Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Terrible Book

How to Ruin Your Life is one of the few terrible books I've read. Even poorly written books usually have something redeemable, not this. It's a waste of paper.

By Ben Stein, who can be too conservative for my tastes, this slim book is just mean spirited and misses the humor mark by a mile. It consists of 35 short essays on how to ruin one's life. Topics include: Don't Clean Up After Yourself, Be a Perfectionist (Right like Martha Stewart has ruined her life), Don't Learn Any Self-Discipline, Don't Learn Any Useful Skills.

The book's problems are many. I'll list a few:
  1. It's not funny and a humorous book should be. This just comes off as smug and obvious. There were no surprises or insights into human nature, which one expects from even mediocre humor.
  2. It preaches to the choir. There's no way anyone with one of these chronic bad habits would read this book.
  3. It's mean-spirited. Stein just comes across as condescending, as someone who's looking down at people with problems from some Mt. Olympus vantage point.
I'm glad I didn't waste my money on this and decided not to waste more than a half hour reading and hoping it would get better.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anna Karenina, up to Part 4

My online book club is reading Tolstoy's marvelous novel about infidelity, Anna Karenina. Here are my comments on Parts I - III:
This is my second time reading Anna. I have Sean's version* and agree that it's a very accessible translation. I'm not sure what translation I read before, but the characters were harder to keep track of and the read was tougher.

That said, I love this book. I'm learning a lot as a writer about how to reveal characters' reactions, thoughts and motivations. Tolstoy does this so naturally and gracefully. Also, I find the plot structure very natural. He goes in and out of Levin and Anna's worlds without making a reader feel it's jumpy or overly aware of what he's doing (so next I expect to return to Levin's country estate, then back to Anna). 

I'm learning a lot about the real history, how people thought about workers and society. It's interesting that Levin opposed universal education and that he had an explanation for seeing it as not good for Russia. I disagree, but thought that at the time that would be an issue with two sides to it. 
I really look forward to my daily reading and suggest you give Anna a try if you haven't.
*This is the version Oprah recommended a few years ago by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Jack, the group's leader, said his translation, an older one, made for slower reading.

I don't know if it's the translation or if it's because I've read this before, but I am not as confused or put off by all the Russian names and nicknames.