December 4, 2013

Anna Karenina

I know it's the movie poster, but you get all the main characters this way.

We follow two love stories in this novel. We start with Levin, arriving in Moscow to woo Kitty. Anna arrives at the same time to comfort her sister-in-law, Dolly (Kitty’s older sister), in the wake of the revelation that her husband has cheated on her.

In a collision of worlds, Levin proposes to Kitty, but Kitty refuses because she’s in love with Vronsky, a young army officer. Kitty is convinced that Vronsky is about to propose, and even though she loves Levin, she’s blinded by the romance of Vronsky’s courtship. Vronsky meanwhile has just met Anna at the train station, where someone has been hit by a train, and has fallen instantly in love with her, forgetting all about Kitty, whom he never loved, but did like. At the ball following Levin’s proposal, Kitty sees that Vronsky has completely forgotten her and is in love with Anna, whom she had thought of as a mentor.

Levin leaves town painfully hurt at Kitty’s refusal and goes to his country estate, where he spends most of his time. Kitty plunges into depression caused by the double blow of losing Vronsky and secretly realizing that she would have been happy with Levin but she gave him up for nothing. Anna leaves to return to Petersburg to her husband and son. Vronsky leaves for Petersburg for the purpose of following and courting Anna with the hope of becoming her lover.

Anna and Vronsky do become lovers.  Kitty finds consolation through friendship while traveling abroad to recover from her depression. Levin spends a lot of time pouting and trying to improve farming methods on his estate.

Things come to a head for Anna when she finally explodes at her husband and tells him about her affair. Divorce at the time was possible, but very messy and socially anathema. Her husband decides he’d rather save face and tells her that she can do what she wants as long as she doesn’t embarrass him. A short time later, however, he finds Vronsky at his house and in a fury he takes a trip across the country bent on divorcing Anna on his return. Incidentally, she’s also pregnant with Vronsky’s child at this point, but nobody seems to remark on it. The husband rushes back to Petersburg when he gets a telegram telling him that Anna is dying in childbirth. He rushes in and in a moment of divine inspiration, forgives her everything, forgives Vronsky, and adores the baby girl that is not his. Anna recovers, but her spirit is broken under the benevolence of her husband and her own feelings of disgust at her behavior. Vronsky is so upset that he shoots himself in the chest, but doesn’t die. After all that, Anna and Vronsky take the baby and go off to live abroad like a married couple with her husband’s blessing.

Levin eventually has the courage to meet Kitty again and they quickly realize that despite their past, they love each other. Levin immediately proposes and Kitty accepts.

Anna and Vronsky are not happy abroad, in Petersburg, Moscow, or the country. Because Anna is not divorced no one will even acknowledge her in society. This creates such neediness in her that Vronsky feels suffocated and they begin to grow apart. Finally Anna is plunged into a jealous depression and throws herself under a train because of a supposed slight by Vronsky. (Circular story telling!)

The Levins meanwhile have their first baby and generally very happy. The novel wraps up with Vronsky heading off to war, a hollow man after Anna’s suicide, and Levin finding God and happiness in his family circle.

Other Thoughts:

  • So long. So very, very long. But what made Anna Karenina ever so much more readable is the fact that, unlike War and Peace, it sustained a narrative arc the whole time. It was a long story, but it was all story and characters. There was still some philosophizing on the state of the peasant, but much less.
  • AK has one of the most famous openings in literature, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That line holds true throughout the novel. You can tell just from my synopsis that the Levin story line, the happy one, is much more easily summed up than Anna’s story line, which is full of unhappiness. There are a few times too when Levin is so happy that he admits that he simply agrees to whatever arrangements are suggested to him because it’ll all be fine and he just doesn’t really care because he’s so in love.
  • I feel the most sympathy for Vronsky, of all characters. I wouldn’t have thought to feel sympathy for the guy who stole the married woman, but he is an upstanding, nice guy.  He’s a decent man, a man of honor, and he really does love Anna. It’s really her own unhappiness and the changes they produce in her that begins to drive him away. I can easily see how it would be difficult to be around someone who is always upset, mad, or nitpicking. She can’t go out, she has no life other than him, and so it drives her to absolute distraction when he tries to have a life. Even so, he gives up his army career, which was bright, and his social standing to be with her. He wants to marry her and is the main force encouraging her to get a divorce. Also, he adores his daughter and it kills him that because she was born while Anna was married, she doesn’t legally belong to him. When Anna dies, it nearly destroys him and he feels very responsible for it.
  • I was talking to a good friend while I was reading this one and when she heard what I was reading she said something along the lines of, “I tried to read that in high school. It was awful!” I was pretty surprised, because it really wasn’t bad and actually quite entertaining in its way. As I thought about it, I realized that if I had read it when I was a teenager, I definitely would have hated it too. You have to have a good amount of patience to read a book that long where plot lines develop over the course of years and you can read whole chapters that don’t actually advance the plot at all. It also helps to just have more life experience sometimes. If it ever comes up, I will definitely tell people not to read AK until they’re 30 at least.

Next up is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Somehow I don’t think that one’s short either. We’re nearing the half way point. I’ve got 47 books down. I’ll have to start thinking about some sort of half way blog party. Feel free to post ideas!

October 17, 2013


I kind of feel like I’m giving away the farm here, but a friend asked for my pie crust recipe. I am never one to deny anyone pie.

My recipe has been handed down from my grandmother. She hand wrote it for me on an index card, and it’s probably one of my most cherished cooking items. There’s something spiritually nourishing about seeing this visual link to the generations of women in my family.  If you look at the picture, you’ll also notice how much I have elaborated on what’s in the original recipe. I love that Nana wrote it knowing that I already knew all the basics because I’d watched her and Mom do it a million times.

The great part of this recipe, in addition to how super simple it is, is that it’ll make a top and bottom for one pie or two bottoms. You can freeze the dough if you don't need all of it and just defrost it in the fridge for next time. This makes it really flexible. I’ve used it for dessert pies, turnovers, quiches, and savory pies. It’ll also make enough crust to fit my deep dish, 9-inch Pamper Chef stoneware pie plate, which is an accomplishment all in itself.

One last note: I know I was talking all about whole foods last time. I totally use butter-flavored Crisco to make my pie crusts. It is not a whole food. But it does taste good. You can use butter if you prefer.

2 ¼ c all purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
2/3 to 3/4 c shortening
8-10 tbs ice water

Preheat the oven to 425.

Fill a small bowl with ice and cold water. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut the shortening in with a pastry blender or two butter knives. You want coarse crumbles throughout the flour. Add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time, mixing the dough with a fork. Keep adding water until the dough forms a ball. Be careful not to make it too sticky. If it does get a little wet, just sprinkle with some flour.

On a floured countertop, knead the dough until it’s smooth and flexible. Divide the dough in two. Roll out using a floured rolling pin. Another trick: when you think that you’re crust is big, turn your pie plate upside down and use it as a guide to see if the crust is a bit bigger than the pie plate. You want a little overflow to help make the yummy edges.

When the crust is big enough, roll it back onto the rolling pin like you’re rolling up wrapping paper. This will allow you to roll the crust off the pin and onto the pie plate without any muss or fuss. Press the crust into the pie plate. If you just need to bottom, you can roll up any excess at the top and flute the edges. If you’re doing top and bottom, wait to flute until the top goes on.

If you’re baking the crust for a one-crust pie like a chocolate cream pie, either pierce some small holes with your fork in the bottom and sides or place aluminum foil inside the crust and fill it with uncooked, dry beans. If you skip this step the crust will puff up when you cook it. Bake for 10-12 minutes.

October 12, 2013

Let's Eat

Delicious, delicious calzone.....

I’ve been thinking about food a lot lately. I’ve been hearing small comments from other moms and starting to wonder if things in my kitchen are a bit unusual. It’s not that I’ve heard anything bad. Please, please, please remember that I’m not out to get anyone or accuse anyone of bad cooking. Mostly I’ve heard about how people hate meal planning, how cooking is not something they like to do, and references to how often they eat out.

Mixed in with this has been trendy eating like the whole food movement (eating/cooking foods in their most basic form), gluten free (essential for some; trendy for others), and paleo (eating like a cave man). The one that really had me confused for the longest time was the term “whole food.” It strikes me the same way “organic” gets Josh. It doesn’t matter how many times I point out that the label refers to the way the food was produced, he argues vehemently that there are no non-organic foods. He’s right. Likewise, while I understand that people are referring to non-processed foods and anyone walking into a grocery store is introduced to many items that no one should really eat, the term sits oddly with me. I think it comes from the fact that, for the most part, I was raised eating whole foods. What seems really weird to me is that anyone wouldn’t eat that way.

Here’s the thing. If we have pancakes for breakfast, I get out milk, flour, sugar, eggs, etc. and make pancakes. If we eat cookies, I get out milk, butter, sugar, chocolate chips, etc. and make cookies. If we’re having spaghetti, I get out canned tomatoes, garlic, and basil and make sauce. When we indulge in pot pie, I make pie crust, use leftover chicken I cooked, cut fresh veggies, and make a sauce with a roux and stock. Are you sensing a theme?

I’m not trying to brag. Honestly, that’s just the way I was raised. That’s how Mom did it. We’re not perfect. We totally order pizza. We don’t buy organic because the price tag gives Josh chest pains. We use lots of white flour and granulated sugar. I’m just trying to explain how puzzled I become when confronted with what is probably much more common in America—households where a lot of parts of dinner come from cans, boxes, and the freezer. And it makes me so curious.

What do you cook? How much of it is from scratch? I would love to take a no-judgment survey and hear about what goes on in your kitchen. While we’re on the subject, does any of this make you curious what goes on in my kitchen? Is that something you’d like to hear more about?

Maybe we can cook together.

October 2, 2013


Mom-nesia: (n) loss of a large block of interrelated memories caused by child birth.

I find myself at a bit of loose ends this morning caused by a bout of Mom-nesia. Yesterday I found a reminder in my email that I’d signed J up for Parents’ Morning Out. Surprise! When I signed him up for three or four sessions to cover my piano lessons, I thought they started next week. Here I am. No piano and no kid, because I saw the email too late in the day to cancel the reservation.

On the plus side, I’m going to get a pedicure later on. I would be using the gift certificate I got for my birthday last year, but I didn’t read it and neglected to book with one of the two people specified by the gift card. I’ll be paying for it instead.

I’m not sure if it’s sun spots or early onset dementia, but I suddenly seem to be going through a bout of serious Mom-nesia. I can’t seem to manage to organize anything properly. Yesterday I got lost driving home from Lebanon (town, not country) and ended up on my way to Indiana. The worst part is that I didn’t notice until we passed signs for Breese, IL. “Hmm,” I wondered, “I’ve never heard of that town. Where am I?” I almost missed picking H up from school because of it.

What do we do when life spirals to the brink of chaos? Well, I’m getting a pedicure. But I’m also feeling like I’m not up to snuff. I’m feeling like J is getting too many bottles, which makes me feel both like I’m a bad mom and that I’m horribly judgy because lots of babies get lots more bottles because their moms have to work and be gone. Where is the balance?

I fear I have entered a new phase of life where not only do I need to write things down to make sure they happen, I also need to cross reference, create alerts, and check in with Josh as a sanity keeper. I’m becoming my dad. (Sorry, Dad!)

While perusing in Lebanon prior to my unplanned country drive I saw a sign that said, “Moms are like buttons. They hold everything together.” Lord knows it’s the truth. When I get really frustrated I remind Josh, loudly and with a little bite, that the family wouldn’t function without me. If I don’t get myself together, we might find out how true that statement is.

Government shutdown notwithstanding, this is actually a great time in our family’s story. Josh is home EVERY night, H is increasingly independent (and back talky), J is growing so fast, and I am trying hard to make some room for myself with choir and piano. We don’t even have to attend four out of town weddings in the span of two months this year. Life is actually pretty relaxed.

Maybe that’s my problem! Not enough stress! I’m used to Josh being gone; organizing multiple cross country trips; shuttling children hither and yon; cooking, cleaning, and shopping with a baby on my back; and whistling a merry tune all the way. When faced with what many would consider a normal existence, I’m having a bit of trouble adjusting. We will file this under “First World Problems.”

I’m still going to have to make some concerted efforts to recheck appointments before scheduling babysitting, but while I’ll do so, I’ll remind myself that life could be way worse. Plus, my toes look cute.

September 3, 2013

Wind the the Willows

We follow Mole as he breaks out of his hole and into Spring. He quickly meets the Water Rat at the river’s edge and they form a fast friendship, boating and picnicking. Their world is peopled with the Otter, Toad, and Badger, as well as various families of field mice.

Toad, who fancies his wealth to equate with greatness, becomes obsessed with motor cars and quickly becomes the bane of the local roads. His driving is absolutely terrible, but his love of automotives is unquenchable. He no sooner wrecks a car then a new one arrives. Finally his friends step in to try and rid him of this obsession.

The combined powers of the Water Rat, Mole, and Badger come to naught when Toad escapes their house arrest. He immediately steals a motor car, crashes, pours abuse upon the policeman and finds himself in a deep, dark jail with a long sentence. After months of confinement the jailer’s daughter takes pity on him and helps him escape dressed as a washerwoman.

Relying on his wits and a great deal of luck, Toad makes it home only to discover that the weasels of the Wild Wood have taken over his grand residence, Toad Hall. The friends hatch a plot and, using a secret tunnel, take the weasels by surprise and rout them from the house. The novel ends with a welcome home party hosted by a newly modest Toad.

Other Thoughts:

  • This is one novel that I’m pleased to report is thoroughly delightful. I can’t wait to introduce this to H in three or four years when chapter books will be no problem for her. My library copy included the original illustrations, which greatly added to the reading experience as well.
  • I thought the ending was a bit abrupt. The Toad is just horribly conceited and thinks a very great deal of himself and a very little for anyone else. Yet, at the final welcome home party he somehow changes himself into a new Toad full of modesty. After such a build up throughout the novel it seemed a bit odd. I couldn’t help but think that it wouldn’t last.

I have to confess I wrote this review quite a while ago, and it got lost in the flurry of summer. I will try to be better and get back to the keyboard this fall. Pray that J takes decent naps. Meanwhile, I’m in the depths of Anna Karenina.

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