Review: Tolstoy

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: TolstoyTolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 8, 2011
Genres: Biography, History
Pages: 560
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling against not only conventional ideas about literature and art but also traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state.

In this, the first biography of Tolstoy in more than twenty years, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy’s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved and the turbulent times in which he lived. Above all, Bartett gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has once again been discovered by a new generation of readers.

As a history major in undergrad, I have some familiarity with history books such as this one. Many of them are painfully dry and dishearteningly long. Thankfully, since I was reading this for fun and not with the threat of a test to push me through, Bartlett’s tome, while long (which is to be expected given the subject matter), proved to be pretty readable.

That is not to say, of course, that it was a speedy read. It was not, at least not for me. However, Bartlett is a good writer and she conveyed information in a logical order, something one does not always find in such books. Plus, Tolstoy’s a pretty interesting guy to read about, even if he was a bit of a jerk (ex. his treatment of his wife, who was pregnant all the time from their marriage until she pretty much couldn’t have kids anymore). Did you know his belief in nonviolent resistance was an inspiration to Gandhi? And that he was a huge proponent of vegetarianism?

Looking at this in terms of how useful it would be for a paper, I would give it pretty high marks, since, as previously mentioned, it is both well-written and a wealth of information. The one drawback I see is the construction of the chapters, many of which cover a couple different aspects of his life. For example, one chapter is entitled “Student, Teacher, Father” and another is “Landowner, Gambler, Officer, Writer.” Honestly, I think it would have been better to break these up into their own chapters, since there tended to be a pretty obvious switch from one of the subjects to the next. This would serve two purposes: shortening the chapters and making it easier to locate what you’re looking for in the text. Really long chapters are both depressing to a student and make it really hard to go back and locate that one quote that is crucial to proving your thesis.

Despite that, I would consider this a pretty awesome choice for your learning-about-Tolstoy needs, be they self-motivated or required for class.

 

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