November 06, 2007

Long Division, Multiplication, Fractions and Complications

Fibonacci, fractal, and tessellation—they all serve to fascinate and bewilder me with lovely repeating equation patterns. Do the Math: Secrets, Lies & Algebra has fabulous mathematical content as well as a well-paced mystery, excellent dialogue and a realistic character in Tess. Tess is smart and thoughtful and an observer—but the best thing of all is that Tess is a girl, and she doesn't act like math is something she can't understand. Tess is a girl who likes answers to things, and math provides solid, knowable answers. Math is useful to express relationships—not just between numbers, but between equals and inferiors or superiors; boys and girls, parents and children. It's a clear-cut universe that Tess enjoys.

Tess thinks mathematically, and from her point of view, it's just possible that the weirdness that is life is something meant to be solved via equations—at least life in her 8th-grade year at Westlake School might start to make more sense if only people worked out as well as numbers. As the school year gets underway, Tess is realizing some new things. First,

a.) Some people are not equal. Mathelete Tess < Popular Richard.
b.) That statement is true, until the variables of:
x= a U.S. Constitution test cheat sheet,
y=3 perfect scores, and
z= a broken friendship
get added into the equation.
c.) Tess's two best friends may or may not be what she thought they
were—perfectly balanced with her—and actually might be something
else: incapable of keeping secrets.

Now Tess isn't sure anything adds up at all.

When her mother hears something very suspicious about the death of an acquaintance, and doesn't go to the police, Tess is left with unsolved equations. What if the only answer is DNE: Does Not Exist?

Is Tess just like her mother?

Are there some times when you should just say what you know, no matter what?

Is there a way to solve for everything?

Math helps Tess express her confusion at the world, her dismay at the shifts between herself and her mother, herself and her friends, and her view of the world. A touching, brilliant passage through the end of childhood into adolescence, Do the Math was pure fun to read.

If I can't be Tess, I want to be Wendy Lichtman, who is the author of this fabulous book about math, murder and mystery. Wendy lives in Berkeley, California, and says she doesn't add up the bill at restaurants any faster than the English majors, despite having been a mathematics major herself. Wendy writes thoughtful personal essays for the Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Good Housekeeping and other places. She's been tutoring public school students in algebra for years.

This review was first published in the October '07 Edge of the Forest Children's Literary Journal.

No comments: