Monday, March 12, 2012

Tolstoy, Crombie, Auster

Saturday over breakfast I finished Anna Karenina (I saw a friend on Friday night, and said, "She went under the train this morning! It was awesome!"). I got to the end of 817 pages and I wanted to immediately start from the beginning again.

It never stops being amazing. Its own weight occasionally causes a sag, but those sags are saved so dramatically that it's like watching a magician: Levin and two annoying houseguests go on a hunting trip, and just as I'm starting to get bored, Tolstoy, out of nowhere, switches to the hunting dog's point of view. Anna's sister-in-law goes to visit her and Vronksy, and spends a day with them and their terrible friends, and just as I'm starting to feel that the point (that these are terrible people) has been driven home overmuch, Tolstoy tosses off the world's most accurate description of an introvert who, with the best intentions, has spent a day on the fringes of a tight circle of extroverts: "all that day she had had the feeling that she was playing in the theatre with actors better than herself and that her poor playing spoiled the whole thing".

I could have written down four hundred quotes like that, one from every other page. Life put into words. Eight or nine main characters, all completely different, all with inner lives made utterly real (Anna a little less than utterly, but she's still far more fleshed out than, say, Madame Bovary). Who can do that? I remember being astonished by the occasional moment of excruciatingly real life in War and Peace, but the entirety of AK is that life.

Looking back on reading it before, I realized that as an adolescent I read almost exclusively for story. I did appreciate a good turn of phrase, and kept a notebook full of quotes I liked, but most of those quotes were inspirational or context-bound or both. Reading for story and language is an ability I've acquired with age (I'm not unique in that). And there is SO MUCH of both going on in Tolstoy that it's overwhelming.

I liked War and Peace very much, but it was work. Anna Karenina didn't feel like work. There is little better than walking into your house and thinking, "Hooray, I get to pick up that book again!" In conclusion: WHOOO. I wish I could be more articulate about it, but this book made me just want to squeal incoherently.

Saturday afternoon I read No Mark Upon Her, by Deborah Crombie, my Early Reviewers book. Crombie writes mysteries featuring British detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, who by this point in the series are married and accumulating children. In this book, a policewoman who rows competitively is murdered. Crombie's books are well done but not particularly taxing; however, in none of the previous ones could I identify the murderer within two paragraphs of the character being introduced (my surmise re: motivation turned out to be incorrect, but the guilt could not have been telegraphed any more obviously). There is a rape-cold-case subplot which was interesting enough to keep me reading, but between the blatant reveal of the murderer barely a third of the way in and the constant foreshadowing that a wonderful dog would be hurt (which he is, but not fatally), I found reading this a little irritating. Which is a shame: I had gone museuming that morning, and been thinking that an afternoon on the couch with a British mystery would round out the day just perfectly, and then it was a letdown.  

Sunday I read Oracle Night, by Paul Auster. It's a strange little book about a writer who buys a notebook at a mysterious stationery store and finds that the stories he writes in it affect his real life. The premise was more interesting than the execution, I think, and the mysterious Asian man who owns the store becomes such a disturbing stereotype that I didn't know what to think (at first it's a self-conscious use of a noir trope and our narrator is aware of it as such, but when Mr. Chang starts bringing said narrator to sinister brothels and making threats, I got really uncomfortable). Auster makes it clear that he's working with noir conventions and so everything is stylized and overdramatized, but that made it difficult for me to care about any of the characters. I was a bit disappointed; the only other book of his I've read was Mr. Vertigo, which I loved. This one was interesting as a writing exercise but not necessarily as a novel.    

Next up: The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom. Talk about reading for language.

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