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Archive for February, 2010

I am reading a book called ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia‘. It is a collection of short stories by some of today’s Russian writers. I found some of the passages in a story called ‘A Potential Customer’ by Ilya Kochergin very beautiful and so thought I will post them here. Hope you enjoy reading them ๐Ÿ™‚

An image, hazy as it was, stood clearly before my eyes, I couldn’t forget it – a girl slowly dancing and smiling to herself. The dim vision of her bore a resemblance to my winter dream in the taiga, where the heavy snowy silence presses on your ears, where fatigue and frost give birth in your lightly sleeping brain to vanishing women with slow movements and loving eyes.

I stood outside our house, opposite Repin Square, smoked a cigarette, expelled the smoke through my nose onto my moustache. A man from the taiga stood there, squinting. I was prepared to be noticed, my plans had allowed for it as an integral part of my vacation, but Moscow sailed past. Sailed in vivid flashes, perfumed scents, the grunt of gear changes, grimy pigeons.
Around fifteen minutes passed. The second cigarette in a row with no special desire to smoke, and the depressing suspicion crept in that this time, as if out of spite, everything would be just as it had been a thousand times before – the very first evening, which had promised so much, would be spent with a book on the sofa. The second, too, and the tenth. My native city would not recognize me, maybe a cop would come up and ask for my papers – nothing more. It happens every time, but I just can’t get used to it. From afar it beckons, teases, but as soon as you arrive – you’re a distant uninvited relative from the countryside.

I read that each of us sits out our whole life in a bubble with walls of mirror and whatever we look, we see only ourselves, in other words, our reflection. You look, for example, at a bear and see not a bear but a wild beast that could kill you, you look at a pretty young girl and think how nice it would be to get between her legs. You don’t see them, it’s more like you see yourself, on top of the girl or under the bear. So everything gets measured against yourself. Here Mama will once again see not me, but her dear little child, and everything will fall into place.

For a man who works in the wilderness and delights in living without family and boxes it feels awkward to tell of the beauty, the pine scent and romance of Siberia. But tell someone he must, someone must hear me. I must tell others of my life, in order to see my reflection in their pupils.

I thought about how love forces a person to climb out of his mirror bubble and look at the world without any ulterior motives, just look and see. Otherwise it would be terrible, otherwise we would just hang there in space, in our bubbles, and not even see each other. These bubbles were like balls on a Christmas tree, which are, as it happens, mirrored on the inside, and whoever was sitting inside didn’t even realize that outside there was a celebration.

– From ‘A Potential Customer’ by Ilya Kochergin
(From the collection ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia’ edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker

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I have heard of Sylvia Plath before, as a poet who died young. I also knew that she was married to Ted Hughes, who was a British Poet Laureate. A few months back I went to a film festival. It was held in a place which was a transformed traditional south Indian house – with a big hall, high roof and tall pillars. The hall was a place where during old times the family, friends and relatives used to sit together and talk and gossip on what happened during the day. The owners had converted this hall into a venue for cultural events – where film festivals and art exhibitions could be conducted and where poetry readings, plays and music concerts could be performed. I liked this place for the informal atmosphere it evoked – one sat on cushions on the floor, like a Nawab and could watch the performance and converse with the artists. It was also easy to have conversations with strangers sitting next to one. I was at this place to watch a movie which was part of a film festival. While waiting for the screening to start, I took a book out of my backpack and started to read it, when one of my neighbours interrupted me and asked me what I was reading. We started having a conversation and he showed me the book he was reading. It was ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath. I knew that Sylvia Plath was a poet but I didn’t know that she had written a novel too. After that day, whenever I went to my favourite bookshop, ‘The Bell Jar’ jumped at me from the shelf everytime, but I avoided it because of what I knew about Sylvia Plath – I thought it would be depressing. But during my last trip to the bookshop, I couldn’t resist it anymore. So I got a copy, and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the publisher’s website.

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

I am also giving below a brief description of the story taken from the note written for the book by Lois Ames.

The central themes of Sylvia Plath’s early life are the basis for The Bell Jar…These were the events which took place in her life in the summer and autumn of 1953 – at the time of the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, at the time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was forcing his power, at the beginning of the Eisenhower presidency – these were the events which Sylvia Plath reconstructed in The Bell Jar. Years later she described the book she wanted to write :

“The pressures of the fashion magazine world which seems increasingly superficial and artificial, the return home to the dead summer world of a suburb of Boston. Here the cracks in her (the heroine, Esther Greenwood’s) nature which had been held together as it were by the surrounding pressures of New York widen and gape alarmingly. More and more her warped view of the world around – her own vacuous domestic life, and that of her neighbours – seems the one right way of looking at things.”

For Sylvia then came electroshock therapy and finally her well-publicized disappearance, subsequent discovery, and consequent hospitalization for psychotherapy and more shock treatment. She wrote : “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion – so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be – symbolic death, and numb shock – then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration.”


What I think

I found ‘The Bell Jar’ quite fascinating. The first half of the story describes the experiences of a small town girl in glitzy New York and the second half takes on a bleak tone and describes the girl descending a slippery mental slope. There are beautiful passages throughout the book, though many of my favourite ones are there in the sunny, first-half of the book.

I liked Sylvia Plath’s voice which came out of the book – conversational, direct, honest. Frances McCullough says this in her foreword to the book :ย  “…her voice has such intensity, such a direct edge to it. Almost everything Plath wrote in her short life….has the quality, the immediacy of a letter just opened. It’s heartbreaking to think of what she would have written, what wisdom and maturity would have brought to this stunning voice.” Very eloquently put and very true.

Sylvia Plath died young – she committed suicide when she was thirty years old. It was a tragic end to a budding poet and novelist. I searched a bit on this in different places and this is what I found :

  • Plath’s marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962.
  • …by the time The Bell Jar came out in London, Plath was in extremis; her marriage to poet Ted Hughes was over, she was in panic about money, and had moved to a bare flat in London with her two small children in the coldest British winter in a hundred years. All three of them had the flu, there was no phone, and there was no help with child care.
  • Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.
  • Plath’s suicide on February 11, 1963 brought her instant fame in England.
  • After her death, Ted Hughes, who inherited the copyright on all her work, published and unpublished…
  • As Plath’s widower, Hughes became the executor of Plathโ€™s personal and literary estates. He oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1966). He also claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plathโ€™s journal, detailing their last few months together. In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, he defends his actions as a consideration for the couple’s young children.
  • Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)”
  • “It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.”
  • In the realms of literary criticism and biography published after her death, the debate concerning Plath’s literary estate very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and those who side with Hughes. Hughes has been accused of attempting to control the estate for his own ends although royalties from Plath’s poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children, Frieda and Nicholas.
  • On 25 March 1969, six years after Plath’s suicide by asphyxiation from a gas stove, Assia Wevill (the woman for whom Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath) committed suicide in the same way. Wevill also killed her child, Alexandra Tatiana Elise (nicknamed Shura), the four-year-old daughter of Hughes, born on 3 March 1965.
  • Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath’s supporters who have chiseled the name “Hughes” off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes left Plath…
  • After their mother’s death, Ted Hughes took over the care of his two children, and raised them with his second wife, Carol, on their farm in Devon after their marriage in 1970.
  • On March 16, 2009, Nicholas (son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath) hanged himself in his home in Alaska at the age 47. According to his sister Frieda Hughes, Nicholas had been depressed for quite some time.

It is a sad story of a once beautiful family.

I have one comment on Ted Hughes’ role in publishing Sylvia Plath’s manuscripts. If they had separated because of Hughes having an affair, and she had committed suicide because she was depressed (which is how it looks), what moral right does Hughes have to inherit her literary estate? If he had been fair, even if he had inherited Plath’s manuscripts legally, shouldn’t he have hired a neutral editor and given the complete manuscripts to this editor rather than himself taking over the role of the editor and going on to burn one of Plath’s journals? Isn’t it unfair that she died of depression which descended on her partly because of him, and he benefited by it? What do you think?

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.

“What do you have in mind after you graduate?”
“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.
It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.

Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr.Manzi’s special red chalk.

…the streets were gay and fuming with rain. It wasn’t the kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they must have in Brazil. It flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete.

I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself.
And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs.Willard’s kitchen mat.
Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon…my father said to her, “Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves”? – and from that day on my mother never had a minute’s peace.
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

(Comment : This passage reminded me of some of the movies I have seen which have a similar theme – ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘A Special Day’ (‘Una Giornata Particolare’ in Italian) and ‘Mona Lisa Smile’)

My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you.

A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt of a loose tooth.

And when Mrs.Bannister held the cup to my lips, I fanned the hot milk out on my tongue as it went down, tasting it luxuriously, the way a baby tastes its mother.

You can also find one of my favourite passages from the book, about the pleasures of a hot bath, here.

Final Thoughts

I liked Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, though the second part of the book was a bit bleak and depressing. I liked Plath’s voice and her descriptions and the images her prose evokes throughout the book. There is an audio version of the book read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I would like to listen to it sometime. I would also like to try reading some of Plath’s poems and watch the movie ‘Sylvia’ which is based on her life (it has Gwyneth Paltrow playing the role of Sylvia Plath).

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I discovered this passage in a book I am reading now and liked it very much. Hope you enjoy reading it.

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say : “I’ll go take a hot bath.”

I meditate in the bath. The water needs to be very hot, so hot you can barely stand putting your foot in it. Then you lower yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to your neck.

I remember the ceiling over every bathtub I’ve stretched out in. I remember the texture of the ceilings and the cracks and the colors and the damp spots and the light fixtures. I remember the tubs, too : the antique griffin-legged tubs, and the modern coffin-shaped tubs, and the fancy pink marble tubs overlooking indoor lily ponds, and I remember the shape and sizes of the water taps and the different sort of soap holders.

I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.

I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near onto an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again. I don’t believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water.

I said to myself : “Doreen is dissolving. Lenny Shepherd is dissolving. Frankie is dissolving. New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure.”

The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a baby.

– From ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

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I was reading the literary review supplement of the newspaper that we buy at home, last weekend, trying to find whether there was any mention of new and interesting books in it. There was a review of Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ in the supplement. The name of the author and the title rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember where I had heard of them. I read the review and liked the topic of the book – it seemed to be a book which was emotional and touching. A couple of days later, I was passing by the bookshop. I dropped in and got the book. I finished reading the book today. Here is the review.

Summary of the book

I am giving below a brief summary of the book as given in the book’s back cover.

From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience : a portrait of a marriage – and a life, in good times and bad – that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

What I think

The summary of the book given in the back cover, is as vague as it could be. So, here is more about the book.

This book is a part memoir of Joan Didion and a part-meditation on grief. The book starts with these lines :

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened.

After this sudden start, Didion describes what led her to write this : how her daughter was admitted to the ICU in the local hospital, how she and her husband were sitting down to dinner after visiting their daughter, how her husband suddenly died while having dinner with her, and the events that ensued after that. The book covers the next one year period in her life, when Didion had to handle a succession of crises, come to terms with the loss of her husband, try to fend away the seeping loneliness but not being able to, and finally accept the inevitability of her loss. While describing this difficult period of her life, Didion also describes how other people who were bereaved, had handled such situations, quoting medical studies which had been conducted and also doctors’ and psychiatrists’ views on accepting and handling the loss of a near and dear one.

Joan Didion’s troubles don’t end that fateful day, when her husband collapses on the dining table. One of my college professors, used to quote one of Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet, which went like this : “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the story of Didion’s life, after that fateful day. The condition of her daughter, who is in the ICU, deteriorates from bad to worse and she ends up having neurosurgery. She recovers towards the end of the book, but in the next year, after the events described in the book, her condition worsens and she dies too. It is heart-breaking. Why does one person have to suffer so much pain in such a short period of time?

During her account, Didion also touches on her life with her family, on the good times and the bad times, the difficult moments and the loving moments, the touching gestures as well as the quarrels. The book starts as a narration of events, and then goes back and forth between different time periods of her life, and how they might have had a bearing on the present.

I liked Joan Didion’s writing style very much. It is simple, sparse and is easy to read. But it has depth too. It reminded me very much of Ernest Hemingway. I read later that Hemingway’s style influenced Didion’s writing considerably. I think her prose should be used as a model in creative writing courses – not as a benchmark, but as an example of how powerful prose can be written with a simple style and how one doesn’t need a sophisticated style to create a powerful and insightful literary work.

I also spotted interesting and familiar names while reading the book – Julia Child (described giving a present to John Dunne, Didion’s husband – in this season, it is difficult to keep Julia Child away, isn’t it :)), Chrisopher Lehmann-Haupt (have read some of his articles in NYT), Dennis Overbye (read his review of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ in NYT recently). It is interesting how we spot names in a book, take them out their contexts and identify interesting connections.

The book also quotes one of my favourite poems – ‘Funeral Blues by W.H.Auden – a poem which is sad and bleak, but also powerful and beautiful.

One of the complaints I had about the book is the number medical terms Didion uses – there are too many of them. I think that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Also, sometimes Didion moves dizzyingly through different exotic locales – LA, New York, Paris, Bogota, Hawaii, Saigon – it seems a bit too much for a book on such a topic. I found the the first half of the book quite gripping, then the events in the book going in different directions, and then coming back and holding my attention till the end. As Didion wrote this book during a difficult period of her life, it is not fair to complain about this.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages – which touched me and which made me think – from the book.

I said I would build a fire, we could eat in. I built the fire, I started dinner…I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire. I find myself stressing the fire because fires were important to us. I grew up in California, John and I lived there together for twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night.

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. It was not what I felt when my parents died….My father was dead, my mother was dead, I would need for a while to watch for mines, but I would still get up in the morning and send out the laundry. I would still plan a menu for Easter lunch. I would still remember to renew my passport.
Grief was different. Grief had not distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves”.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only by those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole. I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief had taken them.

One thing I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris. If Quintana was suddenly stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

That I was only now beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.

On the flight to LaGuardia I remember thinking that the most beautiful things I had seen had all been seen from airplanes. The way the American west opens up. The way in which, on a polar flight across the Arctic, the islands in the sea give way imperceptibly to lakes on the land. The sea between Greece and Cyprus in the morning. The Alps on the way to Milan. I saw all those things with John. How could I go back to Paris without him, how could I go back to Milan, Honolulu, Bogota? I couldn’t even go to Boston.

Further Reading

You can find the original review which inspired me to read this book (from the ‘Literary Review’ of ‘The Hindu’), here.

You can find the NYT review of the book, here.

This book was made into a Broadway play with Vanessa Redgrave playing the role of Joan Didion. You can find a review of the play here.

Final Comments

I liked ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ very much. Even though the topic of the book was grief, I liked Joan Didion’s style and I feel that it is equally a meditation on grief as it is a celebration of life and a call for accepting change. I wish the play version with Vanessa Redgrave in it, comes out in DVD. I would like to watch it.

This book may not be for everyone, but if you like tackling a difficult and interesting topic, you will like it.

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I read excellent reviews of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa by some of my fellow book bloggers and so couldn’t resist it. So, I put aside my reading of ‘War and Peace’ for a while, went in search of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’, grabbed one of the two copies which was there on the bookshelf of my favourite bookshop and came back and read it in one day. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the book as given in the back cover of the book.

He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury some seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son, who is entrusted to take care of him.

Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles – based on her shoe size or her birthday – and the numbers, in all their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her little boy. With each new equation, the three lost souls forge an affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family where one did not exist before.

What I think

I liked ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ very much. The basic premise of the story (the Professor having a short-term memory of only eighty minutes) reminded me of the movie ’50 first dates’ and also of the movie ‘Memento’ and its Indian inspiration ‘Ghajini’.

The book has just three main characters, tells a beautiful story and is a paean sung in honour of mathematics. The Professor of the story is a professor of number theory and so he frequently talks about numbers, the way they connect different real-world objects, primes, and some of the fascinating fundamental ideas of mathematics. The character of the Professor is said to be inspired by the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. The book touches on the beauty and elegance of mathematics and some of the mathematical structures including the music of primes. Mathematics forms a beautiful backdrop to the story and is never overwhelming. Reading the book brought back a lot of nostalgic memories for me – of some of my favourite mathematics teachers and professors and some of my favourite topics in mathematics.

The book also talks about baseball in Japan and its players and its legends and the mathematics behind it, as the main characters in the story share an interest in baseball.

An interesting thing that I noticed in the story was that the names of the characters is not mentioned. It was interesting because one doesn’t really notice this. Isn’t it wonderful to know that names are not required to tell a good story? Isn’t it wonderful that the human mind can ignore such a thing and still experience beauty?

The NYT (New York Times) review of the book says : “This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you donโ€™t see until you are in them.”ย  Beautifully put and very true.

I have just one complaint against the book – or rather the edition of the book that I bought. The American edition of the book had a beautiful picture of cherry blossoms in the cover with a sky blue background. The edition of the book I have is a British edition and it has some kind of art on the cover. I would have loved the cherry blossoms more ๐Ÿ™‚

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers.

(Comment : This reminded me of a time in college, when I was reading a textbook on one of my favourite courses in college called ‘Abstract Algebra’ (it is a bit different from normal Algebra and is closer to set theory) called ‘Topics in Algebra’ by I.N.Herstein. In one of the chapters Herstein had marked one of the end-of-chapter problems with multiple stars and had mentioned in his comment below it that no one he knew, including himself, had solved this problem with the knowledge gained till that point in the book and he had given this problem there to allow students to explore new alleys of the mathematical world and discover new, strange and beautiful secrets and arrive at interesting questions. It was one of the most beautiful, interesting and inspiring comments that I had read in a textbook at that time. For the record, I couldn’t solve that problem too :))

That evening, after I’d got home and put my son to bed, I decided to look for “amicable numbers” on my own. I wanted to see whether they are really as rare as the Professor had said, and since it was just a matter of writing out factors and adding them up, I was sure I could do it, even though I’d never graduated from high school.
But I soon realized what I was up against. Following the Professor’s suggestion, I tried using my intuition to pick likely pairs, but I had no luck. I stuck to even numbers at first, thinking the factors would be easier to find, and I tried every pair between ten and one hundred. Then I expanded my search to odd numbers, and then to three-digit numbers as well, still to no effect. Far from being amicable, the numbers seemed to turn their backs on each other, and I couldn’t find a pair with even the most tenuous connection – let alone this wonderfully intimate one. The Professor was right : my birthday and his watch had overcome great trials and tribulations to meet each other in the vast sea of numbers.

“A problem has a rhythm of its own, just like a piece of music,” the Professor said. “Once you get the rhythm, you get the sense of the problem as a whole, and you can see where the traps might be waiting.”

I am not sure why I became so absorbed in a child’s math problem with no practical value. At first, I was conscious of wanting to please the Professor, but gradually that feeling faded and I realized it had become a battle between the problem and me. When I woke in the morning, the equation was waiting – 1+2+3+…..+9+10 = 55 – and it followed me all through the day, as though it had burned itself into my retina and could not be ignored.
At first, it was just a small distraction, but it quickly became an obsession. Only a few people know the mystery concealed in this formula, and the rest of us go to our graves without even suspecting there is a secret to be revealed. But by some whim of fate, I had found it, and now knocked at the door, asking to be let in. Though I had never suspected it, from the moment I’d been dispatched by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, I had been on a mission toward the door…

Since he was very small, he’d often had to console me when I came home from work in tears – when I’d been accused of stealing, or called incompetent, or had the food I’d made thrown away right in front of me. “You’re beautiful, Momma,” he’d say, his voice full of conviction, “It’ll be okay.” This was what he always said when he comforted me. “I’m a beauty?” I would ask, and he’d say, feigning astonishment, “Sure you are. Didn’t you know?” More than once I’d pretended to be crying just to hear these words; and he’d always play along willingly.

“…when you get to much bigger numbers – a million or ten million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart.”
“A wasteland?”
“That’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search…until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water…”

“The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem. Research on ellipses made it possible to determine the orbits of the planets, and Einstein used non-Euclidean geometry to describe the form of the universe. Even prime numbers were used during the war to create codes – to cite a regrettable example. But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.” The Professor always said the word truth in the same tone as the word mathematics.

If you added 1 to e elevated to the power of ฯ€ times i, you got 0 : eฯ€i +1 = 0
I looked at the Professor’s note again. A number that cycled on forever and another vague figure that never revealed its true nature now traced a short and elegant trajectory to a single point. Though there was no circle in evidence, ฯ€ had descended from somewhere to join hands with e . There they rested, slumped against each other, and it only remained for a human being to add 1, and the world suddenly changed. Everything resolved into nothing, zero.
Euler’s formula shone like a shooting star in the night sky, or like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave. I slipped the Professor’s note into my wallet, strangely moved by the beauty of those few symbols. As I headed down the library stairs, I turned back to look. The mathematics stacks were as silent and empty as ever – apparently no one suspected the riches hidden there.

(Comment : Beautiful passage, isn’t it? I haven’t seen a mathematical formula described so beautifully before!)

The Professor set up the ironing board on the arms of his easy chair and went to work. From the way he managed the cord to the way he set the temperature, you could tell that he knew what he was doing. He spread out the cloth, and, like the good mathematician he was, divided it into sixteen equal folds.
He sprayed each section with the water bottle, held his hand near the iron to make sure it wasn’t too hot, gripped the handle rightly, and pressed down carefully to avoid damaging the fabric. There was a certain rhythm to the way the iron slid across the board. His brow furrowed and his nostrils flared as he forced the wrinkles to submit to his will. He worked with precision and conviction, and even a kind of affection. His ironing seemed highly rational, with a constant speed that allowed him to get the best results with the least effort; all the economy and elegance of his mathematical proofs performed right there on the ironing board.

Further reading

You can find the two reviews, that originally inspired me to read the book, at these links :

You can read the NYT review of the book, here.

Final Thoughts

I liked reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ very much. It will go into my list of favourite books, and I think I will read it again. I have explored only three Japanese writers till now – Natsuo Kirino, Haruki Murakami (a little bit) and now Yoko Ogawa – and I have found that they write with a simple style and express beautiful ideas. I will try to get another Yoko Ogawa book which is available in English translation (it is called ‘The Diving Pool’) and also explore a few other books by Japanese writers. Maybe I will also read a little bit on mathematics too – probably ‘The Music of Primes’ by Marcus du Sautoy or ‘Infinite Ascent : A short history of mathematics’ by David Berlinkski or ‘Men of Mathematics’ by E.T.Bell.

If you like mathematics and / or are a fan of Japanese literature, you will enjoy this book.

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My book reading is going slow and steady and as I haven’t read enough to write my second book post of the year, I thought instead of waiting till I complete my first book (the mammoth ‘War and Peace’) I will write about another thing which is dear to my heart – movies ๐Ÿ™‚ So, here is the list of some interesting movies that I saw last month and what I think about them.

(1) Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (Two-tailed Sparrow) – Directed by Balumahendra Lead Actors and Actresses : Mohan, Archana, Radhika – This is a Tamil movie which came many years back. It is a story of a man who has two wives and loves them both. Intimate and affectionate scenes between Mohan and Archana on one hand and Radhika on the other are portrayed quite well. The plot is weak and takes on a predictable path after sometime.

(2) Transporter (Part 3)Directed by Oliver MegatonLead Actors and Actresses : Jason Statham, Francois Berleand, Natalya Rudakova – I saw the first part of the ‘Transporter’ series before and liked it. It was a movie which didn’t make one think but was fun to watch. It also had an interesting character of a French police inspector played by Francois Berleand, who quoted Marcel Proust. Thought I will watch the third part and see what Francois Berleand says now. The third part was quite average and the premise behind the movie is starting to jade a little bit. Also Hong Kong actress Shu Qi who played the heroine’s role is the first part was way better than Natalya Rudakova. The saving grace is Francois Berleand. He does what is expected of him, and quotes Dostoevsky this time ๐Ÿ™‚ But even there, his quoting of Proust was better ๐Ÿ™‚

(3) Being There Directed by Hal AshbyLead Actors and Actresses : Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart – Beautiful movie about a gardener who doesn’t know to read and write but who likes watching TV and who gets ejected out of his employer’s home after his employer dies. He accidentally ends up in a millionaire’s house and gets exposed to the high and the mighty and soon becomes famous and the toast of the town. Peter Sellers’ performance as the innocent gardener is wonderful. I liked Shirley MacLaine’s performance too. Film Critic Roger Ebert has rated this as one of the great movies. This is my first ‘good’ movie of the year ๐Ÿ™‚

(4) Vicky Cristina BarcelonaDirected by Woody AllenLead Actresses and Actors : Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz – Woody Allen leaves his imprint in the movie. However out of his recent movies, I liked ‘Scoop’ and ‘Matchpoint’ more. Scarlett Johansson seems to be his favourite actress now. I like Rebecca Hall’s acting and she has done well in this movie too. Liked Javier Bardem’s role in this movie – very different from his role in ‘No Country for Old Men’. The role played by the father of Javier Bardem’s character was also quite nice – he writes poetry but refuses to publish it. Reminded me of Roberto Bolano and Arthur Rimbaud. Penelope Cruz was good in her Oscar winning role.

(5) The Hurt LockerDirected by Kathryn BigelowLead Actors : Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty – Excellent movie and a potential Oscar winner. Set in Iraq during the American occupation. Jeremy Renner as the team leader of a bomb disposal squad has acted wonderfully. No major women characters in the movie except for a professor’s wife who comes in a scene and Jeremy Renner’s character’s wife who comes at the end for a few minutes. It was interesting to discover that Kathryn Bigelow is the ex-wife of James Cameron. Both of them are competing for the Best Picture Oscar this year. Will be interesting to see what happens during the awards ceremony.

(6) Julie and Julia Directed by Nora EphronLead Actresses and Actors : Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Chris Messina, Stanley Tucci – Nice movie about food and cooking and life. Loved the concept and the way the movie evokes delicious sensations and the aroma of food. Also liked the way the movie depicted the relationship between Julie and her husband Eric. Meryl Streep is good as Julia Child. It was interesting to see Stanley Tucci in a role different from his usual comic ones.

(7) Doubt Directed by John Patrick ShanleyLead Actresses and Actors : Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis – Beautiful story which leaves the viewer with questions in the end. Meryl Streep’s performance is awesome – an amazing contrast when compared to her performance in ‘Julie and Julia’. Such an unbelievable actress! Hoffman is awesome as usual! Amy Adams does well as a junior nun. Viola Davis gives a powerful performance in a one-scene role. Interesting thing about the movie was that all the main actors and actresses were nominated for an Oscar but none of them won. Someone should have – their performances were so good.

(8) AvatarDirected by James CameronLead Actors and Actresses : Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonso, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang – Old story, which is very similar to that of Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances with Wolves’. Some ideas in the movie also seem to be inspired by ‘The Matrix‘. But the depiction of the planet Pandora – the flora, the fauna, the landscape and the people – is really wonderful. The environmental message that the film carries is also nice. I liked the alien heroine very much! I also loved the scene where the hero and a strange animal roar at each other and the animal beats a retreat and the hero thinks he has won the territory fight, but then discovers that there is a bigger and more wilder animal behind him ๐Ÿ™‚ (My friend tells me that even this scene is there in Jurassic Park. James Cameron seems to have been inspired by different things while writing the story for this movie). As a movie with artistic merit, I wouldn’t rate it high (‘Dances with Wolves’ tells a similar story in a more beautiful way), but as a pathbreaker and trendsetter in terms of blending real action with lifelike animation, I would rate it quite high. Must see movie.

(9) Finding NeverlandDirected by Mark FosterLead Actors and Actresses : Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman – Nice movie which has one of my favourite actresses Kate Winslet. Movie depicts the life of J.M.Barrie, who wrote ‘Peter Pan’ and his inspiration behind it and his platonic love for Sylvia Llewellyn Davis. Liked the roles played by Johnny Depp (as J.M.Barrie) and Kate Winslet (as Sylvia Davis) very much.

(10) The Blind Side Directed by John Lee HancockLead Actresses and Actors : Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head – Interesting movie. But I found the topic a bit cliched. Sandra Bullock is good but this is not my favourite movie of hers. I liked her performance more in ‘Crash’ and in ‘While You Were Sleeping’. Among sports movies I saw recently, I liked ‘Pride’ more. Sandra Bullock has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this movie – I think her role is a ‘feel-good’ one but not really an Oscar winning one. But looking at the way the Academy has given awards recently, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the Oscar.

(11) A Very Long Engagement Directed by Jean-Pierre JeunetLead Actresses and Actors : Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Jodie Foster, Marion Cotillard – Good movie. Love Audrey Tautou’s performances and so enjoyed this movie of hers too. French movies have this light-hearted and humorous way of telling a serious story and sometimes the sadness too is there in the humour. This movie has all that. Saw Jodie Foster in a movie after a long time. I thought it was her, but wasn’t sure, because I haven’t seen American actresses acting in movies in other languages and so checked the credits in the end and discovered that it was indeed her. It was nice to see Jodie Foster speak in French and see her doing it well too.

(12) AtonementDirected by Joe Wright Lead Actresses and Actors : Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave – Beautiful movie with a sad ending, which is based on Ian McEwan’s novel. Nominated for the Oscars in 2008. It is a shame that it didn’t win the Best Picture Award (‘No Country for Old Men did). I have seen Keira Knightley only in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ before – she acts quite well too, in addition to being beautiful. Saoirse Ronan does quite well as Briony. My favourite scene is when Briony, when she is a nurse, talks to a soldier in French and comforts him, when he is close to his final moments. I haven’t read Ian McEwan’s books before, but going by the evidence of this movie, I think he must be quite an interesting writer. Will try to get my hand on some of his books.

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