Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Some of Our August Tweets

More Thoughts from Our Final Round of Discussions

Just a few more notes from last week's Anna Karenina roundup:

  • the words ironical and unnatural appear frequently - is there a message in this?
  • Regarding the film, every scene was gilded
  • One reader "much preferred Middlemarch, because Middlemarch had better women characters"
  • "I felt compelled to read the novel"
  • "This was a better book than War and Peace, although I feel a stronger connection to War and Peace.  Anna Karenina is so much deeper; Tolstoy is a better writer here."
  • "I could have done without the chapters on Kitty's lying-in and the hunting expeditions, and the club.  Did those scenes illuminate the characters?"  One reader responded that those scenes, particularly the club, showed the kind of social and family life from which Anna is now excluded.
  • Many readers loved the scene when Levin asked Vasenka to leave his house for flirting with Kitty.
  • Oblonsky is a funny creature, especially when he is with Karenin and Lydia and the fainting Frenchman and has no idea what is going on.
  • Anna is a cautionary tale about being alone.
  • "It wasn't clear to me that Anna's state was due to external reality, but more from opium."
  • The meeting between Levin and Anna is beautifully written.
  • The portrait of Anna is representative of the difference between appearance and reality.
  • Her suicide is a way of getting power back.
  • The chapter of Varenka and Sergey in their almost-but-not-quite coming together, was excellent.  In the words unsaid and the missed opportunity, do we have a reference to the possibility of Anna and Vronsky not connecting?

A few final thoughts from one of our participants

Stalwart Big Book reader Edmund wanted to pass along a few final thoughts/musings on Anna Karenina:

  • Even before the famous first sentence, we read an epigraph: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." Which of the characters seek vengeance on one another, and do any of them actually achieve it? How and why is vengeance important to Tolstoy's message?
  • Tolstoy presents several contrasting concepts to develop his message and characters, including death and living, family life and adultery, freedom and rules/hopelessness, love and hate, despair and dreams, god and self. How does this affect his message?
  • Many of the stressed characters seek refuge in various places (St. Petersburg, the farm, Moscow), actions (adultery, death, travel) and concepts (religion, war, money). Were any of them adequate to resolve their problems?
Let us know your thoughts on these musings in the comments, and keep the conversation going!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015

There are 9 10 attendees at the Thursday Anna Karenina discussion at UCPL. A big finish, over the last two days, for our fifth summer read! 

  • Does Vronsky have any depth? He cares about looks, gambling, riding, art (a bit). No interior monologues to speak of.
  • Where did Vronsky get his money after he resigned his commission?
  • Why do Sergey and Varenka never re-connect? Is this another version of Vronsky and Anna, a couple not connecting? Or Kitty and Levin, who missed their connection on the first try?

 We had quite a crowd, 36 attendees, and a very lively discussion at our Wednesday night discussion about Anna Karenina.
Have you read Anna? What did you think of this book? How does Tolstoy's novel rank on your list of favorites?

 We had a great discussion on Wednesday night! Overall Anna Karenina was a hit, though it did not make the top of anyone's list (not even among the 5 Summer Reading Big-Books that we have done).

  • Is Anna a likeable character? Not for too many of us.
  • What drives Anna to suicide? Opium? Loneliness? Powerlessness?
  • Could Anna have been happy?
  • How serious was Levin about suicide? 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Snipe Hunting with Levin and Stiva

A large section of Part VI is dedicated to an overnight hunting expedition with Stiva, Levin, and Vasenka (whose name I kept misreading as Varenka, putting a new twist on that scene). The men are hunting snipe, a waterbird similar to a sandpiper that lives in Scandinavia and Western Russia.

According to the Handbook for Travellers in Russia, Poland, and Finland (published in 1865, and available online here), the snipe-hunting season started on July 15 and was over by the end of  September, at which point the weather had gotten too cold for the birds, which migrate to Africa. The same book notes that English setters were the preferable dogs for such a hunt, which often involved slogging through marshes.

Photos from the Internet Bird Collection
While reading this passage in Anna Karenina, however, I was faintly amused by the notion of snipe-hunting, which I grew up knowing as a hazing ritual for those new to outdoorsy activity. The more experienced person sends the less experienced and more gullible party out into the woods, generally late at night, with instructions to make certain noises, or do certain movements to catch a snipe (generally in a bag or pillowcase). The experienced outdoorsman then toys with the "snipe hunter" in some way, either by scaring them or just getting them hopelessly lost, and if all goes well, everyone has a good laugh about it later. (The practical joke even made its way into an episode of Cheers, when Frasier is sent on a snipe hunt. Watch a clip here.) It wasn't until I read this book for the first time a couple years ago that I realized that snipes actually exist.

Did anyone else get sent on a snipe hunt grow up with this definition?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Oh the In-laws!

I can't help but laugh while reading Part VI and feeling sorry for Levin.  He is so in love with Kitty and they are getting used to each other as a couple when the in-laws show up and show no signs of ever leaving.  Poor Levin!  His new family includes Dolly and her children who, thanks to Stiva, can't really afford to live on their own.  Varenka is visiting, Stiva is using the place as his personal vacation get-away on weekends to hunt and relax.  Stiva even shows up with an acquaintance who flirts with Kitty and throws Levin into a horrible jealousy that results in conflict between the newlyweds.

Most important is Kitty's mother who is there to supervise Kitty and restrict her movements, now that she is with child.  She insists that the birth take place in Moscow instead of at home in the country and just knows better than anyone about how things should be done.  Despite all, Levin does care for his mother-in-law but his favorite is his father-in-law "whom he liked more and more the more he saw of him..." (Section 6, Chapter 6).  You can't help but think maybe the most likable part of the old prince was the fact that Levin doesn't see him all that often.

"And I know why, " the princess went on; "he says that young people ought to be left alone for a while at first." (Section 6, Chapter 6).

Hear hear!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Our July Discussions!

1886 Edition
Thanks to all for a terrific series of discussions last week.  Many of your comments were tweeted and have been compiled in the previous post, below.  A few other thoughts:

  • The painting section was great - Vronsky as a dabbling aristocrat.  Either you get art or you don't.
  • The question of how to manage people is still relevant.  
  • The English aristocracy is different from the Russian - the English occasionally pretend to care about their servants, the poor, etc.
  • "Women's education gets confused with emancipation." - a favorite quote
  • Levin's brother's death is a demonstration of the differing domains of Kitty and Levin - they each have their work that they will dive into.
  • In Tolstoy's initial creation, Anna was much more fully described; she was overweight, vulgar.  In her permanent incarnation much of the psychological detail has fallen away.  Why?
  • Tolstoy is a writer who can give with one hand and take away with the other.
  • Why did Anna refuse the divorce when it was offered?  Is she wishy-washy?
  • Anna is guilty of using magical thinking (like a child...)
  • And speaking of children, Anna likes the idea of her son more than the real thing.
  • Did Vronsky really attempt to kill himself?  Did he truly want to die?
  • Lidia Ivanovna is a frenemy.
  • Nicholas Levin's partner, Marya Nikolaevna, is pushed aside when Kitty arrives.  
  • And about those moths... they are a distraction, a game, they represent decay, a predatory insect, or perhaps, Tolstoy was writing by candlelight and had moths on his mind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What is with the moths?

In part four, chapter five, Karenin goes to visit a lawyer to discuss divorce.  The thing that stuck with me about that visit over anything else was the moths flying around the office.  The lawyer "with a swiftness that could never have been expected of him, opened his hands, caught the moth, and resumed his former attitude" p. 419.  The moth catching happens at least three more times in that chapter.  So, all you smart people, what is it with the moths?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I'm still taken with the idea of duel between Alexy Karenin and Count Vronsky.  What a great way to solve a long as you are Vronsky and feeling very confident of the outcome.  Karenin, not so devoted to this type of problem solving.  Number 1, he is a successful administrator so not accustomed to the ides of dueling as a form of negotiation.  Number 2, by my reading he seems to be an out-of-shape old man, way past the physical prime that he may or may not have once enjoyed. Number 3, even though Karenin wants things to appear "proper", he really doesn't have much "fight" in him for Anna.

Take a look at this Infographic I found that gives more information about Russian duels:

The rules and etiquette of a Russian duel

Read more:

Is anyone out there longing for the return of the duel?

Saturday, June 27, 2015
Anna Karenina Discussion I

Because we all enjoyed the mowing...a Russian scythe!

A few of our readers' thoughts:

We read the novel Anna Karenina rather than the novel Konstantin Levin because of marketing...Anna has sex appeal.  Levin is a heavier, darker figure.

Kitty and Levin are a delicate Vermeer painting, while the story of Anna and Vronsky is painted in broad brushstrokes of bright red.  Can anyone suggest a specific painter?

Anna's story is romantic rather than sexy.  (Some readers would suggest checking out the passage on the paper-knife, Part One, Chapter 29, for a counter-argument!)

Why does Vronsky fall so hard for Anna after the many women he's already known?  One reader suggests it's just chemistry!

Playing by the rules is something both Anna and Levin have difficulty with.

A favorite remark:  Anna is not a very strategic adult!

Anna didn't have an adolescence...we will learn more about this later.

Falling in love is a kind of temporary insanity.

Varenka gives Kitty a new way to express herself.  Varenka serves the purpose for Kitty that the farm and peasants serve for Levin:  they both help them learn and grow.

Which paper-knife, below, would Anna have chosen?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Dancing the Quadrille and Mazurka

In Part I, Chapter 23, Kitty dances several waltzes and the first quadrille with Vronsky, and spends much of the chapter hoping that Vronsky will ask her to dance the mazurka at the end of the evening. The waltz is still familiar to most people, but the quadrille and mazurka are not as well known.

According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the quadrille is a dance performed by four couples in a square formation and features several intertwining figures.

The mazurka is best known as a Polish dance, and is often accompanied by bagpipes or the accordion, though some Russian composers also composed mazurkas for solo piano performance. The mazurka is a versatile dance, which can be performed by groups of 4 or 8 couples, or by a single couple, and while it is characterized by stamping feet and clicking heels, it is highly improvisatory. The mazurka features prominently in the ballets Swan Lake and Coppelia, as well as in several Russian novels, including Anna Karenina and War and Peace. An example from Coppelia is below.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Extended Reading Guide for Anna Karenina

Greetings! I hope everyone is enjoying Anna Karenina so far and making use of our fabulous reading guide!

We now have available an extended reading guide for anyone who would like to have a little more context with regard to Tolstoy's life and the events taking place within the work. The extended guide gleans articles from various literature reference works that pertain specifically to Anna Karenina. But, beware – the guide contains heavy spoilers. So, if you don't want to know the end of the novel, tread lightly!

To view the mighty tome, click on the following link:

You can also print out your own copy or create a PDF. Also, feel free to recommend any content or aspects relevant to Anna, and we'll add them to the guide. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tolstoy Scholar Elizabeth Blake

It was great to hear Elizabeth Blake's lecture last night entitled Falling in and out of Love with Anna Karenina.  Many thanks to her for giving us much to think about, and to all those who attended and asked thoughtful questions.  I scribbled lots of notes, and hope that others who were present can add what they learned by commenting below.  (And I couldn't resist these lovely photos from the website of the State Museum of Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaya Polyana.)

Yasnaya Polyana

  • The first thing I learned from Dr Blake is that I have never pronounced the author's name correctly. She says tol-STOY, with emphasis on the second syllable.  I plan to practice.
  • Levin is considered the 2nd protagonist of the novel, and a double for Tolstoy himself.
  • Tolstoy was never banned by the Soviets, unlike Dostoevsky and others.
  • There are subtle ways throughout the novel in which Tolstoy's affection towards Anna seems to shift, and in which he communicates this to the reader:
    •  In Love:  Anna's masses of dark curls are her own, whereas Kitty and Dolly use artificial hair extensions.  (Kitty's father comments on this when trying to pat Kitty on the head.)  
    • Out of Love:  Anna is from St Petersburg, where the society is vacuous, rather than Moscow, where the true nobility of Russia resides.
  • Other examples? Please comment below and add your thoughts!

Monday, June 1, 2015

In Part One, Chapter 9 Levin meets Kitty while ice skating " the Zoological and skating lake...."  I wasn't able to find a skating lake in Moscow's current Zoo online, at least not according to Google.  But I did find this postcard from a time period not long after the novel was published in 1877.
Ice Skating on Chistye Prudy, 1910
Chistye Prudy, by the way, means clean ponds, but refers to a specific pond that was once used as a dump but was cleaned up in the 18th century.  I like this photo nevertheless!

Red Square

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Once upon a Time...

...a group of awesome readers got together to read and discuss a novel.

Before we begin, we'd love to learn more about you.  Tell us why you're taking the plunge into Anna Karenina.  Have you tried it in the past?  Are you picking it up for the first time?  Have you read other works by Tolstoy?

Comment to this post below to tell us what attracts you to the idea of reading Tolstoy's classic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Welcome to Summer Reading 2015!

Warning! Actual book may be larger...
We're working hard behind the scenes and counting down the days to the start of our adult summer reading program: Big Book Challenge 2015: Anna Karenina. We'll be using this blog to post our reactions to the book, cool information that we might come across, and selected thoughts from each discussion. Can't make it to a discussion, or just want to share your thoughts? Feel free to comment! We're looking forward to an interesting and thought-provoking summer.

Planning to participate? Please let us know using this link:  Join us May 27th, from 5-7 pm, for a kick-off celebration.