On Giving Up

Well, I’ve finally called it a day on Anna Karenina. It has been sitting by my bed for over a week, unopened and radiating guilt. I have had every intention of finishing it, but starting my new job has rather impacted on my ability to read for pleasure or take anything particularly complex in after a long day at work. When I finally got some free time to pick it back up again, I found it unbearably dry and boring, and every page was a struggle. Rather than turning something that should be pleasurable into a chore, I decided it was probably best just to admit defeat and put it back on the shelf. I haven’t regretted attempting to re-read it, though; this time around I’ve gained new perspectives on the characters and been able to bring ten more years’ of life experience to my understanding of the psychological, political and philosophical questions Tolstoy raises. It’s also been interesting to see how differently reading the same book can be when you read it at a new phase in your life. When I first read Anna Karenina, I was a relatively poorly read 16 year old with a long summer of absolutely nothing to do ahead of her. I lay in my garden and devoured the novel, swept up in the romance and strangeness of it all. I’d never read a Russian novel before, nor many novels set in places other than Britain; it was my first taste of the exotic and of the decadent world of pre-revolutionary Russia. It opened my eyes to the boredom and restriction of many women’s lives in previous centuries, and Anna’s actions made me think about my expectations of the future and whether I too would find myself trapped in a life I didn’t want when I got to adulthood and had to start making decisions about relationships and children and careers.

It was fascinating, frightening, passionate, dark, complex and filled with characters who did and said whatever they felt like, regardless of the consequences. In short, it was perfect for a teenage mind, railing against authority, afraid of the future, highly strung and endlessly curious. Now I’m older and far more sensible, have seen more of the world and have become more widely read, Anna Karenina simply doesn’t pack the same punch. Anna, rather than being the romantic heroine I once saw her as, simply comes across as a silly, selfish woman who lives in a fantasy world that she is far too old to believe in. I don’t like her and I’m not remotely sad at the prospect of what will happen to her. I find Levin’s antics on the farm more thrilling than her and Vronsky’s trysts, which says it all! I’ve got plenty of fantastic books waiting to be read, and for me to waste any more time on 500 further pages of a novel that is not bringing me much enjoyment is ridiculous; I refuse to be made to feel guilty by an inanimate object! Maybe in a few years I’ll try again. I am interested to watch the film this week, though; by all accounts it’s a rather interesting piece of cinema so I’m excited to see what I make of it.

Unfortunately Anna Karenina hasn’t been the only novel I’ve been forced to give up on in the past week. The lovely Lija at Penguin sent me a copy of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, and as I’ve never read any Zadie Smith before, I was intrigued to see what I would make of it. Set in and around a North West London council estate, and exploring the lives of four people who grew up there and went in very different directions as adults, it promised to be an interesting and thought provoking read that I could really relate to. Unfortunately, I found it to be a rather tedious, pretentious exercise that read like something a student at a creative writing class would produce in order to show off. Rather than focusing on character and plot, Smith focuses on trying to be clever and inventive, experimenting with style and form and language to the point where it becomes nothing more than blocks of lifeless and bland words on a page. The characters weren’t real, the settings weren’t real, nothing was alive or vital or involving. It had ‘PLEASE GIVE ME A PRIZE!!!” written across every page. I got bored of struggling through it after reaching the half way mark and decided that really my time was too precious to me to waste any more of it on slogging through a load of waffly self indulgence. Is it just me, or is Zadie Smith terribly overrated? She seems to gets so much acclaim, but really, I could see nothing to impress at all on the pages of NW. Surely the whole point of a novel is to create a world within which the reader can become absorbed, with characters that come alive, with a plot that intrigues, with writing that impresses but doesn’t exclude, weaving beauty with readability to form a reading experience that excites and inspires and leaves an impression that lingers long after the closing of its pages. If we wanted to read word games, we’d play Scrabble!! As NW is more a game of Scrabble than a novel, it has been unceremoniously dumped into a carrier bag and will be off to the charity shop, where hopefully it will find a more appreciative owner!

So, it’s all been a bit disappointing on the reading front here lately. However, I have just started Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and I am absolutely loving it. I am surprised by this as I hated his previous novel, The Line of Beauty, and actually gave up on that too, but his latest is proving to be an entirely different reading experience and I am absolutely absorbed by it. Unlike Zadie Smith, Hollinghurst manages to maintain a strong plot with well developed characters while also writing beautifully crafted sentences. It’s very much a work of literature without trying to smack anyone over the head with how clever and different it is. I absolutely can’t bear pretentiousness in novels, and I do find an awful lot of it in what is produced by the big names these days, which is why I tend to shy away from reading off the bestseller lists. However, I am going to have to make a concerted effort to read more modern novels, as my role as an English teacher now means I am required as part of my job description (really!) to have a good grasp of the latest developments on the literary scene. Sadly, I don’t think that an in depth knowledge of midcentury women’s writing quite fits into that category, but if I can find more novels published recently that are of the same standard as The Stranger’s Child, I think I’ll manage quite well. Does anyone have any recommendations?

(ps. the photo is of the top of my desk – I have an old bureau – which has things sitting on it that are supposed to be motivational and inspire me NOT to give up – look at all the Shakespeare I have to read!! It’s where I’m spending all of my time these days. The life of a teacher! More on which will come…once I’ve got some time to sit and reflect upon my experiences so far!)

107 comments

  1. Hi Rachel. Just back from cinema and seeing anna has inspired me to pick up the book again which I started reading last week and put down as my library book is due back (Norman Collins – London belongs to me). The film is very stylized but keira as always pouts too much!! It has none of the richness (or tediousness) that is Tolstoy and I felt it missed the wonderful russian panoramas which I expected (looks like it was set in England and a National Trust property). But interesting…..
    I agree on Zadie Smith. I think reading is meant to be for enjoyment and you never know one day you probably will pick it up again, when you have more time on your hands….!!! Hope school is going well and you are enjoying it!

    1. PS have you read eugene onegin? I read it when I was living in moscow and working in st petersburg. And I fell in love with it. A bit of brightness in what was a very cold dark rat infested winter!!!! And that was the good bit……..

      1. Yes, I read it a long time ago…must revisit! I also must revisit St Petersburg, such a magical place! I can’t believe you got to work there, you lucky thing!

    2. Oooh I want to read that Norman Collins! How was it? I hope you enjoyed the film and that you’ll enjoy the book more than I did! I quite agree – time is not our friend as it is, and wasting it is anathema to me at the moment! Thank you, yes I am! It’s very busy but I’m having a fantastic time!

      1. The Norman Collins book is one I wanted to take time reading. It was wonderful! There was a lot to recognise even in London now and some of the personal moments in it were somewhat so realistic, as to be heart-breaking! Def recommend it! I did enjoy the film but as a cross between Baz Lurhmann (can’t remember how to spell his name) and a Tom Wright period film, but not as a Tolstoy novel. Style over substance. But see what you think…. St Petersburg is wonderful. Beautiful city and the art……!!!!! Moscow had great art but for me was souless and dangerous……!

      2. Maybe its an age thing (guessing am 10 yrs older than you) or perhaps what you have experienced, or even personality???, but I am seeing anna and the book quite differently. I don’t get much time to read, but when I finish will let you know. Right now I can’t wait to reach for book each night. I love it and am re-reading passages as I go along. It might or might not, be best book ever written, but for me right now, its pretty close……! Go back to it in few years..,you have far more patience than me for reading and it just may speak volumes then………………!

      3. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it so much!! I will definitely go back to it again in future…maybe it will open up to me in a different way next time. I hope so!

  2. First Anna – Your thoughts echo my grandmother’s on Anna Karenina.
    Second – I loved White Teeth but found On Neauty pretentious, although it did make me think which is always a good thing. I think I need to read a few reviews of NW, or see if I find it second hand.

    1. I’m glad your grandmother agrees with me!🙂
      I’m not sure if NW would float your boat to be honest! It’s very experimental. Not a good curl up with book which is what I want at this time of year!

  3. I’ve also been wondering whether it’s time to re-read Anna Karenina … like you, I lapped it up as a teenager. Of course, my sympathies were totally with Anna as what 16-year-old wouldn’t chuck everything for torrid passion – given half a chance.
    I had mixed feelings about the film, but have a very low Keira threshold!

    1. PS: I completely agree about pretentious modern writers and loathed The Line of Beauty. But have you ever read Olive Kitteridge … such a brilliant cantankerous character, one of my favourite reads of recent years.

      1. I love that phrase – ‘Keira threshold’!! No I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge – I have been looking out for it but am yet to find a copy. Thanks for reminding me!

  4. Isn’t it interesting, how differently one can react to the same book at different stages of one’s life? My experience with Anna Karenina was the reverse of yours: first time unbelievably boring, had to plow through, second time: “WHERE has this book been all my life? It’s fabulous!” Three futile attempts to get through Moby Dick left me thinking the only good thing about it was the opening sentence; fourth try I read it through in a week and thought it perhaps one of the few novels I’d rate as equal, totally different of course, but equal, to Middlemarch or Absalom, Absalom.

    Two side notes, one concerning Anna and one not. Re Anna: Even Nabokov thought that parts of the novel (he mentions the agrarian problems discussed in the chapters relating to Lyovin) were very tedious, at least to non-Russian readers (if you like reading ABOUT books, Naborov’s lectures–complete with doodles and margin notes–are great).

    Second side note: Like you, I loved The Stranger’s Child. So much so, in fact, that I thought I’d give Alan Hollinghurst another try (also like you, I’d been less than wowed by Line of Beauty)

    1. I’m glad you’ve found AK to be a more enjoyable reading experience than I have…and I admire your tenacity at trying so many times to get into Moby Dick – I’m yet to try!
      That’s really interesting about Nabokov, and I’m so pleased you enjoyed The Stranger’s Child! I am still loving it. The Line of Beauty was just a bit too sycophantic for my liking from what I remember!

  5. Right, that does it. I may not even bother trying to get into AK when clearly it is so difficult – ie, hard work and not so attractive. I quite liked White Teeth but felt 1/3 of it could have been edited away, which I saw other people say too.

    Modern stuff, R? Hmm well my feeling is you won’t be so gob-smacked with Ian McEwan, and my intuition is you’ve already discovered this! He used to be my favourite but after about 6 of them the attraction waned a little. There’s a darkness to him which I quite like, but which is also quite hard work: because it also means a certain intensity.

    – Bop

    1. oh no, Bop, do give it a try! You might love it!
      Some of Ian McEwan I don’t mind, but he’s not my favourite. He’s overrated and some of his books are actually quite disturbing!

  6. I loved The Stranger’s Child, I liked The Line of Beauty – although not nearly as much. I don’t read as many modern novels as I used to – and when I do I often treat them as cosy/easy reading like the Tudor mystery I have just read. However I recently read The Booker longlisted The Lighthouse – which I was very impressed with, as I was by Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Tudors again you see) and although I also liked the longlisted The Unlikely Pigrimmage of Harold Fry I saw it more of a nice story than anything much deeper although it is rather poignant and very readable.
    I am disappointed to hear that about Zadie Smith’s new novel, I enjoyed White Teeth and Autograph man, and liked On Beauty but less so.

    1. Great options there, thanks Ali! I want to read Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies…but am daunted by the lengths!!!!

      If you are a Zadie fan you may well like NW – get it from the library though!

  7. I really loved White Teeth but haven’t got round to reading any more of Zadie Smith’s work. It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy this one but I’d definitely give White Teeth a go!

  8. I have to say I adored, as you’ve said previously, the gossipy side of AK; just how Tolstoy wrote about people, relationships, women and men; fascinating and so readable. As to the Russian politics, I just skimmed those parts to get through to the beautiful, emotional passages and wonderful characters. I too thought Anna a silly, self absorbed woman.
    I read ‘The Stranger’s Child’ on holiday and loved it. Not normally a fun of multi narratives, to me most writers can’t pull it off so just ends up being somewhere grey between a collection of short stories and a novel – neither one nor the other. But, to me, Hollinghurst shows how it can be done.
    Quite a new reader to your blog and enjoying it, thank you.

    1. Yes, the gossipy parts are wonderful…I just wish there were more of them! I am so looking forward to reading more of The Stranger’s Child…time to read seems to be few and far between these days but I am loving every page so far!
      I’m so pleased to have you reading along, Ann – welcome!

  9. I read this post with interest as I read Anna for the first time last year, aged 25, in the run up to getting married. I was utterly swept away by the story and loved everything about it. I wonder if I will feel the same if I read it when I’m 65……

  10. Life is too short to read a bad book. A few of my good reads of late: When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt; The Reader by Bernhard Schlink; and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Have you read any of those novels?

  11. Glad I read through the comments to see Margaret’s pithy summation. And it’s refreshing to see you make your choices, Rachel. For me once was enough for AK, and never is enough for ZS. Am currently enjoying Wharton’s Custom of the Country. Why not be happy?

    1. You are funny, Diana! Sometimes I think once is enough! And I shall never be tempted to pick up another Zadie Smith. She is hideously overrated and I don’t understand the establishment’s rush to fall over at her feet. Ah, Wharton…I must read more of her this winter!

  12. At least you read it once! I’ll never read it. :<) Absolutely no interest. And I just tried, and quit NW. You were, as you say over there, 'spot on.' I agree with every word. I felt alienated instead of drawn in.

    1. Good for you for knowing your own preferences and not feeling pressured, Nan! I’m glad you agree about NW…what a waste of time! I can’t believe this kind of tosh gets published and PRAISED!

  13. I was interested to see your thoughts on NW. I consider myself a Zadie Smith fan and have enjoyed her past novels. I read the first few pages of NW at the bookstore yesterday and found myself sharing some of your thoughts about the writing style. From that little bit, it seemed like quite a departure from her other works. Whether it’s a good departure or not is still up in the air for me. It was enough to put be off buying the book, but I’ll definitely be checking it out from the library and giving it a try.

    1. It’s quite a cold book, Miss B – though if you normally like her you should probably give it a bash. I just think Zadie Smith in general isn’t my cup of tea!

  14. I agree absolutely that if you’re not enjoying a novel then you should stop reading it. I used to feel guilty about abandoning books half way through but, hey, you’re only alive for so long and there are many, many excellent books out there so if something is not for you then, absolutely, jump ship and try something else.

    For good modern novels I’d echo one of the comments mentioned above about Ian McEwan – he is not for everybody but he definitely has his moments and his latest, Sweet Tooth, is rather good. Another modern novel I enjoyed was Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather – it has a dash of Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald about it but as an example of sheer narrative flair it is quite impressive. It’s ideal as high-brow beach reading (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), although I guess we’re getting a bit late in the year for beach reading….

    1. I used to feel guilty too but I have liberated myself of late – I have less time to read so I only want to read quality books!

      I find Ian McEwan a bit hit and miss but I am intrigued by his latest efforts. I hadn’t heard of the Klaussmann, and I will look out for it – thanks so much for the recommendation!

  15. Regarding Zadie Smith, I’ve not read NW yet, but I liked White Teeth and On Beauty quite a bit (and intend to read NW one day). All the reviews I’ve seen of NW, however, lead to me think it’s more experimental and less straightforward than her earlier books. So I wouldn’t write her off on the basis of this one.

    As for Anna K., I read it for the first time in my late 20s, and I too got frustrated with Anna. But what’s funny is that now, more than 10 years later, I’ve swung around to be more understanding of that temperament, at least in literature. So I’m wondering if I’d like the book more on a reread. (I liked it the first time, but not as much as I expected.)

    1. Too late Teresa, she is written off! I have decided she is not for me!

      I don’t know…she drives me mad but you might be more patient and understanding than me – in fact, you probably are!🙂

  16. It cannot be denied — I have bogged down as well, now some 670 pages into War & Peace. And yet — I will finish because (1) I have to because of work, and (2) I still love Pierre and Prince Andrei. I would like to think #2 would keep me going, but in fact, without #1 I don’t know if I would. Also, I have let myself be distracted by The Leavenworth Case which is pretty unputdownable.

    Re: Zadie Smith … I have only read On Beauty and found the most interesting part of that was picking out the Howard’s End parallels.

    1. I can remember nothing about War and Peace apart from being a bit bored. Not a good sign, is it?!

      Ha! Yes, her success is really quite a mystery to me, I have to say!

  17. Good to hear about the new Alan Hollinghurst book! I read The Line of Beauty and didn’t care for it either, but I wanted to like Alan Hollinghurst! I’d be pleased to give him another try.

    I liked the third part of NW. I thought that part was interesting and it made me like the characters. But the rest of the book, I agree, Zadie Smith was getting too experimental for her boots. I prefer her essays.

    1. I think you’d really like The Stranger’s Child! It’s quite dark and you know you love that!

      I don’t think I made it to the third part. I gave up after all the I-is-Jamaican-man speech. I hate vernacular.

  18. I’ve been reading “Anna Karenina” too, and have been feelings EXACTLY the same way. The thing is though, I started reading it several years back, and then made the spectacular mistake of stopping even though I’d gotten past the halfway point. So I decided to try again from the beginning and I’ve been able to appreciate certain characters more and see others in a different light. But then there are nights when it just seems like I’m struggling to wade through this enormous swamp of words =( I do intend to finish it though.

    1. If you’re struggling, give it up! It’s never good to force finish a book! One day it might all click, or it might not – I don’t think it’s a real life changer so you are safe to put it down in my opinion!

  19. I just read Canada by Richard Ford and consider it brilliant and the best thing I’ve read this year. Ford won the Pulitzer his first time out. Canada is a very American book which sprawls over the vast emptiness of Montana and Saskatchewan. The prose is lean and gripping and very unlike most of what you and I usually read. Book Depository has a good description on their site.

    1. I have not read much of Richard Ford’s work but his early short story collection, Rock Springs, was wonderful. One story in there — I think it took place on a train — was heartbreaking. I should look for another copy — it’s one of those books I lent out and never got back.

  20. Your pupils are lucky to have you! How is your new job going? As a book loving ex-teacher I’m intrigued – I have only just come across your blog and am enjoying it!

      1. As a now retired teacher who loved it but went through all the stages of being new and inexperienced and occasionally disillusioned, the more you do it the better you get and the more fun you’ll have.

  21. I agree reading must be a pleasure and there are so many books that give pleasure. I do not like ZS and never enjoyed any I have read. I have the Hollinghurst to read but have not started it yet despite the fact that my sister ( a real reading buddy ) exhorted me to read it. Hollinghurst is coming to Cape Town for our book festival so I will go and hear him talk. I believe that after a day of teaching one needs a good enjoyable uplifting read.

    1. Oh wow, seeing Alan Hollinghurst would be wonderful! That should give you an incentive to get reading – it really is very good.

      I quite agree – I’m not sure The Stranger’s Child fits that description but it’s very good nonetheless and is hitting the spot for now!

  22. I have to confess, when I read Anna Karenina for a school assignment, I only skimmed the last 300 pages.

    Have you seen the Woody Allen film ‘Love and Death’? It’s a send-up of Russian novels like Tolstoj’s. I recently saw it again and, watching it with Anna Karenina on my mind, I found it hilarious.

    I also go through reading ‘dry spells’, when I give up on several books because nothing that I pick up seems to appeal to me. For me, the only way to break such a spell is re-reading an old favourite (usually some Jane Austen).

    1. I’m glad there are more people who couldn’t cope with AK, Elke!

      No I haven’t seen that film, but it sounds hilarious! I’ll have to track it down!

      I think I have definitely had a dry spell lately – Jane Austen is a definite cure!

  23. I haven’t read AK, but I am going to see the film tomorrow, I agree, life is too short to read books that don’t hold your attention. I have read Zadie Smith books, and had the pleasure of hearing (and seeing, she is beautiful) her speak but I haven’t read NW. I love your motivational bookshelf, an idea I may well plagiarise!

    1. I’m surprised that I’ve made you want to read it! I suppose I did try and be balanced…I’m sure you’ll find something to enjoy in it if you’re brave enough to give it a try! Love that NW article – so funny and so true – I’m sick and tired of all the critical sycophancy about Smith – ie. ‘if you don’t get it you’re just thick’ – yeah or it’s just a crap book!!

      Thank you so much! What a lovely thing to say!🙂

  24. I snapped up a copy of AK in the sale bin two years ago. Just last week, I finally moved it from the bedside table pile to the bookcase in the sitting room. I have read one chapter. But unlike you, I have never read it.

    Thanks to your post, I shall no longer feel defeated about putting AK off for another decade or two.

    So pleased you are enjoying life as a teacher.

    1. It’s hard to admit you’re not going to finish isn’t it?! But removing the guilt by moving the book is an important step! Don’t feel defeated – you’re just not ready for it yet!

      Thanks! I am having so much fun already!

  25. Hi Rachel. What an affirming post! It is amazing how much we put ourselves through in this reading business sometimes. I work in public libraries, and this topic of whether to give up and when is such an interesting one. I am still reading on, but am finding Anna less and less attractive, and Vronsky a fair weather dandy if ever there was one. But I love the politics, and the social commentary, and ever Levin. As for suggestions on some modern authors, I struggle with this too. Most books are like ashes in the mouth after Tess of the D’Urbervilles! And modern writing can sometimes read like it’s been hacked out of a wooden block with an axe! I find the best way to get into modern novels is to read ones that have historical settings. Sarah Waters is wonderful, her last was a clever ghost story, and she is very handy with a plot and atmosphere. Things build up slowly in her novels, and you just have to sit back and let her lead you along. It’s lovely. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was a wonderful novel written a few years ago about the poet John Clare. His life was amazing and beautiful, and it looks at diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the early 19th century. I am also currently reading John Saturnall’s Feast. Hot off the press, but set during the Civil Wars, so full of witchcraft, plantlore, filthy villages, steaming manor kitchens and suspicion and violence at every turn. Good luck! And ever thanks for your glorious blog!

    1. Don’t slog through it if you’ve lost heart, Rebecca! I know, so much modern writing seems to be less than inspiring! I have Sarah Waters’ latest waiting on my shelf and I am intrigued by the two others – I just read an article about John Saturnall’s Feast and it sounds very complex – certainly not your usual bestseller! Thanks very much and your enthusiasm is so appreciated – I love having readers like you!🙂

  26. Try Hollinghurst’s first book, The Swimming Pool Library. It’s not especially like the others, it’s more raw and rude. It opened up worlds of contemporary fiction when I read it in 1988 just as I was starting on my undergraduate degree in English. I also read Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose series about an upper class wastrel recently and enjoyed it hugely. But one of my favourite books is Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance. Also M John Harrison’s Climbers. Finally for big meaty reads, try Philip Roth. That should take you out of your mid-century (an era I also love!) and try out some of the boys…

    1. Ok, I will give that a go, Julie! I meant to try Roth while I was in America but I was put off by the length…I need to be more adventurous! Thanks for the tips – I will certainly give them a try!

      1. Roth’s short novel– The Ghost Writer — is very good. I also liked I Married a Communist. American Pastoral has been on my TBR list forever. I remember a bookstore owner telling me once that even though Roth’s prose is pedestrian his books are always about something — they are compelling because he is a man of ideas and experience.

  27. I couldn’t get on with Zadie Smith either. Not the latest but one of her earlier novels. I my try again though. Hope the teaching career is off to a good start. Believe it or not my daughter was taught Animal Farm by an English teacher who had not read the book! Kept getting the animals mixed up. I was not pleased …

    1. It’s so good to hear I’m not the only one who doesn’t get Zadie Smith, Nicola! Give me a classic any time! Thank you, it is! I’m having a lovely time. That’s terrible – how you could even attempt to wing teaching a book, I don’t know!!

      1. Absolutely appalling! I am always shocked when I find out (some) English teachers don’t like to read but to not have read the book one is teaching? Unforgivable.

  28. I feel better now about not wanting to tackle Anna K. I feel I should thank you for saving me!

    Really, it’s best to keep your reading energies for what suits you best. Keeping a large part, of course, for your ‘duty’ books! I hope you’re enjoying this new stage in your career.

    OH! I see you have the same Petit Larousse Illustré as me! Mine was issued in 1922. When was yours? It’s fun to compare it’s yellowed pages and tiny drawings with the modern version, all colour and show-offy diagrams and photos. The older copy is still solid but my newer one (bought in 2000) is already falling to bits. The cover has come away from the spine.

    1. Ha! I’m happy to save you any day!! I quite agree – there’s too much else I have to do than waste any of my precious free time on something I’m not enjoying!

      Mine is a 1908 edition, Chrissy- it’s gorgeous isn’t it! My spine is split but it is so heavy I’m not surprised – I bought it for 50p so I can’t complain! I love looking up random French words in there and looking at all the little pictures!

  29. Hi there.. Really interested to read your impressions on books. I did read Anna Karenina a few years ago when I was in my late twenties and I did love it and didn’t find it a struggle, but the thing is that from the beginning my perspective on the character was not that she was a ‘heroine’. I have carefully handwritten notes on margins that say things like ‘happiness is not the fulfilment of desires’. To me it seemed plausible that Tolstoy could have had a great sympathy towards the character of Anna while at the same time considering her a woman in error. This was my perspective on reading and from this perspective I enjoyed the work as meaningful and complex. I know that popular perceptions of the story are different and she is generally taken as a romantic heroine, but.. can’t people see how flayed Vronsky is as a lover?

    As for Zadie Smith, I did like her first novel White Teeth but I confess I also had to give up on one of her books, The Autograph Man. It just made no sense whatsoever. It was the hipsterist novel I have ever seen. I would nevertheless be interested to have a look at On Beauty since I love Howards End and also NW. It’s a pity I don’t live anywhere near you or else you could just pass me the book!

    I am currently enjoying Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, which is, okay, a great bestseller, and, yes, perhaps aimed at a youthfully minded reading audience but I am thoroughly enjoying it anyway. Can I recommend it? Sometimes contemporary bestsellers are wrong, but other times it’s very worthwhile to read the. I also have P.D. James Pemberley novel waiting on my shelf and can’t wait!

    1. That’s really interesting, Lorena…maybe by looking at Anna as a supposed ‘heroine’, I have been asking for too much from her. I’m going to think about that!

      I love your phrase ‘hipsterist’! Hilarious! That’s exactly what Zadie Smith is!!

      That’s a great recommendation – I think I bought that for my Nan a while ago so I’ll have to see if she still has it!

  30. I read Anna Karenina a few years ago as part of a book group, and honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it otherwise — and I was the only one in the group who did!! I agree, Anna is silly and selfish, and a terrible parent. And I got really frustrated with Levin’s personal crisis, which went on forever. I agree, don’t waste your time suffering through books you’re not enjoying, there are too many others out there. You may pick it up again later and like it.

    I’ve only read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which I liked, but NW sounds really pretentious. I’m having a very hard time finding modern novels that I like too. A lot of them seem to be recycling the same old characters and plots, or they’re trying so hard to be hip or award-winning that they just don’t appeal to me.

    Maybe I’m turning into a book snob.

    1. You’re a fantastic book club member, Karen! I think if I had have had that pressure on me, I would have made more of an effort to finish, but as it was, I just didn’t feel the urgency and it was definitely time to call it a day!

      NW is pretentious in the extreme! It is all a bit samey on the modern big name novelists list if you ask me – it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything that’s been written recently that has truly wowed me.

      A book snob is the best sort of snob to be!🙂

  31. Well all I can say is well done for persevering with Anna – I think I may just plump for the Keira film! I don’t have a good history with Russian literature.
    I do have a few recommendations for you regarding young adult lit though! I have just finished doing a course about children’s literature and it was there I came across Patrick Ness. His Walking Choas trilogy is superb and its not just for teens either! I have recommended and lent my books to a wide range of adults who all agreed it was a fantastic ‘thought provoking’ read. The books are The knife of never letting go, The Ask and the answer and Monsters of men, which forms the trilogy. Be warned though – they are quite hard hitting! Ness has also broke the records for winning both the Carnegie and the KateGreenaway Medal this year for his A Monster Calls. It is being read on BBC4 extra this week from 4pm. I managed to catch the first episode on Monday – I am sure you would be able to catch up on iPlayer when you have some free time.
    I hope the ‘job’ is going well!

    1. Thanks Vicky! The film will be good fun I think – I’m looking forward to watching it!

      A course on children’s literature? That sounds wonderful! Thanks for those great recommendations – I will look those up and also try and find time to watch the programme. Thank you, it is – but I am exhausted at the end of every day! I’m already counting down the weeks to half term!!

      1. Hi rachel, I am sorry I should have said it’s being read on BBC RADIO 4 this week and next! But it still should be on the iPlayer!
        I know how you feel – I am too on count down!

  32. I am looking at this from a retired school teacher’s point of view. I know how difficult it is to find time to read for enjoyment. There is so much that you must read, there is little time for anything else. Also, remember this as a teachable moment. You can empathize with your students who find it difficult to plow through a book that you find positively fascinating. They have lots of things going on in their lives which distract them and rob their time. You can let them know that you understand their feelings, but sometimes it is necessary to finish the task at hand. You don’t need to tell them that you didn’t finish the book, just let them know how difficult reading it was for you.

    1. Thanks so much Janet – that is such a great point and one I hadn’t thought of. So often I read something amazing and don’t get it when other people struggle – now I understand how that feels and can convert that experience to helping my kids in the classroom!

  33. Very thought provoking post, and I do like your blog very much. I just abandoned a much shorter Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata, as it just came across as ranting. I don’t like giving up but I figure nowadays life is too short to waste on a book you’re not enjoying. I went on to Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” and was much happier.

    As for Zadie Smith – I’ve been totally put off her by my two Eldest Children who both studied White Teeth and hated it! So having read your post I think I will avoid…

    1. Thanks Kaggy, it’s lovely to hear from you! I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy your Tolstoy, but I’m thrilled you loved the Bowen – she is marvellous, isn’t she?

      I think avoiding would be a wise move…you’d be missing out on nothing!

  34. Oh, don’t give up on Zadie Smith! I’ve only read the first couple of pages of NW but the writing style seemed very different to that of her other novels. I read White Teeth and loved it (though I think I was about 16 at the time- so hopefully it wasn’t an Anna Karenina type novel) and also enjoyed On Beauty (which is kind of a version of Howard’s End, if you like to link your contemporary novels to slightly older ones).

  35. “Rather than focusing on character and plot, Smith focuses on trying to be clever and inventive, experimenting with style and form and language to the point where it becomes nothing more than blocks of lifeless and bland words on a page.”

    I know exactly what you mean about how this can be frustrating, though I think that sometimes books of this kind really can be quite wonderful because of their innovation. I don’t know which category NW falls into (having read several reviews that left a fairly strong impression, though none as strong as your less impressed opinion), but I suppose it’s a matter of the reader…

    1. I think a lot of reviewers of Zadie Smith in the press are falling over themselves to praise her because she has been deemed talented by the critics and the literary ‘elite’. I think most normal folk would find her work unreadable – I always see hundreds of her books dumped in charity shops so I do think a lot of people give her a go and then give up! Frankly I don’t read a book to be bowled over by innovation and word games, I read a book to be engrossed in a fantastic story that is written beautifully and evocatively. I don’t get the point in writing a book that you can’t read. For me, NW didn’t really SAY anything, which was why I disliked it. But maybe I am just closed minded! Either way, it wasn’t my cup of tea, though I absolutely take your point that innovation can sometimes be wonderful and if you like that sort of thing NW could really float your boat!

  36. I’m thinking that I’ll be skipping Ak – doesn’t sound like I’ll enjoy it much. As far as Zadie Smith goes, I love her works. On Beauty is actually my favorite of hers and I’ve been looking forward to NW (which I hear is similar to Egan’s Good Squad book). That’s disappointing you didn’t enjoy it. Hmmm. Oh well. We can’t all love the same books, now can we? Or else what would we discuss?🙂 Hope you find something good to read!

    1. I hope one day you might give AK a go – I do think it’s worth reading at least once!
      I’m glad someone likes Zadie Smith! Well, each to their own, absolutely, and I’m pleased you have found each of her books enjoyable. I hope NW will float your boat! I think Zadie Smith is just an author who holds little appeal for me, and that’s ok! There’s plenty more out there who do!

    1. Thanks Tamara! It’s a pleasure to have you! Having to give up is annoying but it’s also liberating to allow yourself the freedom to admit when you’re not having fun!

  37. As I was, with some relief, nearing the end of AK over bank holiday, it struck me that some of Levin’s conclusions about ‘the meaning of life’ sounded strangely familiar. Then I checked and found that some of them made their way, almost verbatim, into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, possibly the most celebrated philosophical tract of the twentieth century. For example:

    6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world.

    6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

    After a little more digging, I found out that during the First World War, Wittgenstein was known to his fellow soldiers as ‘the man with the Gospels’ because he carried Tolstoy’s ‘The Gospel in Brief’ wherever he went.

    It seems the two of them converged on the same sort of non-credal, practical Christianity, not a million miles away from Quakerism. Roughly, that the Christian way of life could not be the subject of doctrinal exposition but could only shown indirectly through parables – which Tolstoy attempted to do in his ‘Twenty-three Tales’.

    So … I learned something new but no, the Anna plotline left me cold. I suspect Tolstoy just got bored of her as Dostoyevsky got bored of Alexei Karamazov. Occupational hazard of writing novels for pubication in instalments perhaps?

    PS Started ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’ by MP-D last night. Already infinitely more fun than Tolstoy – or Wittgenstein!

    1. That’s fascinating, Bruce – I never knew that! I do think Tolstoy’s philosophies are fascinating and I do by and large agree with much of his world view…but slogging through one of his novels is a pain rather than a pleasure nonetheless! I agree – it all becomes a bit unnecessarily bloated in the way I find Dickens’ novels do – it’s very paid by the word after a while!

      Oh lovely – I’ve never read her stories but would love to. One Fine Day is one of my favourite novels!

  38. I can definitely relate to the struggle to finish a book. I’ve been fighting with The Divine Comedy since I first flipped it open. I’m not quite ready to give up yet (inanimate objects do seem to have a knack for making me feel guilty), but I admire the fact that you could.
    I’m afraid I don’t have any recommendations I can give you, but I look forward to reading about more contemporary authors as you find them.

      1. I have a Spanish edition, translated by Ángel Crespo. I think it\’s good, it\’s just that checking for references takes me about the same time as reading the book itself and it gets a bit exhausting after a while. Thanks for the recommendation, though.🙂

    1. I haven’t even ever dared to try and Dante so good for you for even opening the book! I hope it gets easier.

      I’m glad you’ll look forward to reading about more contemporary literature – I think there must be some good stuff out there that has the same quality as the old stuff!

      1. I had a go at Dante once and got through Hell and Purgatory, but Heaven was just too much!

  39. I tried reading Anna Karenina once, but I had a dreadful translation. I do still blame my lacklustre feelings on the translation, but I do agree with you that Anna felt like a spoiled woman somehow, more than someone to sympathise with. This in itself makes me sad because I know there’s a whole message there about being trapped in your social circumstances, and I wish I could see more of that and less of the spoiled child thing. I do want to pick it up again someday, but perhaps I’ll wait a few more years.

    I’m also very sorry to hear that NW was a disappointment. I really enjoyed her novel White Teeth earlier this year.

    I have been eyeing the Stranger’s Child for a while now. I think you may have just convinced me that I need to pick it up.

    1. Translations can be tricky, can’t they? I never can be sure with translated novels whether it’s the actual book or the translation I don’t like. However i do think that AK is one of those books that you either love or hate – she is not a sympathetic character in many ways and that does put people off, me included! I think you’re exactly right about it having a wider message, but that does get lost a little when you just want to throttle the main character!!

      Oh definitely give The Stranger’s Child a go, Iris! I’m still really enjoying it, and it’s certainly a different and intriguing premise…

  40. On Zadie Smith, how you felt about NW, that’s exactly how I felt about her “On Beauty.” I still have White Teeth on the TBR but somehow dreading to open it.

  41. I know this a super old post but I felt compelled to comment. I did a unit on Tolstoy at university and was the odd one in finding it difficult and really dislikable. My main issue was with Anna. I found it impossible to sympathise with her and as the book went on, the less and less I liked her. I, too, found much more enjoyment in the Levin & Kitty story which I think is even more fascinating if you read a little about Tolstoy (Levin is in many ways a thinly veiled Tolstoy). If I’m honest I’m not a great fan of his, I’ve read some of his later work and his attitudes to women latterly have sort of tainted my view of him. Nevertheless, I see some of the supposed greatness of Anna K but, for me, Anna was too big an obstacle to get passed.

    1. Hi Jessica! I’m glad you agree – the problem with many of these ‘classics’ is that they’re hyped up to the point that you really do expect to be carried off into a different plane of consciousness when you’re reading them, and I think very few books can live up to that! Anna K is certainly a very ‘Russian’ heroine and hard to identify with or have sympathy for – I haven’t lost hope that I’ll be able to revisit this in future and see more in it, however.

  42. “Is it just me, or is Zadie Smith terribly overrated?”

    It’s you.

    I stumbled across your site looking for something else (as usual) and was surprised at your reaction until I looked through your book list. You lean very strongly toward straightforward romantic or pastoral Anglo-centric books.

    Time to move on. Read some of these authors, then read Smith again: DeLillo, Ellison, Faulkner, Gordimer, Coetzee (“Disgrace” is a staggering novel), James, Joyce, Llosa, Marquez, McEwan, Melville, Nabokov, Naipaul, Pamuk, Rushdie, Saramago. And if you want a sampling of pretension AND genius, the dreaded Saul Bellow.

    Buckle your seat belt and happy reading!

  43. So it’s not just me! I thought NW opened engagingly with a lively account of Leah being cheated by Shar. Then it plummets into an incomprehensible jumble of letters where plot and character take a backseat to random words arranged in tree and tooth shapes. I honestly don’t understand why Smith is the current literary darling.

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