The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Special Credit for beautiful math concepts: 5/5

A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history. Katherine is a young, bi-racial Asian American growing up in New Umbria, Michigan in the early 1950s where her prodigious mathematical talent housed in a female body is not encouraged by early academic institutions (like 3rd grade!)

The novel merges her love affair with mathematics with the difficulties of pursuing an academic career in a male-dominated field and her personal quest for the roots of her family whose tangled branches reach into both Nazi Germany and the Japanese invasion of China. Told from the perspective of our first-person narrator speaking from the end of her career, the book is a combination of articulate description and mature reflection that adds great insight to every step without detracting from the innocence of the experience.

My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of math from her perspective. They are beautifully written accounts of both the concepts themselves and the personal process of discovery, determination, and excitement that Katherine feels. I’ve included some of my favorite lines below. The author manages to take complex mathematical subjects and both reduces them to simple concepts and makes them beautiful, even to a non-mathematician. This is spectacularly done (IMHO).

Little biographical vignettes of female mathematicians throughout history are sprinkled liberally through the text. These include Hypatia (~350 – 415), Emily Noether (1882 – 1935), Maria Meyer (she of “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize” fame), Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891), and Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) in a kind of “sister companion” to Bell’s Men of Mathematics. I loved the way the author discussed both the historical and present (late 60s) barriers to entry women faced without ranting or complaining —simply noting the contributions and the kinds of determination the women had to have.

The themes of guilt, culpability, and oppression are explored throughout the book. What is the culpability of the German mathematicians in Goettingen (formerly the “Mecca of Mathematics”) who thrived during the war years by keeping their heads down as their more distinguished colleagues were conscripted, deported to camps, or escaped the country? What guilt should adhere to a man who allowed misattributed credit for an achievement to stand because those who knew better were gone? What fault attaches to the oblivious man who genuinely wants to “support” a young, female, protege by a means which ends up completely undermining her main claim to esteem? With no heavy-handed agenda or obvious answers, these thoughtful questions percolate throughout the book.

I loved the mathematics and personal process portions of this book. Katherine is an older, professionally successful mathematician as she recounts her experiences making it full of reflection and insight. While she professes no regrets, she freely admits that she could have handled things differently — rather than put all the blame on the barriers and mistakes of others, she understands that she bears responsibility for the outcome as well. I personally didn’t enjoy the parts of the book devoted to her family discovery — they were more in a Joy Luck Club style that recounted the stories as the narrator might hear of them from others but without the reflection and insightful commentary that the narrator was able to apply to her own experiences. While I think these stories and the slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins will appeal to many, for me they were secondary to her personal quest for a meaningful life.

Some great lines:
The very first line of the book: “There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematics problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world.”

“As we all know, the closest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes the closest distance between two ideas is a long and winding path.”

A key insight that Katherine tells her students: “It isn’t always the dazzling talent who ends up doing the great work. Sometimes people grow into their work, sometimes people burn out, and you never know who will stumble on the right problem at the right time.”

“How it was possible to fall into the space that someone left behind, and be crushed inside, like air falling back into itself with in a clap of thunder.”

“I found the promise of transcendent purity, a deeper order that never failed, I would believe in that, and let go of everything that couldn’t be counted on. Like my mother. Like family. Like home. By the time fall came around and it was time to go to university, in my mind, I was already gone.”

“They were lovely, I thought, in what they suggested — a visual representation of an idea, an ordering of a thought.”

“Analysis is considered the study of limits, but before it was called that, it was called the study of the infinite. I felt for the first time that I was looking at mathematics as it was meant to be done: here was a book that wasn’t meant just to instruct, but to open a door.”

“What I found most exhilarating was figuring out how to make the mathematical tools that explained the logic underpinning natural phenomena.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 18th, 2019.

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Captivating novel about the lifespan of an antique (circa 1905) upright Blüthner piano and the two women whose lives are inextricably bound to it across place, time, and culture. Katya grows up in Leningrad. She inherits the piano at a young age from the blind pianist in the building with the note: “Even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.” She devotes her life to music and the Blüthner until she is ripped from everything that she loves by her husband’s unilateral decision to leave Russia for a better life in the U.S. (~1980). Life is not easy for Soviet Jews in that time period (well, any time period in Russia, really).

Clara is a mechanic. Born to academic parents in Santa Monica, she loses everything in a fire when she is twelve. Only the Blüthner piano that her father gave her a week before he died is saved, having been in the shop for repairs at the time. She is insistently self-reliant, having learned long ago the heartbreaking loss when someone you depended on disappears abruptly. She grows up with an Aunt and Uncle in Bakersfield, and while she never develops any musical skills, the Blüthner is her prized possession. When a professional photographer offers to rent her piano for a series of desert shots in Death Valley, she is reluctant, but persuaded by the large sum on offer. She impulsively follows the piano on its journey and ends up discovering more than she ever imagined about her own history and approach to living.

Told through alternating narratives, the story is intricate and riveting. I loved the descriptions of music and the myriad ways it affected different people. Katya’s favorite piece, and one which threads through both narratives, is Scriabin’s Prelude #14 in E flat minor. Clara’s father’s attempt at characterization: “It’s poetry and color and imagination. In any of the languages I know, I can’t find the right words for it.” The depictions of Death Valley and the piano-centered photographic essay process make for both an inspiring travelogue and a photography primer for the uninformed (that would be me) — worth the price of admission all on its own.

As one narrative proceeds from bittersweet to utterly heartbreaking, the other narrative flows towards understanding, growth, and release. A full and satisfying read full of characters with depth for whom we cannot help but have great empathy.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Lit Fiction)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on July 9, 2019.

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Fun book with a capital F!

Nina Lee Hill is introduced to us as the “spinster of this parish and heroine both of her own life and the book you’re holding in your hand.” The parish in question is Knights — an independent bookstore in Larchmont Village (a quaint neighborhood in central Los Angeles) and her place of employment. She is a delightfully interesting character — an anxiety-ridden Millenial with a super-active brain who thinks of books as “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things.” A surprise bequest from a father she didn’t know she had coupled with an obnoxious but attractive trivia competitor form the scaffolding of the simultaneously modern and Edwardian plot of this ultra-literary, romp through a central LA I never knew existed.

Funny, intelligent, and clever writing coupled with an array of engaging and quirky characters make this book what it is. Great dialog and banter and even … grammar jokes! The literary references range from Harry Potter to Chinua Achebe, Dickens and Austen to SF biggies Gaiman and Stephenson, Star Wars to Flowers for Algernon. I even discovered some new “classics” — a rare occurrence for me. Part Eleanor Oliphant, part Jane Austen, a great, fun, read that will leave you gasping on the floor from too much lol-ing.

Delightful Quotes:
“Grilled cheese in any form was her spirit animal.”

“Nina might battle crippling anxiety once or twice a week, but she also worked in retail, and rudeness is the special sauce on the burger that is the Los Angeles shopping public.”

After sputtering the phrase “Cool Beans” at the object of her affection … “At this her brain threw up its metaphorical hands and curled upon its stem like a pissed off hen.”

Quotes about Los Angeles:
“Whenever Nina was stuck there, which was rarely, because she would rather have filled her ears with flaming dog turds than go to the West side…”

“Sartre said hell was other people, but that was only because the 405 hadn’t been built yet.” <— my favorite!

New (to me) words / concepts:
– bullet journaling – https://bulletjournal.com/
– vampiring other people’s feelings
– quisling – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.

 

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 12, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

The fictionalized history of the creation of The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of Maud Baum, daughter of early suffragette Mathilda Gage and wife of L. Frank Baum, Oz’s creator. Alternating between her personal history from 1871 (10 years old) through 1899 (38 years old) and the 1938-39 Hollywood film production, the pages unravel the secret origins of Oz and the personal world Baum embedded in the story. As the narrative unspools, the characters are brought to life: Frank is the consummate storyteller and imagineer, firmly embedded in thoughts of the future while weaving fantastical stories from everything around him. Maud is his balance — “To see the ordinary, to avoid being bedazzled by spectacle — this was her gift.” She remained a shopkeeper’s daughter, “firmly anchored in the palpable things of this earth — things that could be observed and touched, measured and weighed.”

The scenes are abundantly filled with period details such as peptonizing milk for a baby’s consumption, prescriptions of “Bayer heroin” for coughs, patent medicines, and early air conditioning technology brought to Hollywood — “a heater for the cool.” We follow Frank and Maud as they move from upstate New York to the Dakota territory, working in a variety of occupations from theater management (and acting, scriptwriting, scenic design, etc.), to the owners of Baum’s emporium, to the owner of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer newspaper, to superlative Salesman. Frank was an early marketeer — blending story and spectacle with product to entrance consumers into buying something they never knew they wanted.

The 1938-39 narrative focuses on an older, widowed, Maud, fighting M-G-M to ensure the movie would stay true to Frank’s version. Maud wants to protect the story and what it represents to the millions who have been brought into the Magic of Oz — the longing for something better and the “dream of the rainbow” that keeps people going when times are hard (as they were for most people back then).

I’m not a fan of fictionalized history in general — it feels unfair to me to impart imagined thoughts, motivations, and dialog to real (but dead) people who can no longer set the record straight. However, I get easily caught up in a good story, and Elizabeth Letts has done an excellent job of generating one, starting from a variety of primary and secondary sources and filling in with period detail, imagined internal lives, and a well-defined narrative arc.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 4

The sweeping, emotionally intense story of an Akha village girl in the Yunnan Province. Spanning 1988 through 2016, Li-Yan (commonly known as “Girl”), goes from tea picker in Yunnan to Guangzhou Tea Master to global businesswoman.

While the characters are well developed and the plot riveting, my favorite aspect of the book is the way the author brought recent Chinese history, American adoption of Chinese children (usually girls), and the tea trade to life.  Especially the extensively researched tea trade — a fascinating discussion of pu’er tea — from the resurrection of the old methods of production (which were discouraged during Mao’s reign) to the history, economy, and medicinal applications going back centuries. Supporting this thread was the impact of various Chinese policies, and slogans on regular people — from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “ To get rich is glorious” to The Thirty Years No Change Policy, the One Child Policy, and the Great Leap Forward. and the recognition of the 55 ethnic minorities (even though there were actually many more).

Another thread follows the experiences of Li-Yan’s baby girl, adopted by Caucasian parents in California with only an ancient tea cake to connect her to her birth parents. While happy with her parents and life, Haley and other Chinese adoptees face the issue of not fitting in — with either the Caucasians or the other Asians. Interestingly, while the bulk of the book is in Li-Yan’s voice, all information about Haley comes through letters, school reports, and other external forms of documentation.

Lisa Yee is a master at sweeping you into a story that you can’t help but care about. Warning — I found the events of the second chapter so disturbing that I almost stopped reading the book but I’m very glad I kept going. I found the descriptions of China fascinating — it was constantly surprising to me to be reminded that some of the things that sounded so “primitive” had been a way of life only 30 years ago. Intriguing plot, well-developed characters, and a rich and historically accurate background environment.

I’m looking forward to reading Lisa See’s upcoming book “The Island of Sea Women.”

There There by Tommy Orange

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters; 4.5

This is a story of the Urban Indian. Set in Oakland, it follows twelve characters as they make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters, leading to short, rapid-fire, entries at the violent end. The author experiments with different point of view techniques, utilizing first-person, third-person limited, and even second-person narration for specific characters. The structure comprises a set of interconnected stories, mostly current but some in the past, that lead up to the powwow. These are sandwiched between an introduction and an “interlude” which serve as essays on what it means to be an Indian today and how to answer the stereotype criticisms such as “Why can’t you just get over it?”

The writing is strong and the author does an excellent job of taking on a variety of personas across age, gender, and the degree of self-identification with “Indian-hood.” Each character possesses and expresses a rich interior world combating any lazy assumption about people in any particular group being “all alike.”

While I’m glad I read this book, I did find it depressing and disturbing. Like many of the Native American books I’ve read, it is difficult to find any thread of hope. Most of the characters are caught up in drugs, poverty, alcoholism, babies born to addicted mothers, single or absent parents, foster care, etc. Even the characters who manage to avoid the worst, end up caring for family members who did not. It felt like the main aspect of Indian culture that was passed down was a sense of inherited oppression and anger, which while justified, does not help anyone move forward. I prefer novels that focus on some kind of positive path rather than dwelling exclusively on the misery of the past and present without any suggestions of hope. One character — a substance abuse counselor who herself is only 11 days sober — says that it is hard to sell “Life is OK” when it isn’t. But why not focus on what is possible for each person to do to make life OK? To be fair, several of the characters really were trying, but the overall message was one that said their chances of success were slim to none.