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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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I discovered ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman, during one of my bookstore visits recently. I liked the blurb on the back cover and as I haven’t read YA (Young Adult) literature in a while, I thought this would be an interesting book to renew my acquaintance with this beautiful genre. I finished reading it today and here is the review.

Summary of the story

Here is how the blurb on the back cover of the book reads.

Life can change in an instant.

A cold February morning…

a snowy road…

and suddenly all of Mia’s choices are gone.

Except one.

As alone as she’ll ever be, Mia must make the most difficult choice of all.

Haunting, heart-rending and ultimately life-affirming, If I stay will make you appreciate all that you have, all that you’ve lost – and all that might be.

The blurb on the front cover goes like this :

Living’s all about making choices. Dying’s no different.

What I think

If I can continue the story from the blurb, it will go like this – Mia, her parents and her kid brother Teddy go on a drive to their family friends’ home, on a day when it has snowed in a town near Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, they have a terrible accident when a truck hits their car. Mia’s parents are killed. Mia discovers that she has been overthrown from the car and she gets up from the woods and gets back to the scene of the accident. She finds paramedics pulling someone out of the woods. She discovers that it is her body. She realizes that she is in a ghostly state out of her body and she doesn’t know whether she is alive or dead. When the doctors take her body to the ambulance, she realizes from their conversation that she is alive, but somehow in this suspended state, where no one can see her, while she can see them and her own body, like it was a different person. (There are no spoilers here, as all this happens in the first 15 pages of the book). Mia goes to the hospital in the ambulance and later she discovers that her grandparents, her relatives, her parent’s friends, her best friend and her boyfriend have come there to see her. Mia contemplates on whether she should live after this devastating accident, living in pain for the rest of her life bearing her terrible loss, or whether she should give up and die and go to the place where her parents have gone to. While Mia (who is in this suspended ghostly state) thinks about the choices open to her, her heart goes back and forth to the past and present as memories of her life flood into it. What memories flood Mia’s heart and what she decides to do form the rest of the story.

I liked ‘If I stay’ very much. It was fast-paced, and I finished it before I knew it. I also like the musical background throughout the book. Mia is a Cello player and her boyfriend Adam is a member of a rock band. Mia’s father is a former drummer and her mother is a music fan. Because of this there are a lot of musical references in the book – to songs, singers, bands, composers. There is mention of the classical music greats – Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert – and modern greats like Yo-Yo Ma. There is also mention of many popular music singers and bands – Nirvana, Melvins, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, The Eels, James Taylor, The Clash. It was interesting to read that Glen Hansard’s and Marketa Irglova’s song ‘Falling Slowly’ inspired Gayle Forman while she was writing the book. (This song is there in one of my favourite musical movies ‘Once’.) Music plays a major role throughout the story, as important scenes are all marked by interesting pieces of music. I loved the musical references in the book and the description of the musical scenes. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when Mia tries to play Adam like a Cello and Adam tries to play Mia like a guitar – so romantic!

The story is sad and tragic from one perspective, and makes the reader cry. Forman says in an interview that the tragic accident is based on a real accident which happened to her friend’s family and one’s heart goes out to her. But from another perspective the book is about the difficult choices we make in life and how love sustains us and from that perspective it is an affirmation of life.

Excerpts

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

The road has some patches of snow, but mostly it’s just wet. But this is Oregon. The roads are always wet. Mom used to joke that it was when the road was dry that people ran into trouble.

She tells them that I am in ‘grave’ condition. I’m not entirely sure what that means – grave. On TV, patients are always critical, or stable. Grave sounds bad. Grave is where you go when things don’t work out here.

I thought of the tuning fork I used to adjust my cello. Hitting it sets off vibrations in the note of A – vibrations that keep growing, and growing, until the harmonic pitch fills up the room. That’s what Adam’s grin was doing to me during dinner.

The doctors keep coming around and pulling up my eyelids and waving around at flashlight. They are rough and hurried, like they don’t consider eyelids worthy of gentleness. It makes you realize how little in life we touch one another’s eyes. Maybe your parents will hold an eyelid up to get out a piece of dirt, or maybe your boyfriend will kiss your eyelids, light as a butterfly, just before you drift off to sleep. But eyelids are not like elbows or knees or shoulders, parts of the body accustomed to being jostled.

I don’t know exactly what’s happened to me, and for the first time today, I don’t really care. I shouldn’t have to care. I shouldn’t have to work this hard. I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.

He’s sprouting stubble, enough of it that if we were to make out, it would make my chin raw.

      ‘Jesus, Mia, your hands are freezing.’ He squats down, takes my right hand into his, and careful to not bump into my tubes and wires, draws his mouth to them, blowing warm air into the shelter he’s created. ‘You and your crazy hands.’ Adam is always amazed at how even in the middle of summer, even after the sweatiest of encounters, my hands stay cold. I tell him it’s bad circulation but he doesn’t buy it because my feet are usually warm. He says I have bionic hands, that that is why I’m such a good cello player.

      I watch him warm my hands as he has done a thousand times before. I think of the first time he did it, at school, sitting on the lawn, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I also remember the first time he did it in front of my parents. We were all sitting on the porch on Christmas Eve, drinking cider. It was freezing outside. Adam grabbed my hands and blew on them. Teddy giggled. Mom and Dad didn’t say anything, just exchanged a quick look, something private passed between them and then Mom smiled ruefully at us.

Further reading / listening

You can find the list of songs and compositions mentioned in the book at Gayle Forman’s site here.

You can find the song ‘Falling Slowly’ played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova here.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘If I stay’. It sometimes happens that we stumble upon a book without knowing anything about it, and we like it very much. I am glad it happened to me.

If you like YA literature, and don’t mind reading stories which are partly sad, you will like ‘If I Stay’.

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