March 14 – Pi Day Literature

Pi Day is an annual celebration commemorating the mathematical constant π (the Greek letter pi), the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Pi Day is celebrated around the world on March 14th since Pi = 3.1415926535…


Thanks to computers, Pi has been calculated to trillions of digits past the decimal point, and is called “irrational” because it continues indefinitely without repeating and without ending. (“Irrational” may also refer to the behavior of those who like to memorize all the digits as far as they can go.)

One way to celebrate Pi Day is to compose a poem in “Pilish,” which, as a website devoted to this art explains, means “writing a sentence (or longer piece of poetry or prose) in which the lengths of successive words represent the digits of the number π (=3.14159265358979…). An example offered by the site is:

“How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”

As you can see, the first word in this sentence has 3 letters, the next word 1 letter, the next word 4 letters, and so on, following the first fifteen digits of the number π.


Many scribes who try to master “Pilish” take on the rewriting of famous poems or works of literature. What follows is one of my favorites – a re-writing of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. The original is here. Below, you see it “rewritten” in Pilish:


Of Carrolls


Slithy toves, borogove
Gimbled there all out in strathwabe
Mimified and gyrified,
A rath is outergrabe.

“Beware a scrunch, a scratch, stepson!
Beware Jubjub, withstand a word!
Respect the Jabberwock and dread
Manxomian songbird!”

He, sword off hand, placement maintained
Thus to complete father’s grand quest –
Then waited, vaunting showily
His progenitor’s crest.

Therewith three swords he animized,
Before the creature, rumbling.
It was alive; its feelers straight
Burbled while whiffling!

The vorpall sword o’ vulcanite
Smote – snicker! snacker! – artfully
A headless Wocky residue
Yielded strength mournfully.

“Youth did it – O, praised fearlessness!”
He issued melodies, forthright.
“Death’s strike! O, day! Strallough! Stralleigh!” –
A-chortling in delight.

Borogove, strange slithy troves,
A brilligtime quickstep
Mimsy creatures, gimblified,
Frolicked on a steppe.

The longest works in Pilish are rewritings of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. You can see them here and here. I have included just a taste of what you will get with a Raven rewritting below:


A Poem

A Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary,
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap – the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber’s antedoor.
“This”, I whispered quietly, “I ignore”.

To accompany your reading, don’t forget to have some pie! There are some great and apt recipes here.


Happy 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939… Day!


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Review of “The Grand Sophy” by Georgette Heyer

This delightful romantic comedy set in Regency England has an unforgettable heroine in effervescent 20-year-old Sophy Stanton-Lacy, who comes to stay with her aunt, Lady Ombersley, while her father, Sir Horace, goes on a trip to South America. Sir Horace asks his sister not only to take in Sophy while he is gone, but to work on finding her a husband. Sir Horace would like to marry Sancia, the Marquesa de Villacanas, but Sancia has no desire to be a stepmother.


Sir Horace also contends that Sophy will make a good companion for his sister’s daughter, 19-year-old Cecelia. Cecelia is in want of guidance, Lady Ombersley allows, since Lord Charlbury has asked for Cecelia’s hand in what would be a respectable match, but she is in love with an unemployed airhead and would-be poet, Augustus Fawnhope.

Running the household is not the husband of Lady Ombersley but her oldest son Charles, 26, who is, at any rate, the oldest responsible male, and who inherited the fortune of his great uncle. Since the frivolous senior Ombersley managed to get their whole estate encumbered, it is Charles who now manages the estate, and “who calls the tune.”

Charles has the whole family on sort of a frivolity lockdown, in part because of his sobering assessment of their finances, and in part because of the influence of his fiancee, Eugenia Wraxton, a horrid person no one else but Charles likes very much.

After Sophy arrives, with her greyhound Tina; a parrot and monkey for the younger children; and her vicacity, enthusiasm, and refusal to act like a “proper” female, the house is in an uproar, but in a good way (except in the opinion of Eugenia). Further, Sophy observes to Cecilia: “Everything you have told me shows me that you are fallen, all of you, into a shocking state of melancholy!” And Sophy intends to do something about it.

She sets out to put everyone’s relationships to right in a very amusing series of escapades that show why so many acquaintances have dubbed her “The Grand Sophy.” For Eugenia, Sophy contrives a scheme that I can’t believe wasn’t part of the inspiration for “The Parent Trap.” And for the others, Sophy – with courage, compassion, and cleverness – devises resolutions that are quite in line with the comedic antics of Shakespeare.

In the end, all is well that ends well, and it ends very well indeed.

Evaluation: The skewered society airs and preoccupations of the wealthy are set in stark relief to Sophy’s irresistible exuberance, lack of pretention, and insistence that women can and should be able to do what they want. The dialogue is fast and witty, and although this is a romcom rather than a thriller, it’s hard to put down for wanting to know how these schemes of Sophy’s will turn out.

The only regrettable aspect of the book to me was a rather shocking lapse into vicious antisemitism by the author. Aside from that brief inclusion in the book, it will remind you of the madcap movies that paired Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, or Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Hepburn and Grant in "Bringing Up Baby"

Hepburn and Grant in “Bringing Up Baby”

The ending, while certainly chaste enough in the style of Regency romances, is not only hilarious, but veritably pulses with sexual tension and the promise of romantic passion.

Rating: 4/5

Original publication in 1950; this edition published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., 2009

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Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Review of “Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography” by Zena Alkayat

This book is part of a new “Library of Luminaries” series by Chronicle Books celebrating famous women in books that contain abridged biographies of the lives of the women featured.  


Frida Kahlo, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, is enjoying something of a cult status now, especially among those of Mexican heritage. Her embrace of Mexico’s indigenous roots and her dedication to social and political reform in Mexico, combined with her colorful clothing, colorful sex life, and bright paintings, have made her a favorite daughter of Mexico.

This small but richly informative book tells Kahlo’s life story, from her birth as Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, to her death at the age of 47.

The book pays particular attention to the illnesses and injuries which plagued Kahlo’s life, and which were so central to her life and career. At six, she fell ill with polio. At eighteen, she was nearly killed in a bus accident. Alkayat writes:

“A passenger’s package of gold dust burst during the accident and Frida’s clothes were thrown off in the collision. She lay on the ground covered in blood and shimmering with gold. Her body was pierced, fractured, and crushed.”


The accident left her bedridden for a long period, during which time she began to paint. But she also was left with a lifetime of pain. Nevertheless, she continued to create works of art, and to become active politically.

Alkayat notes that “Frida had an outward vitality and fierce connectedness with life, but her paintings told a different story.” They showed, either symbolically or thematically, “intense and tortured depictions of her suffering.”


In her brief lifetime she created 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. She also managed to have love affairs with a number of movers and shakers of the time, including Diego Rivera (whom she married when she was 22 and he was 42), American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Hungarian born photographer Nickolas Muray, Communist leader Leon Trotsky, and jazz icon Josephine Baker.

Her work has been called surrealist because of its self-reflective style and emphasis on the subconscious.

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo

This she combined with Mexican folk art which helped distinguish her work. During her lifetime, she sold relatively few paintings, but today her works fetch enormous prices at auction. In 2000, a 1929 self-portrait sold for more than $5 million. And, of course, she has become an important addition to the observation of Dia de los Muertos.

The watercolor illustrations by Nina Cosford pay tribute to Kahlo’s style, and yet are somewhat whimsical and suitable to the format of the book.

Evaluation: This small book is packed with interesting information, and will inspire readers to find out more about someone who continues to fascinate us as a woman, artist, and activist.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Chronicle Books, 2016


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Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “A Woman in the House (And Senate)” by Ilene Cooper

As former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe writes in the forward to this book geared to ages 10-14, “The total number of woman senators and representatives in America’s history is 296. That’s out of a total of 12,099 individuals who have served in Congress.”


Ilene Cooper takes readers from the first Congress in 1789 through the Congress of 2010; from the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement to a Congress with a woman Speaker of the House. She tells you what life was like for American women in the early 1800s, and about the trail-blazing women who fought for women to have the right to vote. (The 19th Amendment, stating that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of sex, was passed in 1920.) She continues through the eras, first introducing a bit of the sociopolitical background and then highlighting the females who struggled against sexism and racism to serve in Congress.

Many notable women are introduced to the reader: from Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress (in 1917); to the women who came to Congress to finish out the terms of their husbands or fathers; to Margaret Chase Smith, who served in both the House and the Senate; to Patsy Mink, the first woman of color and first Asian American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives; and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in the Congress.

Older readers may remember the colorful Bella Abzug of New York, known for her hats and her courage in taking on powerful men, and Millicent Fenwick, considered the inspiration behind Lacey Davenport, a fictional character in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury.

Bella Abzug (left) with Gloria Steinem (right)

In 1992, four women won Senate races, bringing the total number of women in the Senate to six, the highest number ever serving at one time.

From recent times, readers may recognize the name of Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president from one of the two major parties. Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Dole, Elizabeth Warren, gained national reputations as did Olympia Snowe and of course Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gabrielle Giffords was a well-known representative from Arizona even before she was shot in 2011 at a meeting with her constituents in Tucson. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay U.S. Senator, and Mazie Hirono the first Asian American female senator.


The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the most important positions in the U.S. government, went to a woman in 2006, Nancy Pelosi, currently serving as Minority Leader of the House.

The author concludes:

“Today, most American women have choices about how to spend their lives. They can be at home taking care of their families. They can also be out in the working world. Many, many women do both. For some of those women, their work will be in political office, helping to shape and make the laws of the United States.”

Illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley include both pictures and quotes accentuated by a comic-books style manner.

The book also features photographs, an appendix that explains terms, institutions, and procedures mentioned in the book, bibliography, and a chart highlighting every woman who has served in the U.S. Congress.

Evaluation: This valuable compendium full of photos, entertaining facts, and catchy artwork is an excellent addition to histories that are so heavily weighted with a focus on famous men. Young girls will be inspired by all of their foremothers who worked hard to break the governmental “glass ceiling” (an unofficially acknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities).

Rating: 4/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, 2014

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Review of “Today Will Be Different” by Maria Semple

The author had a hard act to follow after her terrific first book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and at first, I thought she might rise to the occasion. This book has a great start, with Semple’s satirical humor describing the narrator Eleanor’s state of mind, in which she vows this day (as you can imagine she does every day), she will be different. She asks:

“You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white-people problems?”

(She might have more accurately said “non-upper-class problems” but at least she is aware that what she complains about are things which only those with privilege, leisure, and money would consider to be “miserable”.)


Eleanor and her husband Joe, a famous hand surgeon, live in Seattle. Both 49, they have been married 15 years and have one son, 8, named Timby. (She explains that when she was texting possible names to her husband, her IPhone autocorrected “Timothy” to “Timby” and they couldn’t resist using it as the name.) Timby is possibly the best character in this book. Precocious beyond his years, his ease with life and adaptability helps ground his mother.

The main drama of this book revolves around Eleanor’s relationship with her estranged sister Ivy. Like the “multimedia” approach Semple employed in her first book, in the middle of this one there is a 16-page, full-color graphic memoir about the childhood of Eleanor and Ivy, supposedly created by Eleanor, a former animator. [In actuality, the charming illustrations were done by the artist Eric Chase Anderson.]

Eleanor is four years older than Ivy and basically raised Ivy by herself, which is the only explanation to this reader why she continued to put up with Ivy’s reprehensible behavior. Although this entire novel takes place in one day, throughout it Eleanor has cause to reflect upon past events, which is how we gradually learn what happened with Ivy and why they no longer communicate.

The ending gives Timby the last word on how their life may turn out after this very full day.

Discussion: As with Semple’s first book, she goes off on very clever riffs parodying many aspects of her life in Seattle, from the private schools to Costco to the evolution of marriage:

“Somewhere along the way… my marriage turned into an LLC. . . . Joe and I became two adults joined in the business of raising a child. When we first met, I’d have gone anywhere with the guy. . . We got married,and of course I thought, This is what life is. But it wasn’t life. It was youth. And now it’s Joe going to jazz by himself and me cracking jokes about how cold and erratic I’ve become.”

She gives a quick and cogent analysis of what it’s like to be the adult child of an alcoholic, as Eleanor is:

“…it means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can’t trust people, you’re hungry to please. Which isn’t all bad: perfectionism makes the straight-A student; lack of trust begets self-sufficiency; low self-esteem can be a terrific motivator; if everyone were so gung-ho on reality, there’d be no art.”

Eleanor fears Joe is having an affair, and provides a good summary of the emotions one might feel in that situation. She talks about how underneath the anger is fear, and underneath fear is love: “Everything came down to the terror of losing what you love.”

Evaluation: This book isn’t as amusing as the first book; there is more focus on unhappiness, and on the hypocritical and fickle nature of humankind. Nevertheless, it is imaginative, and often funny. But because Eleanor is so self-absorbed (one of the traits she hopes to correct when she promises “Today will be different. Today I will be present”), it’s hard to warm up to her. Further, her devotion to Ivy requires a belief that the primacy of blood bonds can overcome the most egregious of hurtful practices, which is a bit hard to swallow in this case.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2016

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