12.26.2007

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina
I'm reading Anna Karenina (Wikipedia entry) for two reasons. First, I have to read it for our book group. Second, I'm reading it because I've always wanted to tackle one of the big Russian classics.

So, what's it like so far? Surprisingly, almost no one is seriously depressed and there's not that much snow. Actually, the first character we meet is the wonderfully cheerful Stiva Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, Anna's brother. Granted, his wife just figured out that he was having an affair with the children's nanny and he's in serious trouble at home, but nothing seems to get this man down much for long. Then we met Konstantin Levin, who's more serious and has some of the common sense problems of many nineteenth century characters but who is still pretty level-headed. We actually don't see the famous Anna Karenina until about 50 pages or so into my edition of the book. Vronsky, the dashing "hero," shows up a bit sooner.

The way that Anna Karenina starts reminds me a bit of the start of War and Peace, which I attempted to read earlier in the year. The reader is introduced to a huge cast of characters, from all walks of life, who all have something to tell you about the way that life was in Tolstoy's Russia. The characters are all fully realized, I think. But Tolstoy does it all so skillfully that you aren't bogged down in exposition and explanations, and the pace just hums along. I am really enjoying this book.

There is a ton of detail, and the characters and their settings are all very carefully drawn. As in other wonderful nineteenth century opuses (Dickens comes to mind here), you get drawn into the story and can really visualize what's going on. It shouldn't have surprised me, but I am astounded at the level of detail, especially when Tolstoy writes about what people look like. When Kitty Shcherbatsky attends a ball, Tolstoy not only writes about the color and design of her dress, but also mentions the blonde braids she added to her coiffure to make it look like she has even more hair.

I almost feel sorry for Tolstoy's writing hand, since it had to write this sucker out long hand. I wonder if he had arthritis?

Progress: 121 pages read. 696 pages remain.

The Demon and the City, by Liz Williams

The Demon and the City
The Demon and
the City
The Demon and the City is the sequel to Snake Agent, a book I picked up a while ago and enjoyed very much. Liz Williams' The Demon and the City, unfortunately I think, takes the story away from Inspector Chen and gives it to Chen's partner, Zhu Irzh--who is the eponymous demon. While I like Zhu Irzh, he just doesn't appeal to me as much as Chen did. I like him much better in small doses, like in the last book.

This book is divided into two halves. In one plot thread, Zhu Irzh is trying to solve the murder of a prominent local citizen. In the other thread, a woman named Robin and an escaped experiment try and find out what an increasingly evil corporation is up to. Of course, the murder and the corporation's plans are linked, but it takes a while to find out not only how the two are linked, but also who the good guys and the bad guys are. As I read it, I found Robin's story the more interesting of the two. Perhaps because it seemed like Zhu Irzh was just a placeholder for Chen, who's on vacation for almost two-thirds of the book and shows up just in time for all hell (or rather, all heaven) to break loose.

Towards the end of the book, you start to realize that heaven is having a very polite civil war and that there are three factions. (Here's a link to Wikipedia's article on Chinese mythology. Williams takes liberties, but the article helps.) The Emperor of Heaven wants to withdraw all contact from the human world because fewer and fewer people are able to meet the exacting entrance requirements. Kuan Yin (Guan Yin) disagrees but, being the goddess of mercy and compassion, you'd expect that. And then there's the feng shui goddess, who wants to restore her former glory. She's the one who hatches the plot that Robin is trying to uncover. Zhu Irzh's investigation gets him involved with the head of the company, the woman who made the bargain with the feng shui goddess.

It's all starting to sound rather tangled, isn't it?

Until the last third of the book, the pace dragged, but I think the very exciting ending more than made up for the lack of progress in the first parts. Perhaps what interests me most about these books is the way that Williams plays with Asian mythologies and beliefs. Contemporary fantasy, up until now, mostly takes creatures and ideas from European mythologies and folklores and gives them new life (or un-life in the case of the vampire stories.) Even though a lot of this is unfamiliar territory for me, I'm really enjoying getting to see a reimagining of Asian gods, goddesses, creatures, and cosmologies.

12.13.2007

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, Part III

Okay, let's see if I can get through the rest of the cast of characters today. The reading group is meeting on Sunday, and I've read three books since I finished Wuthering Heights.

Edgar Linton: I just discovered that poor Edgar didn't even rate his own entry in Wikipedia. Edgar is the young man who lives down (or over) the hill from Wuthering Heights who married Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love (apparently). Catherine plans to use Edgar's position and wealth to elevate Heathcliff. For a lot of the beginning of the book, Catherine had him pretty snookered. He only gets to see the genteel version, at least until there's an ugly incident involving Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley's son) and Edgar gets to see just how fast Catherine's moods can change and he sees just how spiteful and uncaring she is. And then he marries her anyway. I know that people didn't marry for love when they were in a certain social position, but surely a man wouldn't marry a woman who was as unstable as Catherine was?

Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Edgar has a hard time standing up for himself. Beyond marrying Catherine, he doesn't get his way for the rest of the book. After fighting Heathcliff over visiting privileges, he just retreats into his intellectual pursuits. He doesn't even come out much after his daughter's birth. Plus, he's another sickly character who seems to die of a general malaise.

Isabella Linton: At first, I thought Isabella was an idiot. She fell in love with Heathcliff. He doesn't encourage her feelings and is, in fact, very rude and cruel to her. Heathcliff marries her as part of his elaborate revenge on...well, everyone. And she just goes along with it, though she knows that Heathcliff despises her. I changed my mind about Isabella when she ran away with their son and lived in hiding for ten or twelve years. I had hopes for Isabella after that, but then she up and died, too. It's like there's an epidemic in this book that only targets featured characters.

Catherine Linton (the younger Catherine): I think the younger Catherine was meant to be a redeeming character. She gets Edgar out of his shell a little, she brings out the best in Linton Heathcliff until Heathcliff totally poisons the little guy's personality, and she gets Hareton Earnshaw to improve himself. Plus, her love for Hareton gets Heathcliff to call off his feud with...well, everyone. 'Course by that time, most of the original cast has shuffled off their mortal coils.

12.09.2007

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, Part II

I meant to get to this earlier, but I've been sick with a bad cold. So, here is another post on the characters of Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff: He's the second most aggravating character in the book for me. He doesn't bother me as much as Catherine Earnshaw, because I can understand why he turned out the way he did. He was an orphan, probably a beggar, who was taken in by old Mr. Earnshaw--who liked him as much or more than his children. Hindley, Mr. Earnshaw's son, treated him terribly. But Heathcliff wasn't sympathetic to me, like other Gothic orphans (viz. Jane Eyre). And he had such a capacity for revenge, really devious revenge. I think he might be one of the first to try to torture people psychologically. And he absolutely warped Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley's son).

And then there's his love for Catherine-I understand why he left. But I don't understand why he loved her. To me, she's an idiot who had no empathy or concern for the feelings and happiness of others. But when he returned, and found out that Cathy really loved him, why didn't they just leave? Why did he insist on playing his games with Hindley, Edgar Linton, and their children? Perhaps my lack of understanding and sympathy for these characters comes from Emily Brontë's choice of narrator. Brontë' gave the story to the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, for the most part. If she had let us get into Cathy or Heathcliff's head, maybe I would have enjoyed the story more. Because I just don't get the love affair between the two leads, the story just doesn't work for me.

I don't understand the appeal of Heathcliff, either. He's called one of the great figures of Romantic literature. But he reminds me of an old joke: if lithium had been used as a medication, there wouldn't have been a Romantic movement.

12.01.2007

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights @ Barnes and Noble
Wuthering Heights
My brother's fiancé wants to start a books club, and our first pick was Wuthering Heights--mostly because I hadn't read it before and I wanted to see what the other Brontë was like. (I'm a big fan of Jane Eyre.) The other reason is that I wanted to better understand the jokes about the book in The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. In WOLP, Fforde reveals that all the main characters are required to attend anger management sessions between chapters.

I'm still not sure if I like this book or not. It has a lot of plots and character elements that drive me up the wall. At certain times while I read it, I really wanted to climb into the book and start smacking some sense into people, especially Catherine Earnshaw. Until the last third of the book, I don't know if there were any admirable characters in it apart from Nelly Dean, the housekeeper and narrator of most of the story. I'd never met such a large number of bullheaded and selfish characters crammed into one book. Plus, they kept dropping dead. By two thirds of the way into the book, we'd lost most of the characters we'd started with.

While I can't say that I liked the book, it did give me a lot to think about. (One of those thoughts was, 'Man, I miss studying literature.') So, I think I'll go character by character, given that this book is completely character driven. I'd like to start with the character that pissed me off the most: Catherine Earnshaw.

I never understood the love she had for Heathcliff, first of all. Though Cathy and Heathcliff grew up together, the abusive and competitive nature of their environment would have, I'd have thought, made them hate each other--not become soul mates. Maybe it's because I don't understand (still) what made Heathcliff so special. But the part where I really started to dislike her is when she told Nelly Dean her reasons for marrying Edgar Linton. I lost any sympathy I might have had for Cathy when she said she was marrying Linton so that she could use Edgar's wealth and position to elevate Heathcliff. A lot of Heights' plot is her fault, I think. If she had been less selfish, this would have been a very different book. But I don't think there was much goodness in her. I shudder to think how the younger Catherine would have turned out if her mother had lived.

Also, the way that Catherine died bothers me. The way I read it, it really seemed like she drove herself crazy. I think a certain element of her death was suicide. I've noticed that it's hard to pin down actual causes of death in nineteenth-century novels because 1) germ theory was new at the time, and 2) it's fiction and the author can do whatever the hell they want. ;) On top of the mystery of her death, I had lost all sympathy for her by the time she died and it was hard to muster any feeling for her.