The Tenth Muse

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 18 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

The Tenth Muse, a historical fiction about a young, female math prodigy and her journey in and through the traditional, male-dominated world of mathematics, on a mission to solve the Reimann Hypothesis (which remains one of math's greatest unsolved problems for 100+ years), is an unflinching, ambitious, an un-put-downable novel that drew me in, held onto me, and wouldn't let me go until the final page. Chung's writing is honest, well-developed, and thoughtful in its execution and the story, told from alternating perspectives and in some different time periods (Katherine as a young woman, then as an older woman), engulfed me. 

It's hard to put into words how wonderful this novel was. I recommended it to one of my well-read friends, a female engineer and about the smartest person I know, and I'm looking forward to what she thinks because if her response is anything like mine, this book will become a viral movement that snakes its way through the circle of intelligent women around the globe.  It's that good!

If an inspiring, honest, well-researched, well-written and edited, and gripping historical fiction is in your wheelhouse, then you should immediately put this novel at the top of your TBR pile. It won't disappoint. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Ecco Publishing for an ARC of this book! Will definitely be in my top 10 for 2019!
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What a wonderful book whether you are a mathematical prodigy or math-challenged. Just as you can enjoy a concert without being able to read music, the reader can take pleasure in the beauty and harmony of numbers with which the narrator tells her life story, from the vantage point of a revered math scholar.
Of course, it this story was only about math, it would have a much smaller audience. As in all good books this story is really about the search for personal meaning and being true to your ideals. The narrator takes us on a journey with many twists and turns; each time the reader thinks the last surprise has been revealed, we learn of another secret that has been kept, not just from the reader but from the narrator as well.
When we meet Katherine she is a very bright but lonely young girl being raised by a loving father and much less demonstrative mother. Her father has been injured in World War II. Her mother is Chinese and the residents of the midwestern community in which they live are suspicious of this family. It is a period in history when war with Japan is still fresh in people’s minds and distrust of unAmericans is growing. Add to that Katherine’s genius for math and you have a child without friends. 
The major trauma in Katharine’s childhood comes when her mother leaves without a goodbye. There is much her father could tell her, but he chooses not to.  This ultimately leads to an estrangement that separates Katherine and her father for many years..
In her academic career she seeks to find solutions to math problems that have challenged scholars for generations. At the same time she finally meets people who appreciate her for who she is. The question soon arises whether she can have both love and respect in her life.
Early in her story Katherine writes, “All my life I’ve been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What’s worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end we relinquish everything: I think I’ll hold on, while I can.” The book recounts her struggle to be loved or to to be true to her dreams. 
It is a fascinating story. How thoughtfully she takes us through her struggles in both math and love so that we see for ourselves the conflicts she faces. She is truly a remarkable character.
I read this soon after City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, another story of an old woman looking back on her life. To me Katherine is a much more sympathetic character with far greater depth to her story.
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This captivating novel was an unexpected pleasure. Yes, I did request to review it, but once I was approved, I wasn't sure I wanted to read something that revolved about my bete noire, math.

But there's math, and math. The stuff we might have struggled with in high school or college is the pale fourth cousin of the math on Katherine's level. This math is beautiful, artistic, exciting, and competitive as anything you can imagine.

In "The Tenth Muse," Katherine is both seeking to solve some historically challenging equations as well as unraveling the mystery of her own beginning. Set in the fifties and sixties, Katherine's faces a battle for validation of herself as a woman mathematician.  Her work is exceptional and some male colleagues feel it's fine to absorb her work because she has no chance to working as a professional mathematician. Even her father, a quite enlightened guy, does not want her to go into the field because there are so few opportunities for women. 

But who is Katherine? The woman she thought was her mother vanishes when she's about 10, and she discovers that her father is not her father at all. She's part Asian, but who made up those parts? A study opportunity takes her to Europe where she follows up on the few clues she has. The resulting story is very different from so many origin stories rooted in WWII, including not only racial prejudice, but professional jealousy.

Catherine Chung is a lovely writer, elegant and deep, and this novel, which mixes so many intriguing elements, is satisfying, intelligent, and un=put-downable.
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Thank you to Ecco/Netgalley for allowing me to read this for an honest review!

This was such a pleasant slow burn of a book! Even though it was a slow burn it only took me four days to finish. I didn't have an audio book either, so that's surprising. 

Characters | Katherine was a wonderful main character. She definitely had her flaws, but she was strong the majority of the time. I enjoy reading about a main character that isn't invincible. She trusted too many people in this book, and was pretty much burned by all of them. They all told her lies her whole life. You often think that you like a character in this book, but they end up treating Katherine like total crap. I just wanted to give her a hug. I even thought Henry would have stayed by her side.

Plot | The story is unlike any story I have ever read. I almost didn't think I wanted to read it because it was about math and mathematicians. It was almost intimidating, but it really isn't that at all. It's more about Katherine finding her family's history and where she came from. It also deals with her love and passion for math. Her life was hard to relate to, but Katherine was so down to Earth that it made it easy to read about. I wanted to be her friend. I wanted to sit down with her talk to her about her past. 

Overall | I loved this story from the first page to the last. I wanted to take in every word that was in the book. It was heartwarming, sad, frustrating, but very much worth the read. I recommend it to anyone that is interested. I learned a lot from this one. I'm so happy I had the opportunity to read this. It will definitely be a favorite of 2019!
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I put this on the bottom of my tbr pile because of the mathematics.  Big mistake.  While those who have a firmer grasp of mathematical theories probably had less of a tussle than I did with a few of the concepts Katherine discusses, math by no means is the dominant theme.  Katherine's struggles to be accepted as a mathematician and her hunt for her real parents- those are the heart of this fascinating novel.  How could she be any more of an outsider in her small Michigan town- a mixed race math smart girl whose mother disappears?  Katherine finds herself when she gets to college and grad school but she also discovers the truth about being the "only" in a tough field.  There are- don't worry- good guys (who happen to be physicists, btw).  This really takes off thought when she travels to Germany not only for research but also to find the author of the small notebook she's had all her life.  Post war Germany remains conflicted and there are no easy answers for her but golly how suspenseful this is.  It's very much a mystery as well as the story of a strong an intriguing woman.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. This is an excellent read.
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What a page turner, beautiful and mesmerizing. Katherine is a Mathematician, professional.  Half white, half Chinese number came easy for her from a very young age. Over the year we see as the odds are against her not only for her intelligence but also as a woman. As she gets older its revealed to her that her mother & father aren’t her biological parents. So, Katherine begins the search for her true identity, family and the career so deserves. 

Thought out this read you will be cheering for Katherine, page by page you will see how it all unravels. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung is an intriguing novel. So well crafted, I just couldn’t get enough.

Thank you, NetGalley & Harper Collins/Ecco Publishing, for this copy in exchange for an honest review.  4 out of 5.
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At the end of her life, a mathematician searches for the solution to a famous paradox while she looks back at her strange and beautiful life. Since it is told from the point of view of half-Asian woman in mid-20th century America, with deep family secrets and profoundly complicated relationships, this story is steeped in universal issues like racism and oppression. However, the delicate tone of the narration and the vividly described characters give this book a deeply personal feel.
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This reads like a fascinating memoir and i was totally immersed in her story. She makes mathematics fascinating and paints a realistic story of a mixed race woman struggling to make her name in a male dominated field. The ending felt rushed and some of the situations felt a bit contrived, but overall, a remarkable story.
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The often-overlooked Tenth Muse gave up immortality to become mortal, yet she is reborn in every generation. Her influence has been eclipsed by her nine sister muses. In some lifetimes, she is a creative genius; in others, an ordinary woman. 

The world of higher mathematics in post-WWII U. S. and Germany serves as the setting with elements of intrigue and competitiveness. Men have dominated the field with a few notable exceptions. Women have often not received due credit for their work, which has been usurped, co-opted, stolen. 

This novel reveals layer upon layer of problem-solving. Katherine works on math problems, relationship problems and the mystery of her parentage. She struggles against those who would undermine her work or take credit for it and deny her the respect and acclaim she deserves.

The Tenth Muse is my kind of book, but it may not initially appeal to those who don’t have an appreciation for the complexity and history of mathematics. Enjoyment of The Tenth Muse does not rely on an understanding of math or academia but some plot twists are more plausible if the reader understands the cutthroat competitiveness of some graduate programs. 

Thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of the book for my enjoyment.
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Written almost as a memoir, Katherine’s story unfolds in a first person narrative. Katherine is a mathematician, trying to prove herself in the male dominated world of 1960’s academia. At the same time, she is seeking her identity as a bi-racial woman. Katherine grew up in a small town in Michigan with her Chinese mother and Caucasian American father. Life is hard enough for her, but her mother leaves the family just before Katherine enters the tenth grade.  As an undergrad she is ridiculed, ignored or used by her male classmates and professors. Despite this Katherine determination garners a spot at MIT for grad school. There things seem to improve until she is called home after her father falls ill. While there, Katherine’s father reveals the secrets of her heritage and Katherine’s world is rocked once again. Her studies and her quest for the answers to her past lead her to accept a fellowship to study in Germany and a chance at the answers she needs.

The Tenth Muse is a thought-provoking and mesmerizing novel.  Written with beautiful prose and a strong female character, the novel is extremely well-researched and Chung manages to seamlessly weave the historical mathematicians into Katherine’s story. The historical elements as well as the mathematical theory are fascinating to read about, and Katherine’s struggles with her past and her present will keep you reading through the night. A great story whether you enjoy historical fiction, mainstream fiction or women’s fiction and a meaty read for book clubs.
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This story had a lot going for it.  I really enjoyed reading the history of the development of higher math.  Less to my liking were the ins and outs of academia, but I could certainly understand some of the prejudice there.  Chung definitely exhibited a chip on her own shoulder and couldn’t see to free herself from her own imprisonment of victimhood.

Just an aside … as a woman I’ve never “felt” victimized nor have I let myself feel prejudiced against.  When I was in an MBA program (in 1964) which had internships in NYC with the Big 8 accounting firms, a representative from each came to the school to make a presentation to our class and to interview students.  I was one of two women students in the class.  One interviewer clearly stated, “We don’t hire girls.”  

I neither felt victimized nor prejudiced against.  I simply knew that was somewhere I didn’t want to work!  And I moved on.

Chung couldn’t seem to let her protagonist move on.

It was a beautifully written book and was very interesting, but I had a hard time reconciling her worth with the problems Katherine forced on herself because of her feelings of being victimized.  This certainly echoes what one hears from modern malcontents.  So maybe Chung was writing for them.

The family saga was quite convoluted – unnecessarily so, in my opinion.  Lies and secrets were rife in this area of the book.

This was a very complex book and I found it difficult to review.  However, I enjoyed it and I will try another by Ms. Chung.

I received an ARC of this from NetGalley and the publisher, HarperCollins, in exchange for an honest review.
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Bernhard Riemann, German mathematician, in 1859 proposed the Riemann hypothesis, which remains unsolved to this day. “In fact, the Clay Institute is offering $1 million to the person who solves it first.”

This story is about a young ambitious woman who tries to solve the Riemann hypothesis. Set during a time when only men studied science and only men were given positions as professors. Katherine, the protagonist, is being told repeatedly that she could achieve so much if only she were a man.

Katherine grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the small town of New Umbria, Michigan. Even as a young girl she understood the power of what her mother was telling her, “that numbers underlay the mysteries of nature. That if you could unlock their secrets, you could catch a glimpse of the order within.”

Her father refused to talk about the war or his experience in it. Her mother avoided talk about China where she was from. 

When it stormed, her curiosity led her to learn about protons and electrons. From her mother she learned that she could get closer to nature by learning how it worked.

Her father sparked her interest in science, showing her little experiments. He involved her in his projects. At the same time, quizzing each other on Morse code and electrical principles. 

She receives scholarship from Purdue University against all odds. Her class on the first day is all male except her. And most of the time, she is the only woman in any math class.
She is told, “If you were a man, you’d have a brilliant future ahead of you.”

At the end, she is accepted to every graduate program she’d applied. It is then, when she first learns about the Riemann hypothesis.

The story mentions many historical mathematicians and scientists and their achievements. It is very brief, thus enriching the story and not overwhelming it. 

While in Bonn, Katherine meets another woman scholar, but in quite different field of folklore. She is collecting folktales for her new book, revealing an interesting aspect of fairy tales collected by Grimm Brothers and changes they brought in their retelling. 

It is a very interesting read, bringing a little-known mathematical theory, intertwined with a compelling story of an ambitious woman who sets her goals very high; in a time when it’s not on her side and she needs to work double hard. She doesn’t necessarily reaches the very top, but what she also learns might be even more valuable to her, the self-discovery, the meaning of life.
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A lyrical, mesmerizing, compulsively readable novel — I read it it one sitting. Written like a memoir, it follows Katherine, a bi-racial child prodigy, as she makes her way in the world of mathematics in the 1950s and 60s, while trying to unravel the mystery of her family and figuring out who she is and where she belongs, in moving and melancholic meditations on race, gender, and identity. In this staggering work that takes us from Michigan to Germany to China, Chung brilliantly explores the choices we make and the roads we take, and the prices we pay, through the lens of mathematical theories, problems and puzzles. It is unlike anything I've read — and I will be ruminating on the questions it asks for some time to come.
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Hard to put down. The book is written as a fictional memoir, and I'm a sucker for memoirs. The writing is beautiful and engaging. While there were some parts that were easy to predict, the book also had a few surprises. The end was not as satisfying as the first half of the book which hooked me in with anticipation of what paths the narrator's life took.
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Writing; 4/5 Plot: 4/5  Characters: 3.4/5  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.”
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