Episode 42: Anna Karenina - The Book as a Review Subject


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            I know you might be sick of hearing about it, but my audio drama is going better than I expected. And now I feel compelled to talk about it. I've said this before, but that story is based around one of the scariest things to ever happen to me. When I worried that I was predicting someone's tragic death and had his life in my hands because I was the only one that knew what was going on. Unfortunately for all of us, I have never been that brave or outgoing of a person. Incredibly insecure. Very much yes. But brave? No. Reasonable? Also no.

            When you consider this combination of traits, there are various corresponding effects. For one, I don't really expect things to work out for me, and two, when they somehow do, I am genuinely shocked. That shock then leads me to flashback to every stupid thing I’ve ever done or thing I’ve ever messed up as if to strengthen my initial assumptions in the battle against the otherwise overwhelming facts of reality. (Pause). We are quickly getting to the point when the line “I’m a hit at parties” should be the tagline of this podcast and not merely an underlying premise, but that might be a conversation for a therapist. Who knows? Probably the therapist.

            But back to the point, The Oracle of Dusk hit 800 episode downloads the day before this episode of Miscellany Media Reviews goes live. And that is shocking to me. In terms of production catalysts or reasoning, I made this story for more therapeutic reasons. It was a way taking control of that narrative. It was something I needed to do, but I didn’t think anything was going to come out of it. Certainly not that anyone would listen, but people are listening. And a couple people on Twitter have tweeted at the account with their experiences of the show or of those first few episodes.

            So obviously, people are here in this with me. And like I tweeted earlier this week when we hit seven hundred, it feels like I’m finally getting the hug I desperately needed back then. It hasn’t seemed to matter all that much that this is a fictional account of that tale with a lot of liberties therein. I still feel validated for having it consume my life like it did for well over a year. Like I was right for taking this story seriously and for being afraid. Even if it was only my experience. But I’m not…. I’m not making a lot of sense now. There are a lot of thoughts I had about that entire thing over the course of the year it happened to me. But to retell this story with an audience feels validating. To be heard is a wonderful feeling. And while I can set aside my disbelief long enough to muster a great deal of gratitude for all the love I have received, I genuinely can’t seem to believe that any of this is happening at all. Per my previously described issues.

            But I don’t want it to stay that way. So let me throw out one of the stupidest things I have ever done in my life because even prepping this script started to put things in perspective. That’s part of storytelling, I guess. Part of what I wanted when I started the Oracle of Dusk. I’m telling this story as much to myself as I am to everyone else, and I can finally make some objective judgments about it.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode forty-two.

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            Today, I’m not really going to be talking about the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, but I will be dancing off of a launching point it laid out for me. While they may sound odd, it’s kind of like what I did a long way back, but at least I’m owning up to it now, I guess. Or being really upfront about it. Look, this isn’t really about the novel, and you might have expected it. In many ways, none of my reviews are about the subject in question but about how they fit into my life and maybe how they would fit into that of other people if I’m being a bit ambitious

            But this episode is going to be taking all of that a few steps farther. This is the story of a stupid thing I did that involved a school paper back in my high school days: a paper that should have involved this book but didn’t really… I mean, it did but also didn’t. Both simultaneously… I’m going to have to explain that.

            Before I do that, I think I need to give you an obligatory overview of the novel with special attention paid to the details required to make sense of the story I’m about to tell you.

            While it is a great book, it’s a giant book. Not as big as Les Miserables, but it’s kind of close. And that actually is a relevant fact. Or it will be later.

            Second, as stated, Anna Karenina is the classic Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1878 initially in installments across a newspaper and yeah that piecemeal style might have been useful. Even the book itself, if you get its modern iteration, is split into parts. Sold together, but you know what I mean. I don’t know why I assumed that you didn’t… Look, there’s a practical aspect to this distribution because the novel covers so much ground in terms of time and subject matter. Throughout its various plots and with its various characters, it explores themes of betrayal, faith, family, marriage, fidelity, desire, rural life, city life, the pitfalls of Imperial Russian society, etc, etc.

            However, the main plot itself centers on the affair between the titular character and a handsome count who is far more appealing than her actual husband. It’s not as unreasonable as I might have made it sound. For anyone. Either the lovers, those they are technically wronging, the larger society that pushes them to flee, or for anyone else.

            And finally, there’s that famous first lines. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

            And that last point is going to be one you need to remember.

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            The other part of this story is high school me in my English class, an upper level course, but I won’t go into any more specifics than that. Here’s the thing. I did not cheat on this assignment, but that does not mean I want to advertise what I did and when. I’ll put it that way for now.

            As with all upper level English courses, it meant having assignments that were pretty intense and arduous, like book reports that bordered on outright research assignments. If I remember correctly, we were essentially college papers in a high school setting. Remember, I was in the honors segment of a fairly prestigious high school. We were being pushed into college life. There were no other alternatives for us besides college. And then we had to go onto some sort of graduate program, etc, etc, I’ve said all of that before. But at the very least, they did try to prepare us. You can say a lot of negative things about them, I have in this podcast, but our school genuinely did try to prepare us for the track they had picked for us.

            In the beginning of the year, our teacher handed out a list of novels that frequented national level exams, and that list would be what we pulled off of when writing our papers. What I mean is, you had to pick a book on that list, and your paper would be based around that book. The words “based around” in that last sentence should be in quotes. Because in order to have a research component to your paper, you couldn’t stick to the book too strongly. Anna Karenina was on that list. And it was a title that jumped out at me.

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            I was very, very, very vaguely familiar with it. Well, I was familiar with that first line. It was quoted in an episode of Law and Order SVU. I don’t really remember which one because this was a way to fill the dialogue out as well as playing to a character’s status as well-read. I don’t remember which season, though I can guess based on the characters involved. And the timing of all of this. I was really into that show in high school and then lost interest when I went to college and became a typical millennial cord cutter. And see, this is why studios need to make streaming their television shows as easy as possible. It guarantees you an audience because otherwise you will lose people even if it’s just because of college.

            But that’s not the point. The point is that this novel was on my mind because of my favorite show. So when I was searching through the list for the subject of my first major paper. Anna Karenina had the advantage. But I did think more about it. And concluded that Anna Karenina was the perfect subject for my paper. Emphasis on “my” and perfect in soft quotes…

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            Anna Karenina is a challenging Russian novel full of names that are hard to pronounce for an American high schooler’s tongue. It wasn’t assigned reading in any of our high school’s many English classes taught by various teacher because the universal consensus was that it was too difficult for our students, or the universal concern was with the difficulty. And it’s a giant book that might not fit into someone’s backpack. That’s actually a lesser concern, but it did mean I got to carry it around and show everyone what I was up to. And our library’s edition was so picture-esque that it always drew extra attention to wherever I went.

            I made a spectacle of it. And that was kind of the point.

            I’ve said this before but in high school, I tried carried myself cloaked in a very subversive identity. I could not accept the status quo; I constantly had to challenge it. And that is the entirely who I was. A major problem with that is an intertwined argument that the current status quo is bad or lesser than me and that anyone adhering to is therefore inferior to me. That’s an insult, no matter how you look at it, but we were high school kids who didn’t think too much into it. Or I was a high school who didn’t give it too much thought. I was not well liked but I always thought that was more about my awkward nature or the childhood confusion about sick or dying parents that we never learned the skills to work through. On second thought, it might have been this. It genuinely might have been. And I would completely understand if it were.

            In my defense or what little I can muster up, I didn’t believe I was better than anyone else. It was a bit of overcompensation designed to maybe land me where I needed to be. Like let me pretend that I have so much value that if I end up with a fraction of this demand then I won’t need to justify my existence anymore. Because I’ll be with everyone else. And  if that didn’t work. The alternative was then: let me fill this problematic roll because then at least I have some place to go.

            So inevitably there were going to be a problem or several problems, right? Well, this is where I ran into one.

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            To my credit, I did start the assignment fairly early. Once our teacher reminded us about the paper and set a hard due date, I hit the bricks and picked out this book. Then started reading it. And then everything fell apart. It was record time, let me tell you. Especially for someone who chronically procrastinates.

            This was the fall semester. So I had a lot going on. I had marching band on top of my normal school schedule and all the test prep for the PSAT first and then the full blown SAT. Then there were all the other extracurricular activities I was doing. The overwhelming pressure to start looking at colleges.  And general life stuff, which was always very, very relevant to me. Like many high school students, I constantly felt like I was drowning. There was always a sea of things to be done, to learn, to relearn and then reinforce through constant studying. It never seemed to end.


            So yeah, I set myself up to fail. Kind of, sort of. Because all of the teachers’ concerns about the difficulty of the novel were well-grounded, especially for a mind as tired and overworked as mine was. It’s hard to keep names straight when your brain is too tired to make sense of unexpected letter combinations, and in my case, obviously not similar names started to blend together. No matter how hard I tried, nothing was making sense.

            I’m not too proud to say that I made a terrible decision. I can say it right now. I made a mistake trying to write a paper on Anna Karnina when I had so much going on in my life. At the very least, I could have waited until spring to try. That’s me now. Since then, I have read Anna Karenina, and it’s one of my favorite books, but I read it on a summer break in college when I was nowhere near as tired, could more easily focus, and was more mentally mature.

            It is a good book. But my memories of the first time I tried to read it are filled with frustration and a crushing sense of inferiority. This is all partially my fault and partially not, but I should have had the sense to change books when this was all becoming obvious. We had committed in any way. In fact, our teacher did not ask. We were welcome to ask for help, but the door was opened in such a way that our freedom was never compromised. To further strength that point, when it came time to turn in our papers, we went around in a circle and said what books we had chosen, and our teacher made a comment that I should have said something when I picked out this particular book.

            But it wasn’t said in a mean way. Just matter of factly. Or in an “I would have helped you navigate this project” type way. Helped you by telling you to pick a different book.

            He didn’t harp on the point, though. But he didn’t have to and that wouldn’t have helped me in anyway.

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            In hindsight, it’s pretty amazing how easily my teacher could see through me and how easily that could be conveyed. To the point that, I wonder if it was obvious in my paper that I didn’t read the book. I mean, I tried to. I turned through every page and stared at the contents, but the retention was definitely not there. Not at all. And neither was the compression. Everything just went right over my head.

            In something like this, if effort counts for anything, then fair enough I have nothing to confess in terms of how I wrote that paper. Because, let me say again, I genuinely tried. Over and over. But because nothing stuck and I had way too much of my pride invested into using this particular book, I had to make something up on the fly. So I constructed an entire paper on that first line. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

            After all, the paper just needed to be based in a book and have a strong research component per the rules set out in the beginning, and this is a book about infidelity. So I composed an entire paper about the psychology around infidelity and how often it isn’t about physical attraction but about larger family and society-related issues. See what I did there. I made a completely valid paper stemming from Anna Karenina without actually understanding the words on the page.

            I mean, I knew some of the many themes. So it worked out. Also, I made more than a halfway decent paper. So it REALLY worked out for me.

            And if my teacher noticed, he didn’t say anything about it. He might have thought to say something, but there was no spot on the rubric that said I had to mention key plot points or somewhat minute details in order to prove I had read the book. So what was he going to do? Pity me, probably. While simultaneously being amazed that I salvaged this really bad situation.

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            In so far as this is a genuine blunder of my high school years, most people can leave them behind. I did a fair bit of that. Like, I genuinely can’t remember what the other book was that I did my spring paper. I think it was the Grapes of Wrath. Maybe. But I know it was more digestible and I was in a better head space when it happened

            Here’s the thing. I think about this particular episode of my high school years much too often, and I don’t see the triumph that was salvaging that situation. Maybe I should. I wrote this paper in a really roundabout way without breaking any rules or getting into any ethical quandaries.

            Instead, I focus on that feeling of failure when I realized, seated at the desk in my room, while my grandma was watching television and my mother was asleep on the couch, that I had no way of understanding this book while still firmly believing that I should have been able to or that it was within the realm of possibility.

            It was a stupid standard when you consider everything I was dealing with at that point. Not being able to understand this book when I was exhausted and stressed out says nothing about me, but I still held myself to this impossible stupid standard. And even though I’ve come into myself more and more, this tendency, this part of me, still lingers.

            And in updating my download counter for the Oracle of Dusk, I’ve had to focus on it more and more. It just seems to beg the question.

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Because like that paper, this came out of failure to meet unreasonable standards that admittedly I devised on the fly. Honestly, I don’t know if I should have reached out to my teacher when the nightmares started. For his sake or mine. And I don’t know which one should be given priority. In the end, I sent him a letter or two, but that was it. That was genuinely all I could muster.

He seems okay now. He’s published quite a bit since then, so really, he’s on top of his game right now. He’s certainly not gone, and I have no reason to be upset. And I’m doing alright too. In a lot of ways. But no matter what happens with the other podcast, I’m going to focus on this perceived failure. On the fact that I did not reach out when I thought I should. On the low point of the story and not the resulting high.

            This has nothing to do with the story of Anna Karenina, which is kind of a shame. It’s a good story, and even the briefest dive into the academic literature surrounding it will make you understand how significant this book really is. But like the title of this episode says, I wanted to talk about the book as an object. And how this particular trait and experience has overshadowed all others.

            I’ve always been paranoid about the whole “first impressions matter” type of thing because I’m not very good at first impressions. But I’m starting to wonder if this is what happened here. And this is a question I genuinely don’t have an answer to, but I still want to ask. Is the first impression only the one that seems to matter because it has an advantage? That really, whatever changes the field most is what carries the day and dictates what comes next. And a first impression turns nothing into something. Despite my best efforts, I can only turn something into something else. And I’ve yet to build something much bigger.

            I really don’t know, but I started thinking about this in the context of my podcast. You see, I could never test this is the case of Anna Karenina. It’s a good story, but it’s one that will never resonate with me on a deep level unless some grand love story of my own happens, and this book somehow gets thrown into the mix. I think time will tell what will become of those dreams. If I find peace with them and my podcast or if they end up tearing me apart regardless of whatever community ends up coming together around Delphi.

            I really don’t know what comes next. I couldn’t even predict what has happened thus far. Maybe it will be a good, but, and maybe I’ve said this before, I’m not inclined to be an incredibly optimistic person. But we’ll just have to see.

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            So since it’s going well, do you want to hear one of the episodes of my new audio drama? The Oracle of Dusk has grabbed all of her clients’ attentions. Here’s one of them, and she’s the one that’s going to need the most support. After all, she’s not going to get it from her family. It might be 2019, but some are still afraid to be who they are.

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I'm not sure if you saw me, but here's what I do know. You definitely knew someone was watching you, and when you left the cafe, you knew someone was following you. Hence why you kept looking over shoulder.

Completely understandable, by the way. For one you were right. I was following you. And even if you weren't or I wasn’t. In your case, your paranoia is pretty justifiable. You've been through a lot, yes. And I'm probably not going to help things by making this episode about you, but some things can't be helped. And some words be unsaid.

Look, I don't normally follow people around. Dreaming of someone is one thing, and it certainly isn't a free pass for stalking nor is it comparable at all. For many reasons but most simply, I didn't choose to have these dreams, but I did choose to follow you. Apologies, but I couldn't help it. I had to see you in person.

You see, someone else has been dreaming of you. It's through her dreams that I connected to you, and in her dreams, she calls you the most beautiful woman in the world. (Pause.) Yeah, that might feel meaningless given the cliched nature of the phrase and its connotations or general usage, but could you find it in you to believe that she means it? Consider how many times that has been said in human history. Odds are. Someone has to mean it. And I genuinely think she does. It's in the way she says it with a bit of despair in her heart.

I can hear that despair. And it raises a few questions. Like how could you feel sadness when saying something meaningless or when you are just going through the socially prescribed motions. And in her case why would she inflict sadness on herself by pursuing something unless she felt that something was really? Or if it's not “inflicting” per say then at the very least she's diving more into it. Haven’t you noticed? She seeks you out just to catch a glimpse of your smile only to have the melancholy wash over her when the two of you part ways.

She cries over you. For many reasons. Some I can’t say, but I feel her tears. I know they're real. And I know yours are too.


Take a deep breath. She's scared too. You're her first real love of any kind.

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I think a lot of people would be scared if they'd have the life you had. To that end, keeping this card close to your chest makes sense, and anyone who tells you otherwise really just doesn't understand that there are chains that still bind you. There's nothing they can say and yet they keep talking. It doesn't matter that it's 2019. The world wasn't suddenly made perfect and perfectly fair in an instant. And they can tell you it's something worth fighting for. But you already knew that.

What you don’t know is know if you're a fighter. You act like it all the time at work. To the chagrin of certain people. But there's a part of it that they don't see. But I've seen it. I've seen you psych yourself up in the mirror before each confrontation, scripting out endless outcomes and rebuttals.

And you fought for your freedom and independence when it mattered most, but now you aren't so sure if you have any fight left in you.

Or is it the price that is frightening you? Win or lose you may have to pay a heavy fine just for being who you are. And you aren't sure if the expense, if you, are worth it.

Take a deep breath. I’m here.

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Crazy winter we had, right? With the whole polar vortex thing. Does it is still scare you? The idea of winter, I mean. Obviously that's what I meant. And clearly there's plenty of reasons to talk about it. Especially as of late with the super cold front that came in. We obviously need to be fearful of polar vortexes. Vortexi? Regardless, they can be deadly. And they were for a few unfortunate souls. And those souls were far more experienced than you were.

The dreams I did have of you left me worried about how you would handle it, though I wasn't ready to reach out to you just yet. Do you remember your first winter here? When you pulled out all your winter gear in October, and your co-workers raised concerned eyebrows when you remarked about how early winter had come.

I thought it was cute. After all, no one could expect you to know better considering you were raised in a very warm climate. And then moved to a very warm climate.  And then you were here, confronting a phenomenon you had only heard about. And there are some things books can't prepare you for.

In the dreams, it was hard to tell how much you were struggling with it. Because once again you painted your face with bravery and colored your cheeks with grace. You were the image of unconquerable.

Or you were the most beautiful woman in the world, as she would say.

Take another deep breath. In. Out. Have another. In. Out.

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I'm here for you. One of the few people you have, yes, but that number isn't zero. There's me, at least. And then there's her. So it's at least two. Probably more. But that number isn't zero, so you will be okay.

I'm sorry. I know I'm spectacularly failing at being comforting, but you haven't shut me off yet, so I'm optimistic.

Can I tell you something else? I mean… I just don't want to leave you alone just yet if ever. But ever isn't something I can do anything about.  

Even when I was a few feet away I could feel your weariness. But that's not the only thing about you that stuck with me.

Even if you don't want to believe that you are the most beautiful woman on the world, can't you at least see your warmth? Or that you are goodness incarnate. Partially because of not despite of your refusal to be conquered. You see, your value was never based on utility. And even if it were, your smile did something impossible.

It made her believe the world was a good place. Not fallen, not decent, and not just with potential. No, it went beyond that. You genuinely convinced her that there was still goodness in a world she has assumed was forsaken by not just one but many gods.

And that's beautiful, isn't it? Isn't that the only form of beauty that should matter?

You're the most beautiful woman in the world, she says to herself and to me her unwilling confidant.

Are you listening?

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