Review | The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz

13356649I’m a nerd. The idea that math can be used to explain everything, including (from the book jacket) whether or not O.J. Simpson did it, or how many people it is optimal to date before settling down, appeals to me. I love patterns, and I love the idea that numbers can be applied in the most esoteric situations in real life.

So Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of X instantly appealed to me. Life, the universe and everything… How can math play a role in understanding all that? And while I’m sure mathematicians can give me various answers, I looked forward to reading about it as written for a layperson’s perspective, and to understanding just a bit of the wonder that math can present.

Unfortunately, this book made the joy of X even more of a mystery to me. Strogatz begins with fairly basic arithmetic, and uses images like rocks and dots to explain addition and subtraction. He writes: “This side of arithmetic is important, practical, and–for many people–joyless. The playful side of arithmetic is a lot less familiar, unless you were trained in the ways of advanced mathematics.” I presume then, that the Tetris-style patterns with rocks represents this more playful side, which appears to be minor tricks with basic functions.

On one hand, I see what he’s trying to do — by presenting even the most basic arithmetic functions in new ways, he’s prepping us for the way he’ll present the (presumably) more fun, more advanced mathematics, such as how to calculate O.J.’s guilt, later on. The problem is, even the first few chapters gave me a headache. The four basic functions are math we as adults are already familiar with, and quite frankly, the struggle to see it from Strogatz’s new, supposedly more playful, perspective, just doesn’t seem worth it.

The book began as a series of columns, and possibly because of this, each chapter is a minor topic in itself, barely leading on to the next one. The result is a fairly shallow overview of various math concepts, and Strogatz seems to try too hard to make the math interesting. He explains the concepts well enough, though I personally think he either overcomplicates or underexplains his topics, yet never quite answers the question: so what? And when each chapter is its own topic, and each chapter begins a new attempt to present an aspect of math in a new light, the repeated sense of “so what?” becomes frustrating.

I remember starting Brian Greene’s The Hidden Realityabout parallel universes. I still haven’t finished it, mostly because it started getting really complicated, and honestly I think I need to start from the beginning to make sense of it all again. But unlike Strogatz’s book, Hidden Reality shows a progression — Greene begins with a really simple, accessible example of parallel universes, then slowly delves deeper into the subject, and explores further into scientific concepts. It’s not an easy read, but the payoff will be worth it — Greene tackles a complex subject and gently takes the reader deeper and deeper into it.

In contrast, Strogatz sounds like the high school teacher desperately trying to convince his bored students that math is fun (cue big grin and exclamation point). I’m not saying that the math he covers is simple — on the contrary, I’m sure most of it, particularly in the later part of the book, is over my head. But I do want to understand, and I feel Strogatz’s approach keeps one firmly in the elementary level of understanding. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I generally found his tone condescending — no way we readers could understand these concepts, so here’s a funny little story to convince you that it’s F-U-N!

I didn’t finish the book, so I don’t know whether or not math says O.J. did it. I did see the chapter about how many people one should date before settling down. It all boils down to a formula, and despite Strogatz beginning with a concrete example, it still ends up being really abstract. By the end of the chapter, I have a general idea of the solution (spoiler alert: it’s nothing you couldn’t have guessed without math), and still no idea of how to calculate it or why I should even bother.

A mostly joyless, shallow exercise, this book is hardly worth the effort.

+

Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris, James King

9781771022064Lawren Harris is my favourite Group of Seven artist. When I first moved to Canada, the three things I wanted to know were: what is Canadian food, what is Canadian literature, and what is Canadian art? I still remember the blank looks I’d get at the question about Canadian (not American!) food. Some blank stares as well with my other two questions, but inevitably, questions about Canadian art led to the Group of Seven. And while looking through images of Group of Seven works, I found myself always drawn to the works of Lawren Harris.

Later on, I would learn that he believed in theosophy, that he deliberately used light to direct one’s eye toward the divine. At the time, however, I just knew that I loved the cleanness of his lines and the starkness of his colours. His images were bold, graphic, compelling, and when I decided to buy a piece of art to hang on my wall, a framed poster of Lawren Harris’ Mt. Lefroy was the first thing I bought.

So when I learned that Thomas Allen was publishing a biography of Harris, the title went right on my TBR list. Inward Journey by James King is  an extensively researched, utterly comprehensive overview of Harris’ life. On one hand, it’s almost too comprehensive — in the author’s attempt to write the definitive text on the artist, the biography sometimes gets bogged down with details, and the narration seems more about providing information than about hooking the reader in.

On the other hand, while not a page-turner, at least for this reader, Inward Journey is a great resource for anyone wanting to find out about Harris’ life. King writes in an objective, journalistic style, presenting the facts of Harris’ life, his marital problems, his personality flaws and his fascination with theosophy, and withholding judgement. As well, King talks not just about Harris as an individual, but rather about the artist’s role within the context of the Group of Seven and the history of Canadian art. There’s a wealth of fascinating information in the book, and certainly, it’s great to see the extent of Harris’ influence on history.

The book itself as well is just a beautiful addition to the collection of any Lawren Harris fan. Printed on glossy paper with full colour reproductions of Harris’ paintings and other artworks throughout, Inward Journey is just a beautiful book, an invitation to flip through time and again, and just appreciate the works.

+

Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Testing, Joelle Charbonneau

Ever since The Hunger Games made it big, publishers have been churning out one dystopian YA trilogy after another. And not just any type of dystopian YA trilogy. Kick ass heroine? Check. Unjust government? Check. Love triangle? Check, unless the author decides she’s too cool for love triangles and fans proudly trumpet the absence of such. It’s almost as if authors and publishers want to cash in on a trend before badly written erotica takes over the market.

Often, the comparison of these trilogies to The Hunger Games is a disservice both to the new trilogy and to Suzanne Collins’ work. To compare any kick ass heroine to Katniss Everdeen discounts the depth of Katniss’s experiences, a level of emotional trauma, of raw, absolutely raw, honesty that I have yet to experience in any of these other dystopian YA trilogies. Similarly, to say a book is like The Hunger Games just because of certain elements is to discount the originality of these other writers and their influences.

9780547959108That being said, you get a book like Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing and realize publishers and authors aren’t even trying to distinguish themselves from The Hunger Games anymore. I see how jacket artist Sammy Yuen used elements from the story to create the cover, but seriously, anyone else take a look at this and get a sense of deja vu?

Then you get the story: a group of teenagers fight to the death to get one of the twenty spots in University, where a degree will get them a good job and lift their families out of poverty. There’s even a love story, though thankfully no love triangle: during the Testing the protagonist Cia falls in love with Tomas, a handsome boy from her hometown, but can she trust him? A Goodreads review called this Hunger Games: School Edition, and I think that sums it up pretty well.

That being said, I actually really enjoyed this book. Charbonneau writes well, and I found myself almost unable to put it down. I especially love the academic twist on the story — many of post-Hunger Games dystopias have gone for the high action type of battle, likely because that’s a natural page turner. In contrast, The Testing stands out by positing an intellectual battle — in order to win, characters must remember their lessons in mathematics, history and science. And while later stages of the Testing process test the application of this knowledge, the initial stages of competition literally have the teenagers filling out test booklets with essay answers. Imagine if Tris from Divergent had chosen Erudite rather than Dauntless (personally, I’m Team Erudite all the way) — finally, finally, in Charbonneau’s book, nerds get their moment in the sun. It’s not easy to make a scene with teenagers taking tests exciting, but Charbonneau pulls it off. 

My eyes are sore and my body numb with fatigue when I finish and realize the clock is still ticking. Ten minutes remain in the testing period.

Panic floods me. Did I answer the questions too fast? Did my hurrying cause me to give incorrect or incomplete answers? My fingers itch to open the cover so I can fix the mistakes I must have made. And yet, I hear my parents’ voices inside my head. […] Never second-guess myself. Almost always my first instinct will be the correct one. [p. 88]

I have always been a complete nerd, so this scene definitely struck a chord in me. How often have I gone through this exact scene myself? Charbonneau has brought the YA dystopia home.

More significantly, The Testing is a fascinating critique of the academic system and the pressures children face to do well in school. On one hand, it doesn’t really make sense for a government to, as in The Testing, force the best and brightest in the land to undergo potentially lethal tests, possibly even kill each other. Wouldn’t it make more sense to utilize the brainpower of all the smartest people in the country, rather than whittle them down?

On the other hand, I remember well the intense pressure not just to do well in school, but to be one of the best. Real life, thankfully, doesn’t have such deadly consequences… Or does it? I recently read an article about a Chinese man who literally worked himself to death. I also remember hearing horrific stories when I was younger of Japanese students about my age who would literally kill themselves over failing marks. I don’t know how the situation is in North America, but growing up in Asia, the pressure to succeed academically was intense. In some cases, it wasn’t just the pressure to get straight A’s, but rather the pressure to be the top student in the class — academic excellence at the expense of your classmates.

In a chilling moment in the book, Cia’s father warns her that even if she gets to University, some of her classmates might poison her: “Not enough to kill. Just enough to make someone too sick to sit for a test.” [p. 42] I know Charbonneau’s world is fiction, but can I believe this possible? Can I believe as well in the possibility of a government, of institutions in power, actually prizing that degree of killer instinct? Take a look at what politicians are willing to do to win. In the Philippines where I grew up, that means bribery, cheating, sometimes even murder. So yes, I can believe it. And that is why Charbonneau’s book, despite its all too striking similarities to The Hunger Games, is so powerful.

The violence is quick, intense, more like Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale than The Hunger Games in Charbonneau’s almost casual attitude towards the scenes. For example, a mistake with an intellectual puzzle results in a student being impaled in the eye — the students lies on the ground bleeding out while others are forced to stay in their seats until their finish their own puzzles, lest they accidentally view the answers of the other students. Later on in the test, Cia is horrified at having to use a gun, but another student stalks competitors from the shadows with a crossbow, seeming more like a comic book supervillain than even a Hunger Games Career tribute who at least were somewhat humanized by their alliance with other careers. Charbonneau’s humour is almost as dark and horrific as Takami’s, and the horror intensified by the fact that in The Testing, technically, students aren’t required to kill in order to win.

It’s unfortunate that The Testing so clearly owes its genesis to The Hunger Games — the similarities are much too striking to ignore. Because it is a good book, with a much overdue spotlight on intellectual rather than physical battles. It’s an entertaining read, and more importantly, a provocative exploration of academic pressure — how far will you go to succeed?

+

Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.