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Books Read in July 2010

What Happened To Anna K. by Irina Reyn

This is a brilliant transposition of the story of Anna Karenina from Imperial Russia to modern Jewish New York. Reyn has kept the essence of the characters and the spirit of the story alive. She manages to make the characters sympathetic and easy to understand for modern readers. The actual writing is so exquisite that I didn't want to finish this book!

Clever and beautiful with her curves and dark, wavy hair, Anna K. envisions a brilliant future for herself even though she comes from a poor Russian immigrant family. She dreams of an exciting career in publishing and a lover like Darcy or Heathcliff. She wants a future that features 'searing political essays, powerful lovers and a work of art shaped by the most idiosyncratic emigre mind since Nabokov'.

When the book begins, Anna is 36 and disillusioned with life and love. When she meets the older, wealthy Alexander, she decides that it is time to give up the struggle and accepts his proposal. They have a son, Serge, and her parents are overjoyed.

When she meets her cousin's boyfriend, David, a younger writer who has similar dreams and actually likes Russian novels, Anna falls hopelessly in love. Her feelings lead her into a reckless journey of self-destruction.

Lev, in this novel, is a Bukharian Jew, who falls in love with Anna's heartbroken cousin, Katia. But will their love last the distance when Anna casts her spell over him as well? He discovers in Anna someone who shares his interest in classic novels and French movies.

This novel, like the original, contrasts ideal love with the reality, and a fantasy-world with the 'real world. Anna, Lev, and David are all in danger of wanting the kind of life that they've read about in books. The author writes that: "When I neared thirty, I realized I was in danger of leading a wholly fictional (read: delusional) life and it was time to take myself in hand." This is something that Anna, unfortunately, never does.

The Concert Ticket

Olga Grushin's The Concert Ticket is a beautifully written, almost mystical story that shows how people can find meaning in their lives even in the grimmest of conditions.

As a family waits in a long line in Soviet Russia for concert tickets, they start to become discontented with their lives, and look for answers elsewhere. Gradually, they cannot help discovering secrets about each other that they never knew. Will the line bring them closer together or tear them apart?

I especially liked Grushin's comparison between the beauty and colour of life before Revolution and the surreal meaninglessness of life afterwards. Her story of the grandmother, who was a ballerina in the Ballets Russes, stands out. I also liked her philosophical writing about the meaning of time.

This is highly recommended!

Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser

This is a charmingly written book which discusses the influence of women on Louis XIV
and dispels many myths about the King who gave us the grand palace of Versailles.

The Church had to engage in a fight for Louis's soul against his liking for mistresses, according to Fraser. Louis was caught between dominating Bishops who gave damning sermons against him, his own rather pious nature, and beautiful women like Athenais. Athenais, a luscious blonde, was his mistress for many years.

In the end, the religious Madame Maintenon became his morganatic wife and returned Louis to the Church. She has often been viewed as rather sly, ambitious, and a prudish woman who always dressed in black. Fraser writes that she was really very sweet-natured and loved fashion when she was young.

Fraser also dispels the myth that Louis was a lascivious layabout. He was really very hard-working and a perfectionist. He was also an excellent diplomat.

This is simply and clearly written. It is well-worth reading, but I did get a bit confused by all of the different people in the book.


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