This book took me about a month to get through, and while I’m glad I did, I probably won’t be reading more of her work anytime soon. The book contains mostly first person accounts of former Soviets Alexievich interviewed between 1992 and 2012. The interviewees are primarily people who grew up in the USSR, often under Stalin, and are now living in capitalist Russia or other former Soviet states. Alexievich writes in the first chapter, “We’re paying our respects to the Soviet era. Cutting ties with our old life. I’m trying to honestly hear out all the participants of the socialist drama…”

Their stories contain a lot of common themes: the juxtaposition of hardship and pride they felt under Stalin and other Soviet leaders was one, the difficulty of adjusting to the new Russia and its massive wealth inequality was another. One passage I highlighted seems to sum up a lot of the book: “We turned out to be ill suited for the new world we’d been waiting for.” People who were taught and absorbed Soviet ideals as children and young adults had a hard time adjusting to the new paradigm. Their feelings of betrayal and confusion were ever-present.

And I think that might be part of why I found it so hard to get through the book and why I am not champing at the bit to read more of Alexievich’s work. For how long it was, there wasn’t a lot of variation in the book. Of course, everyone’s story was different, but the themes were so similar between a lot of them that I didn’t really know why I was reading yet another account of someone who had grown up Soviet and was now trying to adjust to a capitalist Russia. I wanted to have Alexievich as more of a guide: why did she select these particular stories, what stood out to her about the narrators? She was telling people’s stories in their own words and letting us draw conclusions and interpretations, and I think I would just have preferred a different book. I am going to try to find some further analysis or interpretation of the book that might help me understand it better. I was grateful for the introductory chronology of the post-Stalin USSR and the copious footnotes from the translator explaining references to Soviet and post-Soviet figures I wasn’t familiar with.

Side note: this book mentions salami more than any other book I can remember. After I finished it, I searched and found 43 instances of the word salami. The book is 515 pages long, so that’s about a salami every 12 pages. That seems like a lot of salami.

]]>- On our podcast My Favorite Theorem, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I talked with math communicator and letter-folder extraordinaire Katie Steckles about the fold-and-cut theorem and science writer Yen Duong about the math of cocktail parties. Yen and I both started our science writing careers with a mass media fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If you or someone you know is interested in science writing, the fellowship is a great way to get a foot in the door!
- If mathematicians were in charge of punctuation, there would be brackets around everything.
- There is a family in Michigan with 14 children, all boys. That is a lot of boys, for sure, but is it statistically anomalous? I crunched some numbers.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music by Björk/Tanya Tagaq, Carol Barnett, Tanya Tagaq/Christine Duncan/Jean Martin, and Elsa Barraine. (I’m really into Tanya Tagaq right now.)

- On the My Favorite Theorem podcast, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I talked to Chawne Kimber about the axiom of choice and quilting and Mike Lawlerabout financial mathematics and ultimate frisbee.
- I host the Lathisms podcast, which shares interviews with Hispanic and Latinx mathematicians. In October, the podcast featured Jonathan Montaño, Omayra Y. Ortega, Jesús de Loera, and Minerva Cordero. You can find all the episodes here.
- For Symmetry Magazine, I wrote about how and why astrophysicists are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to sift through the massive amounts of data in current and future sky surveys.
- They say you can’t be a little bit pregnant, but a number can be almost prime.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music by Valerie Coleman, Barbara Strozzi, Buffy Sainte-Marie, my good friend Monica Rasmussen, and Miriam Gideon.

- On the Lathisms podcast, we featured interviews with Erika Camacho, Federico Ardila, Nicolas García Trillos, and Cynthia Flores. I wrote more about the project and why I think it’s so important on Roots of Unity.
- On the My Favorite Theorem podcast, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I got to talk to Erika Camacho, who told us about the most addictive theorem in applied mathematics, and James Tanton, who had us playing with triangulations of balloons.
- If you’ve been to a coffee shop recently, you might have noticed it’s PSL season! So of course I wrote about projective special linear groups.
- For #womencomposerswednesday I shared music by Jess Rowland, Hildegard von Bingen, Kate Soper, and Anna Weesner.

- On the My Favorite Theorem podcast, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I had the pleasure of talking with two mathematicians who both liked fixed-point theorems: Vidit Nanda and Holly Krieger. Dr. Krieger’s episode gave us our first theorem repeat, which was very exiting for me!
- I’ve been involved in a new podcast project. Lathisms has started a podcast of short interviews with Hispanic and Latinx mathematicians. The first one, featuring Carlos Castillo-Chavez, was published on August 31.
- In college, I played with the early music ensemble the same semester I started taking abstract algebra. I wrote about how the math class helped me read the unusual clefs I was faced with in the music ensemble.
- The p-adic numbers are so weird! The numbers 1 and 2 have the same 3-adic absolute value, and 3 is smaller! But these numbers are surprisingly useful, including in the work of Fields Medalist Peter Scholze.
- A reflection on Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music by HyeKyung Lee, Kassia, Francesca Caccini, Wu Man, and Liliʻuokalani.

The blurb on the back cover of my copy says, “With his portrait of George F. Babbitt, the conniving, prosperous real-estate man from Zenith, Sinclair Lewis created one of the ugliest, but most convincing, figures in American fiction—the total conformist.” And that kind of seems to sell the character short. Lewis portrays Babbitt as this caricature of a conformist at the beginning of the book, but as the book goes on, he becomes more aware of the emptiness of his conformity and tries to push back on the expectations others have for him as this respectable real estate agent in a generic Midwestern town. He is a deeper character than he seemed at first, and the glimpses of his young idealism help shape that as well. (Though he does retreat back into conformity at the end, I think his treatment of people less conforming than he will be better in the future.)

*Babbitt* was written in 1922, and Lewis got the Nobel Prize in 1930, right after the start of the Great Depression. It’s interesting to see how this portrayal of the generic American city and amoral businessman does and does not feel familiar today. The language and race relations feel antiquated, but other parts seem like they could have been written in the past few decades.

Babbitt was a huge sensation when it was written. “Babbitt” and “babbitry” became common descriptors for complacency and materialism. In the reading I did before writing this reflection (including this lengthy review), I learned that it was made into two movies, one in 1924 and one in 1934 and that J.R.R. Tolkien was a fan of Lewis and may have chosen the word “hobbit” because of an association with Babbitt. Most of the reading I do is much more recent than 1922, and I’m glad I now know a little bit more about the literary landscape.

]]>- My Favorite Theorem, the podcast Kevin Knudson and I cohost, turned 1 year old in July, and we’re still happily chugging along. We are so grateful to the wonderful guests we’ve had and of course our listeners. In July, we shared episodes featuring Ken Ribet and Ingrid Daubechies. The latter episode forced me to make a very tough decision: when making possessive a word that ends in a silent s, do you use just an apostrophe or an apostrophe s? You’ll have to click through to find out which one I chose!
- Highly scientific suggestions for optimal s’mores-making, for Smithsonian. I did an experiment with water in a thermos to find the specific heat of melted marshmallows for this article. It got pretty messy.
- The International Congress of Mathematicians is taking place right now in Rio. I wrote about Stephen Smale doing math on the beaches of Rio and the role he played in the history of the Fields medal, which is awarded at the ICM.
- The bouquet of
*n*circles did me a big favor in grad school. - For #womencomposerswednesday I shared music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Carmen Barradas, Elizabeth Baker, and Judy Hauff.

- Kevin Knudson and I published two new episodes of our podcast My Favorite Theorem. Francis Su told us about the Brouwer fixed-point theorem and game theory, and Jana Rodriguez Hertz talked about noodles, dynamical systems, and chaos theory.
- In an art museum not too far from Copenhagen, I got a taste of what it would feel like to live in a three-torus.
- My favorite space of the month was Antoine’s necklace, which I like to think of as a way for a Cantor set to dress up and feel pretty.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music inspired by my travels: Norwegian composer Agathe Backer Grøndahl, Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová, Polish composer Maria Szymanowska, and German composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau. (I just got the sheet music for the Le Beau pieces!)

- May 16 was the 300th birthday of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi, who wrote a calculus textbook in the vernacular and then dropped off the face of mathematics after her father died and devoted herself to caring for the sick and poor. I wrote about her complicated life for Smithsonian. I also wrote about the witch of Agnesi, the curve where math students usually encounter Agnesi for the first time.
- It was football month this month on our podcast My Favorite Theorem. Kevin Knudson and I talked with John Urschel and Emily Riehl, both of whom are athletes as well as mathematicians.
- I revisited the Kakeya needle problem when I saw a paper about the Kakeya conjecture in finite planes.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music by Missy Mazzoli, Minna Keal, Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini (younger sister of birthday girl Maria Gaetana), Sofia Gubaïdulina, and Augusta Read Thomas.

I’ve started a monthly email newsletter collecting my writing, some of the things I’m reading, and a few other odds and ends. You can subscribe here.

- Math by the Book, a collection of some math book blogs.
- On the My Favorite Theorem podcast, my cohost Kevin Knudson and I talked with Jayadev Athreya and Nalini Joshi. Tune in for trees, numbers, complex analysis, and Burmese food!
- April is both National Poetry Month and Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. Ergo, it’s Math Poetry Month. I wrote about math poetry, featuring math poet and blogger JoAnne Growney, for Smithsonian Magazine. (Good news! Even though you’re seeing this article in May, too late for Math Poetry Month, math, poetry, and their intersection can all be enjoyed in any month of the year.)
- I’ve admired the excellent math writing at Quanta Magazine for a long time, and I was pleased as punch to be able to write my first article for them. It’s about how biologist Aubrey de Grey made a breakthrough in an old question in graph theory in his spare time. I also wrote a little bit about the Moser spindle, a graph de Grey based some of his work on.
- I also had my first byline for Symmetry Magazine, published by Fermilab and SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a physics research lab, not the Salt Lake Acting Company, where I saw a very enjoyable production of
*Fun Home*a few days ago.) My article is about the relationship between physics and math. It’s far too large a subject to dig into in one little article, but there are some fun nuggets in there. - I wrote about the Math Center for Educational Programs at the University of Minnesota (pdf) for the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. MathCEP won the 2018 AMS award for Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department.
- The Metonymy of Matrices, a meditation on literary devices and arrays of numbers.
- McGraw Hill Education interviewed me for their math careers spotlight column in April.
- On April 22, the Blog on Math Blogs turned five years old, and I wrote my last post for them. It’s time for me to focus on other projects, but I know the blog is in good hands with Anna Haensch, who has been writing it with me for several years.
- For #womencomposerswednesday, I shared music by Kala Ramnath, Aftab Darvishi, Inés Thiebaut, and Unsuk Chin.