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Summer Reading Challenge 2012…the countdown is on!

Well, there is a little over a week left until the end of my Summer Reading Challenge, and I thought it was time for a progress report. Those that are crossed off have been completed. Those in bold are in progress.

1. One Book Recommended By A Friend Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2. One Book That Has Been Sitting On Your Shelf For Over A Year The Shack by Paul W. Young
3. One Book You Read A Long Time Ago And Want To ReRead Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
4. One Book From Your To Be Read List The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
5. One Book You’ve Never Heard Of On Hitler’s Mountain by Irmagard Hunt
6. One Classic All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
7. One Book You Started But Never Finished Emma by Jane Austen
8. One New Release Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by AJ Jacobs
9. One Book That Is Outside of Your Typical Genre Poetry and Prose by Walt Whitman
10. One Chunkster (A Book That Is Over 400 Pages) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I feel fairly confident that I can finish The Secret Life of Bees and Emma before Labor Day, but I admit, I am feeling less confident about being able to complete a monster volume of Whitman poetry, Gilead, The Shack, and a re-read of Sense & Sensibility before the end of next week. It’s just not terribly realistic of me to even try…and its doubtful I would even enjoy the books if I did.
Regardless of how things end up, I did learn some things by participating in the challenge. While I don’t consider these a justification or substitute for the fact I didn’t finish, they are still worth mentioning.
I tend to read in topical groups or series. This summer, after reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I couldn’t help but delve further into literature and history on World War I.  Although I took a course on European History in high school,  I learned very little on World War I in school, or even graduate school, in spite of the fact it would set things up for World War II would would shape modern history around the globe. It seemed that something was missing in my knowledge base, so it prompted me to read everything I can get my hands on in order to fix that.
I’ve also noticed I like series. It helps me know what’s next on my reading list and keeps things orderly.
If I am reluctant to read something, little will change my desire to read it…even posting it on a blog. I have had little to no desire to read The Shack, no many how times its been recommended to me. I even own a copy (it was a gift) and I can’t bring myself to read it. Honestly, I’ve glimpsed at it and its hard to get past the writing. I want to give it a chance…but I can’t when there is so many other things to read!
It’s easy for me to bite off more than I can chew when it comes to books. As soon as review copies started coming in, and I was getting new paperbacks from Paperbackswap.com, and I was let loose in the library…well… let’s just say it all went downhill from there.
Although I refuse to give up hope just yet, I realistically report that I may not finish my Summer Reading Challenge. Check back on September 4th to check on the final reading stats.

Review: Anna Karenina

I originally started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy in 2004 when it was taken up by Oprah’s Book Club. It was the only book I ever picked up for Oprah’s Book Club, and I didn’t get far before I decided it would be better to quit. Anna Karenina moved with me from my parent’s house, to my first apartment in Baltimore, back to their house, and later, to New York where it would be packed and unpacked, all the while collecting dust between moves. Until this summer when I decided I needed to finish it.

When I stumbled onto Five Alarm Book Reviews Anna Karenina Read Along for July, I decided I had found the perfect solution, something to keep me motivated, and an opportunity to discuss the rather thick tome. What I did not anticipate, however, is how easy it would be to fall behind. Mid-July I got behind on my reading, and never recovered, but these last  two weeks, I found myself determined to finish.

Tolstoy is a story teller, and a wildly ambitious one. The Russian novelist creates an obscene number of characters for his eight part epic novel, all with overlapping lives, and formal and informal names. It was necessary for the first half of the book to pay close attention to character names and nicknames.

The novel begins,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It is an appropriate opening line, as Tolstoy unfolds the story of three families, each unhappy in its own unique way- Dolly and Stiva as they deal with his infidelity, Anna and Karenin as they deal with her unfaithfulness and her continued relationship with Vronsky, and Kitty and Levin, as they navigate what was a difficult start for both of them as they seem surrounded by infidelity. The backdrop of this magnificently complicated series of stories is the changing political climate of Russia, Tolstoy’s own thoughts on religion, and Europe’s art and culture scene.

In spite of it all, I found myself drawn into Tolstoy’s storytelling, wanting to see how things played out in each of the character’s lives. Would Karenin allow the divorce? Would Anna continue to manipulate Vronsky, and everyone around her? Would Levin and Kitty live happily ever after? I had to know. And though I found myself bored at times, such as when the perspective would turn to Levin whose primary internal monologue involved farming, or when the political discussions took on too many references that I was unfamiliar with, I still read on.

Tolstoy draws the reader in with his narrative arc and complex characters. He changes the perspective and internal monologues the reader observes, giving a fuller picture of the characters relationships and interactions. And he builds the novel to such a climax and holds it that you really start to wonder if anything is going to happen. When Anna does finally take action, it was nearly impossible to believe.

Although I may not have always enjoyed the characters and found myself bored as Tolstoy sought to make a point I really didn’t care about, Anna Karenina is without an amazing piece of literature. I admire Tolstoy’s boldness and his use of narrative and change in perspective in adding depth to the story and characters.

Weekend Recap: A few hundred miles and four days later

A bit of home.

This past weekend was a travel weekend, thus my delayed weekend cap and my lack of Anna Karenina posts. I had been hoping for a trip to Maryland to see family and friends this summer, and that opportunity finally came this past weekend.

Friday was a travel day, logging 255 miles of road time, 2 bottles of water, 3 snacks,  6 different radio stations, and 1 stop to stretch my legs. Arriving at my destination (my Mom and Stepfather’s house) was glorious, and not just because there was steak, baked potatoes, and salad waiting for me. 🙂
Saturday was a day for sleeping in, although I didn’t, and just having the chance to spend time with people. After hanging out with my Stepdad, and their new Yorkie Molly in the morning, I headed over to the local farmer’s market and bought three pounds of amazing Furnace Hills Coffee (I highly recommend their coffee, which I regularly have shipped to New York). I also got to meet the staff behind the coffee- Dave Baldwin, Erin Baldwin, and Lia Moore, which was amazing! Thanks for taking the time to chat!

After meandering the Farmer’s Market, and then stopping by a local salon for a haircut, my parents and I headed to Wegman’s for my great gluten free adventure. Assembling the necessary ingredients to bake, or even finding a decent package of gluten free cookies can be a bit of a challenge. My Mom, after some research, discovered that Wegman’s had an amazing gluten free section, and so we headed for a shopping spree. I now have 4 or 5 gluten/corn free cookie and cake mixes, gluten/corn free all-purpose flour, bread crumbs, graham cracker crumbs, pasta, and corn free tomato sauce.

The store in and of itself was an experience. I have never been in a store quite so large, or quite so crowded. In addition to the normal grocery store aspect (but think more high-end grocery store), there was also a massive food market/food court. You could get anything from coffee to baked goods to sandwiches to sushi. It was slightly overwhelming.

Saturday night, I was able to catch up with one of my best friends and her husband and kids. We talked, I got updated pictures, we watched some of the Olympics, and for a grand finale, we had a bonfire and toasted marshmallows.

Sunday was a little quieter, but not much. In the morning, Mom and I attended the church I grew up in. After church we hit Panera for lunch with friend, before I headed out to Columbia to see my Dad, Stepmother, and three sisters.

Waking up Monday was tough, particularly because I knew it meant returning to New York. After breakfast with a friend, a trip out to a local farm for some more produce (I couldn’t leave the area without cantalope, watermelon, and the amazing peaches I had tried), my parents and I loaded up my stuff for the trip back. Although the return trip seemed to move faster, it was still the return trip.

What made this trip home different was that I was different. I just finished grad school, and really, this was the first time visiting home knowing that I wasn’t living there because of school, but because I had chosen to live in a different place. It made me thoughtful, nostalgic, and a little sad. Especially since I know that these short visits are more the reality.

 

Anna Karenina Read-Along: Parts 5&6

My past for Week Three of our Read Along is both late, and well, somewhat incomplete. This week was somewhat of a mess, and by Saturday I realized I was about a half a section behind in my reading. Did I make that up this weekend? Of course not- that would have made sense! So… I will proceed with what I have read of Parts 5 & 6.

My thoughts: *Spoilers Alert*

Tolstoy isn’t much for portraying the beauty of domestic bliss, is he? Even my favorite couple, Kitty and Levin, seem to have moments of difficulty as marriage and domesticity is not all that they envisioned…and yet, this vision of it seems to be accurate. Marriage is about the coming together of two lives, and its not always this wondrous process. Levin isn’t going to get his beloved solitude in the same way that Kitty will no longer be carefree. I appreciated the section where Kitty insists on coming along with Levin to see Nicolai, and then cares for him more than anyone else does. She shows herself to be a much stronger character than she appeared initially.

Anna and Vronsky seem to be kidding themselves. We’ll, correction. Anna is kidding herself. She really thought society was going to accept her adulterous relationship with Vronsky flaunted in society? Really? It seems like Anna is not only slightly delusional, but manipulative to boot. She is drowning in confusion, and I think to some degree regret, and it’s beginning to strain her relationship with Vronsky. She holds tightly to that which she fears losing, and in doing so, risks losing it anyway.

On the Countess and Karenin…well, they seem like a bit of an odd match.

Discussion Questions and Answers:

1. Discuss the way Kitty and Levin fight. How is their way of communicating different from the way Anna and Vronsky or Stiva and Dolly disagree?

I think the way that Kitty and Levin fight shows just how young Kitty is, and how lost Levin is at times. Whereas Stiva and Dolly disagree about the state of their marriage after Stiva’s affair, Kitty and Levin argue about Levin being out a bit too late, or whether or not it is appropriate to accompany him to see his dying brother. I think some of the drama in Levin and Kitty’s marriage is created simply out of boredom (on Kitty’s part) and youth.

 2. What did you think when Anna and Vronsky took off to live together?  Now that they have, how do you see things between the two of them? 

I couldn’t believe they actually did it to be honest. It seemed like such a slap in the face to Karenin, and honestly, to society as a whole. It just wasn’t done then.

Vronsky seemed to understand the implications for their life socially, both abroad, and in Russia. He took care in mentioning his situation to others and introducing Anna, both for his own sake, and for her’s as well, but she seemed perfectly content to flaunt their status. I think Vronsky is beginning to realize everything he gave up in order to be with Anna, and it seems that to Anna even that isn’t enough. Things between the two of them seem tense and fragile both while they are abroad, and especially in Petersburg.

Anna Karenina, with its vast array of characters and situations is by no means a boring read, even as I round the bend towards the end with sections 5 & 6.

Summer Reading Challenge Progress Report

Well, it has been over a month since my post announcing my participation in the Summer Reading Challenge and I thought I should update all of you on my progress to date.

So far, I’ve finished:

6. One Classic All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

8. One New Release Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by AJ Jacobs

And  I am nearly completed with:

10. One Chunkster (A Book That Is Over 400 Pages) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 

It’s not a bad start considering one of the books on that list is over 800 pages, but there are still 7 books that remain on the list, and of course, a few of the remaining could fall into the chunkster category as well. I also have quite a stack of books in my to be read pile, as well as, two books from publishers to be finished and reviewed. With this challenge, and that big stack of library books, I’ve decided to suspend my holds for the next few weeks at my local library.

Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying the challenge because it presents such a wide variety of books, but I have found that one of the things I also desire during the summer is some light reading. So I think my compromise is that I will press on with my Summer Reading Challenge, but I will also weave in some lighter fiction as well, more than likely on weekends when I have more time to read.

If you’ve taken up the challenge with me, what are you reading, and how are you progressing so far?

Weekend Recap: Readathons and exciting arrivals

I originally envisioned this past weekend as a time to get a fair amount of work done around the house. But when I got home from work on Friday, I realized how exhausted I was from the week and the house was empty and quiet. It didn’t take long for me to realize I wanted a completely different plan for my weekend.

I had been considering a readathon to tackle my increasingly lengthy to be read pile from my Summer Reading Challenge, my Summer Reading booklist, and my library loot for this week, but in reviewing my calendar, I realized it was an impossibility- my schedule is incredibly full and I wasn’t going to be able to devote much time to it. So, instead, I ventured on Friday and Saturday to have my own mini readathon. I was able to read ahead just a bit for my Anna Karenina read-along, and I fully completed two books: Death Comes to Pemberley and How to Love An American Man: A True Story. I loved being able to conquer some of the TBR pile, and it was relaxing to simply spend time reading, something that feels delightfully decadent to me.

Sunday, was much less calm, and involved absolutely no reading. I had been asked by a good friend, L. to be one of her on-call people to watch her son H. when she was going to the hospital to give birth to Little J. So, at 5:29am on Sunday, I received the call from L. that I needed to get over to her house because Little J. was preparing for his appearance.

Around 11:28am, Little J. made his appearance to the world. After spending the day with Little J.’s big brother, H. we were able to meet Little J. It was an honor to be on call for my friends in anticipation of the arrival of their second son, to babysit their oldest, and to meet their newest little one only hours after he was born. And seeing big brother meet little brother is an experience I will never, ever forget. 🙂

Congratulations L., R., & H. on the arrival of Little J.! So excited for you all!

Anna Karenina Read Along: Parts 3 &4

For those who are just tuning in, this is post three for the Anna Karenina Read Along hosted by Five Alarm Book Reviews. I am reading the edition published by Penguin Classics, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The translation flows well, and is incredibly readable.

Part 3 *Spoiler Alert*

The focus of Part 3 was split between Levin and his visits with his two brothers, and Anna, Vronsky, and her husband and the increasing tension between the three of them. Levin recieved his brother Sergei Ivanovich in the midst of his haycutting season. The visit both confused Levin and challenged him. He makes some major changes to the farm and his interactions with those who harvest with him and maintain the land, instituting a system by which the profits are shared in order  to encourage the workers more earnest involvement.

Things come to a head between Anna and her husband after Vronsky is injured at the races. Anna in her distress voices what her husband has known, that she has had an affair with Vronsky and that she is pregnant with her child. She thinks she’s solved things, breaking the barrier of silence in confession, but really, she has stirred the pot in a way she may have never intended.

This section ends with a visit from Levin’s brother Nikolai, who is seriously ill with consumption. Levin is faced with his pending death and the realization of his own mortality and it prompts him to action.

Part 4 *Spoiler Alert*

Things both move forward rapidly, and fail to proceed at all in this section.

Levin, aware of his own mortality and seeking his happiness, proposes to Kitty again. He scarcely knows what he’s getting into, and he is floating.

Karenin, Anna, and Vronsky enter a strange phase. Karenin is incensed at Anna and her impropriety. After he catches her with Vronsky, he begins pursuing divorce proceedings, knowing full well what the result will be for Anna. But then…things change. He returns after the birth of Anna and Vronsky’s daughter is born, and he forgives her and Vronsky. There’s more to the section…but I don’t want to give it all away. 😉

Thoughts

I thought part three really dragged in the parts discussing Levin and his farm. He’s so incredibly shy and reserved it seems that the only thing that really breaks through for him are things that induce strong emotions- embarassment, anger, deep sadness, and love.

I love Levin’s relationship with Kitty, but I am concerned about the height of the pedestal he has placed her on. He takes a risk in revealing himself through his diaries, and when she responds with both disgust and tenderness, he sees himself as even more unworthy. Is she really that much more innocent than he?

The Anna, Karenin, Vronsky triagle remains baffling to me, particularly with the twist whereby Karenin forgives them, but then allows her to decide for them all the next stepns in their lives together. What?! It’s not so much the forgiveness itself that I find so shocking, its that Karenin places his future in her hands. Although he may not have admitted it to himself, he loves her and ultimately desires her happiness even if it destroys him.

Tolstoy has created a complex and involved story, one that seems at times to tangent off almost irrationally into politics before returning to the story at hand. The depth of the characters adds that much more to the unfolding story as you see both the interactions of the characters and see the reasons behind their interactions. Although I stand behind my prior comment that the novel is dark, I do admire Tolstoy’s ability to create such a complex story with characters of substance.

Blogging: Changing the Way I Read

I must confess, before I started The Nerd Reports blog, I wasn’t necessarily an avid blog reader. My only exceptions were a few cooking blogs I was completely addicted to, and the blogs of close friends. I would collect a bunch of posts to read and sit there with my coffee catching up on blog posts. But I never read book review blogs.

Often, if I wanted an opinion on a book, I would try Amazon comments, or more likely, the New York Times Sunday Reviews. Both have yielded some great books, but also some complete duds. It never even occurred to me that book review blog existed until I did a bit of research because I wanted to start one myself.

These days I actively read about 10 book review blogs. Why the change?

Honestly, because I’ve enjoyed finding a community of readers. I like to see what other people’s take is on the classics. I like the straightforward reviews from real, down- to- earth people. Its inspired me to tackle books that felt daunting, like Anna Karenina, and read new ones, like Arranged. Everyday I get new book recommendations from people who live all over the world, and I have a place to dialog about them. There is community across the miles as we all work through a chunky book together, or as we peruse the new releases, or as we talk about the new loot from a library visit.

And I find that because I get so excited about reading new things, I want to talk about them. I want to comment on others blogs, I want them to comment on mine, and I want to review books.

It’s fun to realize that blogging and blog reading has transformed the way I read.

Weekend Recap: Quiet.

Quiet. This word perfectly describes what was altogether a lovely weekend. Some may substitute the word boring after reading this post…but honestly, I’ll take boring any day.

Saturday began leisurely. I woke up early (my body, when I am not sleep deprived, is actually programmed to wake up after 8 hours), and just stayed in bed for awhile reading. I meandered to my laptop after awhile to check my email and post about Anna Karenina before heading the kitchen for breakfast and coffee.

I had a chance to catch up on a few phone calls with family and friends, and because I just can’t sit still, I cleaned while I talked. It was nice to be able to talk with people and not be concerned with rushing off the phone. My Dad and I talked for quite awhile, and it was great hearing about how much he volunteers on the Alumni Board for his alma mater. I had no idea he was that involved, but I am really proud of him for volunteering and working with students. Both my Mom and my Stepfather have always taught me the importance of giving back, and it was so cool to realize its a value that spans my entire family.

When I stopped by the grocery store in the morning, I went by the Redbox to pick up a movie, thinking it was a good way to stay out of the heat, and really, its been awhile since I’ve watched a movie. I picked up Tower Heist, which I watched with one of my roommates in the afternoon.

I loved it. Its been awhile since I’ve sat down to watch a movie, or that a movie has captured my attention so thoroughly that I actually wanted to focus on the movie and not pull out a cross stitch, or an additional project. Tower Heist had some fun twists, a lot of action, some funny line, and had both Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy in very different roles for each.

Sunday was back onto the normal schedule, but the afternoon was quiet, with dinner in the crockpot, and the weather more temperate. I took my project outside and sat in a chair overlooking the Hudson. Altogether, no a bad way to spend a weekend.

Anna Karenina Read Along Part 1 and 2

I admit, I struggled a bit with Anna Karenina at first.  The opening line is a doozy, and puts us right in the middle of the drama.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Whoa! Alrighty then Count Tolstoy. In spite of my initial misgivings, I have been thoroughly enveloped by the story. Now I want to see what’s happening between Anna and her husband, to see whether or not Levin will man up a bit and pursue Kitty, or if Oblonsky will ever stop being a twit. There is ALOT of story here. And I will confess, it is occasionally a challenge trying to follow all the characters with thier multiple names and deeply intertwined lives, but its worth it.

Tolstoy has this way of revealing the character’s inner thoughts which adds an unexpected depth to the story, and to the character. Without the thoughts of Karenina he would seem a very one note character, but because we see what he is thinking and feeling, he doesn’t seem as out of the know or as uncaring as Anna would have us believe.

As much as I have become enveloped in the story, I continue to have my reservations. Tolstory seems to have a very dark outlook on things (think back to the opening line) and honestly, there are parts of Russian society I don’t understand. Are discreet affairs okay among the aristocracy but obvious ones unacceptable? Why is any affair acceptable?

The timing is clearly pre-Revolution, but is the Revolution beginning to build at this point among the peasants? What is the point of the zemstvo that Levin refuses to be involved in? So many questions…but I suppose I’ll just need to read on to see if Tolstoy answers any of my questions.

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