Over the past month, I’ve read three books.
1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. There are two types of books that I generally avoid: 1. Non-Fiction, and 2. Eastern European literature. I tried to read Crime and Punishment a few years ago but abandoned it after reading some 200+ pages that never piqued my interest. I even felt a bit intellectually inferior due to my strong distaste of these renowned classics, until a very intelligent former coworker confessed to me that she also harbored a hatred for the Russian masters (like, OMG, I totally hate those books too!). I decided to give it another go and selected Anna Karenina, and guess what? I liked it. The novel follows two central characters... Anna Karenina (well, duh) and Konstantin Levin. The story flips back and forth between the two protagonists… Anna is a beloved member of high society, married to a prominent politician, whose world unravels when she falls in love with a handsome military officer, Count Vronsky. Levin is a wealthy landowner who eschews politics and city life, preferring to devote his time and energies to managing his farmland. He is considered shy and awkward by aristocratic society, but is liked and respected by those who know him well. Although Anna is the title character, both protagonists are given equal page-time by the author, and I found Levin a much more captivating and sympathetic character. Anna, whose affair with Vronsky, essentially consumes and ruins her, is to be pitied, whereas Levin is to be admired. One striking note of Tolstoy’s novel is how, to a modern reader, it is so obviously apparent that Russia was ripe for revolution. The wealthy live in such extreme excess, in such marked contrast to the pitiful lives of the (much more numerous) peasants, one can’t help but think “Didn’t they see it coming?”
2. The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Pachette. I LOVED Pachette’s novel Bel Canto, so I was looking forward to this one, and although I liked it, I didn’t love it. Twenty years ago, Sabine was working as a waitress when the handsome magician Parsifal called her up to the stage. She becomes his assistant, and falls in love with him. He’s gay, but eventually marries her so she will inherit his fortune. After his death, she finds out that his family, whom she had believed had died in a car accident in Connecticut during his youth, is alive and well, living in Nebraska. She visits them, and learns about the events that drove Parsifal away from his past, and forms a strong bond with his estranged family.
3. Sweet and Low, by Rich Cohen. Yikes! Non-fiction! This book tells the story of the sugar substitute Sweet and Low, invented by the Eisenstadt family from Brooklyn. One catch- the author is the estranged grandson of the inventor. Overall, the book contains some interesting history about the sugar trade and the development of artificial sweeteners. However, I had two major problems with it. The author holds a major grudge against the rest of the family because his mother did not inherit any of the family fortune in the will. In my opinion, that’s not a valid gripe. She married young, moved away, and never worked for the company. Besides, she grew up wealthy, they paid for college,…didn’t they do enough for her? An inheritance is a voluntary gift, not a requirement. She isn’t owed an inheritance and shouldn’t be resentful because she didn’t receive a gift that she was in no way obligated to receive. It’s hard to feel sorry for the author who whines about his comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle. Also, my major complaint about non-fiction is that some authors, including Cohen, use an overly didactic tone. They present their opinions as if they were proven facts. And footnotes? Ugh. Please use sparingly. Cohen also frequently alluded to certain events and people with a “to be explained later” tag, making the entire book feel like an introduction. A heavy-handed editor could have improved the book immensely.