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I discovered ‘Math without Numbers‘ by Milo Beckman totally by accident. Sometimes these serendipitous discoveries turn out to be amazing and that is what happened.

At the beginning of the book, Milo Beckman asks the deceptively simple question, ‘How many shapes are there?’ And before long we are taken into a dizzying tour of different kinds of shapes and how some of them are similar though they look very different and we see the world of shapes in new ways. Then Beckman asks the question, ‘Which is the biggest number?’ He then proceeds to show us what that is, and while we are reeling from the amazement that we feel with the new things we learnt, Beckman ups the ante and asks us the question, ‘Is there a number which is bigger than this biggest number?’ The answer to that is even more surprising and amazing! Then Beckman asks the question, ‘If someone says something, can we definitely prove that this statement is either true or false?’ The obvious common sense answer to this, of course, is that a statement is either true or false. What else could it be? But Beckman shows that there is more to this than meets the eye, and what we discover at the end of this conversation is a revelation.

Beckman’s style is conversational and friendly. The whole book is like having a conversation with a friend. It is beautiful. Beckman’s breezy style and humour makes us smile. For example, this passage –

“Before you go tell your loved ones that you read a book about math and learned that a square is a circle, keep in mind: Context matters. A square is a circle, in topology. A square is most certainly not a circle in art or architecture, or in everyday conversation, or even in geometry, and if you try to ride a bike with square tires you won’t get very far.”

And this one –

“When mathematicians talk about the fourth dimension, we’re not talking about time. We’re talking about a fourth geometric dimension, just like the first three. There’s up-down, left-right, forward-back, and then, let’s say, “flim-flam.” You know, another one.”

As promised in the title, there are no numbers in the book. As Beckman is fond of saying, the only numbers which are there in the book are page numbers 😊

M Erazo is the brilliant artist who has worked on this book, and their beautiful illustrations are insightful and enrich our reading experience.

When we finish reading the book, we realize that we have been taken on a breezy, fascinating, whirlwind tour of topology, analysis, abstract algebra and Gödel’s Incompleteness theorem. All complex parts of mathematics, most of which are taught at the master’s level. We don’t realize all that, of course, while reading the book, because Beckman makes it all sound simple.

I loved ‘Math without Numbers’. It is one of the best books on mathematics and science that I’ve ever read. It brings out the magical beauty of mathematics to the general reader and it is an absolute pleasure to read. I’ll just echo what Ian Stewart has said on the book’s cover – “Everyone should read this delightful book.

One of the chapters from the book has been excerpted in Lithub. You can find it here. Hope you enjoy reading it.

Have you read Milo Beckman’s book? What do you think about it?

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Black Hole : How an idea abandoned by Newtonians, hated by Einstein, and gambled on by Hawking became loved‘ by Marcia Bartusiak is an interesting book on the history of black holes and how the idea evolved, and how they were finally discovered. Starts from the earliest times and ends with the discovery of gravitational waves.

For me the strength of the book was the depiction of the personalities of the scientists involved. For example, Fritz Zwicky, Walter Baade, Karl Schwarzschild, Hermann Minkowski, Chandra (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar), Arthur Eddington, Robert Oppenheimer, J.A.Wheeler, Lev Landau and others. One of my favourite passages in the book was about Fritz Zwicky –

“Despite Caltech’s relaxed campus atmosphere, a hallmark of the California lifestyle, Zwicky retained the authoritative air of a nineteenth-century European professor. He was an aggressive, original, and stubbornly opinionated man, the supreme scientific individualist. He regularly annoyed his physics and astronomy colleagues by studying anything he pleased (he called astronomy his “hobby”) and championing along the way some pretty wild ideas, some that waited decades to be proven true. In 1933 he was the first to propose, for example, the existence of cosmic “dark matter” (what he called in German “dunkle Materie”), today one of astronomy’s outstanding mysteries. “Zwicky was one of those people,” recalled Caltech astronomer Wallace Sargent, “who was determined to show the other guy was wrong. His favorite phrase was, ‘I’ll show those bastards,’” which he did to the fullest.”

I couldn’t stop smiling when I read that 😊

I enjoyed reading this book. Hoping to read more books by Marcia Bartusiak. Have you read this one?

I loved Marcus Chown’s collection of essays on science, ‘Infinity in the Palm of your Hand‘. So I thought I’ll read this more famous book of his, ‘The Ascent of Gravity‘.

‘The Ascent of Gravity’ describes how the force of gravity was discovered and how the scientific idea of gravity has evolved across the years. The two main scientists associated with it, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, are featured in depth. Other scientists who played important parts in this adventure are also described. There are detailed explanations in the book on Newton’s law of gravity, Einstein’s Relativity theory, Quantum theory, String Theory and how it has tried to unify Relativity and Quantum theories. The recent detection of gravitational waves is also covered in the book.

So, the first question that needs to be asked is : how easy and accessible is the science described? I feel that the part which covers Newton is very accessible. I think everyone can understand it. There is a part about the moon’s impact on the tides which goes on and on, which I found boring. But when the chapter shifted to the tides in Jupiter’s moons, Io and Europa, I got very excited and continued reading. So when the action moves away from earth to outer space to some distant galaxies, the same thing becomes more exciting 😊 The Einstein part of the book and the String Theory part of the book is tricky. After explaining things in detail in the Newton part, the book suddenly starts using complex words in the next two parts which some readers might find a bit too much.

I have always been puzzled by gravity and the different ways in which it has been described. I was hoping that this book will give some definitive answers, but it didn’t.

I have a question for you. I’ll give you a long description first and then the question 😊

After reading this and other books, I’ve discovered that there are three descriptions of gravity.

  1. Gravity was defined by Newton as a force between two bodies. He also gave a nice formula for calculating it. This formula has worked well for many centuries.
  2. At the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein decided to muddy the waters a bit (or stir the pot, if you like that analogy better). He said that gravity is actually not a force. He said that the universe is made up of a fabric. He called this fabric spacetime. And things like the earth, the moon, the sun, the stars dent that fabric, they warp and curve it. This warping of the spacetime fabric makes the earth and other planets move, the way when we place a heavy ball on a flat sheet made of rubber, it creates a dent and makes the ball move. Einstein says that this is what we experience as gravity. So according to Einstein, gravity is not a force, it is not real, but it is just geometry. Einstein showed equations to prove that his concept worked.
  3. In modern cutting edge physics, gravity is regarded as a field (like the electromagnetic field) which is composed of particles called gravitons which are responsible for the gravitational force we feel. This is still a theoretical concept. There is no evidence that gravitons exist.

Well, these are three different descriptions of the same thing – a thing that we feel everyday. They all can’t be true, can they? 😊 Because, they are all so different! So, I did some digging and went and read parts of an actual college physics textbook. This is what it said –

“Should we attribute gravitation to the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of masses or to a force between masses? Or should we attribute it to the actions of a type of fundamental particle called a graviton as conjectured in some modern physics theories? We do not know.”

Yes, I am not joking, this is what it said – this is a quote straight from the book! It seems that even scientists have no idea! They just use the particular concept which fits their current research!

When I think about it, I wonder whether this is a case of a few blind men touching an elephant and trying to find out what it is. Maybe gravity has revealed itself in different ways and maybe it is bigger than all of this and we haven’t discovered the true essence of it yet.

Which of these three explanations do you like? Which one do you find the most convincing? Please do share.

I liked ‘The Ascent of Gravity’, but I loved Marcus Chown’s ‘Infinity in the Palm of your Hand’ more. Have you read ‘The Ascent of Gravity’? What do you think about it.

I discovered Ellen Ullman’sClose to the Machine : Technophilia and its Discontents‘ a few years back. It was about how Silicon Valley looked like to a person who worked at the ground level. This was probably one of the first books to describe this. I finally got around to reading it.

In the book, Ellen Ullman describes her experiences working as a programmer in Silicon Valley. Most of the book is set in the middle and late 1990s at the dawn of the Internet era. But Ullman also goes back in time and describes her experiences in the ’80s and the ’70s, and we get a ringside view of how technology and how computer culture evolved.

If you have worked in the tech industry in any capacity, but particularly as a computer programmer (I don’t know exactly what this is called these days. From ‘computer programmer’ it became ‘software engineer’, and it used to be called derisively as ‘coder’ by non-technical people in the tech industry. These days it is probably called ‘App developer’, but I’m not sure.), you’ll be able to relate to most of the things described in the book. I could. Some parts of the book made me smile, and nod in acknowledgement, while others triggered some unpleasant memories.

My favourite chapter in the book was called ‘New, Old, and Middle Age’. It is about how software technology keeps changing rapidly and how it is hard to keep up, and at some point a person gives up. It happens to everyone, and it happened to me. I still remember the heady early days, when I sat with two of my teammates while we analyzed and debugged a program and I identified the main source of a particular nasty problem and my teammates looked at me with admiration. Years later, one of my teammates taught me a new technology and asked me to hold the fort while he was away for a day, and when a customer came up with a simple request, I couldn’t handle that. That simple thing was beyond me. I knew that day that my programming days were over, and that the technology had changed to a point where I couldn’t keep up with it, and I had become obsolete as a programmer. When I read a whole chapter about it in the book, it made me smile.

I went into the tech industry because I loved programming, and I thought I’ll be on a high all the time, because I’ll be working on computer programs all the time. But reality didn’t turn out that way. There were meetings and interruptions and phone calls and this and that, and in addition to that one had to deal with the contempt that non-technical employees had for programmers, and soon, at some point, all the romance went out of the work, and I pottered around like a zombie and tried to get through the day. Ellen Ullman talks about all this in the book when she describes how when a new project starts, everyone is enthusiastic and positive, but before long things go awry, and it all goes to hell after that.

There are many other interesting things, fascinating things that Ellen Ullman talks about in the book. I’ll let you read the book yourself and experience its pleasures.

I loved Ellen Ullman’s book. As one of the first books on this theme, it is pioneering and fascinating. I wish I had read it when I was younger.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite excerpts from the book. Hope you like them.

First Excerpt

“I once worked on a mainframe computer system where the fan-folded listing of my COBOL program stood as high as a person. My program was sixteen years old when I inherited it. According to the library logs, ninety-six programmers had worked on it before I had. I spent a year wandering its subroutines and service modules, but there were still mysterious places I did not dare touch. There were bugs on this system no one had been able to fix for ten years. There were sections where adding a single line of code created odd and puzzling outcomes programmers call “side effects”: bugs that come not directly from the added code but from some later, known permutation further down in the process. My program was near the end of its “life cycle.” It was close to death.

Yet the system could not be thrown away. By the time a computer system becomes old, no one completely understands it. A system made out of old junky technology becomes, paradoxically, precious. It is kept running but as if in a velvet box : open it carefully, just look, don’t touch.

The preciousness of an old system is axiomatic. The longer the system has been running, the greater the number of programmers who have worked on it, the less any one person understands it. As years pass and untold numbers of programmers and analysts come and go, the system takes on a life of its own. It runs. That is its claim to existence : it does useful work. However badly, however buggy, however obsolete – it runs. And no one individual completely understands how. Its very functioning demands we stop treating it as some mechanism we’ve created like, say, a toaster, and start to recognize it as a being with a life of its own. We have little choice anyway : we no longer control it. We have two choices: respect it or kill it.

Old systems have a name. They are called “legacy systems.” In the regular world, “legacy” has an aura of beneficence, Parents leave a child a legacy : fortunate child. A brother gets into a fraternity because of his older brother’s earlier membership : a legacy admission. A gift. An enrichment. The patina of age, but good age-venerability, the passing on from generation to generation. A gift of time.

In computing, however, “legacy” is a curse. A legacy system is a lingering piece of old junk that no one has yet figured out how to throw away. It’s something to be lived with and suffered. The system is unmodifiable, full of bugs, no longer understood. We say it’s “brain dead.” Yet it lives. Yet it runs. Drain on our time and money. Vampire of our happiness. Legacy.”

Second Excerpt

“I’ve managed to stay in a perpetual state of learning only by maintaining what I think of as a posture of ignorant humility. This humility is as mandatory as arrogance. Knowing an IBM mainframe – knowing it as you would a person, with all its good qualities and deficiencies, knowledge gained in years of slow anxious probing – is no use at all when you sit down for the first time in front of a UNIX machine. It is sobering to be a senior programmer and not know how to log on.

There is only one way to deal with this humiliation : bow your head, let go of the idea that you know anything, and ask politely of this new machine, “How do you wish to be operated?” If you accept your ignorance, if you really admit to yourself that everything you know is now useless, the new machine will be good to you and tell here is how to operate me.

Once it tells you, your single days are over. You are involved again. Now you can be arrogant again. Now you must be arrogant : you must believe you can come to know this new place as well as the old – no, better. You must now dedicate yourself to that deep slow probing, that patience and frustration, the anxious intimacy of a new technical relationship. You must give yourself over wholly to this : you must believe this is your last lover.”

Have you read ‘Close to the Machine : Technophilia and its Discontents‘? What do you think about it?

Years back Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ introduced many of us to the great Marlen Haushofer’s masterpiece ‘The Wall. I read it after discovering it, and at that time, I was only the second person that I knew who had read it. I was amazed that it was literally unknown, because as soon as I read it, it became my all-time favourite book. Since then I’ve recommended ‘The Wall’ to many friends, some of whom read it but responded to it in a lukewarm way, while most others just nodded politely and ignored my recommendation. Recently there was an essay published in ‘The Atlantic’ by Naomi Huffman about ‘The Wall’, and now James Wood has written an essay in The New Yorker about it. For some reason, it appears that writers and literary critics have suddenly discovered ‘The Wall’ and its fame seems to be growing by the day. It is not clear why, because even a couple of years back, Marlen Haushofer was totally ignored during her centenary. But I’m glad that her fame and the book’s fame is spreading and hopefully more people will read it.

I’m happy about this. But it is also a bittersweet moment for me. One of my favourite writers who was a secret among friends has now become famous. The fame is well-deserved, of course, and I’m so happy for Marlen Haushofer, but I also feel sad that the secret is out.

This is not the first time this has happened. Caroline, who has probably forgotten more about great literature than I’ll ever know, also recommended Patrick Modiano many years back. No one had heard of Patrick Modiano then, and there was no review of his books on the internet. But Caroline had read 15 books by him. Not one, not two, but 15! And we all know what happened. Modiano went on to win the Nobel Prize, and from an unknown writer he became a legend.

It didn’t end there, of course. Caroline also recommended Annie Ernaux many years back, and no one had heard of Annie Ernaux at that time. The English translation of her books were published by a small indie publisher and they were hard to find. Many years later, Annie Ernaux’ ‘The Years’ got shortlisted for the MAN International Prize, and suddenly everyone was reading and raving about Ernaux.

So, if you want to discover an unknown writer, who is going to get famous in ten years time and maybe win the Nobel Prize, you know whom to talk to – the one and only Caroline, reader extraordinaire, mom of two adorable black cats, Max and Isis (named after the Egyptian goddess), and whose book collection rivals Umberto Eco’s.

I wrote a long review of Marlen Haushofer’s book years back when I first read it. But no one will want to read that. Other friends wrote beautiful posts about the book. You can find Marina’s (from ‘Finding Time to Write’) post here, and Claire’s (from ‘Word by Word’) post here. Hope you’ll also read James Wood’s essay and Naomi Huffman’s essay and hope these posts and essays will inspire you to pick the book and read it, and experience its beauty. Happy reading!

I’ve wanted to read Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’sThe Disordered Cosmos : A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred‘, ever since it came out. So I was excited to finally read it.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part, which is around one-third of the book is about physics. In this part, Chanda talks about particle physics, relativity, spacetime, dark matter, quantum physics and other related things. One of the things that I loved about this part is that Chanda highlights many women physicists and astronomers. I was very happy to see one of my favourites, Vera Rubin, mentioned in the book. Chanda also mentions Lee Smolin and I was happy when I read that because Lee Smolin wrote one of the great, controversial, and most beautiful books about physics called ‘The Trouble with Physics‘.

In the next three parts of the book, Chanda describes her experiences as a physicist from different perspectives, and the issues in the field of physics and in science. For example, some of the things that she talks about are how women scientists are discriminated against, how it is doubly hard if you are a black woman, how patriarchy still controls science, how she got raped by a senior scientist and how many victims keep quiet because of the repercussions that might arise, what it means to be a black feminist working in physics research, how the land of indigenous communities have been appropriated in the name of science and how scientists have stood against indigenous communities. On the way she takes potshots at politicians and she is an equal opportunity person because she takes potshots at people on both sides of the divide. This part of the book reads like a collection of essays on related topics, and it is thought-provoking and insightful and very relevant today.

Towards the end of the book, there is a playlist and a list of recommended books. I loved them both.

The natural question that might arise is this – how easy is the science part? Can it be understood by a normal person? My answer is this. This part of the book reads like a conversation. Imagine that you are meeting your big sister, who is a scientist, after a long time. You sit down and talk to her. She tells you about work, about science, about the politics in her workplace, about the good and bad things that happened, about the new things she discovered. Sometimes, she explains things in detail. Sometimes she just mentions them or skims over them. Sometimes you understand the whole thing. Sometimes you understand only some things. But the whole conversation is pleasurable and you love it. Well, the first part of the book is this conversation. It explains some things but it won’t explain everything. Sometimes things will go over your head. But it is very pleasurable to read.

If you want to read a book which describes the basics of all that Chanda talks about, I can recommend two. One of them is ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘ by Bill Bryson. It covers other sciences too in addition to physics. This is the best book on science for the general reader that I’ve read. The second book is ‘The Universe in your Hand‘ by Christophe Galfard. This is the best book on physics that I’ve ever read. Galfard has explained things in a way that every reader would understand. Galfard was Stephen Hawking’s student, and though Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’ is more famous, Galfard’s book is much better in terms of ease of understanding and knocks the ball out of the park. This is one case, where the student outshone the master.

Chanda’s prose is sharp and irreverent, and filled with humour, mostly of the dark kind. Her sharp prose and humorous sentences sometimes made me laugh and sometimes made me think. For example, these sentences –

“These rules seem abstract, but they are the basis for how intellectuals on the Asian peninsula called Europe eventually came to think about space”

“During my first two years as an MLK Fellow at MIT, I was the only Black woman who worked for the physics department in Building 37 who wasn’t a member of the janitorial staff.”

“White men who weren’t raped and don’t have to deal with racism have been more productive than me for the last three days.”

“The sun has about five billion years left before it destroys Earth, but it’s hard to imagine that our species, which has only been around for a couple million years, will last that long.”

Chanda talks about her mother many times and the sacrifices her mother made so that Chanda could get a good education and accomplish what she did, things that Chanda didn’t know when she was young, because her mother made these sacrifices quietly. One of my favourite passages about her mother was this one. It melted by heart and made me cry. Mothers are amazing. What will we do without them?

“I once asked my mother in a moment of doubt what the point of my work was, and she said that people need to know that there is a universe beyond the terrible things that happen to us. The stars, the Standard Model, the way spacetime bends—this way of seeing the world is one that can be inspiring.”

There is a note to the reader at the end of the book in which Chanda says this. I found it very inspiring.

“Science is not about what we know. Science is about what we don’t know. A scientist’s job is to live at the boundary of what is known and unknown and try to push that boundary forward. That requires being confused—and being comfortable with not knowing the answers because we are confident that we’ve got a good toolkit. Early drafts of this book emphasized this in places, but I was afraid these notes would disrupt the reader’s focus on what I admit is a lot of new and weird information about how the universe supposedly works. The key thing is that if you’re feeling confused but intrigued and wanting to learn more, you’re having a very “scientist” experience.”

Here is the part of the book in which Chanda talks about the great Vera Rubin. It is long, but I couldn’t resist sharing it, because I want everyone to read it.

“Kelvin, Poincaré, and Zwicky are all historicized as genius giants of their time, and mysteriously Vera Rubin generally hasn’t been. In Rubin’s lifetime, men younger than her won Nobel Prizes for finding evidence of phenomena that were similarly significant to finally proving the existence of something behaving like an invisible matter (the 2011 prize for dark energy)…

As a graduate student who was struggling with self-confidence and her place in the theoretical physics community, I once spent a day with Dr. Rubin. When I met her, almost the first thing she did was ask me how I thought the dark matter problem could be solved. No one had ever asked my opinion about a major problem in physics before, not in grad school, and definitely not in college. Physicists are rarely interested in the opinions of undergraduates, who are often not deemed advanced enough to make a useful contribution to the conversation. In research, the convention is that one hands an undergraduate a problem to work on and hopes they will be creative in their efforts to apply known techniques to tiny fractions of difficult problems.

In some sense, I understand this. And yet some of the most interesting research I have done as a scientist was a collaboration with undergraduates who dug in and went beyond their coursework, asking questions and finding interesting threads in the work. Importantly, physics is about precisely that, which means that we should probably be asking our undergraduates big-picture questions, not for the sake of getting solutions out of them, but to encourage them to take ownership over those questions. But what if you never give yourself permission to think about a problem? This is what happened initially between me and dark matter. I understood it as a problem for observational astrophysics, not particle theory, and as a result, I wasn’t particularly interested in it for myself. I thought it was an important problem, but not my problem. Vera Rubin changed that impression, simply by asking me the question.

What Dr. Rubin did was probably more anti-establishment than it already seems. Not only did she ask a student what she thought about how to solve one of the biggest problems in physics, she also asked me, a brown-skinned woman. I suspect that along the way some undergraduates do get asked for their opinions. I watched as a few of my white, mostly male classmates were feted as next-generation physics greats. It became clear to me early on that the faculty had decided that I was not going to be in that particular group. Why ask someone who would never amount to anything as a scientist what she thought about science? Dr. Rubin challenged how I was treated in physics by treating me as if I was a person who could solve a major problem in physics. At the time I wasn’t working on dark matter and didn’t have a good answer for her. It was another five years before I ended up in dark matter’s intellectual orbit, and even at that point, I had no intention of becoming a person who works on dark matter. A colleague suggested we try to make sense of a proposed theory about how axion Bose-Einstein condensation works. As a result of our efforts, we produced an interesting result and suddenly I found myself, Dr. Rubin’s encouragement at my back, thinking that I too could be one of the people hot on the trail of dark matter.”

I enjoyed reading ‘The Disordered Cosmos’. It was powerful, insightful and made me think a lot. It is an unusual physics book, because it doesn’t just stop with physics, but talks about people and the environment in which they work in. Chanda says towards the end of the book that she didn’t want to write a detached book about science, but she wanted to write a book which showed things as they were and how science was practised. The result is, of course, glorious.

Have you read ‘The Disordered Cosmos‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Stela Brinzeanu’sSet in Stone‘ through Marina Sofia from ‘Finding Time to Write’ . The story looked beautiful and so I was excited to read it.

It is the medieval ages. We are in Moldova. Elina is a young noblewoman. She lives with her father. Her mother has passed. One day she crosses paths with Mira. Mira is the potter’s daughter who is hoping to become a potter herself one day. Magic happens. But this is the medieval ages. A woman falling in love with another woman and they both getting together is impossible. Also, their social divide is impossible to bridge. What happens to them forms the rest of the story.

At its core, ‘Set in Stone’ is a beautiful love story. But it is also much more than that. It depicts the lives of women in the middle ages and how everything was hard for them, how women who were healers were branded as witches, how people lived together as a community and helped each other out, the battle between different religions, the old and the new, how freedom was elusive whether one was poor or rich and how no one was truly free. At one point Elina asks her father, “What’s the use of all this if I can’t be free?” To which her father replies, “No one is really free, my dear. I’m at the behest of the voivode and he is a vassal of the Ottoman sultan, and so it goes. Real freedom doesn’t exist, and if it did, I’m not even sure we’d want it.

I loved most of the characters in the book (except the bad ones). Most of the women characters were fascinating and inspiring because they defied the restrictions imposed on them and tried to break free and express themselves and live beautiful lives. Stela Brinzeanu’s prose is soft and beautiful and brings that period alive. The conversations between Elina and Mira were cool and stylish and were such a pleasure to read.

I loved ‘Set in Stone’. This is the first ever book that I’ve read where the story is set in Moldova. Yay!  I’m so happy about that! Stela Brinzeanu has written another book set in Moldova during contemporary times. I can’t wait to read that!

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“‘At the heart of any storm, whether it’s around or inside you, there’s a place of quiet like no other. When you find that place, you gain such strength that nobody could ever take that away from you.”

“She watches the snowflakes swarming outside, as if they are choosing where to settle. Who is she fooling? Of course it isn’t up to them where they end up. It’s the invisible wind that’s tossing them about, teasing them with the promise of free will.”

“Elina thinks how much easier it is to communicate with animals. They perceive the world in silence, and they’re never wrong. Words are useless tools if you’re digging for truth, she thinks. They lie, deceive and distort. Only in the absence of words can there be truth. That’s why people talk, because they have something to hide.”

“Home isn’t really someone’s hut or manor, she thinks, but the place where your loved one is waiting for you.”

Have you read ‘Set in Stone’? What do you think about it?

One day Naja Marie Aidt receives a call in the evening. The person at the other end says that her son is dead. Her son is twenty five years old. This tragedy devastates Naja Marie Aidt and her family. They say that the worst misfortune that can befall a person is when they have to bury their child. It happens to Naja Marie Aidt. It plunges her into a deep abyss of grief. And while she is grieving, she takes her pain and misfortune and creates art. And we have this book. So that we can read it, and we can grieve with her. And we can grieve for those we have loved and lost forever.

I’m sharing with you some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…Aristotle’s description of how a tragedy is structured. This description comes from his work Poetics. You choose a hero, someone you can identify with. A person, like anyone in the audience, with ordinary character traits and ordinary minor flaws, but who is one hair nobler, one hair better…

The tragic element begins when the hero commits hamartia, a fatal flaw or a fatal miscalculation. This fatal miscalculation is never malevolent, but is carried out with the best intentions. An action anyone in the audience could commit if the circumstances were in place. A small, insignificant action…

But the miscalculation in the tragedy is the triggering factor for peripeteia – a reversal of fortune. A reversal of fortune is the sudden shift from lucky to unlucky. In the reversal of fortune, you get caught by your good intentions…

Aristotle believed that tragedy after a reversal of fate would inspire fear and compassion in the audience. Compassion, for those who do not deserve trouble. Fear, when someone gets into trouble who, in many ways, is like ourselves. Our equal. The impact on the audience needs to be strong and gripping. The audience has to experience catharsis – a shock-like effect that makes the audience’s hair stand on end. And here is the crux of the tragedy and this entire unfortunate situation…

After the tragedy, the audience will leave the theatre feeling humble about their own ability to avoid trouble, and will think twice about looking down on one of their fellow human beings, whose life has ended in a failed situation. I hope that everyone with us today in this room will learn from this tragedy.”

“Nick Cave says in the film, ‘One More Time With Feeling (2016)’ : Most of us don’t want to change, really. I mean, why should we? What we do want is a sort of a modification of the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but just hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from a known person to an unknown person. So then, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.”

Have you read Naja Marie Aidt’s book? What do you think about it?

Our unnamed narrator gets up from bed one day. He says that he has been lying on bed for the past nine months. And his wife has left him. And it is his fault. He proceeds to tell us the story. When the doorbell rings. A woman is standing outside. She wants his help in finding her father. Before long we are hurled into a world, where the narrator’s city has changed beyond recognition in the last nine months, and the story looks real before the narrator starts seeing people from his dreams in the real world and things turn increasingly surreal and then some mythical, magical creatures appear. What happens after that and whether the narrator is able to help in finding the woman’s father forms the rest of the story.

This is the surface level story. Of course, this is not all there is to it, and there is more to it than meets the eye. The nine months that the narrator spends in bed are the worst, most violent nine months in Bosnia in the ’90s, and when we realize that, the whole story takes on a totally different meaning and we see everything in new light. The monsters in the story are real-world people who did monstrous things, and the disappearances of family members is what most families went through. A reader who reads this book in Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian will catch all this on the first read and will be able to appreciate the metaphors of the story with a deeper resonance. But for an outsider like me, it took a while to figure things out.

Selvedin Avdić’s prose is beautiful and is filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. There are many footnotes in the book which were fascinating. The book has a foreword by Nick Lezard, who reviews books for ‘The Guardian’, which is very interesting.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Then I thought that some music might help, recalling how it can easily change the atmosphere of any room. Do an experiment, if you don’t believe me. In a completely empty room, play different types of music and you will see how the shadows shift, the air stirs, the nuances of light change, as the room adjusts itself to the music, like the scene changing from act to act in the theatre. There is no such thing as complete silence. It does not exist. At least not in this world, maybe in outer space or in the bowels of the earth, where it’s only cold and dark.”

“Allah created this world so that it would be pleasing to an intelligent seven-year-old boy. That is what Ahmed said to me when I left his office. I think the thing that He made best was the morning. How I used to love the morning! I loved to drink coffee with Anđela and to make arrangements for the day, while morning was coming into the room. I loved every one of our conversations. I loved the little movements of her fingers around the cup. The scents, the clock ticking, the news on the radio…my whole body would relax. I could be alone with her for days, with her and the child in that little room. I used to tell her even prison would not be hard for me if we were together. Because, as the proverb says, if the household is never spiteful, the house is never too small. Mornings are now completely senseless. I imagine that they are still beautiful, but I can no longer notice.”

Have you read ‘Seven Terrors’? What do you think about it?

I discovered Hanne Ørstavik’sLove‘ when I was looking at Archipelago Books’ catalogue last year. I got it at that that time, but never got around to reading it. Then I read Miracle’s (from ‘The Book-Butterfly) review of the book recently, and got inspired by it and decided to pick this book up. I finished reading it today in one sitting.

A single mother and her son have moved into a small town. It is the son’s birthday the next day. By an accident of circumstances, they both leave the home in the evening, and end up meeting strangers and having different adventures. You have to read the book to find out what happened next.

The story has only a few main characters. Nothing much happens in it. There is a lot unsaid which is there below the surface, waiting to burst out. Hanne Ørstavik’s offers a masterclass on the old creative writing rule – “Show, don’t tell”. Whether the author describes different kinds of love in the story, or whether she leaves the interpretations of love to our imagination – this is all up to discussion. You should read the book and ask yourself what you think about it.

My favourite character in the book was an old man who comes in the beginning. He was cool. But all the characters in the story were quite interesting. Hanne Ørstavik writing is soft and flows smoothly like the evening breeze.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

“She wants her hair to look like a cloud caressing her face.”

“She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.”

“The whisky is golden, like distilled fire.”

“I’ll sheathe us both in speechless intimacy, until we’re ready for the abruptness of words.”

“She thinks the speed at which a person reads says something about the kind of rhythm they possess, the way they are in life.”

“She feels the lure of sitting with a good book, a big thick one of the kind that leave an impression stronger and realer than life itself.”

Have you read Hanne Ørstavik’s book? What do you think about it?