When I began to conduct interviews for my 2016 anthology “The Books That Changed My Life,” I was briefly nervous that each person would choose either Holy Writ or Harry Potter. I needn’t have worried. Out of more than 120 subjects, only two chose the same title (“The God of Small Things,” by Arundhati Roy), and they chose it for separate reasons.
The world contains millions of pieces of literature and all of them speak to different people in different ways. Sometimes one reader gets hooked — and in the case of Viv Groskop, her addiction is our pleasure. Groskop’s new “The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons From Russian Literature” allows us all to share the author’s love affair with the famed writers who form “the Russians,” referring to “the great Russian classics.” Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pasternak, Chekhov, check them all off; Groskop is just sorry there’s only one woman, the sublime Anna Akhmatova, on her list.
A caveat lector from the author: “The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life.” Even readers who have skipped over almost all of these writers know from popular culture that “the Russians” tend toward doom, gloom and tormented minds. Fortunately, Groskop eats that all up. She has a master’s in Russian studies, speaks Russian fluently and has lived in the belly of the gloomy literary beast that is Mother Russia. When she says there are lessons to be learned from these novels, short stories, poems and dramas, she’s saying so with an expert voice.
She’s also saying so with a passionate voice. In this “self-help memoir,” as it’s dubbed by publisher Abrams, Groskop lifts most of her life’s veils to show us her immigrant family’s obsession with all things British, her uncomfortable attendance at her first Russian funeral (they want her to bring makeup . . . for the corpse), her badly unrequited love for a Russian rocker and so much more. Her ability to connect these events to Russian literature is impressive. Each chapter takes on a different work and has a different theme. “How to Not be Your Own Worst Enemy” is derived from “Eugene Onegin,” by Alexander Pushkin; “How to Overcome Inner Conflict,” “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, natch — who has more inner conflict than Raskolnikov?
What takes “The Anna Karenina Fix” to the next level is Groskop’s sense of humor or, really, appreciation for the absurd (see aforementioned funeral makeup). Her advice on patronymics? “Don’t sweat the diminutives.” She writes deadpan literary analysis, such as the following about “Anna Karenina”: “Kitty is not supposed to end up with Vronsky. They would not have been good together.” She self-deprecates, claiming, “I had made myself into a Gogolian caricature: a grotesque, the English country girl who fancies herself more exotic than she really is.”
Groskop is no grotesque; rather, she’s a delight, a reader’s reader whose professional and personal experiences have allowed her to write the kind of book that not only is complete unto itself, but makes you want to head to the library and revisit or discover the great works she loves.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Viv Groskop
Abrams. 224 pp. $25.