Brad's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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's review
Aug 10, 12

bookshelves: most-hated, classic, matches-and-lighter-fluid, meta-review
Read in August, 2003, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** WARNING: This is not a strict book review, but rather a meta-review of what reading this book led to in my life. Please avoid reading this if you're looking for an in depth analysis of Anna Karenina. Thanks. I should also mention that there is a big spoiler in here, in case you've remained untouched by cultural osmosis, but you should read my review anyway to save yourself the trouble.

I grew up believing, like most of us, that burning books was something Nazis did (though, of course, burning Disco records at Shea stadium was perfectly fine). I believed that burning books was only a couple of steps down from burning people in ovens, or that it was, at least, a step towards holocaust.

If I heard the words "burning books" or "book burning," I saw Gestapo, SS and SA marching around a mountainous bonfire of books in a menacingly lit square. It's a scary image: an image of censorship, of fear mongering, of mind control -- an image of evil. So I never imagined that I would become a book burner.

That all changed the day Anna Karenina, that insufferable, whiny, pathetic, pain in the ass, finally jumped off the platform and killed herself.

That summer I was performing in Shakespeare in the Mountains, and I knew I'd have plenty of down time, so it was a perfect summer to read another 1,000 page+ novel. I'd read Count of Monte Cristo one summer when I was working day camps, Les Miserable one summer when I was working at a residential camp, and Shogun in one of my final summers of zero responsibility. A summer shifting back and forth between Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Pinch, Antonio and the Nun (which I played with great gusto, impersonating Terry Jones in drag) in Comedy of Errors, or sitting at a pub in the mountains while I waited for the matinee to give way to the evening show, seemed an ideal time to blaze through a big meaty classic. I narrowed the field to two by Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I chose the latter and was very quickly sorry I did.

I have never met such an unlikable bunch of bunsholes in my life (m'kay...I admit it...I am applying Mr. Mackey's lesson. You should see how much money I've put in the vulgarity jar this past week). Seriously. I loathed them all and couldn't give a damn about their problems. By the end of the first part I was longing for Anna to kill herself (I'd known the ending since I was a kid, and if you didn't and I spoiled it for you, sorry. But how could you not know before now?). I wanted horrible things to happen to everyone. I wanted Vronsky to die when his horse breaks its back. I wanted everyone else to die of consumption like Nikolai. And then I started thinking of how much fun it would be to rewrite this book with a mad Stalin cleansing the whole bunch of them and sending them to a Gulag (in fact, this book is the ultimate excuse for the October Revolution (though I am not comparing Stalinism to Bolshevism). If I'd lived as a serf amongst this pack of idiots I'd have supported the Bolshies without a second thought).

I found the book excruciating, but I was locked in my life long need to finish ANY book I started. It was a compulsion I had never been able to break, and I had the time for it that summer. I spent three months in the presence of powerful and/or fun Shakespeare plays and contrasted those with a soul suckingly unenjoyable Tolstoy novel, and then I couldn't escape because of my own head. I told myself many things to get through it all: "I am missing the point," "Something's missing in translation," "I'm in the wrong head space," "I shouldn't have read it while I was living and breathing Shakespeare," "It will get better."

It never did. Not for me. I hated every m'kaying page. Then near the end of the summer, while I was sitting in the tent a couple of hours from the matinee (I remember it was Comedy of Errors because I was there early to set up the puppet theatre), I finally had the momentary joy of Anna's suicide. Ecstasy! She was gone. And I was almost free. But then I wasn't free because I still had the final part of the novel to read, and I needed to get ready for the show, then after the show I was heading out to claim a campsite for an overnight before coming back for an evening show of Caesar. I was worried I wouldn't have time to finish that day, but I read pages whenever I found a free moment and it was looking good.

Come twilight, I was through with the shows and back at camp with Erika and my little cousin Shaina. The fire was innocently crackling, Erika was making hot dogs with Shaina, so I retreated to the tent and pushed through the rest of the book. When it was over, I emerged full of anger and bile and tossed the book onto the picnic table with disgust. I sat in front of the fire, eating my hot dogs and drinking beer, and that's when the fire stopped being innocent. I knew I needed to burn this book.

I couldn't do it at first. I had to talk myself into it, and I don't think I could have done it at all if Erika hadn't supported the decision. She'd lived through all of my complaining, though, and knew how much I hated the book (and I am pretty sure she hated listening to my complaints almost as much). So I looked at the book and the fire. I ate marshmallows and spewed my disdain. I sang Beatles songs, then went back to my rage, and finally I just stood up and said "M'kay it!"

I tossed it into the flames and watched that brick of a book slowly twist and char and begin to float into the night sky. The fire around the book blazed high for a good ten minutes, the first minute of which was colored by the inks of the cover, then it tumbled off its prop log and into the heart of the coals, disappearing forever. I cheered and danced and exorcised that book from my system. I felt better. I was cleansed of my communion with those whiny Russians. And I vowed in that moment to never again allow myself to get locked into a book I couldn't stand; it's still hard, but I have put a few aside.

Since the burning of Anna Karenina there have been a few books that have followed it into the flames. Some because I loved them and wanted to give them an appropriate pyre, some because I loathed them and wanted to condemn them to the fire. I don't see Nazis marching around the flames anymore either. I see a clear mountain night, I taste bad wine and hot dogs, I hear wind forty feet up in the tops of the trees, I smell the chemical pong of toxic ink, and I feel the relief of never having to see Anna Karenina on my bookshelf again.

Whew. I feel much better now.
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Comments (showing 154-203)

message 203: by Carol (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carol Enjoyed your review Brad, even though I really liked this book (I read it over 14 years ago, so I can't exactly remember why I loved it so much and I do remember being bothered by the fact that she could just walk away from her child). I understand the feeling of wanted to destroy a book I disliked. My method is usually to toss it in the paper recycling. Not the same feeling as watching the pages curl and burn and turn to ash, though.

message 202: by Sparrow (last edited Jul 10, 2010 02:20PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sparrow I fully support your burning. This book is so awful. I don't hate Anna like I hate the other sap pastoral couple, though. I thought she started out okay, but if I was stuck in a book with all these losers, I would have jumped in front of a train, too.

I think that Anna K. is the same story as The Awakening, but that's 180 pages of beauty, and this is 5,000 pages of syrupy hell.

message 201: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Thanks, Carol. I expect that more people like this book than hate it, so I expect to be in the minority with my feelings. Have you ever shredded a book you hated? I bet that would have a bit of catharsis attached.

Have you ever burned a book, Meredith? I am going to have to go read your review. Great connection to The Awakening. I hadn't thought of that. I love Kate Chopin

Sparrow Oh, I read it too long ago to do a review now, I think. I was in a phase of reading books back-to-back and realizing they were the same story. Those two were published really near each other, too. Must have been some kind of zeitgeist. Kate Chopin is wonderful.

message 199: by Pavel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pavel I can't agree less then I do, but I guess you're totally familiar with all the pro AK arguments so I won't bother you with them.
But there's one thing - as far as I know only Volokhonsky translation is good, others try to fit the novel into victorian-like prose which has absolutely nothing to do with Tolstoy.
And also i've been burning my toys as a child when I thought they don't obey (and felt like one of the evil characters of Toy Story when I watched it with my daughter)

message 198: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad As soon as I saw that you'd left a comment, Pavel, I knew you'd disagree, but thanks for not giving me the pro-AK beatdown.

I won't ever be rereading AK, but can you tell me what the best translation of War and Peace is? I want to read that eventually, and I'd like to make sure it is someone who is doing a faithful job (cause I have no doubt that plenty was lost in translation when I read AK).

Pavel as Toy Story Syd. I love it.

message 197: by Pavel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pavel Same thing as with AK, Brad. Try to find Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation.

Sparrow Do you think so? I find that they are more accurate to the Russian, but their English comes out stilted. I'm a Constance Garnett loyalist, but maybe she doesn't do as well with Tolstoy.

message 195: by Pavel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pavel Unfortunately my English is not that good so I could be 100% sure, and I cannot say I've seen all the translations but as I looked through Volokhonsky translation the style of the language, the rythm seemed very familiar. Perhaps it seemed to me like that, because their language is more accurate to the Russian, as you are saying, but several people outside goodreads, prof. of Russian literature at Emory for example, told me that Volokhonsky's translation was the closest to the Tolstoy's original.

message 194: by Steve (last edited Jul 11, 2010 01:29AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve I've read AK 3 times, but the first time I found it a real chore until Anna tried to deliver toys to her kid. And then a light went off and I was hooked. But hey, sometimes things just don't click. Delillo's Underworld, Falling Man, and Body Artist would be my candidates for the fire.

message 193: by [deleted user] (new)


Has anyone read Ivan Ilych? I loved that, but I've never tried to summit any other Tolstoy. War and Peace keeps calling to me.

P.S. You started a swear jar? Man, good luck with that.

message 192: by Ellen (new) - added it

Ellen I'll probably get around to AK anyhow, Brad, but you've got to stop burning those books. Donate; don't burn :).

No swear jar for me - I think I have some version of Tourette's.

message 191: by Larry (new)

Larry Bassett Glad to hear someone else has the problem of having to finish a book regardless. On a whole different genre, I just finished War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. Glad to check that book off the list with its 1128 pages. Spoiler: the allies win WWII.

message 190: by Steve (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Ceridwen, Hadji Murad is good. About a 100 pages, and hardly any fat on it. I believe it was of the last things he wrote.

message 189: by [deleted user] (new)

Steve wrote: "Ceridwen, Hadji Murad is good. About a 100 pages, and hardly any fat on it. I believe it was of the last things he wrote."

Sweet. Next I'm in a Russky mood, I'll check that out.

Newengland All of Tolstoy's Caucasus Tales are worth a look-see. Ditto "Ivan Ilych," "Father Sergius," "The Cossacks," and "Hadji Murad."

I liked half the book -- Levin's half, not Anna's -- when I read it decades back. If I revisit, it will be through the lens of Volokhonsky. Thanks to Pavel, I'd no idea I read it the first time as Victorian poesy (a genre that makes me want to jump in the drink, so the lake poets could write about me).

Interesting review, Brad. Tell us what you REALLY think! :-)

message 187: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Hayden Espenschade I like War and Peace (which I've read four times) much better than AK so am hoping the burning will end!

About the translations: we read the Ann Dunnigan W&P translation in college, and that was quite good. (Dunnigan was apparently also an actress, so you might like that, Brad.) The professor who taught us W&P doesn't like the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations at all: he just wrote an article called "The Pevearsion of Russian Literature." He thinks their translations are flat. I could go on and on about the pluses and minuses of translations, including theirs, but in the end I usually tell people that the best translation is the one that you will actually read.

Michael My wife's comments after finishing AK match mine exactly: "It took way too long for that bitch to jump in front of the train."

But the other protagonist finding god all of a sudden at the very end made me angrier than any part of the book up until that point, and I finished the book in a very foul mood. Bullocks on so many levels. Burn away, Brad. Some books have it coming.

Sparrow Pavel wrote: "Unfortunately my English is not that good so I could be 100% sure, and I cannot say I've seen all the translations but as I looked through Volokhonsky translation the style of the language, the ryt..."

I do agree that theirs is probably the closest to the original. But I agree with what Lisa's saying about the language being really flat. I just don't think you can dump Russian directly into English. It kills the flavor.

Ceridwen wrote: "Has anyone read Ivan Ilych? I loved that, but I've never tried to summit any other Tolstoy. War and Peace keeps calling to me."

I read this whole book of his shorter works because of that story. It was my dad's all time fave and kind of a legend at the dinner table. I think I'm allergic to Tolstoy, though. I've never met a Tolstoy story I couldn't hate. I have a personal problem with what a pompous whiney-bag he is. In all honesty, I do think that I picture my dad as one of the characters in every book of his I've read, so that could ruin a good story.

message 184: by Bram (last edited Jul 11, 2010 09:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Ah, what's happened to Goodreads? Sad, sad.

message 183: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 11, 2010 09:40AM) (new)

I read this whole book of his shorter works because of that story. It was my dad's all time fave and kind of a legend at the dinner table.

See, I may just love Ilych because of how I read it: in the original Russian, back when I could do such a ghastly thing, under the tutelage of a Russian prof of mine who was so incredibly crazy wonderful I can't even begin to describe him. He smoked so much, and so incredibly erotically, that he had yellow nicotine stains on both the grey whiskers of his beard and the nails of his right hand. I know, smoking's gross - don't smoke kids - and he was old and grizzled, but he elevated it to ballet. We'd stutter along in our translations, and he'd sit half-looking out the window and blowing great plumes of smoke into the office. (Class met in his office, because smoking wasn't allowed in the classrooms, which was unthinkable.) He'd just gone through a bout of leukemia, and we'd break our readings regularly to listen to his diatribes against doctors that would end in him semi-weepily thanking them for saving his life. It was brilliant.

message 182: by Marcus (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marcus The not liking AK and not saying why, other than a line about hating all the characters and not caring about their problems, in a rather long review?

Sparrow Ceridwen wrote: "See, I may just love Ilych because of how I read it."

I could see how a good experience reading Tolstoy would make a big difference.

message 180: by Marcus (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marcus Sorry, my previous comment was too snarky, I loved the book so I get a little defensive of it. :) I enjoyed your review even if I disagree.

message 179: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I remember reading Anna Karenina when I was about 20 and describing the plot to a mathematician friend. He looked disgusted, then thoughtful. "Hm, well, I suppose if you weren't living a life, then novels might be interesting..."

Helen (Helena/Nell) This review is so good, it made me want to burn a few books just to capture that Burning Feeling. I even cast around for my copy of AK (do remember, one thing she has going for her is being a double dactyl title) and then remembered -- with a certain regret -- that it was one of the favourite novels of my youth. I HAVE to find something else to burn! I could burn King Lear (oops, sorry Trevor!)

message 177: by Mervyn (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mervyn Peake "The not liking AK and not saying why, other than a line about hating all the characters and not caring about their problems, in a rather long review"

I felt the characters weren't drawn as sympathetically as one would hope for a book of Anna Karenina's girth. It could be partially a translation thing, I have no idea whose translation I read. But, I've connected with the characters in every Dostoyevski novel I've read, and the Brothers Karamazov is one of my very favorite books.

I didn't feel any connection to the characters in Anna Karenina, and actively disliked Anna herself. I felt like it had everything in common with a good novel other than it didn't make me feel anything, and also didn't entertain me. Personally, that's why I've been going around dissing it.

Christopher H. Fahrenheit 451 lives!

Bummer that you want to burn one of the greatest books written! Well, it is your pyre after all; so, you can do exactly as you choose.

Definitely the Volokhonsky/Pevear translationfor "War and Peace" too. Why bother though? I should think that your fire is probably large enough now.


message 175: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad I go away for the day to watch Spain win the World Cup and the discussion on Anna Karenina goes wild without me. Thanks for all the comments everyone -- positive and negative.

Elizabeth: I thought of you when I was writing this, and I hoped that this review would explain a little better how it originally happened. Glad you still like me despite my book burning.

Ellen: I promise to donate five books for every one I burn.

Marcus: I know how it is when I read a review attacking something I love, so no worries. I'm going to add a warning to the review so people know it is more story than review (although I have to say, even if I had given it a real review it would have just been me whining in depth about Anna's whining, so that review would most likely have rubbed you the wrong way too).

Ceridwen: as grade one looms and Milos and Bronte are about to go to school for the first time (we skipped K) my trucker's tongue could cause problems; the damn jar's been working for two weeks now (.25/swear) and I am well over thirty bucks already. It's killing me. But we'll all get to go to a movie on the proceeds, so that's good.

Nell: Make sure you let me know what you finally burn.

message 174: by Bram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Elizabeth wrote: "Bram wrote: "Ah, what's happened to Goodreads? Sad, sad."

Which? The book burning or not liking AK?"

Both :)

Helen (Helena/Nell) Have burned some poetry in secret . . . Cannot reveal which or who.

message 172: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Sorry to disappoint, Bram

message 171: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Fair enough, Nell.

message 170: by Bram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram First Star Wars, now Anna...


message 169: by Brad (last edited Jul 12, 2010 05:59AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad But you do know that despite what my brain and my fingers said about Star Wars, I can't help loving it, right? Nostalgia will out. I need to write a five star review of the Empire Strikes Back screenplay for you.

message 168: by Bram (last edited Jul 12, 2010 06:16AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Haha, I hear you--nostalgia is a powerful thing, and not easily defeated. I'd love to read an ESB screenplay review.

Sandra I read it in high school (my 50th class reunion was last year) and loved it, perhaps a reflection of my age at the time, but thoroughly enjoyed your review. Very funny.

message 166: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Glad you enjoyed it, Sandra.

message 165: by Whitaker (last edited Jul 13, 2010 08:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitaker Gee, I don't think I've ever hated any book with that much visceral rage. I've burnt ex-boyfriend photos in a rage (die, bastard, die!) but, no, no books.

Your post made me wonder though whether book burning makes any sense any more in this age of mechanical and especially digital reproduction. You'd never really manage to destroy all copies of the text itself, which was the original idea behind book burning. And it can't really be very satisfying to hit delete on your Kindle. Although you could toss your Kindle onto the flames...

message 164: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad If the goal is the traditional wiping out of the book -- the act of ultimate censorship -- book burning is thoroughly ineffective (but that wasn't at all what I was shooting for here, nor any time I've burned a book), but if one is going for a happy personal catharsis then it works quite nicely. Of course, deleting wouldn't fulfill any need, although maybe someone could write an app so rather than delete you could have an onscreen animation of the copy burning up (I don't think that would feel as good either, though)

message 163: by David (last edited Jul 13, 2010 08:57AM) (new)

David Katzman i've hated one book as viscerally as this. Marabou Stork Nightmares . i didn't burn it, but i could see burning it just because i didn't want it to fall into anyone else's hands, it made me sooooooooo angry. I was so angry with the book that i swore i would never read another Irvine Welsh book. [WARNING: spoiler alert]
i hated this book with a fury because i went into it without knowing what the central event was that the book revolved around. And then that event was revealed in graphic detail in the last chapter - it was a gang rape scene. It was so disgusting, and i would never have read the book if i had known that that was really what it was all about. I did not need to read it, and felt like Welsh totally sprung it as a nasty surprise on me. i felt it was really kind of bullshit to write this rape revenge fantasy story with the rape as the "twist." it turned it into a plot device. RRRRRRRRHHH!!!!

message 162: by Brad (last edited Jul 13, 2010 10:18AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Extending the Maribou Stork Nightmares SPOILERS:

I haven't actually read it yet, David, but I saw the play a few times by an excellent theatre troop in my home town (there name is Mob Hit), and there staging was fantastic -- particularly of the final rape. They did it as a super slow tango, throwing the girl back and forth between the gang. It was amazing, and made me a fan of the story, so I wonder what my take would be reading it now. I would be coming to the ending with full knowledge and a positive mental image from artists other than Welsh. I am going to have to try it now to see.

message 161: by Marie (new) - added it

Marie I was raised to associate book-burnings with evangelicals who throw works of worth and value into the flames to prevent others from deciding for themselves. I went to schools that banned The Color Purple, and I've known libraries that censor or can't afford the works they wished they could.

Donate the most beloved books to the library or to your local public school. For the worst, write your review, staple it in the front cover and when you have a small boxful put a FREE sign on it and put it somewhere where people will take it. Even repugnant writing serves a purpose with a better review stapled to it.

Destroy? No. Not here, not today, not ever. I'd love to burn all pulp romance...but if somehow I had one I'd staple my opinion in the cover with some stats and leave it at a laundromat.

message 160: by David (new)

David Katzman If i bought a book, i can do whatever i want with it including taking it out of circulation. That is far different from censorship. That, in fact, is freedom.

message 159: by Carol (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carol I used to work in a school library and we were always ordering new books. But you can't keep adding new books without getting rid of old ones. Some rejects would go in a pile for the annual book sale, but the rest would go in the paper recycling.

I agree with David (#46), if I buy a book, I can do whatever I want with it. For example, if I were traveling and reading Anna Karenina, I might rip the book in half at some point so I could lighten my load and continue reading it!

message 158: by David (new)

David Katzman hahahah! Nice point, Carol. I'd like to see that. Was this you?

message 157: by Carol (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carol Great picture, David, but no, I'm not that strong. I use my trusty Swiss army knife.

Here is another use for an old book:

message 156: by Abbey (new) - rated it 1 star

Abbey Love the review. I may need to follow suit. Anytime any friend comes to peruse my shelf I am secretly hoping they ask for it so I can tell them to keep it. Then I never have to set eye on that devil-book again.

message 155: by Cathy (new)

Cathy fotorny Loved, and I mean loved your review. I started reading this book and could not for the life of me finish. I don't care if it's a classic or who wrote it it has to be readable and this book was not! You said everything I felt and more and nothing was more fitting then your burning it. I had to take a class this semester and we read Chaucer and Milton and I decided that if I could go back in time I would end their miserable lives BEFORE they wrote one stinking page! I have been told by many people that they were awesome and I must be lacking in something because I didn't appreciate them. Well, be that as it may, I hated them, they were so boring and so incredible hard to read that by the time I finished a page I had to go back and re-read it. Finally resorted to Spark notes, just to get an idea of what I was reading!

message 154: by Ayesha (new) - added it

Ayesha Very fascinating review. Not that ive read the book myself, but if it gave u so much intense pain, then i suppose it deserved its pathetic end. Though, i just liked the way u wrote ur hatred for the book xD

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