Book Bag: ‘Math With Bad Drawings’ by Ben Orlin; ‘Every Day is Extra’ by John Kerry

Published: 9/20/2018 4:05:12 PM


By Ben Orlin

Black Dog & Leventhal

Ben Orlin is a big fan of math. He’s taught the subject in high schools and middle schools in California and in Birmingham, England, and he’s written about it for a number of publications, including The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, as well as on his blog site.

One of the things he’s written about is the difficulty in teaching math well (including at times in his own classroom). In his experience, too many math classes “took a beautiful, imaginative, logical art, shredded it into a bowl of confetti, and assigned students the impossible, mind-numbing task of piecing the original back together.”

Orlin, who now lives in Northampton with his wife (also a mathematician), is looking to make the study of math both fun and illuminating. In “Math With Bad Drawings,” an extension of his blog site (of the same name), he’s written a manifesto of sorts that aims to use humor and clear prose to demonstrate how mathematics “underlie everything in life.”

The “bad drawings” are the little stick figures and colored illustrations Orlin sketches throughout his book to help explain subjects like probability and statistics. He began using those figures in his own classes to help his students better understand the subject; they were so amused by his artistic ineptitude that the lessons improved, he writes.

Orlin is very much an omnivorous learner and reader; in an interview a couple years ago, he said he could easily have taught English, history or the social sciences. He takes the same approach in his book, which looks at how math intersects with myriad subjects: truss bridges, Tic-tac-toe, baseball, the lottery, and the 2008 financial meltdown.

For example, he introduces the subject of the financial crash with a reference to the work of the surrealist artist René Magritte, who once drew a boxlike house next to two giant dice. “I think [Margritte] is challenging our idea of the home as an emblem of security,” Orlin writes, before going on to offer a basic explainer about how Wall Street shenanigans with CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and CDSs (credit default swaps) blew up the housing market.

“How does [math] manage to link disconnected realms — coins and genes, dice and stocks, books and baseball?” he writes. “The reason is that mathematics is a system of thinking, and every problem in the world benefits from thinking.”


By John Kerry

Simon & Schuster

U.S. senator, Massachusetts lieutenant governor, U.S. secretary of state, Vietnam war veteran, presidential candidate: John Kerry had a long career in government and public service, and there’s speculation that he’s not done yet.

But for the moment, Kerry, the former senator from Massachusetts and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, has contented himself with writing a memoir. In “Every Day is Extra,” published by Simon & Schuster, he lays out his life story and writes about the memorable people he’s known and worked with, such as the late John McCain and Ted Kennedy, his fellow senators.

It’s a long book — some 640 pages — and even charitable reviewers say things can drag at times. The memoir, “like its author, is reserved and idealistic and reassuringly dull, for long stretches, in its statesmanlike carriage,” writes the New York Times.

But Kerry, now 74, has plenty of stuff to write about, particularly his experience serving in Vietnam as the commander of a Swift boat, his later turn against the war, the change he observed over the years in the Senate’s culture — from close personal relationships to hyper-partisanship — and his work as secretary of state during the Obama administration, most notably on the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, both now jettisoned by the Trump administration.

There’s also a good section on his re-election campaign for the Senate in 1996, when his challenger, Republican Gov. Bill Weld, attempted to rattle Kerry during a debate by demanding he explain his opposition to the death penalty to a woman in the audience whose son, a police officer, had been killed in the line of duty.

Kerry famously drew on his experience in Vietnam to respond. “Weld’s debating ploy was obvious,” he writes, “but the mother’s pain was real… But I wasn’t going to lie to her … I continued: ‘The fact is, yes, I’ve been opposed to the death penalty. I know something about killing. I don’t like killing. I don’t think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing.’ ”  

Kerry won that election, but he would lose the 2004 presidential campaign to George W. Bush in part because Republican operatives sullied his Vietnam record, suggesting he had lied about it and was a coward — an allegation that still infuriates him.

“What still sticks in my craw is the way these men who served on Swift boats themselves turned the words ‘Swift boat’ into a pejorative,” writes Kerry. “It is an insult to the 3,600 men — 3,000 enlisted and 600 officers — who served as Swifties.”

Though the Wall Street Journal says Kerry “is not a sufficiently gifted writer to chronicle his entire life and keep readers interested,” most reviews fall more along the lines of the one by Publishers Weekly, which says “This book reveals a man of quiet, passionate patriotism; immense intelligence; and thoughtfulness.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

John Kerry will discuss his memoir Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Chapin Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, along with Jon Western, the college’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, and Carol Hoffmann, professor of international relations. For tickets and other limited, free seating, visit







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