Two quick little books that I slipped in between some of the big events--
"Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical, Mathematical, Logical Life" by Robin Wilson. There have been many biographies of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. You can also find plenty of critiques and studies of the "Alice" books, as well as books about his work as a photographer (it's been said that even if he'd never written a word, he'd be remembered as one of the pioneering photographers of the 19th century). Wilson's book, though, focuses on Dodgson's mathematical publications. A math prodigy, he spent his life at Oxford as a lecturer in math. His position required him to take holy orders and never marry; he seemingly was never tempted to the latter, and as for being a church man, he didn't progress beyond being a deacon, a peculiarity that has spawned many theories that are beyond the scope of the book in question (something to save for a rainy April day, perhaps).
I am math-challenged, to put it kindly, so I really didn't understand any of the problems and puzzles included here other than a few of the most simple ones, and the sections on cryptography and logic (the only reason I didn't fail geometry in high school was because my teacher decided to squeeze in a logic unit, something for which I seem to have an inexplicable affinity). But I always loved the Alice books and having read other biographies of Dodgson, I know he was a prolific and enormously entertaining letter writer who could put an absurdist spin on even the dullest topic. So any book that contains excerpts from his correspondence is bound to make me happy. If you understand math, you'll no doubt find fun in the math sections of this book; if you don't, but do enjoy collecting eminent Victorians, you'll enjoy reading about Dodgson in Wilson's neatly sketched out biography between the puzzles.
I'll leave you with one of the puzzles that I understood. No one is sure of who originated it, but the suspicion is that it was Dodgson:
"The 1089 Puzzle"
"Write down any three-digit number in which the first and last digits differe by more than 1. Reverse it, and subtract the smaller number from the larger. Reverse the answer and add the two last amounts together. The number is always 1089, whatever number you started with."
Start with: 851
Reverse it: 158
Subtract the smaller from the larger: 851-158 = 693
Reverse this: 396
Add these last two numbers: 693 + 396 = 1089
Now try it with your own number!
And just for more fun, don't forget "the liar paradox," from 6th century BC Cretan poet, Epimenides: "All Cretans are liars." The paradox? Epimenides is a Cretan, so if his statement is true, he must be a liar because he is Cretan; if his statement is a lie, as it should be because he is a Cretan, then he is actually telling the truth. I bring this up because I was in a musical once that had Epimenides as a character and managed not to include the liar paradox. Don't ask me what it was about because it had the second most incomprehensible book of any show that I've ever been in. However, the music was fantastic and I loved every minute of the show because singing the score was such a joy. I still find myself singing songs from it sometimes.
"Little Heathens" by Mildred Kalish. This is sort of a Great Depression version of "Little House in the Big Woods." Don't know what I mean by that? Let me explain. "Big Woods" was the first of the famous "Little House on the Prairie" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Set in Wisconsin, before the family moved to the prairie, Laura is only about five years old, and the book, written very simply, basically details everyday chores on the farm--no drama, not much with characters, few moments that could be called even marginally epic. I've heard some kids complain that it should really be called, "How to Bake Bread," "How to Do Laundry," "How to Make Cheese," "How to Make Maple Syrup." If you're a kid looking for a great story, it's not the book for you. If you're the kind of kid who is curious about how people lived during other time periods, though, then it's absolutely perfect, a great rainy afternoon book. Of course I was one of those kids (I'm still hoping to get a chance to make maple syrup).
So that's what I mean--Kalish's book is also low on plot, but full of detail about life on a farm during the 1930s--you could call it, "How to Pick Beans" "How to Reuse Socks" "How to Kill a Chicken" (could've lived without that one), "How to Have Fun Without the Internet or TV," and so on. There are the occasional small dramatic moments--a big snowstorm, local gossip, and eccentric characters--but the heart of the book is the sections on picking berries, spur of the moment picnics, and playing outside on a homemade golf courses or using a bat hand-carved by a relative to play baseball. Kalish writes like an English teacher on her best, most careful behavior; you can almost picture the text written in longhand on ruled paper. But that suits a book about a simpler time, and it's a calm, easy read for days when life seems too complicated. I wouldn't advocate a return to the "good old days," because I always suspect the good old days were never as good as they sound when someone else is talking about them. But with a hint of spring in the air, and the promise of summer, I do wish a little bit for a world in which my biggest responsibility of the day is picking berries for a pie, and where an evening out means sitting on a porch, watching fireflies.