Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin

The knowledge of all sums…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few years ago, Keith Devlin published The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, which combined a biography of the famous mathematician with an explanation of what his fame rests on. This book is the story of researching and writing that book, also telling the little that is known about Fibonacci’s life and describing his arithmetical legacy.

It’s a strange little book. It reminded me of being left with bits of leftover wool after knitting an elaborate sweater and deciding to use them to make a matching scarf. It feels like an amalgam of all the things Devlin would have liked to have included in his first book, but didn’t think quite fitted. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Fibonacci, I found it reasonably interesting since it gave me the basics about his achievements, but I’m not sure of how much interest it would hold for anyone who already knows about him, or indeed, who has read Devlin’s earlier book. Devlin starts with an introduction in which he describes his own career as an “expositor” of math in print and on radio. He tell us he is known as the Math Guy in America (hence the misspelling of maths throughout 😉 ). This is partly why he is so interested in Fibonacci, since he too was an early expositor of arithmetic.

Example: 6X + Y = Z
If X = chocolate truffles and Y = FF, then find Z. Answer below.

Real name, Leonardo of Pisa, (Fibonacci was a nickname given to him by a much later mathematician), his fame rests mainly on his major work, Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation), which explained the Hindu-Arabic number system (the use of numerals 1-9). Prior to this, arithmetic in the west had relied on an elaborate finger-counting system or the use of the abacus, both of which required a high level of skill. The system of using numerals was easier to learn and also provided a written record, hence an audit trail. Although Leonardo was not the first man to introduce this system to Europe, his book appeared just at a point where trade was about to take off exponentially in the region, so became hugely important and influential. Leonardo also wrote a follow-up book that included many worked practical examples, so that it could be used as a basis for learning how to use arithmetic even by people who weren’t interested in understanding the underlying principles. This was hand-copied thousands of times and was translated into many different regional languages and with the examples converted into local currencies, making it the most important text for spreading the use of arithmetic throughout Europe and beyond.

Monument of Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci), by Giovanni Paganucci, completed in 1863, in the Camposanto di Pisa

Devlin intersperses this information about Fibonacci with descriptions of how he, Devlin, went about researching his earlier book. This is sometimes interesting – Devlin writes well when, for example, he re-imagines the Pisa of Leonardo’s time: a trading hub, with sea-transported goods being brought into the town via the river Arno. But there are also parts where my interest level fell away almost entirely – for example, when he gives immensely detailed accounts of visits to libraries to look at ancient manuscripts, and includes blow-by-blow accounts of conversations with librarians about opening times, etc. Leonardo’s work was almost forgotten for centuries till a few researchers brought him back to prominence, and Devlin gives the story of them and their researches too. Again, these accounts varied in interest level, but overall I felt Devlin was trying too hard to make it seem more exciting than it either was or, indeed, needed to be.

Keith Devlin

When it comes to the arithmetical stuff, Devlin explains things simply enough for my decidedly non-mathematical brain to cope with. He gives some of Leonardo’s worked examples, which taught me two things: 1) I’ve forgotten what little algebra I ever knew and 2) thank goodness for Excel. However, I was pleased to see I can still usually get to the right answer eventually with my own elaborate finger-counting method (which also involves sticking out the tip of my tongue – a widely-recognised technique which oddly both Fibonacci and Devlin overlook), so this will undoubtedly be a handy skill after the apocalypse…

In the end, I suspect I might have been better reading Devlin’s earlier book rather than this one – the meat of the story for me was Leonardo’s achievements, and the rest felt a little extraneous. However, I certainly got enough out of it to make it a worthwhile and informative read overall, and the other aspects of it may appeal more to people who are intrigued to see how a biographer goes about his research process.

Answer: Z = 0
(*throws out empty chocolate box*)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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Book 4 of 20

The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale

Light and shade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Eleven-year-old Max is dictating a story to a Dictaphone his mother gave him, inspired by a visiting author who told his class that writers are people who ‘notice things’. The story he is telling is of his life, and of the summer in which the book is set. Max lives with his single mother and has never known his father. As a result, he and his mother have been very close, but now she’s found a new boyfriend and suddenly has less time for Max. To make things worse, the boyfriend clearly sees Max as a nuisance. Max is feeling rather unhappy and lonely.

Opposite lives Minnie and her older sister Clara, two elderly spinsters still occupying the big house their parents lived in, back before they sold all their land to allow a housing estate to be built – the housing estate Max lives in. Now they’re poor and struggling to keep the house in good repair. Minnie is also rather lonely. Her window faces Max’s and they often notice each other, and when she sees him begin to dictate his story, it occurs to her that maybe she should write her story too, in an attempt to finally come to terms with some dark episodes in her past. As the summer progresses, these two people strike up an unlikely friendship…

This is not a book I would have chosen to read, but I was sent two unsolicited copies of it by the publisher, so felt I ought to at least give it a try. So I’m as surprised as anyone to discover it’s been one of the books of the summer so far for me. It’s very well written and the characterisation is great. The journal format of both sections means it slips in and out of present and past tense, but always appropriately to the story being told at the time. Young Max’s voice doesn’t always ring quite true for an eleven-year-old, but his observations of his mother and his own feelings about the changes that are happening around him feel completely authentic for a rather reserved and quiet boy of that age. Minnie is also excellent and through her we get taken back to the past – ’60s, I think – at a time when the rigid class system in Britain was beginning to break down.

Max’s story is quite light – although he’s going through a difficult patch, Langdale doesn’t over-egg the pudding by forcing him to go through major traumas or by making his mother and her boyfriend actively cruel to him. They’re just a bit neglectful of his feelings and maybe a bit dismissive of his needs, but there’s never any doubt that his mother loves him. She’s a beautician who works in a room of their house, and a lot of Max’s observations about her and her clients are very funny. Minnie becomes a kind of surrogate aunt to him, offering him tea and sympathy when he needs it.

Kay Langdale

Minnie’s story on the other hand gets very dark indeed at points. In fact, there is one jarring note for me with the book, and I can’t go into detail without spoilers – but there is one particularly upsetting scene which I feel is more detailed than necessary and is too grim for the general tone of the book. It’s crucial to the story, so it’s not its inclusion that bothered me – rather that it is written too graphically. Otherwise, though, Minnie’s part of the book gives it depth and an adult voice, and the two stories together provide an excellent balance of light and shade.

Made me laugh, made me cry, and left me smiling – what more could you ask for really? Definitely a surprise hit and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone who likes a well written, character driven story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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Book 3 of 20

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

Spooky but short…

😀 😀 😀

Our narrator is a screenwriter who had a big success with his last film – a light buddy movie. Now he’s under pressure to come up with a script for a follow-up and he’s struggling. So he takes his wife and young daughter to an isolated house in the mountains of Germany where he hopes he’ll be able to write. But the house seems to have been built on some kind of nexus that distorts space and reality, and people have disappeared from it before…

This is a pretty standard scary story, made fun by the quality of the writing and the elements of humour. Our narrator is not exactly likeable – he likes to think of himself pretentiously as an artist although his successful screenplay seems to have been nothing more than a bit of fluff, as his wife is kind enough to point out. He might also not be reliable – he’s under stress, his marriage is rocky and it’s possible these things are causing him to imagine things. But it’s also possible that strange things really are happening – he believes they are anyway. And as the book progresses, the strange things become increasingly spooky, creating a real spine-tingling atmosphere of mild horror. It’s entirely gore and violence free, and largely incomprehensible being loosely based on quantum thingamajigs or something, but there are some lovely moments of real suspense. Kehlmann also plays with many of the clichés of horror – the isolated house, strange villagers giving omens of doom in curious dialects, and so on.

Daniel Kehlmann

Overall it’s a highly entertaining horror story, but no more than that. It’s also very short – by my reckoning probably 80 pages or so (I was reading on Kindle). I’d think of it more as a longish short story than even a novella. And yet it’s being marketed and priced as if it were a novel. If I read this in an anthology I’d be giving it 5 stars for sure. But if I’d paid full book price for it, I’d be feeling extremely short-changed round about now. I’m not sure what the publisher is thinking of really. So I enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it as one to purchase until it’s priced as what it is – a single short story. However, if you stumble across it on offer anywhere, then it’s well worth a read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Book 2 of 20

TBR Thursday 126… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Last time I mentioned that I had a new system for cutting back on review books – namely, that before I click request on NetGalley or Amazon Vine, I ask myself “Would you really rather be reading this than one of the books you already own?” This has actually been working well (though the figures don’t show it yet, mainly because so many publishers have been kindly providing me with books for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, which I greatly appreciate). So I’ve now extended that principle to my wishlist which had got out of hand again, resulting in a massive cull of some of the many books on there that I can’t convince myself are must-reads. I’ll be culling even more deeply over the next few months…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve been on quite a few journeys since then…


I haven’t visited any of the places on the Main Journey this quarter but I’ve made a few detours to some less frequented parts of my fictional world. Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno told me stories of war and love in Soviet Russia and Chechnya, so I’m declaring it for Chechnya on the grounds that I’m more likely to visit Russia again. Then Kanae Minato took me to Japan to witness the after-effects of a murder in Penance. Off for a brief visit to Beijing in the company of Peter May for murder and strange traditions in The Ghost Marriage. Colm Tóibín transported me through space and time to ancient Greece in House of Names – more murders, not to mention human sacrifice! And to finish, a different war – Scott Turow’s Testimony is set partly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and partly in the Hague at the war crimes tribunal. Hmm, declaring it for Bosnia, I think…

Maybe next quarter I’ll try to do a trip that involves a little less death and mayhem and a little more sun, sea and sand…

To see how I’m doing on the Main Journey plus all the detours so far, click here.

35 down, 45 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

Four off my Classics Club list this quarter, making a total of 10 in the first year – getting way behind schedule now! But I have several of the shorter ones planned for over the summer, and then will get into some of the chunkier ones over autumn and winter…

7. The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – 3½ stars for a tragedy that left me disappointingly unmoved even though I admired the prose.

8. The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells – 5 stars! Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

9. The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – another 5 star read, taking us on a thrilling adventure in the Pennsylvanian coalfields where the infamous Scowrer gang control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder!

10. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore – 4 stars for this historical fiction about love and the infamous Doone gang in rural England. Coma-inducingly slow start, but worth it in the end…

I’m also making one change to my list. I’m removing William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – having read some reviews, I’ve gone totally off the idea. And I’m replacing it with We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which a couple of people have recommended to me both as an excellent book in its own right and as relevant to the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

10 down, 80 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Just two reviews from the main list this quarter, but since they’re the two massive histories, I’m quite satisfied with that. I’ve also finished reading Doctor Zhivago and Lenin The Dictator, but haven’t reviewed them yet, so they’ll be included in the next round-up. To see the full challenge, click here.

3. History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky – an extremely detailed and occasionally biased account of the events of 1917. A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. 5 stars.

4. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes. This is an exceptional book – an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. 5 stars.

I’m adding another book that wasn’t on the original list:-

5. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Although this isn’t about the Revolution itself, it has much to say about the USSR and Russia from 1937, under Stalin, to more or less the present day, but this time in fictional form. Another great book – 5 stars.

Finally, I’ve decided I can’t face Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916, which I included on the original list. So I’m replacing it with a biography of Rasputin which I suspect will be much more fun.

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20 Books of Summer

But there’s still two full months to go, right? Ooh, look! A diversionary tactic!

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Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀

TBR Thursday 122 – The 20 Books of Summer 2017 List and Poll

It’s that time again…!

Cathy at 746 Books is again hosting her 20 Books of Summer Challenge this year, and after much swithering I’ve decided I can’t resist the opportunity to make a list! The reason I was a bit reluctant is that, in the last two years, participating has left me with a huge backlog of review books and I feel as if I’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. So I had a brainwave! (Which, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often…)

I shall read twenty review copies!

I currently have 35 outstanding (tragically, it was only 34 when I started drafting this post…) – many new ones that will be being published over the next few months, and a smaller pile of old ones that have fallen by the wayside and frankly might never be read – my enthusiasm for some of them has waned. If I read twenty and restrict myself severely from adding more, I should in theory end the summer feeling more on top of the TBR and with the way clear to keep going with my various other challenges. Sounds like a plan, eh?

(Oh, shut up, Rabbie!)

Since some of the blurbs have already appeared on TBR posts and the rest will appear on future ones, I’m merely listing the titles and authors and linking them to Goodreads. I have nineteen scheduled so far and then need your help picking number 20…

The 19…

  1. The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale
  2. Miraculous Mysteries ed. Martin Edwards
  3. The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns – abandoned
  4. Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin
  5. Based on a True Story by Delphine di Vigan – abandoned
  6. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
  7. The Long Drop by Denise Mina
  8. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  9. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths ed. Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia
  10. The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – abandoned
  11. Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
  12. Continental Crimes ed. By Martin Edwards
  13. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
  14. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
  15. The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
  16. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
  17. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – abandoned
  18. Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar
  19. The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

The Poll

OK, the ones left on my list of unread review copies are mostly older ones that I’ve been ignoring for ages in favour of newer, shinier baubles. So I’m asking for your help in choosing one and telling me why you think I should reignite my enthusiasm for it! Here are the contenders:-

On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.

* * * * *

For five years Priest’s Island has guarded the mystery of Max Wheeler’s disappearance. In this isolated township on the edge of the Atlantic, there are no secrets — except what really happened to fourteen-year-old Max. Now Cal McGill has taken up the quest. A grieving father, a community riven by tragedy — and resentful of the suspicion — all make a powderkeg of secrets and vengeance ready to explode.

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Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her. It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life.

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Ten years ago, fourteen-year-old Scarlett Rainsford vanished without a trace during a family holiday to Greece. Not being able to find Scarlett was one of the biggest regrets of DCI Louisa Smith’s career and when Scarlett is discovered back in her home town after all this time, Lou is determined to find out what happened to her and why she remained hidden for so long. Was she abducted or did she run away?

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Les, a long-time sheriff nearing retirement, contends with the ravages of poverty and crystal meth in his small Appalachian town. Becky, a park ranger, arrives in this remote patch of North Carolina hoping to ease the anguish of a harrowing past. Searching for tranquility amid the verdant stillness, she finds solace in poetry and the splendor of the land. A vicious crime will plunge both sheriff and ranger into deep and murky waters…

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Thanks in advance for voting! I shall announce the winner on my next TBR Thursday post.

And whatever your own reading plans are…