The Tenth Muse

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 7 Nov 2019

Member Reviews

This was an enjoyable and yet, at times, underwhelming read, featuring some accessible maths talk, historical drama, romance, betrayal and a neatly structured plot.
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"No feeling is final" - what an amazing book.  
Reflecting on her life in post world war 2 Michigan, the main character touches on many points, themes and issues that still need to be addressed, from gender to perception of the world and beyond.
Touching, poignant and beautiful, I loved this book!  A great view of maths, the information in the world and how we process it and how we negate or ignore talents that don't integrate with the norm.  How outsiders feel, and how difficult it is to feel like you belong.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this ebook in exchange for an honest review.
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I really liked this! The main character was interesting - cold and not hugely likeable - but, because of this, fascinating. I loved the backdrop of the mathematics world, particularly the angles of the roles of women, and the terrible impact of the Holocaust. Well written and intriguing.
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Reviewed for the New Scientist website (text copied below)

“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified,” says Katherine, the narrator of Catherine Chung’s novel The Tenth Muse. “If the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true.”

The book contrasts the axioms of mathematics with the mutability and complexities of life. This is historical rather than speculative fiction, reaching from the present back to World War II and the mid-20th century.

As a child in 1950s America, Katherine is intrigued by nature and space. She annoys a primary school teacher by doing sums in her head, using a time-saving technique used by the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss as a child. (What is the sum of the numbers 1 through 9? 45, Katherine answers quickly, having added up pairs of numbers on opposite sides to give four sets of 10 – 1+9, 2+8 and so on – and the unpaired 5 in the middle.)

She becomes a mathematician, working on the Riemann hypothesis. Proposed by Bernhard Riemann in 1859, it is one of the most significant unsolved problems in pure mathematics – one of seven millennium problems with a $1 million prize on offer from the Clay Mathematics Institute. The problem, as Katherine puts it, “predicts a meaningful pattern hidden deep within the seemingly chaotic distribution of prime numbers”.

It also becomes inextricable from the unravelling mystery of Katherine’s own family history. The search takes her to the University of Göttingen in Germany, once a powerhouse of maths at the turn of the 20th century, and later, less salubriously, known for its “great purge” of Jewish researchers in the 1930s.

The novel is extensively researched, replete with the lives and work of luminaries such as Srinivasa Ramanujan, Alan Turing, and David Hilbert; the maths and physics it comprises range from the accessible to the esoteric. The characters’ dialogue tends towards the novelistic: on occasion, their style of recounting stories is implausibly similar to that of the book’s narration.

Chung, who has a mathematics degree from the University of Chicago, renders complex concepts with poetic verve. In one salient example, Katherine solves a question that asks how a boy, separated by a lake and ferryman from his lover, can send her a ring. The ferryman travels between them, carrying a lockable box, but steals anything inside it if it’s left unlocked. The boy and girl each have a lock with a unique key – so how can the boy send the ring across without it being stolen? The solution (which I won’t divulge) is elegant, and forms an analogy for public-key cryptography.

The book also highlights the pioneering work of female mathematicians Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. The only woman in many of her university maths classes – “a skirt in a sea of pants” – Katherine is determined to be taken seriously. Here, the novel is most trenchant: in railing against the sexism for so long ingrained in academia.

Katherine resents being underestimated because she is a half-Chinese woman, a prejudice that at its most extreme leads others to question whether her work is in fact her own.

“If you were a man, you’d have a brilliant future ahead of you,” says one professor.

One scene details a dinner party with the (real-life) physicist Maria Mayer. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963, the San Diego Tribune ran a story referring to her as a “San Diego mother” in the headline. For years, Mayer had worked for free because many physics departments refused to pay her.

There is no dearth of short-changed women in history – in science or in general. The Tenth Muse is keenly aware of how easily the past can be rewritten, achievements and lives subtracted.

The book gets its title from a “tenth muse” – an addition to the nine muses of Greek mythology, one who is unwilling to use her talents solely as a means to amplify men’s voices. The novel is an invocation of sorts, a panegyric to women who blaze their own paths, and tell their own stories.
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A life driven and dominated by mathematics.  And not everything is as it seems.  Her parents are not her parents; her background is not what she had been led to believe.  Her journey through academia, and to discover her origins is fascinating.

Not my normal choice, but I'm glad NetGalley gave me the opportunity to try it.  Very well written and engaging.
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There aren’t enough superlatives for this book!! I never thought anyone would make me interested in math, and want to read a novel based around it but Catherine Chung has not only managed it but made me long to still be reading it. 
Her prose is quiet and gentle, a lightness of touch and sensitivity over even the most heartbreaking parts of the novel. Katherine is a heroine I was cheering for from start to finish. I would have made different choices than she did, but she explained her motivations so well that I could really see her point of view and see that what she chose was right for her. For so much of the book I was questioning whether I was reading a novel or a memoir. I can’t think of many,  if any first person novels that have given me the same level of cognitive dissonance. 
This book made me proud to be a woman, proud of those who had come before me and struggled without the rights and opportunities that I’ve taken for granted. 
Read it, it’s beautiful and I can promise you won’t regret it!
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A brilliant historical mystery, following a maths genius' struggle to succeed in a male-dominated arena and track down her tangled family past. There are many different themes to this book, but Chung elegantly balances them to make it entertaining, helped by feather-light prose. I'm still thinking about the Europe scenes days after finishing.
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'“Like the world got larger,” I said. “No, like my mind expanded. Like my mind was holding the world, and the world was holding me.”  
“Your mind beheld the mind of the world,” my mother said. “And it recognized yours in return."'

Catherine Chung’s “The Tenth Muse” is an engaging, informative, and heart-wrenching novel about an exceptional woman’s life. It is told from the perspective of a much older and wiser Katherine, who speaks of her life from early childhood in post-WWII small-town America, through her years as a Maths major at university, covering her awakening to the wonders of nature and science, her struggle to be respected in a male-dominated field, and her ongoing search for identity and belonging, whilst also giving short introductions to important women in the field of mathematics, and highlighting lesser known parts of WWII history. The scope is mindboggling, but Chung expertly weaves all these strands into a thought-provoking page-turner. 

As a child of an interracial relationship (her father is American, her mother Chinese) with an unusual aptitude for maths and science, Katherine experiences a feeling of otherness from early on. From her primary school teacher shaming her for being too quick-witted in the classroom, to being underestimated by professors, both her race and gender only serve to increase the bias people approach her with: “Even now, I feel impatient when asked about what being these things mean to me—the expectation that because my race and my gender are often the first things people notice about me, they must also be the most significant to me.”

However, Katherine doesn’t get bogged down by this – she is a natural-born fighter, stubborn and proud: “I began to speak out of turn in classes, not waiting to be called on, but anticipating, jumping in, and asking for clarification. I had learned that if I waited to be called on, my turn would never come.”

Don’t let the theme of maths deter you from picking up this novel: Chung’s descriptions make the field approachable, and even fascinating – and this is coming from someone with barely any understanding of maths. The maths theme aside, this novel covers a wide range of aspects: questions of identity and belonging, abandonment, betrayal, a woman’s place in academia, family secrets, and individual ways of dealing with a difficult historical past. A thoroughly enjoyable read – highly recommended! 

Thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review can also be found on Goodreads:
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Don’t let the maths put you off! This is a moving and thought provoking exploration of identity, history, gender and love.
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The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
Published by Little, Brown UK
Publication date: 07 November, 2019

To say The Tenth Muse is a triumph would be an understatement. The writing is eloquent, poised, and fresh, all without the feeling that it’s trying too hard to be anything. It draws you into the world of mathematics with such ease that you feel you belong, even if, like some of us, you most certainly do not. 

I went into this book knowing very little about it. I’d read the blurb quite some time before I received it and beyond remembering that I’d thought it sounded interesting, I had no expectations. To be met with a story filled with so much emotion, insight—humanity— wrapped up in a plot that kept me turning pages was a rare gift. So often when I read, my critical (if not cynical) eye takes me out of the story, distracting me with what I think will happen, what I find predictable, improbable or unrealistic—this just didn’t happen with this book. I was captivated.

When I review books I normally focus on impressions, points that make it something I’d recommend or not, preferring to leave summarising to others (I’m spoiler-averse and this is also the kind of reviews I like to read); I find with this book I’m even more inclined to keep my review brief so as to leave the ground fresh for potential readers. I will say, I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone interested in literary fiction regardless of whether or not they have an interest in mathematics and, though I was given an advance copy for review, I will be purchasing this book for my mother as well as some friends. 

With many thanks to NetGalley, Little, Brown UK, and Catherine Chung for the opportunity to read and review The Tenth Muse.
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My thanks to Little, Brown Book Group U.K. for a digital edition via NetGalley of The Tenth Muse’ by Catherine Chung in exchange for an honest review. Its ebook and audiobook editions were published in June with the hardback edition due for publication on 7th November.

From a young age Katherine, the narrator of this remarkable novel, knows that she is different. She is a gifted mathematician during a time when the field was dominated by men. She had many obstacles to surmount including prejudice due to her interracial parentage. 

From publisher: “On her quest to conquer the Riemann hypothesis, the greatest unsolved mathematical problem of her time, she turns to a theorem with a mysterious history that holds both the lock and key to her identity, and to secrets long buried during World War II.”

The story is told in retrospect by the elderly Katherine beginning with her childhood during the 1940-50s in Michigan through her years in graduate school and the aftermath of the decisions she made while there.

There were times when Katherine’s stubbornness frustrated me, though clearly as a character she developed and had gained insight into her youthful behaviour.

Catherine Chung has a degree in mathematics and was able to clearly convey aspects of higher mathematics within the narrative for readers unfamiliar with its history and concepts.

I have always felt a connection with the Muses of Greek mythology, which is what initially drew me to the novel. While I found Chang’s story of the tenth Muse interesting, I had wondered if she would assign a Muse to Mathematics.

I found this an intelligent and moving novel, beautifully written and one to savour. I purchased its audiobook edition, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, to supplement my reading of the ebook.

I would expect it to be one that will prove popular with reading groups for the various themes and historical aspects it presents.

Highly recommended.
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This book is so beautifully written I’ve been reading it slowly to make it last. In so doing nearly had it archived. I won’t discuss plot as it would spoil it but I really hope it does well. I’ll be recommending it to friends and buying it for one.
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The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung is a novel about maths, mystery, legacy, secrets and identity and belonging.
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Interesting Engaging Emotional
I was apprehensive about starting this book given its backdrop of Mathematics. I need not have worried. The Mathematics is just a backdrop to what is an engaging emotional story exploring the journey Katherine takes from childhood in her quest to solve a mathematical problem. The issues she encounters explores issues of sexism and racism from her perspective. It is so very well written and engages the reader throughout. I would definitely recommend this book and will be buying it for my daughter.
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Although I enjoyed the story, this novel didn't fully connect for me. There were moments when the writing really shone, but also moments where it was pretty flat. All the themes were tied up very neatly by the end, and I would personally have preferred something a little more complex, but it was mostly satisfying nonetheless. Although heavy-handed at times, this is an interesting and well-plotted novel.
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The Tenth Muse was much more than a novel about complex mathematics, it was a journey of self discovery with as much grounding in history as current day. The historical elements, alone, made this a brilliant book. Katherine's background and that of her 'mother' was a view into a different time and the exceptional cruelty of war. A number of interesting puzzles presented here in Katherine's journey to find herself with the high level math taking a comfortable backseat. Fine with me as math is not a subject I excel in. Luckily, you don't have to understand the principles to enjoy this book.

Katherine, our talented, intelligent child grown to womanhood throughout the book, was a blend of contradictions as was her rise in math studies at a time when women were overlooked and dissuaded from careers in this field. The struggles she faced to be taken seriously and not merely a sidekick to the men in her life illustrates well the difficulties women faced not that long ago. Her personal life was a bit of a muddle, as a smart woman she was rather naive, but her desire to learn of her background was catnip for those who like a journey into historical persecution not just professionally but during times of war, as well. I really felt for Katherine and was as keen to learn what happened to her parents as she was. 

This novel was a subtle story but one with a grip of iron. I felt compelled to travel across the miles with Katherine as she unraveled the numerous mysteries of her existence. The Tenth Muse was a great find and one I loved reading.
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This is a book about a mathematician. In theory, that sounds very far from my interests, but I found this book fascinating. 

We follow the story of Katherine, a mathematician determined to solve an impossible maths problem. We go back in time to her childhood and time through university, as she finds herself and battles to succeed in an extremely male-dominated world 

This book moved a little slowly for me in places and I found the pacing a little odd at times. I was invested in Katherine's story, and enjoyed it while reading, but it was one of those that I easily forgot about once I'd put down and found it difficult to pick it back up

Despite that, the writing was excellent and the characters were well-formed. I'd definitely pick up this author's other work in the future!
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My left brain aches, my right brain aches, my heart aches. The Tenth Muse is an extraordinary story that takes the logic of mathematics, personal ambition and the highly emotional turmoil of family secrets and love, and overlays them to create an outstanding novel. A story that paints the most challenging decisions we would ever have to make – a choice between the things we love most.

Katherine has a gifted mathematical mind and from her childhood through to University she has always been disparaged and mistreated as she sought to compete in a male-dominated environment. Determined to never suppress her mind, her resolute drive to open doors into new mathematical revelations placed her personal ambition above all of life’s other fulfilments.

Kat grew up with a Chinese mother and American father but early in her life, her mother left unable to live the lie that she was Katherine’s mother and her parents were married. Later also finding out that her father wasn’t her natural father, set in motion an anxious exploration into solving the mystery who her parents were. This led Kat to Germany and secrets that stemmed back to the Second World War, a Jewish family line, an escape to safety, two mathematicians as parents and a notebook that she had instinctively held precious her whole life which was full of equations and mathematical notation.

What I found fascinating in the story was how well delivered the emotional and mental struggle in confronting unattainable resolution was portrayed. Kat’s life is often defined in choices between her very individual pursuit of ground-breaking achievements in solving mathematical theorems, such as the Riemann hypothesis, and the human relationship costs.

“All my life I’ve been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What’s worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end, we relinquish everything: I think I’ll hold on, while I can.”

Kat’s integrity is admirable and what she really wants from those close to her is to be respected in her ability to achieve her goals, without favours. She also wanted to be recognised as a fashionable woman without camouflaging her femininity.

As someone with a mathematical background and lover of literature, this double pleasure truly hit the mark with me. While the language is the utility of literature, mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe – Galileo Galilei. This is a novel that examines the determination of achieving personal recognition in mathematical accomplishment and the determination to uncover the truth of her background and family history. Kat’s character and principles are wonderfully observed and challenged, knowing that the right choice will likely be the most difficult path but she will have to live with the consequences.

This is an inspiring story for those fighting prejudices and those seeking encouragement to pursue their own dreams as a priority. The Tenth Muse is an enthralling story that I would highly recommend. I’d like to thank Little Brown Book Group and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.
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I wondered all the way through this book if it was autobiography disguised as fiction as the author and narrator share a name albeit with a spelling change (C/Katherine); a mathematical career and a Chinese heritage.   I am not a mathematician and so was surprised to read in the notes at the end that some of the mathematical theories described in the book are themselves fictional creations.
The Tenth Muse combines Greek mythology, mathematics, family secrets and romance in a superb tale which tells of the class, race and gender oppression and discrimination faced by the narrator Katherine as she struggles to make a career from her passion for mathematics in mid 20th century United States.   Parallel to this struggle is her search to find out her true identity which leads to new issues and surprises for her.
I really enjoyed reading this story with its many narrative layers and themes.   Katherine is a well described, flawed character who makes many errors in judgement about friends, peers and family, some of which resonate for years to come.

My thanks to the publisher via Net Galley for a complimentary ARC of this title in return for an honest review.
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The little know tenth muse is introduced to us at the beginning of this eponymously titled novel as someone who ‘said she did not wish to sing in the voices of men, telling only the stories they wished to tell.  She preferred to sing her songs herself.’  This statement sums up the struggles of narrator, Katherine, a woman who has to fight hard to be heard over the course of her life as a mixed-race female mathematician in the misogynistic, racist world that is post WW2 America.
This beautifully written story uses Katherine’s search for the Riemann hypothesis, the famously allusive unsolved mathematical problem of her time, as a vehicle for the exploration of identity, gender and race.  The more that Katherine uncovers, the more she begins to understand her own little-known family history.  One doesn’t have to have a particular interest in mathematics to appreciate this tale.  Catherine Chung writes about issues that are important to everyone because she writes about the need to understand from where we come, where we are going and how we can arrive.
My thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.
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