The Boy Who Loved Math

9781596433076_p0_v1_s260x420Budapest is a city on my bucket list, and the illustrations of that city by LeUyen Pham in Deborah Heiligman’s The Boy Who Loved Math offered a glimpse of its charm. This picture book is a biography of Paul Erdős, the mathematical genius who grew up in Budapest as a child prodigy who loved to play with numbers but had trouble following rules and completing mundane tasks – like buttering bread. Erdős did not like school and his eccentricities may have been hard to live with – unless you were his mother – but Heiligman cleverly focuses on his strengths and offers an inspiring and engaging story for children as well as adults.

As she humorously documents this genius’ idiosyncracies, Heiligman gives him credit for his contributions and many collaborations, spawning the Erdős number (which calculates the degrees of collaborative separation between mathematicians and Erdős – Einstein was number 2 – before anyone thought of six degrees of separation.

I have The Boy Who Loved Math on my list now for gift-giving and as a reminder to visit Budapest someday.


The Sojourn – National Book Award Finalist

When someone is miraculously saved from disaster, speculation often centers around why he survived, and how his life will affect others and the world.  In his National Book Award finalist story The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak  focuses on Jozef Vinich’s life, after his mother throws her baby son off a trestle and into the river to save him from an oncoming train.

Jozef’s sojourn begins and ends in America in this coming of age tale that follows his young life through the hills of Austria-Hungary, World War I, prison camp, and back again.  Jozef’s father leaves the Colorado mining town where his wife died, and returns with baby Jozef to his hometown in rural Hungary.  As he grows into a boy, Jozef follows his father to become a shepherd, and acquires the hunting and shooting skills of killing animals that he eventually uses as a sharpshooter when he enlists in World War I.

As the images shift to the brutal and raw horrors of war, Krivak’s descriptions vividly reveal how the war changes the boy.

“Soldiers rarely get to glimpse the maps of the high command and they maneuver out of discipline and duty to those positions where they are ordered, pawns needed to stand and hold until the enemy is drawn out and exposed, at the expense of the pawns.”

Rivalling Cormac McCarthy in his harsh yet simple descriptions, Krivak contrasts the savagery of battle against the intense single-minded purpose of its participants.  At times, the killings and maulings are hard to read, but the language held me to the page.

“One morning as I looked down at the river flowing below through a valley already turning into a tapestry of greens, yellows, and whites as far as the blue of the Adriatic, and back to the still snowcapped and windblown mountain range behind, rising all at once far into the Alps, I realized that I had no desire and no drive to fight anymore, no rage at having been wronged somehow, no belief in the right and purpose of kings.  I longed only to turn back and climb and begin life all over again in a place where I might find the peace I’d once known in mountains of another time and another place, and I wondered – if I could slip out of camp unobserved – whether I just might be ale to stay hidden and uncaptured until this war came to end.  But in the same moment this will to live overtook me, we were ordered to fall in, and so we shouldered our packs and rifles and set out like thin sheep kept in line with the promise of food and sleep, too numb to expect our slaughter.”

Jozef somehow survives the hellfire of battle, only to be taken prisoner.  When, finally, he is released and sent to walk across the border to home, he confronts yet another challenge – a young pregnant gypsy girl being attacked by soldiers.  The imagery shifts again – with another baby boy looking for survival.  But, to tell you how it all works out would spoil the ending.  It’s enough to know that Jozef’s father rescues him in the end, as he makes his way back to where he came from – his sojourn ended – his life yet to begin.

Krivak’s book is deceivingly simple looking – a small paperback that can easily fit into a pocket.  But the story is strong and breath-taking with images that will stay with you.

The Invisible Bridge

A scholarship to study architecture in Paris – a dream come true for a poor young Hungarian with a talent for drawing and an innovative vision.   As you start reading The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer will lull you with her beautiful descriptions of Parisian streets, gardens, cafes…so that you will feel you are there.

“September was sending its first cool streamers into Paris…the scent of it blew through the channel of the Seine like the perfume of a girl on the threshold of a party…”

But too soon, she reveals that Andras is Jewish and Europe is becoming Hitler’s – changing everything and the real tale begins.

The story moves slowly carrying you through the lives of three young brothers – intelligent men, with strong family ties, who start out in pre-war Hungary with potential.   Andras, the middle brother, is the fulcrum.   He begins his studies in Paris, succeeds in creating designs admired by his professors, helps his older brother, Tibor,  get sponsorship for medical studies in Italy, and mentors his younger brother, Matyas, a talented artist/performer.   He meets his true love, Klara, a ballerina and a fugitive from Hungary, living in Paris.

As Andras’s life intersects with others, Orringer uses her characters to provide a deeper understanding of how relationships changed as the political temperature starts to rise.   People can be cruel anytime, but suddenly Hitler has provided the excuse to concentrate on the baser instincts.  Throughout, Orringer inserts the historical events affecting Jews in Europe; Andras is not oblivious to the escalating drama, but is still surprised when his life as a student is irrevocably affected.

Shifting gears into wartime, Orringer seasons her lengthy descriptions with astute observations – “…it made [Andras] aware of his own smallness in the world, his insignificance in the face of what might come…”    Her detailed understanding of Jewish customs instills credibility, and Orringer uses an effective technique to keep you engaged: she gives you the outcome, then backtracks to how it got there.    As she explains, her lengthy and precise clarifications of architectural and military procedures mirror Melville’s summation of whaling – you want to get on with the action, but are afraid you might miss something if you skip through.    And, besides, the explanations are fascinating.   Be prepared to read slowly.

The terrors of war take over, but art and family help Andras survive. The title is taken from an illustration he draws for a comic-relief newsletter while trying to live through the horror in the camps.   Despite the danger and the consequences, Andras and his friend, Mendel, follow the success of their first publication, Snow Goose, with the Biting Fly, and finally The Crooked Rail – all cleverly disguised irreverent parodies (if you’ve ever read The Onion, these would be mild versions) with Andras’s illustrations on the forced labor camps. Ultimately, the price is too high for their attempt at rallying morale.

The description of the camps is sometimes too much to take, but Orringer softens the abominations with amazing insights –

“Andras thought, that war could lead you involuntarily to forgive a person who didn’t deserve forgiveness, just as it might make you kill a man you didn’t hate.”

More than the filth and humiliation of the conscripted Jewish work-camps, it’s the uncertainty and terror of the unknown that creeps in.   Each short leave at home gives him new worries – Will his wife be safe? Will his brothers survive?   Will anyone survive?  Memories of better times sustain Andras: “He could feel his mother’s power now as if it were all happening again: the red cardboard box of his life was flying through the air, and his mother had stretched out her hands to catch it.”

Just as their lives seem to be given a reprieve, it starts again – “given and taken away” – an unending trial of abused men and destroyed families.  Orringer’s grandfather lived through this time, and she has used him as her initial resource, but her research into Hungarian Jews and Hungary during the war is authentic and commanding.

This is a book you will not be able to bear to read at times, and then you will not want it to end – a haunting revelation of bittersweet anomalies – beautifully written.    Thankfully, Orringer finishes with a better future for Andras – life goes on – but the desolation of the past is unforgettable.