Classical Anna: War and Peace

June 10, 2010

As a child, hearing a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” conjured an image in my mind of an  insurmountable tomb of a book. The imposing title led me to believe it was a novel about all war and all peace – essentially the history of the world. And even after I learned the actual plot of the book, even after I read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I still balked at reading it, no doubt intimidated by its reputation and cultural weight. Imagine my surprise when I finally summoned the courage to read it and found myself immersed in a page-turning, boundary-pushing novel that absorbs and clings to the reader.

Written in the late 1860’s, “War and Peace” is a historical novel that tells the story of five aristocratic families in Russia – the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys – during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812. While not as intimidating as the entire history of the world, many readers will likely find this subject matter of epic war, family drama, and historical events fairly formidable. However, Tolstoy eases readers into this grand scope by placing peace before war, introducing his large cast – including Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky and Natasha and Nikolai Rostov – in an intimate, domestic light.

To paint his characters in this light, Tolstoy uses an ingenious technique of repeatedly drawing attention to a character’s particular physical trait until merely mentioning it becomes shorthand for that character’s essence. Watch as Tolstoy acquaints the reader with Princess Lise, conveying much about her personality through the mere description of her lip:

“The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw – a short lip and half-opened mouth – seemed her special, personal beauty… Anyone who talked with her and saw her bright little smile at every word and her gleaming white teeth, which showed constantly, thought himself especially amiable that day.”

Tolstoy paints his characters in quick and complete strokes so the reader can understand them fully: he need only note Princess Lise’s upper-lip, old Prince Andrei’s shrieking voice, or Princess Marya’s beautiful eyes for the reader to fully remember these characters, even more remarkable given that the scope of the story can separate readers from characters for a hundred pages.

The characters that fill “War and Peace” to the brim are hard not to love, despite their complex and often flawed nature. Tolstoy shows the beauty and darkness of humanity in equal measures and keeps it true to life, comfortable enough to leave behind familiar tropes of the steadfast, reliably moral hero or heroine. There is Pierre – idealistic and loving, but infuriatingly and harmfully naïve as he blunders his way through society, projecting on everyone the best of intentions. And what reader doesn’t admire Prince Andrei’s valor and strength on the battlefield yet find him unkind in his domestic situations? Tolstoy’s writing of women is also refreshingly insightful, without a hint of simplification or condescension: Natasha Rostov may be a bit silly and vain in society, yet she is filled with bravery and compassion when war asks it of her.

Once the reader is comfortable with these characters and their social dramas, Tolstoy returns to the first word of the title and opens up the novel to the war. He moves massive armies over vast spaces and places the characters at the scenes of famous historical moments, focusing on scenes of battle and pulling in real historical characters like Napoleon and his Russian counterpart Kutuzov. The shift never overwhelms a reader though, but draws them in: they want to see how the characters they have come to know and love will be affected by war. It also helps that these parts of the novels are fascinating and readable: Tolstoy brings historical events to life, making them immediate and full of action and suspense while threading it with the same life and atmosphere that fills the first parts of the book.

Like “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace” is notable for its memorable, moving scenes. A reader won’t easily forget the costumed, nighttime sleigh ride of the Rostov children, or the passage in which Pierre, captured by the French and thrown in prison, hears in the darkness the voice of a fellow prisoner addressing him:

“’So you’ve seen a lot of misery, master? Eh?’ the little man suddenly said.  And in the man’s melodious voice there was such an expression of tenderness and simplicity that Pierre wanted to reply, but his jaw trembled, and he felt tears rising.  The little man, in that same second, not giving Pierre time to show his confusion, spoke in the same pleasant voice.

“’Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon,’ he said with that tenderly melodious gentleness with which old Russian women speak.  ‘Don’t grieve, little friend: you suffer an hour, you live an age! So it is, my dear.  And we live here, thank God, with no offense. There’s bad people, and there’s good,’ he said and, while speaking, shifted his weight to his knees in a supple movement, got up, and, clearing his throat, went somewhere.”

For all its merits, however, “War and Peace” is not without its challenges, the most obvious of which is its length of over 1,200 pages: a reader will need to devote a good two or three months to its completion. Additionally, many of the historical references will be unknown to most readers unless they are scholars of the Napoleonic wars, but most editions should have footnotes explaining their context, such as the 2008 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles readers will face, however, are the long sections of historical and philosophical analysis. Tolstoy conceived of his book as more than a novel: a combination of traditional story, historical fact, and philosophic argument, it contains passages where the narrator stops the forward movement of the plot to advance the argument that a single person cannot be responsible for important historical events.

“As long as histories of separate persons are written – be they Caesars, Alexanders, or Luthers and Voltaires – and not the history of all the people, all without a single exception, who participate in an event, it is absolutely impossible to describe the movement of mankind without the concept of a force that makes people direct their activity towards a single goal.”

These sections are interesting at first, as they serve to underline the plot themes and illuminate patterns in the characters’ thoughts and actions. However, they eventually grow maddeningly redundant and plodding, and readers are so eager to return to the story that they grow frustrated with this philosophizing.

In the end, however, despite these detractions, most will follow through to the last word. It would take a truly heartless reader to not want to see what will become of the characters they have grown to know as well as family members.


Classical Anna: Wuthering Heights

January 23, 2010

When Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” was published in 1847, the literary community reacted with such outrage that her sister Charlotte had to defend her from accusations of lewdness, callousness and impropriety. Few books have made such a stark break from conventions of the time: Brontë, a single, reclusive woman in her twenties from the English countryside, essentially raised a middle finger to all of Victorian literature, presenting a book that follows its own structure and puts forth a violent, amoral vision of the world.

Emily, along with sisters and fellow authors Charlotte and Anne, lived her life on the harsh Yorkshire moors, and it is upon this landscape that the entirety of the novel is contained.  Catherine Earnshaw and her adopted gypsy brother Heathcliff live in Wuthering Heights and share a deep bond as children; however, this connection is tested when Catherine comes in contact with Edgar Linton, the son of the wealthy family of Thrusscross Grange across the moors, and becomes torn between her marital ambitions and her attachment to Heathcliff. Heathcliff sees Cathy’s flirtation with Edgar and runs away, returning after her marriage as a wealthy gentleman full of anger and bitterness. He spends the remainder of the book attempting to destroy the Earnshaw and Linton families and their progeny, as revenge for parting him from Cathy.

While the book concerns the familiar trope of star-crossed lovers, it has no need for the devices of other Victorian novels. There is no blanching, rosy-cheeked heroine, nor an earnest young hero to woo her. Instead, Cathy and Heathcliff are shockingly nasty: physically violent, emotionally unfiltered, without compassion for the weak or needy. As a teenager, in front of the courting Edgar Linton, Cathy slaps a maid with “a stinging blow that filled both eyes with water” and then vents her temper on her young nephew:

“She seized his shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid, and Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hand to deliver him. In an instant one was wrung free, and the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear in a way that could not be mistaken for jest.”

Heathcliff is similarly abusive, degrading those around him to little more than objects. When he learns that Edgar’s sister, Isabella, harbors feelings for him he stares at her

“as one might do at a strange repulsive animal, a centipede from the Indies, for instance, which curiosity leads one to examine in spite of the aversion it raises.”

These characters were understandably repellent to readers of the time, and even prove to be a bit difficult for modern readers to swallow, despite the growing culture of antiheroes in literature. Indeed, most readers will likely call their sanity into question.

“Wuthering Heights” presents an animalistic morality, as opposed to the domestic, Christian values of most Victorian novels. For all the talk of the Bible and the Devil, impersonal nature is more powerful than God; the strong dominate over the weak, and when they do die they chose to take their own lives. Self-preservation is valued: even Nelly, the figure of traditional morality and Christian values, conceals important information from her master so she won’t get in trouble, much to the detriment of other characters. At one point, she comments in a frighteningly pragmatic tone,

“We must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering.”

Moreover, Emily Brontë breaks the conventions of Victorian literature by filtering the narrative of the story through two voices: the primary speaker is Lockwood, a womanizer from London renting Thrushcross Grange, who conveys the tale of Wuthering Heights as told to him by Nelly, a witness to all events. If one takes their narration at face value (as Bronte’s first readers no doubt did, unused to such narrative tricks), a modern reader will be transported into a Gothic romance of passion and insanity, and appreciate it as a scandalous ghost-story of the Victorian era.

However, if one delves beneath the literal narration, a deeper story about the power of human bonds revels itself. Brontë places clues throughout the novel alerting the reader that perhaps Nelly’s tale shouldn’t be taken at face value: though she is faithfully relaying the events to which she was privy, it becomes clear that she doesn’t understand them. Not only is she quite gullible (many of the more tragic events of the book occur because characters can so easily pass things over on her), but she seems uncomprehending of passionate, deep-seated emotions. When Cathy explains her bond with Heathcliff to Nelly, revealing that she believes they are literally the same soul – speaking the famous line “I am Heathcliff” – an appalled Nelly wants to hear no more. She likewise is confused by Heathcliff’s torment at losing the one person in the world who understood him.

When readers pay attention to the language Nelly ignores, they see that Cathy and Heathcliff are about far more than crazed lust and possession. Instead, they are trying to return to their inseparable childhood bond obliterated by adulthood and reality by breaking down any barriers that divide them: houses, people, skin, coffin walls, and finally the membrane between life and death.

Despite all these innovations and sly tricks, “Wuthering Heights” cannot escape the archaic language of typical Victorian novels, and this may be a barrier for many modern readers. The proclamations of love are laid on thick – “Oh Cathy! Oh my life!” cries Heathcliff – and people speak in exaggerated detail. However, as with Shakespeare or Austen, most readers will adjust to the language after several pages. Prospective readers are also advised to buy an addition with a mapped out genealogy included, as the family tree becomes very confusing as it moves down to the second generation of Lintons and Earnshaws, and Emily’s penchant for recycling names gives the reader more than one Cathy and Linton.

Emily died just one year after the publication of “Wuthering Heights,” succumbing to tuberculosis and, like her hero and heroine, starving herself to speed up the process of death.  Though she lived her life in the shadows, she left behind her a blazing beast of a book that continues to electrify over one-hundred and fifty years later.


Classical Anna: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

September 8, 2009

The_Prime_of_Miss_Jean_BrodieThe inspirational teacher is a stock character in literature and film, from Jane Eyre’s Miss Temple and Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore to John Keating in The Dead Poets Society.  These instructors light a spark in the hearts and minds of their students, often while fighting a traditional, conservative school system.  However, an inspirational teacher has great power over their students, and such power can be dangerous.  This is the case of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher of both great inspiration and sinister influence.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the story of the titular character, an unconventional teacher at a conventional girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930’s, in her self-proclaimed “prime.” She gathers a group of students around her, known as the “Brodie Set,” and not only opens their minds to experiences outside the traditional curriculum, but involves them in her personal affairs, as well.  Miss Jean Brodie is an exquisitely complex character: she is a teacher who wants to enlighten her students but is also deeply narcissistic, self-centered, and self-righteous, frequently admonishing her students that “if only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.”  The “set” becomes a reflection of her own ego, and she wields them as pawns in her love affairs and ultimately encourages one of them down a deadly path.

Written in 1961, this “modern” classic combines the best of contemporary story-telling techniques with throwbacks to 19th century style.  The prose is traditional and lucid, without the verbosity of many earlier classics or the lyrical mumbo-jumbo of some contemporary books. On the first page, in a clear and satisfying style that characterizes the book, Spark tells the reader, “The girls could not take off their Panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence.”

The sharp, brisk dialogue is reminiscent of Jane Austen, as it wittily exposes the absurdities of the characters.  Readers know Miss Brodie through her words; they hear her voice and understand her character instantly.  Take, for example, this exchange between Miss Brodie and one of her “small girls”:

“I must tell you about the Italian paintings I saw.  Who is the greatest Italian painter?”

“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”

“That is incorrect.  The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”

Or this:

“Attend to me, girls.  One’s prime is the moment one was born for.  Now that my prime has begun – Sandy, your attention is wandering.  What have I been talking about?”

“Your prime, Miss Brodie.”

Such dialogue is delicious, and perfectly conveys Miss Brodie’s essence.  It is vibrant and fresh, yet reminiscent of a comedy of manners.

Though rooted in classic prose and dialogue born of an earlier time, Sparks makes masterful use of experimental flash-forwards, seamlessly weaving the present action with haunting scenes of the future:  “Mary McGregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame, and at the age of twenty-three lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden.’” Spark uses this technique to reveal that Miss Brodie will be “betrayed” by one of her own set, but does not reveal the culprit until the last pages, creating one of the book’s main points of intrigue.

The concept of this book remains unique to this day, taking the stock character of the inspirational teacher and showing its darker potential for abuse of power.  Miss Brodie is brilliant and magnetic yet dangerous as a cult-leader, surrounding herself with blind followers.  As she says, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” Spark’s characterization of the girls, following them from ages 10 to 17, captures the innocent loyalty and obsession with their dramatic and poetic teacher that makes them so easily manipulated.  The narration is from the girls’ perspective, particularly Sandy’s, and this allows the readers to see Miss Brodie from the girls’ awed point-of-view.

Rooted in classic prose, yet bursting with ingenious story-telling techniques and fascinating characters, this short book is compelling and engrossing.  Any modern day reader will find it to be “the crème de la crème.”


Classical Anna: Absalom, Absalom

July 23, 2009

200px-AbsalomAbsalomThere are some sentences one re-reads because they are so beautiful, so delicious, that one wants to experience them again.  Take, for instance, this gorgeous passage from the Japanese classic “Naomi” by Junichiro Tanizaki, in which the narrator describes his beloved’s body: “This back was a landmark of my love. My hands, my fingers, had frolicked joyfully in this chillingly beautiful snow.” What reader wouldn’t love to roll around in pages filled with such sentences?

Unfortunately, there are other sentences one re-reads because they are so obscure, so wandering, that one needs to go over them numerous times to grasp their meaning.  This is the problem with William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” a book with such a murky, wordy writing style that the intriguing plot is nearly lost beneath it.

First published in 1936, the book concerns the success and sudden downfall of the Sutpen family in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi during the Civil War.  Faulkner reuses the character of Quentin Compson from “The Sound and the Fury” as a transmitter of this story, as he hears it told layer by layer from those who bore witness to it and attempts to come to some conclusion as to what caused the family tragedy.

Faulkner was a pioneer of experimental, modern fiction, along with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and because of this a reader nearly expects to find difficulty understanding the action and meaning of his books. The most famous example of this may be Benjy’s section in “The Sound and The Fury,” which is narrated by a mentally challenged person and therefore is a literal, child-like, disorganized stream-of-conscious. This part is challenging and requires piecing together on the part of readers, but when they succeed in comprehending the narration it is a rewarding moment, as it allows them to see the story in through a unique mind.

“Absalom, Absalom” was also considered experimental, as it is non-linear and, like “The Sound and The Fury,” pieces together a story through several points of view.  However, the prose style, instead of seeming cutting-edge and electric, is cumbersome, heavy-handed, and repetitive, reminding one more of a 19th century novel instead of a modern American one:

…she was even more inaccessible to the grandfather of whom she had seen but little during her life and probably cared less anyway – that state where, though still visible, young girls appear as though seen through glass and where even the voice cannot reach them; where they exist (this the hoyden who could – and did, outrun and outclimb, and ride and fight both with and beside her brother) in a pearly lambence without shadows and themselves partaking of it; in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable, even their very shapes fluid and delicate and without substance…

An entire book of sentences like this is irritating, even more so because every character talks in this same style, whether they are an old maid with little education, a southern gentleman, or a northern college student, which makes them indistinguishable from one another.

It is unfortunate that the plot is obscured beneath all this flourishing prose, because it is a Southern-Gothic tale about a doomed family and such tales in the hands of writers like Tennessee Williams are often intriguing.  However, Faulkner does not reveal the truly riveting plot details until the end of the book, and this makes much of the novel feel like a lot of fuss about nothing, merely the story of a slightly dysfunctional family.

“Absalom, Absalom” is considered one of the greatest American novels, but much of what made it so powerful and cutting-edge has since worn off: the book is structured upon the once-experimental methods of non-linear plot and unreliable narration, and because today’s readers are adept in navigating such techniques, the edginess of the book has worn off. For many readers, it may not only fail to live up to its status, but instead prove to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Codex

CSS Troubleshooting

With the introduction of the new Themes in WordPress v1.5, boring and commonplace website layouts have become a thing of the past. With a few clicks, you can change your layout instantly. With a few more clicks and tweaks, you can screw up your layout instantly as well. Welcome to the exciting world of web page design.

When you encounter a screw-up in your layout, many people come running to the WordPress Forums. While the willing volunteers can do what they can to help you, there are some steps you can take to get to the solution, or at least a better idea of where the problem may lie, before you get to the Forums.

Know Before You Go
We have a list of things you need to know before you go to the forums with layout design problems, and tips on solving the problems yourself.
Examine Your HTML and CSS
Take a close comparative look at your HTML and CSS and make sure that all the references match.
Isolate Your CSS Challenges
Below we’ll show you a couple of techniques to help identify the areas that are causing your problems in an effort to narrow down the problem to a specific area and code.
Common CSS Errors
You are not the first to have this problem. We have a list of some of the most common CSS errors to help you fix the little details that can mess up your layout.
Pest Control – Watching Out For Browser Bugs
While we will help you identify some of your CSS challenges, a lot of them come from bugs and conflicts between browsers, so we’ll give you some tips on how to work around the various browser bugs.

It is the goal of this article to help you solve your layout design problems within the CSS file, not within the HTML or PHP files. For help on modifying those, check out Using Themes for more information.

Contents

[hide]

//

BACKUP

Before beginning any of these problem-solving tips and techniques, be sure and backup your data just in case. Also, backup the files you are working on as you try different things so you have some places to go back along the way.

You can do “live” CSS testing without editing your WordPress files

If you have the means, it is much quicker and safer to do your CSS testing and troubleshooting “on the fly” using (e.g.) Jesse Ruderman’s Edit Styles bookmarklet or the Edit CSS extension for Firefox. When you’re done making changes, copy your new (edited) code into the appropriate WordPress theme files (after you back them up).

The Web Developer extension for Firefox can help too.

Know Before You Go

If you are new to CSS and web page design, start with a visit to WordPress’ CSS Tips, Techniques and Resources to find information on the basics of CSS and possibly answer some of your questions. At the least, you will get a basic overview of what CSS is, the impact it has on the HTML or structure of your page, and learn some jargon to help you ask a more informed question on the forums.

You will also need to know some basic terminology to help you express your problem to others. This isn’t a how-to-CSS guide but more of a “what is thingamahjig called” guide.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are bits of code that influence the presentation or the look of your page’s HTML code. In WordPress, the CSS styles are generally found in a file called style.css in the specific Theme folder you are using. The HTML code and CSS references that hold the structure of your page are generally found in the index.php file in your Theme folder.

The PHP files are found within your Theme folder and contain the code and references which generate your HTML page. It is here, in the final run, that you may make changes to the specific CSS selector tags, not your HTML page. For help on modifying those, check out Using Themes for more information.

CSS selectors (names) are generally grouped into three specific references: The ID, CLASS, and HTML tags.

The ID

The ID is a reference to a specific unique area on your web page. It is generally seen represented on your HTML web page as an enclosed DIV (division) block:

<div id="header">Title of the Page</div>
In the style sheet (CSS) the ID selector is referenced as #header and might look like this:
#header { position: relative; margin:0; padding:0;
	height:100px; width: 100%; background: red;
	color: white;}

The CLASS

The CLASS is a reference to any element on a page that needs to look a specific way when this reference is used. For example, if you frequently want to highlight a word or two within your text (we’ll use red as a highlight color in this instance), you might have a CLASS selector in your style sheet like this:

.hilite { color: red}
and the reference in your HTML might look like this:
...this is some text about something
I want <span class="hilite">in red</span>. And 
some more rambling here...
As you can see, the difference between ID and CLASS selectors in the style sheet is that an ID uses a pound sign (#name) and a CLASS uses a period (.name). ID references must be unique on a page and used once. CLASS references can be used repeatedly in the same page.

HTMLTags

If you want to “design” a specific HTML tag reference, such as a blockquote, the code within the web page may look like this:

<blockquote>This is a pithy and brilliant quote 
that I knew you would enjoy.</blockquote>
In the style sheet, the reference to the blockquote would not have a # or period but would just simply list the HTML and then the design elements. This example indents the quote on both sides and puts a blue line on the left side of the quote and makes the text italic.

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.