Anna Karenina: With love you can’t ask why

Keira Knightlyas the doomed Anna Karenina Her finest performance to date. Photo:

I waited for naught for Anna Karenina to make it to Springfield theaters. I don’t know whether AMC thinks we midwestern rubes are too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and self-destruction or whether we are, in fact, too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and destruction. But we might have been given the chance to prove or disprove such an hypothesis. But at last I was able to watch Keira Knightley’s Oscar-worthy but overlooked performance as the doomed St. Petersburg socialite, and it was one of the finest translations of a classic work of fiction that I have ever witnessed. The performances by Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson–not to mention several dozen other cast members–made this stylish set piece a true dramatic tour de force. And Hollywood barely noticed. Talk about rubes.

Anna was required reading in a world literature course I took in college, and I found it surprisingly easy to read in spite of its length. I have re-read it three times since, and it still is as fresh an experience on each return as it was the first time around.

Anna is a book about family, and may well be the story that someone had in mind when coining the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

The setting of the story, St. Petersburg high society in Czarist Russia, may put off some readers. But the landscape of the story, the abiding love of family and the destructive effects of adultery, is as modern as today’s Star magazine. There is one major difference, however. The stigma and social upheaval of adultery that existed in Anna’s world no longer exists. Had Anna strayed today, depending on the legal counsel given prior to walking away, she could have ended up with half the property and landed a spot on a Real Housewives reality show. Her ending was much more grim.

Anna is a respectable woman in a loveless marriage to a respected civil servant. They have a son, whom Anna loves dearly. As the story begins, Anna is leaving to go to her sister’s to help save a marriage. Her brother, Stiva,  has been caught in an affair, and his marriage is on the skids. Anna, renowned for her level headedness, is called upon to restore the domestic tranquility to a family torn by a man’s inability to keep certain things to himself. Not the first time in history such things would happen, nor the last; but in one of the most famous opening lines in any novel, Tolstoy reminds us that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

While away, Anna encounters a brash young soldier, Count Vronsky. The Count, a younger man, is immediately attracted to the beautiful Anna and begins to pursue her aggressively. She is amused at first, and puts off her suitor. It isn’t long, however, before she realizes how hungry she is for just such ardor. That ardor had left her marriage long ago, if in fact it ever existed. Eventually, she succumbs. A subsequent pregnancy forces Anna to face the consequences, which include the loss of her beloved son and her respectability in society. As she and Vronsky continue their relationship, her unhappiness makes her more and more self conscious and aware of the age difference between her and her new lover. She becomes a jealous harridan, which has the effect of driving her lover away.

In the latter half of the book, we witness Anna’s decompensation and eventual self-destruction. This unhappy ending is balanced, however, by a parallel story of two young lovers who find lasting happiness in a marriage that began in love and endured because of it. I was heartened to see that this movie adaptation incorporated the Kitty-Levin counterbalance, something that was usually passed over by filmmakers for the sake of the Anna-Vronsky romance. The story of Kitty and Levin is, perhaps, where the true lesson in Tolstoy’s novel lies.

Anna Karenina is a story about forbidden love and the price that it exacts. While the price was higher in 19th century society, the price in terms of pain and family disintegration is as real today as it ever was when love trumps social strictures. But, as Vronsky says to Anna in this very fine film, “You can’t ask why about love.”

This rube from the midwest really loved the movie version. I just wish I could have seen it in a theater. Thanks, AMC. Thanks a lot.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

Killing Lincoln: Still a best seller, now a National Geographic docudrama

Billy Campbell portrays Abraham Lincoln in the television film ‘Killing Lincoln’ based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly. Actor Billy Campbell makes a convincing Lincoln in “Killing Lincoln,” showing now on the National Geographic Channel. Read more:

Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard is currently Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller’s list for non-fiction books. It has been on the list for 72 weeks. For reference sake, and based on quasi-reliable blog sites, compare this with The DaVinci Code  on the Fiction list–166 weeks–and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in Non-Fiction–216 weeks. It has a ways to go to beat Midnight’s record, but it is still a publishing phenomenon in spite of–or, who knows?, perhaps because of–the controversy that it stirred up after it appeared.

On Sunday, February 17, the National Geographic docudrama based on the book debuted, narrated / hosted by Tom Hanks. The story was tightly compacted into the two-hour time slot, which means that a lot of interesting stuff was left out. For example, the bit about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln’s son, Robert,  sharing the same girl—Lucy Hale! Okay, tangential—but salacious! And who doesn’t like their history salacious? But the important elements were all there, and the acting by Billy Campbell–who had to have some real nerve to do Lincoln following so closely upon Daniel-Day Lewis’ soon to be Oscar-winning (yes, you heard it here!) performance, but Campbell makes a quietly compelling Lincoln. Jesse Johnson (son of Miami Vice co-star Don Johnson) was dark, compelling, intelligent, and driven as John Wilkes Booth. The two performances carried the two-hour presentation through the continual narrations by Hanks, a format that could have spelled disaster with lesser talents in the main roles.

Johnson as Booth–Dark and compelling. Source: National Geographic

O’Reilly co-authored his book with Martin Dugard, a New York Times bestselling author of To Be A Runner (Rodale Books, 2011) which talks about his passion for, well, running I guess. Neither O’Reilly nor Dugard are historians (or, apparently, grammarians—some pedant pointed out that Lincoln was said to ‘furl’ his brow and that he should have ‘furrowed’ it). And in the first edition, they had Lincoln sitting in the oval office. There wasn’t one until 1909. Yes, mistakes were made.

When I first reviewed Killing Lincoln over a year ago, I wrote O’Reilly about one of the errors in his book. Of course, it was tangential to the story. The nuns in high school were always complaining that stuff I brought up in class was beside the point! Anyway, in the last chapter where they are talking about the aftermath of the assassination, I read that General Custer’s body was the only one not mutilated after the battle of the Little Big Horn. If you’re interested—and who wouldn’t be for heaven’s sake?—the only body not mutilated was that of Captain Myles Keogh, whose horse Comanche was touted as the only survivor of the battle. (He wasn’t, though. Most of the Sioux and Cheyenne—remember? They survived!).

Bill and Marty wrote back and thanked me for pointing out this egregious error.

Hah! Okay, that was a blatant lie. My e-mail went to cyber no-man’s land. I fully expect to read about Custer’s pristine corpse even in the “corrected” version!

So, Killing Lincoln has—or had—factual errors not worthy of Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is Wikipedia to her Britannica. Agreed.

But it is still a damn good read. I know that as an academic I am supposed to be upset by shoddy scholarship; but as a writer I also appreciate a story that moves, entertains, and educates (however imperfectly) in the process. Killing Lincoln does that, in Grisham style. Not everyone can suffer the lengthy and well-documented style of Doris Kearns Goodwin (although Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is one of the finest books about Lincoln I have ever read). But anyone reading Killing Lincoln will find that they have a new appreciation for the reality of what happened in this country on April 14, 1865—even though Lincoln never sat once in the oval office.

Perhaps one of the best things, and most useful as well as educational, to come as a result of the collaboration with National Geographic is a great website that takes you in a very interesting manner through the conspiracy. This will make a great addition to many school curricula, and since O’Reilly was as educator that’s as it should be.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

The Paris Wife: You marry the man, not the myth

Hemingway and Hadley in Paris – “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her:” JFK Presidential Library and Museum – Ernest Hemingway Collection

On July 2, 1961, author Ernest Hemingway took his favorite shotgun, shoved the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Thus ended the life of one of the most iconic and mythologized authors of the twentieth century. His father had also shot himself, as had one of his brothers. Years later, his granddaughter Margot Hemingway would also take her own life.

Was it something in their genetic makeup?

Hemingway was always larger than life, and the real man behind the mask was not quite the macho figure that he cut for the press. Had his life been irrevocably set on its eventual course by the horrific wounds he suffered as an ambulance driver in Italy during the first world war? Or was he, rather, the spoiled son of a wealthy Oak Park, Illinois doctor and his domineering wife? A boy who grew into a man who wanted it all and to whom nobody could say “No.”

What was it like to be married to this man, who changed writing forever and forged a myth that is once again beginning to captivate us in the twenty-first century?

Some of the answers can be found in a very fine novel by Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Ballantine Books, 2011), a novel of historical fiction narrated by Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson.

I am just now getting around to reading this novel, largely because I am suspicious of so-called biographical works of fiction. Many I find contrived and not worth the time. However, Paula McClain is a woman steeped in Hemingway lore, a woman who has written and lectured on the man for a number of years. Her inspiration for this novel is Hemingway’s own A Moveable Feast, a collection of memoirs about his early years in Paris during his first marriage to Hadley, the mother of his first son John, or Jack (father of Mariel and Margot).

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Then why did he leave her? He and Hadley experienced poverty together, loved each other, and he was a tender and loving spouse and father. It was Hadley who saw him through his years as a war correspondent and struggling writer of special interest pieces for the Kansas City Star which barely paid the bills. It was Hadley who traveled with him to Spain, saw the running of the bulls, and watched as his inspiration led to his first famous novel, The Sun Also Rises.

They were among those young people who were caught up in the “lost generation,” a generation fueled by alcohol, newfound freedom for women, and a feeling of dejection following the war that would end all wars. Free loving couples and women who thought nothing about chasing down another man’s husband were the sexual hallmark of the age, and it was just such a woman who would result in the end of their marriage.

Through it all, Hadley is seen as the stable influence in Hemingway’s life, his North Star in a sky filled with literary luminaries like John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of others whose names will thrill English majors around the world. Art was their life’s blood, and their art demanded sacrifice. Ernie’s wife and son would become the sacrificial lambs on the altar of his career. Something he would later regret.

In the end, the man could not sustain the myth. Shortly before his suicide he spoke with her (she had for some time been happily remarried), and his mind was filled with memories of times past that he now seemed to cling to in order to overcome his despondency. Apparently, it didn’t give him enough to hold on to. Halfway around the world from Paris, two-score years after he left Hadley for Pauline, and after his books told the story of a generation, the tough guy, the great white hunter and hard-drinking, two-fisted man of many women, reached for a gun. And he remembered the first woman–possibly the only woman–he ever really loved.

That’s the way McLain tells it. And, who knows? Maybe she got it right.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

Gone Girl: A marriage forged in Hades

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012, 432 pages)

What do you do if you discover your spouse is a sociopath?

  1. Go for counseling
  2. Seek a divorce
  3. This is something you don’t realize until it’s way too late and then you have to be very, very careful.

Answer: 3. When you finish Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn you will understand.

Gone Girl is a love story forged in Hades, a place in which the happy couple find themselves having never noticed the sign that read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Amy and Nick are your typical young couple in love. Wrong. There is nothing typical about Amy and Nick, who met and fell in love in New York City. There Nick worked as a magazine writer and Amy lived on the proceeds of royalties for books written by her parents, a series of children’s books bearing the title Amazing Amy. Amy was amazing, you see, because she was the only child of two doting parents who were child psychologists. They had lost all of their children to miscarriage, and so Amy–the only one to make it into this world–was to them nothing short of amazing. She grew up in the shadow of Amazing Amy, the freckle-faced heroine of the best-selling series of books whose image she felt she had to live up to. She spent most of her life being what others–including men–expected her to be. Simply amazing.

Nick is a midwestern boy from Missouri, where he worked as a kid in Hannibal wearing Tom Sawyer outfits for the tourists. At first, their lives were happy–and then Nick lost his job. This novel takes us into the economic hardships that find people everywhere, in New York as well as Missouri, reeling at the sudden changes in their lives. Nick persuades her to move away from her beloved New York, her parents, and everything she knew to Carthage, Missouri, a town along the Mississippi near Hannibal. There they can pick up the pieces, take care of Nick’s ailing father, and Amy can bankroll Nick in his new business venture, a bar he runs with his twin sister. The Amy we come to know from her diary seems to be a throw rug, content to let her husband walk all over her and take her wherever he wants, her feelings notwithstanding. The perfect passive-aggressive wife.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, for things are not what they seem in this book. In time, their marriage is faltering. Nick is growing distant, and as we read Amy’s diary we learn that she is even coming to fear him. He is a changed man, we are told, and she confesses to trying to buy a gun–just in case.

Then, Amy suddenly disappears. We read the confusion in Nick’s voice as he tries to comprehend what has happened, who might have taken her–or worse. But as we read further, we realize that Nick is not the innocent here. In fact there are no innocents here. It soon becomes evident that only one person, Nick, could possibly have been responsible for her disappearance–and that she is probably dead at his hand. As the novel goes on, the evidence builds such that, even without a body, it is almost conclusive that he is the culprit. He is going down, no doubt about it.

In this book we are treated to what could possibly be the perfect murder, perpetrated by a sociopath who is disciplined and can plan out even the most minute details months ahead of time (or improvise brilliantly on the fly, if necessary). But, as I said, nothing in this story is what it seems. On one level, this novel makes a statement about the media’s tendency to turn spousal disappearance and possible murder into entertainment, complete with a Nancy Grace character and attorneys who spend as much time spinning for the public as preparing a defense. Meanwhile, the reader is spinning as, little by little, the whole truth unravels in all of its convolutions.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling the plot, but this is one of the most puzzling books I have ever read. The reader is led into a cavern, and just when you realize that you don’t know which way to go or what is going to confront you next, it is too late to go back. You are already lost, and you won’t figure it all out until the last chapter. The only thing you are clearly coming to understand is that this is the most screwed up couple you will ever come across in fiction. They truly deserve each other.

I wasn’t at all interested in reading this book when I first noticed it on the New York Times best seller list. I was even less interested when I learned that the movie rights had been sold and the film would be produced by Reese Witherspoon. I shy away from trendy. But in the end I took the bait.

I was amazed. You will be too.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Special: A “brown bag” Bible study and the end of the world

Image: Blogspot

Speaking of books, how about the Bible?

Of course, you open a can of worms when you bring it up because immediately it raises a host of questions. For example, which Bible? The KJV, NIE, Jerusalem Bible, RSV? Well, these are translations of one and the same book (although when you compare excepts from two different translations it is hard to believe that they came from the same source). And do we mean the Christian Bible  or are we referring to the Jewish Bible? The Jewish “bible” is called the Tanakh (tuh-KNOch), and contains the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, but in a slightly different order. (Just don’t refer to the Jewish Bible as the “Old” Testament.) The Bible is considered sacred by many, an anachronism by some, and a puzzle by any who have actually tried to read the whole thing through.

But I want to focus only on one topic, one that arose in our church’s “brown bag” bible study a week or so ago. We were discussing the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16:28 , wherein Jesus says,“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (New International Version)

A question was raised: did the people living in Jesus’ time think they were living in the end times? The pastor’s answer was “Yes, quite possibly.” If so, the people in Jesus’ time were in good company. If you recall (it was only a month or so ago), thousands of people were actually terrified that the end of life as we know it was drawing near because some Mayan equivalent of Steve Jobs had developed an uncannily accurate calendar–one that ended mysteriously in December 2012! NASA fielded thousands of phone calls from people who actually thought their number was about to be punched because some nameless Mayan ran out of room on his wheel.

Did you ever wonder how many times human beings actually feared that the world was going to end? I did a search on Wikipedia (not always the most reliable source, but not a bad place to start), and discovered that there were no fewer than 51 predictions of the end of the world in the 20th century (Wikipedia warns that the entire list is incomplete). Then came the year 2000, a “millennial” year, and it led to predictions that the end would come on January 1 (Jerry Falwell); others predicted that the antiChrist would use the confusion over Y2K to begin his takeover of the world.

Predictions about the end time weren’t only made by Christians. Some Romans feared that the year 634 BC–the 120th year after the founding of Rome–would signal the end of the republic. When it didn’t happen, they figured that they had misinterpreted the signs and recalculated that it would occur in 389 BC. It didn’t, and I guess people forgot about it. The barbarians were lurking, and they really did spell the end for Rome eventually.

Speaking of recalculating, who can forget Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping’s prediction that the end would come May 21, 2011. It didn’t. Whoops! Harold announced that he had it wrong. It would be October 21, 2011. It wasn’t, and Camping returned to a life of well-deserved obscurity.

Why is that we humans are so sure that the end is coming in our lifetimes, and so quick to believe every nut job who tells us so? We see “signs” everywhere. The climate is changing. Wars are raging in the middle east. Bacteria are winning against some antibiotics. Cats are sleeping with dogs. But you know what, our parents lived through the 30s and 40s and if you think we have it tough look at the horrors of the world back then, and the horrible economic disasters they lived through that make our problems seem like flea flicking. Every era carries dangers with it, horrors of war, famine, political ineptness (although we seem to be more burdened by this than in some years past–but we had it before too and survived!), and economic crises. Could anxiety over our problems lead us to deflect them by announcing  that the whole world is going to hell? Is it easer to throw up our hands in despair than it is to get up each morning and face our reality, whatever it is? If we’re all going down the tubes, is there at least some comfort in knowing we’re not alone?

The world will probably end someday. All things must I suppose. But it won’t be in our lifetime, probably, and no human being will ever be able to predict the time or day. The Bible tells us that, but somehow we don’t often pay attention to the parts that really make sense: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36 (NIV).

One thing, however. The end will definitely come for each one of us. And truly, no one knows about that day or hour. Maybe, instead of worrying over the collapse of creation in some cataclysmic cloud cluttered parade of angels we can neither predict nor do anything about we should pay more attention to what the Bible says about how to live our lives so that, when our time comes, we can leave here without regret.

Yeah, stuff like that is in the Bible too. Perhaps that’s why the book is still a big seller.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

What’s coming?

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012, 432 pages)

What do you do if you discover your spouse is a sociopath?

Marriage can be a real killer.

One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. The Chicago Tribune proclaimed that her work “draws you in and keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction.” Gone Girl’s toxic mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn.

Look for my review of Gone Girl on Wednesday, February 6.