Classical Anna: Anna Karenina

June 25, 2009

20070403_annakarenina_3A quintessential classic like Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is the type of book that many modern readers will approach with reluctance and even more will avoid all together. It’s a monstrously long epic written in late 19th century Russia, and therefore one might expect it to be similar to Dostoevsky or Henry James – long-winded, pontificating, even preachy. While it is similar to Dostoevsky or Dickens in that it takes a sweeping view, following many intertwined lives over a span of land and years, “Anna Karenina” is surprisingly modern, tossing off the cumbersome heavy-handiness of its contemporaries.

“Anna Karenina” focuses on the high society of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the late 19th century and the inter-connecting lives of members of this world. More particularly it is concerned with two romantic relationships, those of Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty, and through these couples Tolstoy examines two types of love: a carnal, whirlwind romance and a steady, conventional marriage. Such a plot and backdrop feel surprisingly relevant to a modern reader. While of course there are important differences (like the limited role and double standard for women), in many ways the society of Russian nobility is comparable to, say, upper class, Vogue New York society today. They both have the same lavish lifestyles, cliques, social climbers, and groups such as the fashion plates and pseudo-intelligentsia. Tolstoy’s observations and critiques of the Russian upper crust are easily applied to today’s Jet Set. Moreover, Tolstoy writes with such urgency about his two sets of lovers, particularly Anna and Vronsky, and the two approaches to love he examines still exist for couples today, which further makes “Anna Karenina” a living, breathing novel.

However, there is much more than plot and setting that make this novel pleasurable and intriguing for modern readers. Immediately one notices that Tolstoy’s prose is smooth and clear – a reader digests the sentences as easily as if they were reading a book published in 2009 and will never have to reread a paragraph to grasp its meaning, unlike with, say, Henry James. Many of his sentences are as simple and satisfying as “Princess Betsy drove home from the theater without waiting for the last act.” Tolstoy narrates without preachy or pretentious asides and never halts the action or the inner movement of the characters to muse about the meaning of life. In section seven, Tolstoy even verges on a very modern stream-of-conscious style as he follows Anna’s fevered state-of-mind:

“I don’t know these streets at all. Hills it seems, and still houses, and houses. And in the houses always people and people. How many of them, no end, all hating each other!”

One might accuse Tolstoy of being overly detailed (and in a near one-thousand page book lots of details are to be expected), but his details are carefully picked to draw readers further into the world and allow them to better understand the characters. The descriptions are vibrant and beautiful; this world is rainbow colored and the reader can nearly taste its flavors. Not only does one not mind learning that Anna wears a “black dress, with …sumptuous lace,” one hungers for it. Tolstoy is also the master of writing magnificent scenes – like Kitty’s labor, Anna’s reunion with her son or Levin mowing with the peasants – and their power often doesn’t hit readers until after they have set the book down.

What perhaps holds up best is Tolstoy’s truly modern approach to his characters. Unlike in a Dickens novel there are no clear-cut good and bad characters, no moral judgments made upon them. Instead, they are full-fleshed characters with all the ambiguity of actual people, and Tolstoy is fair and compassionate to all of them – an approach that reminds one of the very modern Anne Tyler, who never judges her very flawed characters but instead seeks to understand. His characters are true: everyone knows a Levin, a Kitty, and hopes to meet an Anna.

Of course, this book was written over a century ago and therefore it comes with some of the conventions of a 19th century novel. One must have the time and patience to read a one thousand page book. Also, there are some parts that are a bit tedious, particularly if one doesn’t have the stomach for Russian political history. The last fifteen or so pages also slam the reader with what might seem like Christian propaganda. However, readers’ eagerness to discover the fate of these wonderful characters will more often than not give them the fortitude to push on through these sections. For a reader who has never read a grand 19th century novel (or who has and was scared away), “Anna Karenina” is pleasurable, intriguing, and captivating.


Link: The Espresso Book Machine

June 24, 2009

Espresso-book-machine-Esp-007I had originally hoped to get a column to you today, but after writing for a few hours it became very apparent that what I’d written for you wasn’t up to my usual standards. Instead, as filler while you wait for next week’s column, please enjoy these links to the Espresso Book Machine by On Demand Books – a remarkable little gadget that could very well add another edge to small presses.

Find some images here, a news article lauding its potential here and some footage of the device in action here.

Column: In which Carrie looks back at her first attempt to write about poetry

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an earlier column written by Carrie Lorig for the Daily Cardinal on February 14, 2007. See author comments annotated below, as well as a mission statement at the end regarding future articles.)

One of contemporary pop culture’s favorite pastimes is pushing the limits of ‘shock value’ when it comes to sex and sexual innuendo. Today, unfortunately, addressing sexuality is not usually associated with making your mother proud, but with making her cringe.

Even though Fergie thinks she’s being really clever with hooks like “How come every time you come around, my London, London bridge wanna go down?,” we know the “meaning” the Duchess is trying to convey does not hail from her previous woes as a working class bridge operator, forced to raise and lower said bridge for perhaps, a large fishing dinghy or cruise ship loaded with those pesky bourgeoisie. (This paragraph was submitted for carbon dating. Samples were compared to the weave Fergie wore on the cover of this horrible album. Results suggest that this was definitely 2007.)

Listeners engage in their own cover-up games. We coyly feign scandal at allusions to sexual excess and exploitation while secretly sliding up the volume on our iPods. In truth, sick beats do their job well and we rarely concern ourselves with the thought that a song can be too vulgar.

But the tradition of covert sexuality in art and culture is capable of engaging in a much more complicated, and probably a much more healthy game of social tug-of-war. When poets imagine sex in a way that challenges or differentiates from what is considered the “social norm,” a space for real conversation and action is created. While they may contain the similar kinds of gratuitous sexual references as these songs, poems seem to strive to retain the intimacy and poignancy of sex in its snapshot-like frame.

The poet John Donne wrote several notorious poems that, under the guise of metaphor, were rather flowery suggestions to his plentiful mistresses as to what they could, you know, do later on in the evening after some very important study of course, some stately court dancing (The Galliard! The Sinkapace!), and maybe some drinks.

Donne was a very religious man, and his poetry directly comprised and contradicted his dedication to a Christian lifestyle. However, he believed in expressing love as his body dictated him to, sans the guilt imposed by conservative (or perhaps simply repressed or tragically unattractive) leaders in the church. Though poetry instinctively caters to the imagistic imagination, Donne’s work was less of a fantasy than the “pure” world Jacobean moralists insisted was reality.

More contemporary poets, like Carol Ann Duffy, covertly address notions of gender and homosexuality. In poems like “Warming Her Pearls,” she creates a female-to-female relationship that is unapologetic and assertive about its sexuality. “She fans herself / whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering / each pearl.” (This is the only contemporary poet I reference in this whole article. She’s finally the poet laureate of Great Britain now. I would like to know how the cigars taste inside the boys club, Carol.)

And we are not only invited to view a refreshing, and perhaps more accurate view of sex through such poems, but we can also marvel at their abilities to manipulate and flirt with language. “She being Brand” is a scandalous poem by e.e. cummings, but it’s also light-hearted and vibrant, making it suitable for virgins eyes. “she being Brand / new; and you / know consequently a / little stiff i was / careful of her”

Be comforted. There is more to love poetry than meets the Hallmark card. (That’s the closer? Really, 2007 Carrie?)

This article definitely documents my awkward undergrad poetry awakening. I can’t believe I referenced John Donne because I’ve always sort of hated his poetry. (That doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, though.) I think I did it to feel credible. A big name like that is safe and easy and sure to get you in the door. Anyone moderately interested in literature is acquainted with the same poets for the most part. Someone mentions Pound was a fascist and wins a pie wedge in a game of trivial pursuit. “The  Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains as lovely as ever, doesn’t it? We all agree.

But I’m not going to write about those poets we’re comfortable with. I want to talk about poets who are putting out issues of magazines that are available online for free, making free e-books, and keeping small presses alive with their print work. It’s nice to think of a poet checking the same 10-day weather forecast as you. You see your own issues inside their poetry and it feels like a place of resistance and your local Perkins at the same time.  I hope I can show readers that young poets are saying and doing exciting, relatable things. They are driving some fast cars. Let’s go hack their blogs while they’re out, okay?

Column: A Classic from Classical Anna

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As part of an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an early column from Anna Williams written on November 29, 2007 in the Daily Cardinal. Check back on Thursday for the first installment of her “Classical Anna” feature.)

(Author’s note: This is one of my favorite columns because it captures both my mental and physical connection with books. It highlights the sensual experience of reading a book, which is often overlooked. There are a few things I would change about the writing (particularly the sentence structure), but it shows off my voice. I hear the Kindle is doing well lately and that makes me sad.

“No, no, no, no!” That was me as I read an article from the latest issue of Newsweek entitled “Books Aren’t Dead (They’re Just Going Digital).” In this horror-inducing article, founder Jeff Bezos promotes his new electronic doo-hickey “The Kindle” as the savior of reading. Apparently, the Kindle is a gadget that holds over two hundred books and displays the pages on a screen.

Now, one might suppose that being the literature lover that I am, I would be in support of any new device that promotes and spreads reading. After all, Bezos says the underlying idea of the Kindle “is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute.”

But no. Despite all its advantages and possible benefits for reading, I do not support the Kindle. In fact, it makes me want to vomit. I love books, and by that I mean not just the words that when strung together form ideas, convey emotions and create a story, but also the physical book itself – feeling the soft pages of a book beneath one’s fingertips, dog-earing the pages, bending the binding. For me and many other readers, reading is not only a mental and emotional experience, but a physical, sensual one as well, and if books become mainly electronic, an essential part of the reading experience will truly be lost.

For instance, one of the best parts of reading is the smell of the book. In fact, I even consider myself a connoisseur of book smells: my sense of smell is so refined that I can detect a difference, no matter how small, between every book I’ve ever read. Even more than that, these scents are tied to my memory – all I have to do is flip through the pages of a novel, breath in the scent, and I am instantly taken back to the time when I first read it. Imagine me and other book-scent experts pressing our noses against a Kindle! All that would accomplish is smudging the screen.

Furthermore, if this Kindle creates the revolution in reading that Bezos predicts, we will lose the human mark and history that the physical book records. And readers love this history – why else would so many people collect used and first editions? I have many books my grandparents once owned, yellowed with age, their margins scribbled with notes. Sometimes I even find old newspaper clippings tucked between the pages. I just don’t think a future kid will appreciate it in the same way if his grandfather passes a Kindle along to him. (Grandpa, this is just a regular Kindle. I already have the Kindle 2.0!)

The idea of a world where people sit curled by the fire reading from an electronic screen or read to their children at bedtime from a Kindle sends a chill down my spine, as it should for any true book lover. So, here’s my plea to all readers out there: don’t buy the Kindle! Never ever! Instead, I suggest we all celebrate the launch of this little gadget by going to a local bookstore, buying a real book or two, flipping them open, and deeply inhaling the pages.

Announcement: Welcome New Voices

June 17, 2009

As I mentioned in last month’s manifesto for the future of The Lesser of Two Equals, a large goal of mine for this second year of operation is to bring both a broader scope and sense of consistency to the blog. On my personal perspective this is going well – regular updates and more detailed features  – but the issue has also come up that I simply do not have the energy to do everything I want with the site.

While I am one of the 12 percent of Oregon’s population who doesn’t have a job to occupy their day (utterly depressing number that, isn’t it?), I do devote a good portion of each day to looking for one, and as anyone who has hunted for work knows this is an exhausting routine that saps creativity and rapidly turns one into an antisocial alcoholic. I also like to break up the monotony of constant book reviews by writing reviews of films/video games/albums for other locations, as well as a novel or two that I go to when I feel the urge.

The bottom line is, I by myself am incapable of doing everything I feel I could be doing with TLOTE. I have only a certain amount of words I can call up per day, and to remain sane I have to split them between other topics.

So, I would like to take this moment (and 100th post of this blog, conveniently enough) to let you all know that starting this week, my work at TLOTE will be joined by two other contributors: Anna Williams and Carrie Lorig. Both are already charter members of the family, as my direct successors in The Daily Cardinal‘s literature column which served as the foundation of this blog.

Both our new contributors will supplement my media/memoir mindset. Carrie, author of “Conceal and Carrie” in the academic year of 2006-07, will be filling the poetics void by taking a look at contemporary poets and telling us which ones are worth reading. Anna, author of “Williams Shakespeare” for 2007-08, will contribute more of the classic literary perspective with her series “Classical Anna,” which takes a look at reading old reliables in these modern times. An exact schedule is still in the works, but expect us to get regular updates fairly soon, as well as more information on both as part of the upcoming site redesign.

As an introduction to our new contributors, we will be reprinting a few of their personal favorite Cardinal columns on the site over the next couple of weeks. In the same fashion as my columns, they will be offering thoughts on the completed work and some updated commentary. A schedule of regular updates is still being generated, so keep your eyes open for posts on our status.

So, I hope you’ll join me in welcoming these new voices to TLOTE, and that the attention you give my work will be shared with both new members in full.

Link: Librophiliac Love Letter

June 17, 2009

If my last column filled you with any sort of rage, then may I cheerfully offer you this (also via Neil Gaiman’s blog) to mellow you out: a collection of pictures of the world’s grandest libraries, courtesy of Curious Expeditions.

Here’s a couple of samples to whet your appetite:

I luoghi della memoria scritta. Le Biblioteche italiane tra tute

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome, Italy


Herzog August Library, Wolfenbüttel, Germany


Bibliothéque Nationale de France, Paris, France

More relaxing than any herbal bath in my estimation.

Column: Attempted Book Burning in WI

June 17, 2009

Apparently, the CCLU forgot the Inquisition is over

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

June 17, 2009

(I had been planning to write my column for this week on as a musing on just how much blame we as a consumer base are to blame for the closing of independent bookstores, but a link on Neil Gaiman’s website has pushed me into diatribe central today.)

While I no longer live in Wisconsin, having relocated to the greener valley of Portland almost a year ago, I retain a fondness for the state in which I spent the last 12 years of my life and where so many family and friends of mine still reside. As such, I like to keep an eye on how things are going in the state, both to remain up to date on issues I followed before leaving and because I am eagerly awaiting the weeping and gnashing of teeth should Brett Favre make his way to the Vikings.

Usually I enjoy the news that comes out of the state – and occasionally find a moment that pleases my bookish instincts – but this recent article from the Guardian (in the United Kingdom of all places) has been able to rouse a rare anger in me. In the proud tradition of Wisconsin’s housing political extremes on both poles (this is the state that brought us Robert LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy, lest we forget), we now see there are still parts of the state willing to go against the written word and channel the spirit of Tomás de Torquemada.

As the Guardian reported, the lawsuit has been brought by the Christian Civil Liberties Union on behalf of elderly West Bend citizens against Francesca Lia Block’s “Baby Be-Bop”, a young adult novel that focuses on its protagonist Dirk’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. The book was depicted as part of a display in the West Bend Community Memorial Library, and apparently its appearance caused great trauma to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the plaintiffs by containing racial slurs toward gays and African-Americans.

Now this sort of argument is nothing new to the world of literature – books from “Huckleberry Finn” to “Naked Lunch” have been attacked on the grounds of obscene or insulting language. Even in West Bend it’s a familiar story, as some residents recently lost a campaign to restrict young adult titles of this nature. The key point here is what the plaintiffs are seeking: $120,000 in compensatory damages for being exposed to the title and the right to publicly burn the book for being a hate crime, “explicitly vulgar, racial [sic], and anti-Christian.”

I will repeat that: they want to publicly burn the book.

668px-Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleNow, I haven’t read it myself so I can’t comment on how offensive the content is, and in the interest of tolerance I will recuse myself from any religious judgment. What I will not excuse myself from is my anger at this ignorant assault on the concept of a library.

To me, a library by definition exists as a place that holds all books and offers their use in a neutral context, letting its visitors and members sift and winnow through the information at their own pace. The word “public” is put before the word library for a reason, in that anyone who goes there should expect full and unfettered access to its contents. Censoring what content is held in a library beyond exercising reasonable control (i.e. making sure erotica isn’t shelved alongside Louis Sachar) is only a few steps away from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in my perspective.

Anyone who tries to remove titles from a library based on their own moral objections is implicitly stating that they consider their opinion above any other person’s ability to interpret the book, and that their negative reactions outweigh any potential positive someone else might find in the title – an attitude that implies an arrogant disregard for others thoughts. The argument is made that removing these titles creates an safer atmosphere for children, but I counter that removing these titles is a much more detrimental move. Censoring what children read is a job for the parents, not some authority figure who judges a book based on a few words.

This doesn’t even consider the logical paradox being demonstrated here, which has made blood pour slowly from my ears as I try to comprehend it. A large part of the group’s argument is based on the fact that the book (and I am quoting a legal document here) “constitutes a hate crime,” the words in the book “permeate violence” and that it “degrades the community.” And so to preserve the community, they want to hold a public ceremony condemning this work and destroy it in a gesture that evokes memories of Nazi Germany. There are irony flares going up in all directions.

Now, given the dismissal of the earlier attempts to “clean up” the library and the track record in this country for assaulting titles, I doubt “Baby Be-Bop” will be seeing an inferno anytime soon. But this still holds up as a cautionary tale: people who value their libraries need to keep an eye on them in case of the people who don’t.

Les Chappell encourages all of you to mail copies of “Tropic of Cancer” to Ginny and Jim Maziarka, who pushed for the earlier ban at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. If you don’t share his pettiness, then send your support to the West Bend library board for doing the right thing.