Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
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****Angles of Reflection

A Memoir of Logic and a Mother's Love

by Joan L. Richards

Reviewed August 19, 2002.
A Sonderbooks' Best Book of 2002
(#1, Biographical Nonfiction)
W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000.

A big thank you to Stephanie Bauman for recommending this book to me.  I was entranced and thought it fantastic.

Joan Richards has a PhD in the history of Mathematics.  At the time of the events in this book, her two sons were almost exactly the age of my two sons.  And they spend a year in Germany during the course of the book.  Of course I identified closely with her!

The book tells the story of the months before their trip to Germany through the time there.  Dr. Richards was trying to spend the time on her research, trying to get a book written, as expected of her.  Instead, her time was taken up with her younger son Ned’s medical problems.

The first medical problem was a seizure and a brain tumor.  I kept waiting for this problem to pop up again, as it would have in a novel, but, thankfully, it is resolved before they go to Germany.  Still, in Berlin they have problems enough!  I could only chuckle with sympathy as she deals with the German medical establishment.  (I always said that coming to Germany with the American military was the wimpy way to go overseas!  Now I’m all the happier that, for the most part, we see American doctors.)

Dr. Richards finds that her role as a mother is seen as totally separate from her academic role.  For weeks, she actually had to live at the German hospital with her son, constantly frustrated at the thought of the research she isn’t doing.  Her colleagues were kind, but had no clue as to what she was dealing with.

As a counterpoint to her personal story, Dr. Richards presents information about Augustus De Morgan, the Victorian mathematician she was studying, and his wife Sophia.  She was trying to capture the view of life of Victorian scientists, including Newton and Leibniz.  She found that they kept their mathematical lives totally separate from their family lives.  Which made her wonder how to organize her own life as both a mother and a historian.

Ah, this is the great question!  Of course, reading this book made me wonder what my life would have been like if I had finished the PhD program in Mathematics that I had once been enrolled in.  (I confess, it made me rather glad that I hadn’t!)  This is a philosophical book, but I came away with my conviction all the greater that women’s lives are different from men’s.  Instead of focusing on one thing all our lives, we have phases and seasons and shift roles even within days and weeks.  Unfortunately, much of the world still sees our work through the eyes of men and using men’s standards.  (This is one reason I’ve always enjoyed working part-time.  Often I feel that my work isn’t taken as seriously as if it were full-time.  Can’t a person love her job and do good work, and yet have more facets to her life?  I wish there were many more meaningful part-time jobs out there.)

I’m digressing from the book itself.  Angles of Reflection is a warm and meditative book about loving our children and getting through when life doesn’t go as planned.  You don’t have to be a mathematician or live in Germany to enjoy it.  I highly recommend it.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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