Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Math as Metaphor for Life

Two recent novels I've read  have left me pondering about the beauty of math and mathematical concepts and how they could relate to human relationships: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa and The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano.

Ogawa's book was a community-wide selection at Brookline High School, suggested by my Swat classmate and Brookline High math teacher Bruce Mallory '83. We had been dicussing the movie "Memento", where the protagonist has lost his short-term memory. Much of the movie is told in multiple flashbacks, leaving the audience to put together what is happening on screen. Similarly, one of the main characters in Ogawa's novel, a brilliant math professor, has lost his short-term memory due to a traffic accident. He can remember things for 84 minutes and then his brain resets. He walks around with hundreds of notes pinned to his clothes, reminding him of who he is, what has happened to him, and who everyone else is in his small, necessarily circumscribed world. We see the action of the novel not through his eyes but through the eyes of his new housekeeper, a single mother struggling to raise her little boy (nicknamed "Root" by the Professor). The Professor, unable to remember anything from one day to the next, greets his housekeeper every morning by asking her what her birth date is or her phone number and then creating a kind of magic trick with the numbers, relating some amazing and intricate mathematical concept revealing a depth and a beauty in the numbers she gives him. It comes down to numbers and to relationships, like in the Professor's description of amicable numbers (two different numbers so related that the sum of the factors of each is equal to the other number, e.g. 220 and 284) or twin primes (prime numbers separated by only one number, e.g. 41 and 43). This is a small, quiet novel about math, baseball, memory and relationships.

Girodano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a different kind of book entirely. The two protagonists have each been damaged by a childhood trauma that has left them separate and apart. The world can be cruel and unforgiving, and each has been left with scars. The connection between Mattia and Alice is tenuous and unexplained but it is clear that they are drawn to each other, recognizing in the other the pain and the separateness that defines them: "Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other." Unlike Ogawa, Giordano's prose is bold, brash, and, at times, startling. I felt like he was trying to get a rise out of me, like in his characterization of one of the evil girls who torments Alice through her teenaged years, or in the physical manifestations and repercussions of Mattia's guilt. Even so, the writing is beautiful--it left me wondering about the translator--and I'd be eager to see what Girodano comes up with next (this is his first novel).

Those of you who know me know that math ain't my strong suit. But I love finding new ways to see beauty and elegance, and I can truly appreciate how math can be a vehicle or a lens with which to see and understand beauty in all its forms, especially in human relationships.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why I Don't Like Memoirs...or why I love fiction

I'm not quite sure what it is about the memoir form that has never appealed to me. Perhaps it is the feeling that an author has a burning need to share the details of his or her of life and view of the world, which seems to me to be an egotistical, narcissistic activity. I can't recall reading a memoir I loved or even felt like I learned something from. I'm sure there are terrific examples of memoirs that I'm not aware of, but whenever I find myself reading one, I am so hyper-aware of the author's tendency to novelize his or her life, to have it fit nicely in form and arc and meaning into the shape of a novel, that I can't help but feel manipulated and lied to. I guess the recent unsurprising revelations about fictionalized (read: made up) memoirs have made me even more suspicious.

That said, I actually read three memoirs in recent months. The books are quite different from each other, but all fall into one or more of the traps or failings I mentioned above. The first book is Denial by Jessica Stern, chosen by my book group at work. Stern is a world-renowned expert on terrorism who had never really dealt with her own experience of terrorism: she had been raped as a teenager. The book is a local story, with Concord, Cambridge, and towns in central Massachusetts forming the backdrop for Stern's journey. What is it a journey of (or from)? I guess it's a journey to understand the meaning of why she is such a difficult, unfeeling person, and an attempt to understand her shattered, screwed-up family, especially her cold, unfeeling father. It was not a pleasant experience to read Denial and if you ask me about it, I will deny ever having read it.

I picked up the next memoir because I loved Alison Bechdel, the writer and illustrator of the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For". Bechdel is funny, smart, and insightful, and she has always had a keen sense of people, politics and the world. Her first memoir (which--shh!!--I actually loved) was in graphic form and was based on her experiences with her father and the books she loved. It was brilliant. I was hoping for more of the same when I bought "Are You My Mother?", but was incredibly disappointed. It could have been titled "Are You My Therapist?" because she deals as much with the therapists she's had over the years as she deals with her relationship with her mother. In the end, however, I wondered why I was reading this and why I should care about her journey (there's that word again) of self-discovery. It felt self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Unlike her first book, I wasn't really that interested in how she got there (plus I couldn't keep her therapists straight).

The third memoir I've read recently was Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend this Never Happened (again chosen by my work book group, but meant as an antidote to Denial). Lawson is a blogger who writes (among various things) about her husband, motherhood, her work, her OCD, her fears, her obsessions, her journey towards normality, her crazy Texas family, taxidermy, and anything else that pops into her strange and funny mind. The first third of this book is drop-dead funny but funny only takes you so far. After a while, I found myself wondering if any of the stuff she describes ever happened (the title is a funny reminder of that), the dead deer, the stuffed squirrel, the kitchen fires, the blurted faux pas, and on and on. There's no real structure to the book, as it feels like loosely-linked blog entries. She also has this meta, parenthetical voice (and footnotes) reminding us that she is there and she is aware of how we might be reading what she has written, kind of like she's given voice to her internal editor. I couldn't finish it.

Themes running through these works: self-obsession, the journey towards self-acceptance, not especially good writing, unlikeable narrators--people I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like to meet.

I'm not going to waste my breath (or my fingers) anymore. I'm done with memoirs for a while.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What are you reading this summer?

Dear Fellow Bookies,

I have so many things I want to read this summer. What are you planning to read (other than Joseph Andrews, of course)? Some of the things I've read in the last couple of months are in the list below. Click on the Comments section below, then Post a Comment to tell me what you're reading and I'll add it to the list. If you don't see that option in the upper right, then you are not signed in. If you don't want to sign in or create a new account, just email me what you're reading and any comments you might have and I will post for you.


Here's a partial list of things that I have read recently:

Denial, Jessica Stern
Sacre Bleu, Christopher Moore
11-22-63, Stephen King
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Defending Jacob, William Landay
The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano
Runaway, stories by Alice Munro
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
Zeitoun, Dave Eggers