This Week's Reads

Steve Olson, Bret Lott, and Davitt Sigerson.

CountDown: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition

By Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin, $24) If you go into this nonfiction account hoping for a breathless, sensationalized view of the proceedings (i.e., cold sweats, intrigue, and sabotage—which in this case might involve stealing erasers), you'll be sorely disappointed. A chronicle of the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad, Countdown is easily the most level-headed treatment of a high-stakes competition I've ever read. Author Steve Olson uses the event as a jumping-off point for an engrossing contemplation of the concept of genius; and there are many teenage competitors who seem worthy of the word at the 42nd annual Olympiad, held at Virginia's George Mason University. In addition to questioning the idea of innate talent and tackling the thorny issue of why men generally outdo women in mathematics, Countdown assesses the sorry state of K–12 math instruction in America, where the subject is often regarded with a mixture of hatred and fear. According to the kids' coach, Titu Andreescu, things are different in Europe—including his native Romania, where "everybody involved in math loves math." Rather than floating vague theories concerning America's math anxiety, Olson talks to a variety of experts, many of whom are former Olympiad competitors. What emerges is a clear picture of an educational system that discourages "high-level problem solving" and pushes repetitive busy work instead. Thus, many Americans associate math with tedium throughout high school and into their adult lives. Unlike the popular recent spelling-bee documentary, Spellbound, Olson's book downplays the results of the big competition. Though the author gets pretty tangential (his mathematical asides address everything from Ultimate Frisbee to Mozart), he never loses sight of the six American contenders, who come off as relatively ordinary kids with a passion for quadratic equations and logarithms. Readers who've always viewed math as joyless drudgery will be surprised to find these teens turning problem solving into such a creative endeavor, as reliant upon the imagination as painting, composing, and storytelling. NEAL SCHINDLER Steve Olson will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., April 30. A Song I Know by Heart

By Bret Lott (Random House, $24.95) What Bret Lott clearly knows by heart are the people of coastal South Carolina, their dialect, and, most of all, the love shared between family—a love not confined to the South or any other place in the world. Heart is about going home. What would happen, it asks, if after the deaths of Naomi's husband and only son, she decides that home will not be in the Connecticut town where she lived with her family for half a century, not with her Yankee friends, but back in her childhood haunts? There, she's no longer a wife or mother, but just Naomi, now in her 70s and rebuilding her shattered life. Not crazy about this orphan, Lott, author of the 1999 Oprah pick Jewel, doesn't take any stylistic shortcuts. His sentences are thoughtful—long, dense, and rich with description. He doesn't give his subjects—or readers—an emotional break, either. When Naomi announces her plans to leave Connecticut, her friends could give her a congratulatory "Go, girl!," but instead they're betrayed and angry, shutting her off from their circle. When an old friend, frail and dying from cancer, shows up to seek forgiveness at Naomi's door, she instead slams it in his face. A pensive writer fond of concrete visual imagery, Lott can let his metaphors get away from him. Upon first driving home to South Carolina, Naomi notes the green vines growing all over decaying old shacks and barns. It's life after death—precisely what Naomi is seeking herself. Fine, but then he keeps describing things as "silver"—a cry, a breath, or an emotion—which seems to have great meaning to him, but doesn't convey anything at all to this reader. Setting aside issues of style (and rather leisurely pacing), Heart does have its rewards. Woven around Naomi's homeward journey is the story of another widow, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and her emotional attachment to Naomi. Least interesting is a side story—the requisite "dark secret" of Oprah-friendly novels—that slowly yet inevitably emerges about Naomi's past. Lott has chaotic holidays and impromptu moments of family bonding down to a T. His grace with these scenes is enough to make a reader want to dive in and join Naomi's family—or to make plans to visit one's own. KATIE MILLBAUER Bret Lott will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Thurs., April 29. Faithful

By Davitt Sigerson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95) Trish loves Nick. Nick loves Trish, but so does Joe. And they all love Charlotte. Not that Nick's finished with Johnny or Sareen either. . . . Confused yet? Faithful, the first novel by longtime record producer and music-industry executive Davitt Sigerson, is—despite its title—a veritable orgy of carnal activity. The base of it all is the relationship between well-bred London trader Nick Clifford and his slightly less posh bride, Trish. Though madly in love, it takes the pair little time to hit serious snags in their still-embryonic marriage. Namely, Trish's compulsive adultery and her undeniable pull to childhood sweetheart Joe Sommerville. In elastic, often startlingly resonant prose, Sigerson mines both the ugliness and the ecstasy of sexual obsession, dutifully following Nick right down the rabbit hole. By its very nature, obsession is, alas, bound to become tedious eventually. Faithful does sag at times, despite Sigerson's knack for ultravivid sex scenes. But what saves a good deal of the book—and what allows us to care about this group of essentially selfish, miserable people—is the introduction of Nick and Trish's little baby, Charlotte. Despite the often dizzying merry-go-round of sex and betrayal the adult characters engage in, Charlotte seems to provide a steady core of sanity and responsibility. Through Nick, who eventually moves to New York, Sigerson's riffs on parenthood are some of the most genuine and affecting passages in the novel. If there's no hope in romantic love, well, then, that's not the only kind of love there is. And it may not even be the strongest kind, either. LEAH GREENBLATT

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