. I appreciate the author’s love for the particular progressive, comfortable culture indicative of and represented by the English, but the bias is almost too blatant to be meaningful. In terms of story/plot: I found it very difficult to get involved in the story, because it was all over the place. Not just in terms of setting and time, but characters were one thing and then another. “Home” was one place and then someplace else. I understand the appeal and the necessity, but the overall effect was so distracting and generally confusing, that it became difficult to care about any of these people or places. This is unfortunate, because the story itself, as it turns out, is really quite meaningful – not just in terms of the religious revelation (or disillusionment) but in terms of the psychological issues being addressed. Part of me sunk into this novel at times, and really dug in – roaring through the pages; but the book took some time to really finish, as certain elements were truly displeasing. Overall, I think the performance is solid and the awards/recognition well-deserved, though perhaps I am in disagreement with the reasons why (I prefer the final pages, where mental illness is at root, rather than the majority of the story which focuses on the religious …especially because this focus on the religious is eventually revealed to be a delusion). All-in-all, interesting and meaningful with moments of distraction and frustration.