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Archive for September, 2010

While browsing books in the bookstore last week, I saw that a new edition of Puffin Classics has come out. Many of my favourite stories like ‘Artemis Fowl’ were there and there were others that I hadn’t heard of. I browsed through a few and somehow my heart gravitated towards ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E.B.White. Oddly, I haven’t read this book before and I haven’t seen the movie version either. I remembered vaguely that ‘Charlotte’s Web’ was about a pig, but I didn’t know where the web came from. So, I got it and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

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

One spring morning a little girl called Fern rescues a runt and names him Wilbur. But then Wilbur is sent to live on a farm where he meets Charlotte, a beautiful large grey spider. They become best friends and, when Wilbur is faced with a dreadful fate, Charlotte must find a very clever way to save him.

What I think

To continue the story given in the summary, one of the farm animals – a sheep – tells Wilbur that he is being fed well by the farmer Mr.Zuckerman, because he is going to be killed in the winter. Wilbur is worried about this and is afraid and he wants to live. What are the adventures Wilbur and Charlotte have after this and what Charlotte does to save her friend and whether it works, form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Charlotte’s Web’. When I read the first chapter, I thought that Fern, who rescues Wilbur first, would be one of the main characters. But as I read through I discovered that there are other characters which were equally important – Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the beautiful grey spider, Templeton the rat, Mr.Zuckerman on whose barn Wilbur lives, Fern’s parents and brother Avery and Dr.Dorian who comes in only one chapter but says some interesting things.  

My favourite character in the story is, of course, Charlotte, the large grey spider, who is beautiful, active, innovative, wise and a wonderful friend. Spiders have always been portrayed as villains in books and in movies. I remember in the Harry Potter series, Aragog and his family are nice to Hagrid, but they try to eat Harry Potter and his friends.  So it was nice to see E.B.White trying to correct this unfair depiction of spiders, by making a spider the heroine of the story. While reading the story, it was difficult to imagine Charlotte as a regular spider – she looked almost human without the flaws.

‘Charlotte’s Web’ is a story of a beautiful friendship, about loyalty and courage, about growing up and letting go. The ending of the story was sad and it made me cry. They say great literature touches your heart, irrespective of when the book was written or irrespective of whether one is a child or a grown up. ‘Charlotte’s Web’ does exactly that. I loved it and I am glad I finally read it. It is one of the books, which I will take down from the shelf, when I am feeling down, and read again and marvel at the beautiful friendship between an innocent pig and a beautiful large grey spider.

Excerpts

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

What one wants

      Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love. He wanted a friend – someone who would play with him.

Beauty

      ‘I think you’re beautiful,’ said Wilbur.

      ‘Well, I am pretty,’ replied Charlotte. ‘There’s no denying that. Almost all spiders are rather nice-looking. I’m not as flashy as some, but I’ll do….’

The pleasures of being sedentary

      ‘…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.’

      ‘What does sedentary mean?’ asked Wilbur.

      ‘Means I sit still a good part of the time and don’t go wandering all over creation. I know a good thing when I see it, and my web is a good thing. I stay put and wait for what comes. Gives me a chance to think.’

A Beautiful friendship

       ‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’

      ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Catching a wink of sleep

      Wilbur rushed over, pushed his strong snout under the rat, and tossed him into the air.

      ‘Templeton!’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Pay attention!’

      The rat, surprised out of a sound sleep, looked first dazed then disgusted.

      ‘What kind of monkeyshine is this?’ he growled. ‘Can’t a rat catch a wink of sleep without being rudely popped into the air?’

On living longer

      As a result of overeating, Templeton grew bigger and fatter than any rat you ever saw. He was gigantic. He was as big as a young woodchuck.

      The old sheep spoke to him about his size one day. ‘You would live longer,’ said the old sheep, ‘if you ate less.’

      ‘Who wants to live for ever?’ sneered the rat.

On Rains upsetting plans (aka A Pig’s Day)

      Rain upset Wilbur’s plans. Wilbur had planned to go out, this day, and dig a new hole in his yard. He had other plans, too. His plans for the day went something like this.

      Breakfast at six-thirty. Skim milk, crusts, middlings, bit of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them, potato skins, left-over custard pudding with raisins and bits of Shredded Wheat.

      Breakfast would be finished at seven.

      From seven to eight, Wilbur planned to have a talk with Templeton, the rat that lived under his trough. Talking with Templeton was not the most interesting occupation in the world but it was better than nothing.

      From eight to nine, Wilbur planned to take a nap outdoors in the sun.

      From nine to eleven, he planned to dig a hole, or trench, and possibly find something good to eat buried in the dirt.

      From eleven to twelve, he planned to stand still and watch flies on the boards, watch bees in the clover, and watch swallows in the air.

      Twelve o’clock – lunchtime. Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy, and the wrapper off a package of cheese. Lunch would be over at one.

      From one to two, Wilbur planned to sleep.

      From two to three, he planned to scratch itchy places by rubbing against the fence.

      From three to four, he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.

      At four would come supper. Skim milk, provender left-over sandwich from Lurvy’s lunchbox, prune skins, a morsel of this, a bit of that, fried potatoes, marmalade drippings, a little more of this, a little more of that, a piece of baked apple, a scrap of upside-down cake.

      Wilbur had gone to sleep thinking about these plans. He awoke at six and saw the rain, and it seemed as though he couldn’t bear it.

      ‘I get everything all beautifully planned out and it has to go and rain,’ he said.

The best place to be

Life in the barn was very good – night and day, winter and summer, spring and autumn, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘Charlotte’s Web’. I think I will read it again some day. If you like children’s literature and you haven’t read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ yet, I would heartily recommend it. You can also gift it to your nephews, nieces or your own children.

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I discovered ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding, during one of my random browsings in the bookstore last month. It was a slim volume, had big font with wide spacing, had blurbs which raved about the book and the cover said that it had won the Pulitzer prize this year. I am not a big reader of award-winning books, but the above combination made me get the book. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story from the back cover of the book.

An old man is dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris : newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, till the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

A methodical repairer of clocks, he is now finally released from the usual constraints of time and memory to rejoin his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler, whom he had lost seven decades before. In his return to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in the backwoods of Maine, he recovers a natural world that is at once indifferent to man and inseparable from him, menacing and awe inspiring.

Heartbreaking and life-affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.

What I think

I found ‘Tinkers’ to be an interesting book. As the back cover said it is about George Crosby who is on his death bed and has started hallucinating and thinking about the past. The author also takes us into the past of George’s life and introduces his father Howard and his way of life. Howard has a wagon and sells small household things to people nearby and he also repairs things like vessels. As one of the descriptions in the book says – “Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not : shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.” The tinkers of the title are Howard – who is a tinker by profession – and George who tinkers with clocks for a living after retiring from his regular job. The book tracks the lives of George and Howard, sometimes separately, sometimes together and how the two strands are woven together forms the rest of the book. But the book is less of a story but more of a description of images. As one review put it, the book is “a new way of seeing, in a story told as a series of ruminative images, liked a fanned card deck.” So, it is really not about the plot J However, there is a surprise in the end which is bittersweet and interesting.

The descriptions of nature and people and things in the book are very beautiful. One of the reviews said this : “Every so often a writer describes something so well – snow, oranges, dirt – that you can smell it or feel it or sense it in the room. The writing does what all those other art forms do – evoke the essence of the thing.” That is a very true observation of the descriptions contained in the book. The book beautifully evokes images of an America of a different era.

I liked the character of Howard more than George, because the places where Howard comes have the more beautiful descriptive passages 🙂

It was also interesting for me to know that this book was rejected by many of the mainstream publishers – because they felt that it was slow and contemplative – and was published by an independent publisher and promoted by indie bookstores. It is nice that it has won critical acclaim now. It was also interesting to know that as soon as the Pulitzer prize was announced, Random House gave a press statement that they have signed a two-book contract with Paul Harding. It is difficult for a writer to resist this and Paul Harding probably deserves this and more – writers have always struggled to make money across the ages and so they should take whatever comes their way – but I was also a bit annoyed that when a writer is trying to get published, publishers give all kinds of reasons for rejecting his / her work, but when the writer wins literary acclaim and a literary prize, immediately they want him / her in their fold. It is sad. I remember once attending a talk by Amy Tan, when she said that during her student days she applied to Stanford University and they rejected her application. When she had become famous as a writer, Stanford University invited her to come and teach creative writing there. Amy Tan said that because they rejected her earlier, she rejected them now 🙂 I would love to see the day when a writer thumbs his / her nose at the big publishing houses and does this.

I also read in an interview by Paul Harding that this story is inspired by the story of his great-grandfather who lived the life of a tinker similar to that of the character Howard, in this book. It is interesting how family stories are inspiring material for books. It made me remember Jeanette Walls’ memoir ‘The Glass Castle’ and her second book ‘Half Broke Horses’ which is about her inspiring grandmother and Natasha Solomons’ ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ which is inspired by the true story of her grandparents.

Excerpts

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

Smoking in silence

Howard took a tin of tobacco from the bundle of supplies he had brought for Gilbert and handed it to the hermit. Gilbert held the open tin to his nose and inhaled slowly, savoring the rich, sweet near dampness of the new tobacco; by the time he met Howard each year, he was down to the last flakes of his supply. Howard imagined that the fragrance of new tobacco was a sort of confirmation to Gilbert that he had indeed lived another year, endured another winter in the woods. After smelling the tobacco and looking out at the river for a moment, Gilbert held out his hand to Howard. Howard took a pipe from one of his jacket pockets and gave it to the hermit. Howard did not otherwise smoke and kept the pipe for this one bowlful a year. Gilbert packed Howard’s pipe and then his own (which was beautiful – carved from a burl of dark red wood and which Howard imagined belonging once, long ago, in a brass stand on a dean’s desk) and the two men smoked together in silence and watched the waters rush. While he smoked, Gilbert’s flock of flies temporarily dispersed, but seemingly without rancor or resentment. When the pipes were spent, each man tapped the ashes out against his rock and put his pipe away.

Lightning and unselfness

The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction : Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.

Daffodils, snow, bees and fragrance

A late-spring storm capped the last daffodils and the first tulips with dollops of snow, which melted when the sun came back out. The snow seemed to have a bracing effect on the flowers; their roots drank the cold melt, their stalks straightened from the chilly drink; their petals, supple and hale, were spared the brittle coating of a true freeze. The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled n a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all. Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. Howard leaned as closely as he dared and inhaled again. There was a faint sweetness mingled with the sharp mineral cold, which faded from detection when he inhaled more deeply in order to smell it better.

“The ache in your heart”

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?

And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember : You will be dead and buried soon enough.

On Running away

He was suddenly aware that if he was running away, this was not the place to go. To run away meant away. He had never been away. Away was the French Revolution or Fort Sumter or the Roman Empire. Maybe, Boston, three hundred miles south. He had no idea what was in the three hundred miles between here and Boston.

The Blue and the Gold

Howard leaned against one of the wagon’s rear wheels and stared at the candled sky and looked back at the candle he had lit and wished it would turn blue with the light of the stars and that the stars would turn gold like burning wicks.

How to build a nest

Keep in mind, though, that the materials for the nest must be collected and woven strand by strand. Birds do not gather their lumber, so to speak, all at once, but, rather, search out each plank and shingle one at a time. Such a birdy method may at first seem absurd to the forward-thinking nest maker, but soon it will be found that the pleasures of the project are not derived from efficiency.

The Clock’s Purpose

Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe.

On Understanding

Everything was almost always obscure. Understanding shone when it did, for no discernable reason, and we were content.

Spring Rain

Spring rain made temporary ponds of the deep ruts along the abandoned tote roads. The water was shin-deep and the color of iron cream. Howard had to walk through one sometimes because it extended across the width of the entire road and into the woods. As he waded through, his feet pushed up milky, rust-colored clouds of mud from the bottom, out of which spurted schools of bright green tadpoles disturbed in their rapid and fragile evolutions. The tom-tom tap of a pileated woodpecker sounded from somewhere in the woods, to Howard’s left. He thought of leaving the road to find it but decided not to. Grass covered the raised spine of the road where it was not submerged in the metallic water.

The Pond

Howard eventually comes to the outlet at Tagg Pond. The day is unusually warm. He stoops to examine how the water has arranged silt and leaves around the stones in the pools beyond the first reaches of the outlet. The silt and water combine in an element that is half earth and half-liquid. The appearance is that of a solid streambed. Howard takes off his father’s boots and the three pairs of socks he is wearing and rolls up the legs of his pants. When he steps into the water, the mud yields, a phantom floor that gives way to the true ground with little more resistance than the water flowing over it. Howard’s legs stir the silt into clouds, so he stands still for a time, watching a pair of cedar waxwings catch insects over the water and return to the same branch on a juniper bush growing on a hump of grass in the middle of the pool. The clouds of silt unfurl and the current carries them away. Then the water in which he stands is clear again and his leg look as if they end at the knees. The sunken halves of his legs stand buried in the silt among hidden branches and stones, which, because they are invisible, feel somehow like bones. After a time, small brook trout return to where he stands near the high grass and bushes of the bank. Clusters of frog eggs float past him, some close enough to see the embryos inside. Howard traces the riverbed with his feet and finds a flat stone broad enough to sit on. He finds another stone to place in his lap, so that the water will not lift him. He sinks down into the silt and sits on the flat stone. The silt is so deep where the stone is that only his head rises above the water and only his neck rises above the silt. He watches the silt billow away from his neck, as if his severed head had been tossed on the water and, rather than blood, bleeds clouds of soil.

Interesting reading

I thought you might like reading these pieces on Paul Harding’s book.

About Paul Harding and his book

                       – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/books/19harding.html

Interview with Paul Harding

                        – http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hbr/main/current-issue/julian-arni-an-interview-with-paul-harding

Final Thoughts

I found ‘Tinkers’ interesting. I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite books of the year, but I loved reading the beautiful descriptions and the contemplative passages in the book. If you are one of those readers, who can do without a plot and enjoy books which have a contemplative and a meditative tone, you will enjoy reading this book.

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When I was having a conversation on books with fellow-blogger Linda, she said that Steve Martin was one of her favourite authors. I have seen some of Steve Martin’s movies, but I didn’t know that he wrote books too. So I was intrigued and when I went to the bookstore next time, one of Steve Martin’s books ‘Shopgirl’ leapt at me and I couldn’t resist getting it. It is a novella of around 160-odd pages and one could read it in one sitting. I started reading it a few days back and finished it the next day. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.

Mirabelle works as a shop assistant in the glove department at Neiman’s, L.A.’s finest store. She has two men in her life : Jeremy, a man who stencils amplifiers for a living; and Mr Roy Porter, a rich, older man who believes he can apply logic to relationships and is serially confused. How can she choose between a man who thinks a date is a chance meeting in a Laundromat, and a man whose policy of honesty is guaranteed to hurt her?

What I think

‘Shopgirl’ is a love story or a story of finding love. I followed with interest, the fortunes and the highs and lows of the main characters – Mirabelle, Jeremy and Mr. Roy Porter and Mirabelle’s scheming colleague, Lisa. Steve Martin’s style is deceptively simple, gentle, humorous and insightful. I liked the way Martin depicted how men and women interpret unsaid things during a conversation, differently. In one place he describes the conversation between Mirabelle and Roy Porter like this :

      “I think I should tell you a few things. I don’t think I’m ready for a real relationship right now.” He says this not to Mirabelle but to the air, as though he is just discovering a truth about himself and accidentally speaking it aloud.

      Mirabelle answers, “You had a rough time with your divorce.”

      Understanding. For Ray Porter, that is good. She absolutely knows that this will never be long term. He goes on : “But I love seeing you and I want to keep seeing you.”

      “I do too,” says Mirabelle. Mirabelle believes he has told her that he is bordering on falling in love with her, and Ray believes she understands that he isn’t going to be anybody’s boyfriend.

      “I’m traveling too much right now,” he says. In this sentence, he serves notice that he would like to come into town, sleep with her, and leave. Mirabelle believes that he is expressing frustration at having to leave town and that he is trying to cut down on traveling.

      “So what I’m saying is that we should be allowed to keep our options open, if that’s okay with you.”

      At this point, Ray believes he has told her that in spite of what could be about to happen tonight, they are still going to see other people. Mirabelle believes that after he cuts down on his traveling, they will see if they should get married or just go steady.

I also liked the transformations that the main characters underwent during the story and how those transformations impacted them deeply. As Mirabelle says in the end – “it’s pain that changes our lives”. I worried about the fate of the heroine, Mirabelle, and I thought that she might not be able to find happiness in the end. I was glad when she did.

The book also made me think about the life of shop assistants – in bookstores, clothes stores, shoe stores and others – who always smile at customers, who stay behind a counter standing for most of the day and who work during festival times and holidays when the rest of the world is partying. What will their lives be like after work? What will they do if their shop closes everyday at 10PM? When will they have time to socialize and talk to friends and spend time with family? These and other questions went through my mind and this book gave an example of how life would be for one such shop assistant.

I don’t give a lot of thought to blurbs, but some of the descriptions of the book were quite good. My favourites were ‘this slim mint of semisweet romantic fiction’, ‘dry and dark on the outside, but with a sentimental soft heart’ and ‘carefully crafted and observed, Martin’s making a point about the depth of his talent and feeling, and the shallowness of life in general’. These are all beautiful one-line (and truthful) descriptions of the book.

Excerpts

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

Mirabelle, who never takes credit for her attractiveness, believes it is not she he is responding to but rather something independent of her, like the lovely line her fine blue skirt makes as it cuts diagonally across the white of her thigh.

Mirabelle has two cats. One is normal, the other is a reclusive kitten who lives under a sofa and rarely comes out. Very rarely. Once a year. This gives Mirabelle the feeling that there is a mysterious stranger living in her apartment whom she never sees but who leaves evidence of his existence by subtly moving small, round objects from room to room.

Jeremy took Mirabelle on approximately two and a half dates. The half date was actually a full evening, but was so vaporous that Mirabelle had trouble counting it as a full unit. On the first, which consisted mainly of shuffling around a shopping mall while Jeremy tried to graze her ass with the back of his hand, he split the dinner bill with her and then, when she suggested they actually go inside a movie theatre whose new neon front so transfixed Jeremy, made her pay for her own ticket. Mirabelle could not afford to go out again under the same circumstances, and there was no simple way to explain this to him. The conversation at dinner hadn’t been successful either; it bore the marks of an old married couple who had very little left to say to each other. After walking her to her door, he gave her his phone number, in a peculiar reversal of dating procedure. She might have considered kissing him, even after the horrible first date, but he just didn’t seem to know what to do. However, Jeremy does have one outstanding quality. He likes her. And this quality in a person makes them infinitely interesting to the person who is being liked.

He didn’t understand the subtleties of slights and pains, that it is not the big events that hurt the most but rather the smallest questionable shift in tone at the end of a spoken word that can plow most deeply into the heart.

Only then does he realize what he has done to Mirabelle, how wanting a square inch of her and not all of her has damaged them both, and how he cannot justify his actions except that, well, it was life.

Final Thoughts

I never thought actors and actresses and movie stars would write good novels. The books that they write would typically be memoirs which were probably ghostwritten. So it was really a surprise to discover that Steve Martin has written novels and it was delightful to read one of them and discover that he writes well and is a pleasure to read. (I even loved what Martin said in the ‘Acknowledgements’ page – ‘If writing is so solitary, why are there so many people to thank? First, Leigh Haber, who delicately edited the book without bruising my ego’). It was a revelation for me and I have to kick myself for having a wrong perception. I am glad to discover that I was wrong and I can’t wait to read the next Steve Martin novel. I also read somewhere that this book has been made into a movie with Steve Martin playing the role of Ray Porter. It will be interesting to see how the movie is when compared to the book. If you like novellas with humour and insights, you will enjoy reading ‘Shopgirl’.

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I got to know about ‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas from fellow book blogger Bina. After reading Bina’s lovely review and some enthusiastic recommendation from her, I couldn’t resist reading it. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

Here is the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

Alice Butler has been receiving some odd messages – all anonymous, all written in code. Are they from someone at PopCo, the profit-hungry corporation she works for? Or from Alice long-lost father? Is someone else on her trail?

The solution, she is sure, will involve the code-breaking skills she learned from her grandparents and the key she’s been wearing around her neck since she was ten.

PopCo is a grown-up adventure of family secrets, puzzles and the power of numbers.

What I think

‘PopCo’ is about a young lady, Alice Butler, who works in a toy company, who has had an interesting childhood spent with her grandparents and who has the secret to a treasure but which is in code. The sad events of her past (her mother dying young, her father abandoning her for pirate treasure, her schoolfriends being snobs and how she tries to be part of the ‘in-group’), the exciting events of her past (Alice learning about cryptography and cryptanalysis and mathematics from her grandparents and the interesting experiences she has with her friends), her experiences from the present (her experience of working in a toy company and the unflattering opinion she has about her employer), and the secret behind the treasure map that her grandfather was working on and the connection it has with the chain on Alice’s neck – how all these come together, form the rest of the story.

From my perspective, the two main themes in ‘PopCo’ are cryptography and Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world. There is a treasure story, a love story and a story of growing up which is woven along with these two main themes. The cryptographic and mathematical part of the book is quite excellent. Scarlett Thomas, mostly through Alice’s voice and sometimes through the voice of her grandfather and grandmother takes the reader through the science and art of cryptography and cryptanalysis – on how messages can be encoded and decoded, what are the strengths and issues with old cryptographic techniques and what are the new techniques prevalent today, and how codebreakers have been working across the centuries to pry the secret out of coded messages. On the way Thomas talks about the Caesar cipher, the Vignere cipher, the Enigma machine, the scientists who worked during the Second World War at Bletchley Park to break the secrets of the Enigma, about the genius of Alan Turing, about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, about the beauty of primes and about how the Riemann Hypothesis has been baffling mathematicians for more than a century now and about how proving it might put the whole security apparatus today (including computer security) at risk. There is a wonderful bibliography at the end of the book, which has some excellent reading suggestions on mathematics and cryptography like ‘The Code Book’ by Simon Singh and ‘The Music of Primes’ by Marcus du Sautoy.

The parts of the book which were about Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world were quite interesting. In some ways it looked like the views of a passionate environmentalist or an anti-corporate person who dislikes corporate propaganda and who bats on the side of animals, individual freedom, and workers in developing countries. Irrespective of where one stands on these issues, it is difficult to disagree with some of what Alice or some of the other characters in the book say on these issues. For example, one of the things that Alice says is that today most companies spend very less money in making a product (which is probably made in developing countries at rock-bottom cost with workers there being paid a pittance and not having much rights) while they spend a lot of money in marketing the product and in brand building. This is probably quite true in many cases, with a few exceptions. Another thing that Alice says is that to promote its products a company might operate websites which look independent and which give positive reviews about the company’s products, making potential customers believe that these reviews are independent. This also might be true – companies are ready to use any strategies to promote their products these days and don’t worry about the ethics of their marketing strategy. One of Alice’s friends says that cows are kept pregnant every year so that they continue to give milk and their calves are killed as soon as they are born. I was surprised and shocked when I read this, because I thought that cows always gave milk. But what the book says is logical, because it is a biological fact that only pregnant mammals and mammals which have recently given birth to young ones give milk. I will have to do some research on it and find out if this is true. Harassing cows so that they continue to be useful – this is a really cruel thing to do.

There are also interesting descriptions of how things happen in the corporate sector – on how weekend retreats happen, on what companies do to stimulate employees’ creativity during such retreats and inspire them to come out with new product and strategy ideas etc. If one has been to such retreats, one can identify with some of these scenes in the book.

I liked the character of the heroine, Alice Butler, and her personality traits – always rolling up a cigarette and smoking, trusting homeopathic medicine when she is not well, her attitude of not caring about money or growing up on the corporate ladder, her attempts to fit in with the ‘in-crowd’ in school and then discovering that she will always be an outsider, her relationship to her grandfather and her grandmother, her love for mathematics inspite of being a literature grad. I also liked Alice’s grandparents – her grandmother is a mathematician and is trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, while her grandfather is an unofficial mathematician and cryptanalyst himself, having fought on the side of the French resistance in Occupied France during the Second World War. Both of them inspire Alice’s love for mathematics and cryptography. Some of the other characters in the book are quite interesting – Ben, Alice’s new romantic interest, Chloe a colleague of Alice’s who is mysterious, Georges who is Alice’s superboss and a few others. But many of these secondary characters are not developed as deeply as the main ones.

I also liked the cover of the book – it looked like the book had been dipped in ink and the ink had seeped into the covers 🙂

Excerpts

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

With the people at PopCo there is a dilemma. If you dress like them, you fit in. If you dress in an opposite way to them, or in things so ridiculous they would never consider wearing them, you are cool, daring and an individual – and therefore you fit in. My constant conundrum : how do you identify yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in when everything you could possibly do demarcates you as someone who does?

My hair doesn’t respond well to getting wet, and it doesn’t seem to enjoy becoming too dry either. It’s like a fragile hanging garden that I constantly have to tend to prevent it from wilting and dying.

‘Concept-driven’, ‘High concept’, and ‘Concept-led’ are forms of criticism that emanate from Richard Ford, Carmen the second’s boss. His role in the company is to come into Battersea every so often and trash all our ideas. ‘It’s got an intriguing feel,’ he will say. ‘But ultimately it’s too concept-driven’. Nobody has ever worked out what he means by this, or why it’s a bad thing. Surely kids’ toys are always concept-driven?

When the air hits my face outside, it is like an unexpected kiss.

People threw food away before the siege of Leningrad because they didn’t know what the next day would bring, and a few months later they were boiling up handbags for soup. You never know if you will wake up one day to find your mother dead or your father gone or that war has broken-out. You just don’t know.

‘Do you think that in a hundred years’ time we’ll all be living in these games, working in virtual industries buying and selling imaginary products, while some invisible underclass of people actually collects the rubbish and makes our food and does all the work in the real world?’

      Her question hangs in the air for a second and two. I am tempted to say that we already are almost living in this world…

This is called a power law, or is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Principle. What is the Matthew Principle? It is, of course : “for whomsoever hath, to him shall be given”, otherwise known as “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”.

Ben probably lives in one room in some inner-city house-share in Reading, with mouldy coffee cups and science-fiction novels in little piles by his bed, probably a mattress on the floor. All his possessions would probably sell at auction for less than Georges would spend on a meal. Why am I thinking like this? It’s almost embarrassing to find myself thinking like this. Surely the point of love is not simply to find two guys and then go to bed with the poorest one?

I always knew that bad things happen in the world. I am not an idiot. But my attitude has always been that just have to try to get through life, for as long as possible, without deliberately making things worse but, also, aware of the fact that you can’t make anything better. In the end, there’s probably no four-dimensional being watching us to see if we make the right choices. There is no judgement. You live your life and hope that you won’t be involved in any wars and then what? It’s all over, and you become earth.

…we all know that actual objects don’t’ matter any more. What matters instead is the logo, the idea, the lifestyle, the brand. Companies are now required to spend millions of dollars establishing this brand, paying sports stars and actresses to endorse it, paying marketing gurus to tell them how to make it ‘go viral’ and so on. How can they compete otherwise? Perhaps there really is nothing left over to actually pay to make the product. Perhaps that’s why the people who make it have to live in poverty, and why the materials are substandard and glue shows on even the coolest trainers. They pay only to make the label, nothing else.

She walks into the room, everything about her soft and somehow feathery.

I was thinking about the SF. The Supreme Fascist. It’s what Paul Erdos called God. It’s his version of the Supreme Being, I suppose. He said that life is a game that you can never win, because every time you do something bad the SF gets one point, but every time you do something good, neither of you score. The game of life is to keep the SF’s score as low as possible but however you play, it’s a game you can never win.

My skirts moves in ways I hadn’t ever noticed. When it brushes against my knees, the sensation is like being licked by a cat.

We sell the sort of attachment to objects and sentimentalism that means that a kid will run back into a burning house to rescue a toy rabbit, but Dad won’t swerve in the car to avoid a real one. That is the real power of brands, when you think about it. One rabbit has a label on its arse, another one doesn’t. You can love the one with the label and everyone accepts that. Risk your life for a real animal and people say you’re mad.

Of course, branding is traditionally what happens to animals, slaves, property. Now, of course, the mark is worth more than the object.

If someone worked out how to predict primes, the Internet would crumble in a day. There’d be no e-commerce, no secure sites, no credit-card transactions.

As I was driving up a steep hill, with fields on either side, I suddenly become aware of a strip, like a ribbon, of pale blue light on the horizon. At first I didn’t know what it was. Then I realised that this was the last part of sky that hadn’t yet been taken by the already impressive sunset : a baby blue sliver of day, which I could only just glimpse through the trees. At one point, when there were no trees, I saw it span the whole horizon; the day dying before my eyes, with blood everywhere. Then a hedge obscured it and the whole, tantalising scene was just gone.

      Higher ground. I had to get to higher ground. Instead of taking my usual turn-off, a downhill section like driving into the centre of a very deep bowl, I turned off randomly, pushing the car upwards, further, trying to find a place to look down on the dying sky. I had to see it; all of it. For some reason nothing else mattered and I raced against the clock to get up the hill before night-time reached critical mass and the sunset was gone. Finally I found the perfect viewing spot : an abandoned, darkened shell of an old burnt-out petrol station. Switching off my car headlights made all the difference. The sunset now spanned the entire horizon in front of me : miles and miles of sky. Behind me, it was already night-time. But I was like a furtive god up there, surveying the last long sliver of the day, still with its afternoon-blue set beneath not just oranges and reds but grey, black, purple : all these swatches of sky bruising and smearing together. You couldn’t draw this. You couldn’t capture any of this in a photograph. I had never even seen anything like this in my life. This was the sky ripped in two with its insides spilling out. Black silhouettes of trees and houses looked like burnt-out ruins set against the bright mess in the sky. I realised that I was actually sitting in a real burnt-out ruin, randomly, on my own, with no family left in the whole world. I started to cry.

      And it all made sense. The world was beautiful, even if people you loved died. In fact, if this sky was a kind of death, then maybe it wasn’t so bad. Was heaven in there somewhere, behind all those colours? This sky made me believe, for the first time, in heaven. It made me believe in heaven and ghosts and the afterlife in a way I had never imagined I could or would. This wasn’t an intellectual belief, with empirical proof or rational argument. This was a feeling of miracles and love and a vast, infinite future. This was a sky from fiction, and I believed in it, then. I believed in it all. If this was nature, then maybe nature was all right. Maybe death was as natural as this sky. And suddenly I didn’t need that brown veil any more. All I felt was hope; and the loss I felt about my grandfather’s death seemed to bleed away with the remains of the sky until I was sitting there in complete darkness with my face wet, unable to move.

Further Reading

You can find Bina’s review of ‘PopCo’ here.

If you are interested in Cryptography, you can try reading Simon Singh’s ‘The Code Book’. It is excellent. If you would like to get into the mathematical part of cryptography and are not intimidated by pages filled with equations, you can try reading ‘Cryptography and Network Security’ by William Stallings. It is a recommended textbook in its field.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘PopCo’. It is an intelligent novel on contemporary themes with a treasure hunt thrown in. You will enjoy it if you like reading novels based with secret codes.

I can’t wait to read ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Scarlett Thomas’ next novel, which according to Bina, is about quantum mechanics, Schrödinger’s cat, many worlds theory and other exciting topics. I also read in Wikipedia that Thomas’ first three novels were about an English literature grad solving mysteries. I can’t wait to get them too – they look so intriguing and they look like mysteries with literary clues 🙂

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I discovered ‘The Mozart Season’ by Virginia Euwer Wolff, when I was doing some book searching and some random book browsing in the bookstore a few months back, when I was on a book-buying-spree. I was looking for ‘Mozart’s journey to Prague’ by Eduard Mörike, which I had seen at a bookstore a few years back, but had resisted the temptation then, and which has been nudging me to get myself acquainted with it, ever since. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it, but I found ‘The Mozart Season’ instead. The cover of the book showed a dark room with a streak of light falling on a chair in the middle of the room, with a violin on it. I found the cover extremely appealing. It looked like a YA book and as I have been buying very few YA books in recent times, I thought I will get it. After finishing one book with a musical background (If I Stay), I thought I will pick another one which was about music, and ‘The Mozart Season’ leapt at me from the bookshelf. I took it down and read it and lost myself in it. Without knowing it I finished it in a couple of days. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.

When Allegra was a little girl, she thought she would pick up her violin and it would sing for her – that the music was hidden inside her instrument.

Now that Allegra is twelve, she believes the music is in her fingers, and the summer after seventh grade, she has to teach them well. She’s the youngest contestant in the Ernest Bloch Young Musicians’ competition.

She knows she will learn the notes to the concerto, but what she doesn’t realize is what she’ll also learn – how to close the gap between herself and Mozart to find the real music inside her heart.

What I think

‘The Mozart Season’ is about 12-year-old Allegra, who plays softball and classical music on the violin and about how her teacher Mr.Kaplan suggests to her to participate in a classical music competition where the participants have to play a Mozart concerto and the winner of the competition gets to play in a symphony. Allegra decides to take part in the competition and during the summer months during which she prepares for the competition, she discovers more about life and what is important in life and what is not, about her family secrets, about the delights of friendship, about the beauty of music, about the fine dividing line between excellence in performance and overdoing it which kills the beauty of the performance, about how we shouldn’t give up searching for things we love and how the kindness of strangers helps us in unknown ways. From one perspective, it is a story about how music can change us (and how it ‘can explain the world in a way that words simply cannot’ as my blog-friend Ben put it) and from another perspective it is also a story of growing up during the course of a summer.

I loved the musical background of the story – it was not just a background, but it was the foreground too. If you are a classical music fan or an occasional practitioner, you will love this part of the story. If you don’t know a lot about the technical aspects of classical music, like me, you can still enjoy the book, because the important terms are all explained. For example, quite early in the story, here is what the book says about a cadenza.

A cadenza is the part where the violin plays alone; it’s harder than the rest of the piece, and it gets the audience all excited when you do it in a concert. There are three cadenzas in this concerto, one in each movement.

There are also beautiful descriptions of Portland and its surrounding towns in the book, including one about the huge garden of roses. The description of the rose garden went like this :

      “I love Portland,” Mommy said. “If you have a little bit of ground, you can have roses. Anybody in the city can – if they have dirt.”

      Portland is called the City of Roses. It’s because of the long growing season. Roses bloom from early spring to late fall. We have eight rosebushes. In a park there’s a huge Rose Garden on a hill where you can see thousands of roses and look down on the city. The squirrels there are so tame they come and grab food from your hand. 

The roses are in more different colors than you can believe at first. After you’ve been there a lot of times you just go along with it, but if it’s your first time there, it’s hard to imagine so many different kinds of roses.

      “Crimson, fire engine, fuchsia, peach, sunshine, sunset, sunrise, cream, ivory, milk, blood, pearl, mustard, canary, saffron, lemon…” she said. I laughed. “You could spend your life here, couldn’t you?” she said, and let my hand go.

Reading these descriptions made me want to visit this beautiful city.

I was expecting the ending of the story to be like the ending of a typical Hollywood movie. My imagination went like this :

“There will be a guy among the competitors who will be Allegra’s biggest opponent and he will have some unpleasant trait in his personality and he will try to do everything to make her lose. And during the actual performance, he will play before Allegra and will deliver a wonderful performance and the judges will be very impressed and the reader’s heart will start beating fast. Then Allegra will start playing her piece and one of her violin’s strings will break, and the reader will be extremely disappointed that she is going to lose. But Allegra being the genius she is, will magically fix the string while continuing to play her violin and will perform divinely and will win the music competition.”

Well, fortunately, all this was only my own imagination. The story would have been predictable, if it had gone like that. Virginia Euwer Wolff was a way more sophisticated author than I had imagined, and she wrote a more interesting ending to the story, which was beautiful and complex and made me think. In some ways the ending summarized what the book was all about – about how life is not about just winning or losing and how searching for something we love and being patient during our search is more important, and being the best that we can be is what we should aim for rather than winning. I am not going to reveal the ending of the story though – you will enjoy it when you read it.

The book somehow reminded me of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – because in both the books the story is told through the voice of a young girl, both of them don’t have a straightforward simple story but are about growing up and complex themes and there are a lot of characters in both the stories. When I read the interview of Virginia Euwer Wolff in the book, to the question on what was the best advice she ever received on writing, Wolff replies – “’When a story is in trouble, you will ALWAYS find the source of trouble in the point of view.” It was said in a voice and accent from the Deep South of the United States, and I might someday find that it was wrong advice, but so far, it has worked.” I guessed that this quote might have been said by Harper Lee and probably Harper Lee was Wolff’s inspiration, but when I did some research I was not able to find out the origin of the quote. Would you know who said this?

I love books with musical backgrounds – I loved Gayle Forman’s ‘If I stay’, which I read recently. I loved ‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth, when I read it – it is one of my most favourite books. I also loved the first volume of the manga comic series ‘Nodame Cantabile’ which is also steeped in music. ‘The Mozart Season’ is a wonderful addition to that list. I will add it to my list of favourite books and it is one of those books which I hope to read again.

Excerpts

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

Another kind of pity

His voice was full of – I didn’t know what to call it. It wasn’t pity. I had to have my own list of new words by September for school, and whatever it was in his voice would be one of them. I’d find it. It was something like pity, but not the kind that makes you feel bad.

Playing Mozart

Playing Mozart isn’t hard, but to play him well is what you can die trying to do.

I spent about an hour on the third-movement cadenza of the Mozart before I went to bed. When it’s going well, it can sound like beads falling down a string.

The last three notes came out just the way I liked them, balanced, even, each one of them getting softer until the last one just skips away into the air.

Talking about Music

“Remember what somebody said : Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Let’s play.”

Making your own song

“Now we are ready to begin the hard part. It’s no longer just the right notes in the right dynamics at the right time, Allegra,” he said. He turned sideways on the piano bench. “It’s time to start making the concerto your own song.”

      I looked at him. I didn’t even have all the notes exactly memorized.

      “It’s like this, Allegra,” he said. He held up both hands, about a foot apart. “Here’s Mozart, over here. He has his concerto with him. And here you are, over here. See the distance between you? It’s a fact. There are more than two hundred years. And there’s all that ocean. And his mind and your mind. We’re going to start moving them closer together. See?” He started moving his hands very, very slowly through the air. “We’re going to bring them as close together as we can.” He put his hands down on his knees. “That’s what we’re gonna do.”

      I looked at the places where his hands had been. Music poured out of Mozart. It wasn’t automatic or anything, nobody’s mind does it automatically. He had to find the notes in his mind and put them in order, but he just poured them out.

      Mr.Kaplan put his hands up again. This time he brought them so close there wasn’t even an inch between them. “We’re going to get to the point where there’s just an edge. The place where you and Mozart and his concerto meet. That’s the edge we want. As little air space as we can manage. We’re gonna try to close the distance.” He looked at the little space between his hands. Then he put them down again and looked up at me.

Remembering and Forgetting

“Allegra, here’s something about doing music – or painting a picture or anything. When you’re doing it, you have to remember everything you’ve ever learned, and simultaneously forget all of it and do something totally new. Because if you do the first part and not the second, you’re making music or art just like everybody else’s. It’s not your own.”

A Lovely Morning

I watched my mother. She picked up a bug from a begonia leaf and closed her hand lightly over it, carried it to the French doors and opened one of them with the hand that was holding the watering can, and sent the bug out into the air. “What a lovely morning,” she said to the yard. “Is it all right if I leave the door partly open? The air smells beautiful,” she said.

Trauma of different kinds

Daddy spelled “trauma” for me and I wrote it on the clipboard. He said it means something terrible happening and getting whatever it happens to all upset. When people get in car accidents they have trauma. Being born is a trauma, he said. It takes you out of what you’re used to and puts you somewhere else, and you don’t understand anything that’s going on.

Boomerangs and Problems

He meant the boomerang you throw in Australia and it comes back and hit you in the head if you’re not paying attention. He meant that if you throw your problems away somewhere so you won’t have to think about them, they’ll come back and hit you in the head.

On Cats

My cat, Heavenly Days, was on my bed. Cats spend eighty percent of their lives sleeping.

Cats don’t get tired of doing the same thing over and over again. They have a good attention span.

When I got home, Heavenly had a mouse on the lawn and I stuck my tongue out at her for doing it. I used to get beserk when she killed things. But I’ve gotten myself under control and don’t do that anymore. I made myself think of it differently; Heavenly was doing what nature taught her to do. She wasn’t a maniac being made happy by murder. Nature didn’t plan on a whole species running to the sound of electric can openers; cats were designed to get their own food, and they kill things because that’s their law 

On Great Music

“Great music isn’t something we master; it’s something we try all our lives to merge with. Indeed.”

The Hammer and the Stone

“Allegra, have I told you the story about the hammer and the stone?”

      “No.”

      “One day in Italy, a man was hammering and hammering on a piece of marble. A young boy sitting on a wall asked him, ‘Why do you keep hammering on that stone?’ And Michelangelo said, ‘There’s an angel inside this stone, and I’m trying to let it out.’ …Perhaps we need to hammer a little more lightly on this concerto; perhaps the angel will come out more willingly if we use your most personal touch.”

Duck Adventures

I got off my bike and stood and watched the ducks, in groups, in families, scooting across the pond, going somewhere, all of them on their way to something. Probably just more food. Maybe adventures. If you’re a duck, just swimming around a log is probably an adventure. They were just going places, the same places over and over again, places on the pond. They seemed to be going so smoothly but all the time their feet were paddling hard underneath. They were going where they had to go. For who knew the reason. Just going and going places.

The Fiddle and the Spirit

“Somebody whined at Beethoven that one of his quartets was too hard to play. And Beethoven said, ‘Do you think I care about your lousy fiddle when the spirit moves me?’”

Things to Listen

If you are interested, you can find Mozart’s Concerto No.4 (which is played in the competition by Allegra in the story) played by the famous violinist David Oistrakh here :

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘The Mozart Season’. I will add it to my list of favourite books. I hope it gets made into a movie someday, if it has not been already. If you like YA literature and books with a musical backdrop, you will like this book.

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