Anna, Leo, and Me: Thoughts on finishing Anna Karenina

AnnaKareninaWell I’ve done it!

After months of picking it up, reading for awhile, and putting it down again, I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina. And though it’s seemed more like a marathon than a simple walk through the park, its been very enjoyable. While I don’t find Tolstoy a page-turner, I’m amazed at how well he captures humanity, in all its coarse, unpolished and hum-drum details and therefore how well he captures what it means to be alive. It is glorious, and yet all so ordinary.

And in Anna Karenina Tolstoy manages to fit all turns of life: birth, death, youth, love, hope, disappointment, urban life, rural life, storms and elation. I’ll warn you right now that much of the rest of this post will include PLOT SPOILERS so don’t read after this paragraph if you don’t want to know about some of the plot twists and turns. Just know that I definitely recommend it!


I will admit, for awhile I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. I had stopped reading for a bit right when Anna and Vronsky start their affair, and I was so into the storyline that reading made me anxious and up tight about their fate, so I didn’t enjoy reading! But curiosity got the better of me, and I pushed through to find out that their affair did end up at least sort of working out, and then I got caught up in the love story between Levin and Kitty, and finished the rest without too much difficulty.

There were several poignant moments that I really loved, especially at the birth of Levin’s first child:

He only knew and felt that what was happening was similar to what had happened the year before in the hotel of the provincial town on the deathbed of his brother Nicholas. But that had been grief—this was joy. Yet that grief and this joy were alike outside all the ordinary conditions of life; they were loop-holes, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And, as in that case, what was now being accomplished came harshly, painfully, incomprehensibly; and while watching it, the soul soared to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.

and the tiny little details, like his reaction to his infant son:

And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest that helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.

Watching Anna’s spiral downwards was fascinating and horrifying. It felt so easy to identify with Anna and what she was thinking, and yet at the same time to look at her from without and see how she was making herself miserable. And when she finally committed suicide, it felt so bizarrely understandable! And yet, so tragic. She knew that it wasn’t Vronsky and it wasn’t her, it was some evil force (which I read as depression or a similar mental affliction) that was bearing her under. The detail that Tolstoy put in about when she crossed herself, the great shadow lifted and she remembered what was beautiful in life again, but she went ahead with her suicide anyway, wondering all the while why her body was still moving on this seemingly unalterable course. So heartbreaking, those last few moments, as they seem so preventable.

And then, with the ending of Levin’s discovery of faith, through the words of the simple peasant:

Oh, well, of course, folks are different. One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.

I can’t help bring the two together. The book is titled after Anna, and yet Tolstoy ends with Levin. Is the ideal to live for God and righteousness a comment on Anna’s life? One could argue that Anna has lived her life in ways meant to fill her emotional “belly” and not looking at what is the right thing to do but merely what she feels she needs. And yet, she also seems like a woman who’s happiness has been destroyed at every turn by the whims and strict structures of society. One can’t help but feel that she could so easily have been a successful, beneficial member of society. Yet, one can’t deny that she lived for her own happiness. She lived for what she wanted, and not what (in at least one sense) was the “right” thing to do. But then what is the “right” thing to do?

I must admit, I like Levin’s answer. To be a good person, even if it makes no logical sense and you can find no reason to defend it.


Judging By the Cover

Yep, I’m doing it. After going through the entire Penguin 75 book, I’ve been seduced by The Manual of Detection, and yes, I’m buying the book based on its cover. But its such a delightful cover! If I called it obtaining design samples for later inspiration, would it be more acceptable?

The Manual of Detection
Beautiful! Love the typography, love the images, the atmosphere, love it!

Other books I may get in the next month or so:

Zadie Smith On Beauty
Zadie Smith on Beauty
The Shadow of the Wind
The Shadow of the Wind
The China Lover
The China Lover

On My Wall?

On my morning commutes I’ve been continuing to work my way through the Penguin 75 book that I wrote about in my last blog post, and enjoying the creativity and beauty that I’ve come across. In the WoodsI’ve been surprised with how often I’ve been completely surprised with what they’ve done, perhaps especially with their Graphic Classics Series where they created comic book covers for classic literature. But there were two covers in a row that made me pause and think. The first was In the Woods by Tana French, designed by Jen Wang on page 140, followed by The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor and designed by Matthew Taylor. They are two very different covers, one a black and white sketch of letterforms turning into branches, and the other a medley of ravens, tigers and butterfly erupting from an anime-looking pair of pants and unlaced sneakers. However I was struck by how similar the two author’s comments on their covers were.

Tana French, who is Irish, said

Covers on the European side of the Atlantic are so different from American ones that, to me, this looked nothing like a book cover. It was a truly beautiful thing. I could have looked at it for hours, and I’d have loved to have it in any one of a dozen forms—as an art print, a wall poster, a T-shirt—but if I’d seen it in isolation, I’d never have guessed what it was. I think I still see it that way: First as a thing I love looking at, and only second as the cover of the book.

I The Island at the End of the Worldcould appreciate that the cover was a little unusual, although I’m curious about how European covers are different. I’ll have to look into that. Turning the page to The Island at the End of the World, I read about how this cover was the result of a design contest. The author Sam Taylor’s comment on the design for his book was

I must admit my first reaction on seeing the winning cover was: WTF? It was gorgeous and striking, but not at all what I expected.

Both authors were struck by the fact that their covers were gorgeous, but not at all what they were expecting. The unexpected aspect was probably chosen deliberately by the art directors, but the gorgeous part, the artistic part, that is what helps makes these book covers some of the best in Penguin’s repertoire.

As I read these responses I was reminded of a moment during the second week of my design class last semester, when we were getting feedback on our first assignment of the class. It was essentially a warm up exercise for the semester; we were supposed to take a poster by a famous designer that we were assigned (in my case Jan Tschichold) and redesign it in various ways using only the compositional elements that were in the original design. We brought in our new posters for feedback, and at one point, after pretty thoroughly criticizing everyone’s designs, our teacher asked me “So, Rebecca, which one would you put up on your wall?”

I was surprised by this question, as we were designing announcements for events and new movies and I was envisioning them on the street or posted on the wall of a movie theater, but definitely not hanging, framed, on my living room wall. It was an interesting, and I quickly realized, a good question. Because frankly, I wouldn’t have put a single one of my own designs up on my wall—they were ugly! And attractiveness isn’t a criteria I’d really been taking into account, but it made me think of the famous Fillmore concert posters that I’ve seen on teenagers’ bedroom walls across the country. Or of the beautiful posters by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Or the simple yet elegant advertisements for railways and state parks by Michael Schwab. And I’ve liked them because no matter what their original purpose was, they are interesting, intriguing, pretty, elegant, well designed, and in some way or another gorgeous.

So with this question in my mind, I went back to the drawing board. I kept in mind some of the design feedback I’d been given, and what other students had done that I thought had worked well. And I tried to envision them on my wall; I tried to make them artistic and interesting. In the end, I’m still not sure if I’d put them up on my own wall or not (they don’t really match the mood of my room), but I think my second round of designs was much more successful than those original submissions. And a couple of people I showed them to seemed to seriously consider taking me up on my offer to give the posters to them to hang in their apartments, which to me means success.

It’s fascinating to learn how to design, coming from where I do. Its unusual for me to be studying something that I have absolutely no formal academic experience in, to be stumbling across new and interesting ways of thinking about my discipline all the time. It’s absolutely fresh, not something I’ve been told about and taught for the last twenty years, and I’m really enjoying it. And I’m finding some amazing things to put up on my wall.

(by the way, for a very interesting insight into the process and design for the cover of In the Woods, go to the blog entry)

On Book Covers

To me, nothing seems like it would be cooler than being a book cover designer. Think about it. Not only would I be required to read new books for work, but then I’d get to spend my time being creative, and try come up with a cover that would both reflect that book and help be successful by getting as many people as possible to pick it up off the shelf. Well, at least if you’re me, that’s pretty much perfection in a nutshell.

And towards that end, I’ve been reading about book design wherever I can. I follow amazing blogs like, where they get book cover designers to talk about their design process and what their goal was and what they struggled with. I follow publishers on twitter and read articles about the future of the book industry (if you ask me, a book will always need a cover), typography on kindles, try to find jobs at publishing companies, and buy books on book design. Today I managed to combine two of those by reading Penguin 75: Designers Authors Commentary (the good, the bad . . . ) while commuting to my first day of work at a small publishing company.

penguin 75
Penguin 75

The book itself is an interesting, at times funny read, as each page brings a new book, and each designer or author brings a new voice to the discussion. While not quite as in depth about the design process as, the variety of covers, and the feedback from the author and sometimes the art director on how everyone agreed on a cover (or didn’t really agree) is interesting. Today, on my commute, I got as far as page 50, which was talking about the paperback cover designed by Tal Goretsky for The China Lover (written by Ian Buruma). The author opened his commentary with the declaration that

A good cover is not an illustration. It conveys the atmosphere, the smell, the color, the feeling of the story inside.

I thought this was a fantastic way of describing it. This last semester in type class, as we designed novel covers and coffee table book covers, our teacher tried to get us to think outside the box, think of perhaps the opposite of what the cover suggested, think of a design that was anything but what the reader would be expecting. And I think that thats an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure it necessarily results in the most appropriate covers. Buruma’s description above, of avoiding a direct image-based representation, but instead trying to hint at the subject, and create a mood or a subtle feeling about the book without telling the reader about everything that will happen in the plot, seems to be closer. In essence, be creative, but be subtle! Be intriguing. Be unexpected, but be exactly right for the book. Be that, and you are perfect. . . . I’m not setting easy goals for myself, but that is what I am for!

I was also amused to then read the designer’s comments. Tal Goretsky had come up with a gorgeous illustration that and picked a typography that felt vintage and time-appropriate for the 1930’s, but his favorite design was rejected, and instead the final design was one where the cover imagery from the hard back edition, designed by Gabriele Wilson, was used but with Goretsky’s type. Goretsky goes on to mention that “turns out Gabriele’s art was a photo she took of a poster hanging in her landlady’s frame shop, next door to her office.” Which is rather ironic, given how much love and labor Goretsky put into his own illustration, but it is a great reminder that a good artist steals. Not plagiarizes, but takes art and beauty and design from the world all around them, and incorporates it where it will be just the perfect touch. The image is a beautiful, perhaps slightly cliche’ Chinese young woman, on an old advertisement, which has been emphasized by photoshopping creases into the image and an oriental border that looks aged. That old illustration, taken from a frame shop, along with Goretsky’s vintage type, creates exactly the atmosphere for the book that Buruma describes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the book tomorrow, and seeing what insights the designers or authors have. Hopefully someday I’ll be the creator of covers for famous books and make my way into books for famous covers . . . until then I’ll keep on reading! And designing, and reading, and designing.

Graphic Design Halloween Costumes 1

In honor of this Sunday I’d like to post some great art or graphic design inspired costumes.  Enjoy!

Shephard Fairey’s Obama
real life Comic Book Girl, Roy Lichtenstein style
Blogger Sarah McPherson goes as “Lo-Res” – every graphic designer’s nightmare!
Another pixelated look (although I don’t think this is supposed to be for a costume!)

At My Reading

Last night, for the first time, I was invited to read my poetry to an audience.

The Stanford Journal of Asian American Studies emailed me a couple weeks ago saying that they had selected my poem to be published in the special literary edition of their journal.  The email came as a complete surprise – the creative writing email list sounds out dozen of publication opportunities, and if I have material that fits the specifications I submit it, but I had totally forgotten that I had submitted anything to the Asian American Studies Journal.

The reading was held in one of the dining rooms in the Faculty Club.  I’ve always heard good things about how nice the Faculty Club is, and I am so pleased to have experienced it myself before I graduate in a couple weeks.  A very nice dinner was served, and I sat at a table towards the front with about ten other people I had never met before.  For the most part we made polite table conversation, but I had an interesting discussion about New York and graffiti among other things with Shimon Tanaka who was seated to my left.  Shimon is a teacher in the Creative Writing department, and one of the three featured readers of the night.  In addition to being very friendly and great to talk to, his reading from a short story he’d written about two Japanese boys was one of the best of the night.  The readings varied in style, genre, and quality, but over all I had a good time, and I got to read two of my poems – “The Apsara,” which was featured in the journal, and “Kept Close.”  I’ve included the text of the “The Apsara” below, or you can read both poems on my website


The Apsara

Hewn free from the sandstone block, I danced into air
And my feet, commanded by the god-king of a Cambodian empire,
Pointed themselves, anklet-enclosed, in the shape of a prayer.

Slowly, sinuously, my arm rose above my head, my fingers flared
And arched towards my sister dancing by my side, part of thousands in our choir
Hewn free from the sandstone block; we danced into air.

Today, in shades of gray, lichen and rain stains twist across my hair
Entwining my jeweled headdress with the passing time, dappling the three rising spires
Crowning my brow, delicately-balanced, in the shape of a prayer.

Hindu at conception, I now dance for the Buddha, for I shall do what the god-king declares.
Attended by the pious few draped in vivid orange who worship here, divinely inspired,
We still, hewn free from the sandstone block, dance into air.

Hundreds now trek daily to capture my frozen image within a camera, and stare
At the detailed girdles kissing our hips and our silver skin, much admired,
Baring itself, polished by fingertips, in the shape of a prayer.

Unable to leave this temple of Angkor, my movements shall forever belong to the Khmer
But I am proud to uphold their hopes and heavenly appeals as I turn and twist and never tire:
Hewn free from the sandstone block, I shall forever dance into air
Arching myself, bound and beloved, in the shape of a prayer.