By the time his mother died, at age 74, she spent her days, in silence, staring out a window. She didn't recognize her son. Once an accomplished musician, she didn't know what to do with a piano.
Now, it was his turn.
A grim fear took hold within Steve.
The piano, once Steve's friend, now mocked him. He'd sit at the keyboard, waiting until he was alone so others wouldn't witness the loss. He'd start a song, get a bar into it and then. ...
We all know that art, music and nature are beautiful. They command the senses and incite emotion. Their impact is swift and visceral. How can a mathematical idea inspire the same feelings?
Well, for one thing, there is something very appealing about the notion of universal truth — especially at a time when people entertain the absurd idea of alternative facts. The Pythagorean theorem still holds, and pi is a transcendental number that will describe all perfect circles for all time.
But our brains also appear to respond to mathematical beauty as they do to other beautiful experiences.
This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.
But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
It’s a performance. You must never forget that. However much thinking and research come beforehand, however much editing and correction afterwards, the actual writing is performance. There is a moment when you have to do it. You have to put down the rhythms of the voice you’re searching for, you have to find the right succession of detail and event, description and dialogue. Get it wrong and no amount of fiddling will salvage the situation.
Unlike those writers, I chose an unromanticized country (for romantic reasons) that I knew almost nothing about. But my timing was excellent: Hania and I were married two months after the founding of Solidarity and the emergence of Lech Wałęsa as its leader. I settled in — teaching English, learning Polish, reading writers I’d never heard of: Mickiewicz, Norwid, Prus, Tuwim. The satisfaction of getting to know a place through its language, literature, and everyday life was heightened by the fact that the place, and the life, were so far removed from what I had known. I stood in lines for food and every month received ration cards at school. The political situation — strikes, demonstrations, rumors of invasion — added to the intensity. I kept a detailed journal, an act that turned clandestine when martial law was declared in December 1981. Nine months later, through a friend’s kindness, the two loose-leaf notebooks were spirited out of the country in the Dutch diplomatic pouch after officials at the American embassy told me I was not entitled to such privileges.
I returned home with a story to tell and found, to my delight, the perfect climate in which to tell it. Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Poland, the commercial and critical success of The Great Railway Bazaar had created a rage for travel writing in the United States. With In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin had become Theroux’s erudite confrère at the forefront of the genre’s renaissance.
When Kostova focuses on that beauty, through characters' reminiscences, folktales, poetry, and news, her book transcends its covers and offers readers a glimpse of her own heart.