What I’m Reading – Early January

I haven’t really decided how I’m going to do the titles of my posts yet. I really don’t want to do anything like, “What I’m Reading #1, #2, #3, etc.” or even “Anna Karenina Discussion/Thoughts/Summary/Review”…because I think I will probably do more posts like this one, where I talk about all the books I’m reading. Maybe ‘What I’m Reading’ will work. We’ll see!

Anyway –

The four books I’m currently reading are Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, On The Map, by Simon Garfield, and Reading In the Dark, by Seamus Deane.

Anna Karenina and Reading in the Dark are the fiction novels I am reading so far this month. I’ve never been especially inclined to read Anna Karenina, and frankly, I’m not really sure what intrigued me about it this time. ‘An old Russian classic about a family,’ does not really sound interesting to me. I did happen to have a copy (I think I bought it at the thrift store a year or two ago), and it just happened to be the same translation that one of my goodreads groups were starting in the new year, so I dug it out of the box it had been in, and before my inspiration had left me, I began to read.

The most surprising thing, at first, was how easy it was to read. I mean, the book is 800 pages written in 1877 by one of the Great Russian Writers and is argued to be the best novel of all time. In a word, I was intimidated. As it turns out though, that the Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky translation is extraordinarily effortless to read. I found myself immediately engaged in the story (as was Tolstoy’s goal), and loving the characters. I was sort of curious how an entire door stop of a book could be about one family and still be interesting, but I’ve soon found out! This isn’t a family like I’m used to (I grew up with my family of 5, states away from our nearest extended family), but something much bigger and complex. Without giving away anything about the plot, I will run through most of the characters we encounter (almost in order of appearance):

Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) is married to Dolly (Darya, and they have many children, six maybe?) , whose sister is Kitty (Ekaterina), who was being courted by Alexei Vronsky and Konstanin Demitrich Levin (whose two brothers Sergei Ivanovich, and Nikolai Dimitrich both appear in the story). Levin, is also Stiva’s best childhood friend, and had been friends with Dolly & Kitty’s older brother. Stiva’s sister, Anna Karenina, is married to Alexei Alexandrovich and has a son, Seryozha (Sergei). Dolly & Kitty’s parents, Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky also play roles in the story, as well as Betsy, who is Vronsky’s cousin (Vronsky’s mother, brother, and sister-in law also appear) – and we are also introduced to a few of the people employed by the estates mentioned above, like Agafya Mikhailovna, who is Levin’s housekeeper.

As you can see, though it may be the ‘story of a family’, it is packed with characters who all have different meaningful connections with one another. For example, Levin is Dolly’s husband’s (Stiva’s) good friend, but is also courting her sister…therefore Levin & Dolly’s relationship is more complex than it originally appears.

I actually can’t believe how easy that list was to come up with – which says a lot about how well this novel is laid out for the reader (an attribute to Tolstoy). It’s easy to remember who everyone is, and what it is they’re going through at any given time. The plot weaves so beautifully and naturally, and the characters have both strengths and weaknesses, they’re so real. It’s so much easier to enjoy a story when the characters are realistic, for me as a reader, it is easier to care about them, and over time you start to feel close to them. Stiva is the first character we meet, and we stay with him quite awhile before we meet more characters and are on to another subplot. When Stiva appears again, I actually got excited because I remembered who he was by the sight of his name (which I wasn’t expecting because everyone is always so concerned with the character names in Russian Literature – and if you’re wary because of that – I promise it’s not that bad!).

I have to say, I’m glad I took the plunge to read it. I just finished part 5 of 8, and have participated in a few different online discussions, and I’m really pleased with the whole experience. I don’t often read books with my goodreads groups. Usually I get anxious about time lines, or I’m reading another book, or the books they’re reading don’t interest me. It’s great to see what other people notice as they read the same book at the same time. So many things that didn’t necessarily pop out at you, or things that you bring up that others had never thought about. It can be really fun (I will have some examples in my next Anna K post, which will be FULL of spoilers).

Reading In the Dark by Seamus Deane is the other fiction book I’m reading right now. I’d never heard of it before, I just ran across it as I perused the shelves of my library (which I was avoiding because I knew when I went I’d pick up tons of books, and I did!). Seamus Deane is from Ireland and has been a professor of Irish studies in various colleges through the years, and is also a co-editor of Field Day Review, which is an annual Irish literary Journal. Reading in the Dark is his first novel, which was published in 1996. The book won The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and The Irish Literature Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, though I did not know this when I picked it up. It isn’t very long, at 256 pages, so I started reading it first, out of the pile of books I’d brought home.

The chapters are varied in length, and they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. I’ve only read a handful so far, but it seems to be going in somewhat chronological order through a young Irish boy’s life. Each chapter, as I said, is disjointed from the one before. It’s sort of like skimming a book. It seemed like the author let us read the first three pages, and then skimmed ahead skipping 15 pages or so to read another three pages, and skipping 15 pages again; just little glimpses into the boy’s life. I’ve mainly been reading Anna Karenina, so I haven’t really become invested in the book yet. It’s a little abstract – I may pick it back up once I finish Anna.

I’m also reading two non-fiction books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and On The Map by Simon Garfield. Something strange is happening as I read these two books in conjunction with one another…although I am more interested in the subject of On The Map than The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as a book and a reading experience, I’m more partial to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by far. I don’t want to necessarily say that Garfield isn’t as good of writer or researcher, or even that it’s a worse book (as I’m only half through Dilemma and 80 pages in to Map) – but there are vastly different tones to each. Pollan is like Mary Roach minus most of the humor, and Garfield is like Mary Roach minus most of the research. I think most of the problem with On The Map is the subject. Cartography is something that fascinates me (anything to do with the development of man and culture, really), but since so little is really known about the first maps, I can see how it’d be hard to say much more than, “And this is the map he drew: obviously wrong, but neat, huh?” Also I think On the Map is trying too hard to be the ‘cool kid’, where Dilemma is the kid who is cool because he’s passionate about what he does. Does that make sense? I will try to pin point the feeling I’m getting at here and elaborate later on, because I think the comparison of the two is really interesting.

I’m also a little disappointed in On the Map in general. There was a section talking about the Library of Alexandria, which I really didn’t know anything about, and I was just enamored with the idea of collecting the world’s knowledge, and I wanted to know more about it. So after a simple google search, I found that the section I’d read of On the Map had misled me to believe that Alexander the Great had founded the library with specific instruction and intent…It’s true that as a reader I assumed where the writing wasn’t clear, but shouldn’t that never have been an issue – especially with a non-fiction book? It’s also true that On The Map is not a book about the Library of Alexandria – but if he mentions it at all, shouldn’t it be clear and accurate for people like me who don’t know anything about it? I’m not sure how I feel about it right now, but I’m only about 80 pages in (of 443). I’m afraid the research quality won’t improve once it moves into modern history…but I’m hoping it does! My hopes were high for this one.

And on the other hand I am fascinated by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I think I first heard of it on Goodreads (I’m on goodreads a lot!), along with another of Pollan’s books, The Botany of Desire, which also sounds interesting. He got me with the introduction, and I mean, right away. Of course we all want to know where our food comes from. I’ve actually become more an more aware of it in recent years, and have become more and more disgusted with it (although I still eat like most other Americans. If you’ve read this book, you understand). Basically what Michael Pollan does, is walk us through four different food chains – from the fast-food restraint/supermarket/farm to the meal on your dinner plate. It is meticulously researched. Pollan literally gets down to the roots of the grass, and the bio-engineering of corn all the way to the world market in grain trading/consumption. It’s amazing. I first checked this book out as an audiobook from the library. After listening to it for about 10 minutes I logged in to my library’s website and reserved a copy in paperback so I could extract exact quotes, and the more I think about it, the more I think I need this book for my collection. So fascinating, I’m totally enthralled.

So that’s what I’ve been reading this week, I hope to finish at least one book by next week (and will hopefully have my computer back then). The review will probably take me a little while to come up with – I really want to put more meaning into the reviews I do here, so I plan on putting much more time into them to really polish them up before publishing. You all understand :-)

Until next time,
-Emma

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