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The Embalmer's Book of Recipes (2009)
Ann Lingard

An unusual and intimate novel that follows three women: a widowed sheep-farmer, a mathematician who studies quasicrystals, and a taxidermist (whose included blog entries explain the title of the book). Each of them is an unusual character, both in the sense that they are somewhat odd people and in that they are not like most fictional characters. The sheep-farmer has a growth on her face that leaves her anti-social and the taxidermist poses squirrels as athletes (an old tradition I have always thought strange). Refreshingly, the mathematician Lisa Wallace is in many ways the most normal of the three.

Quite a bit of the book is about biology. There is a lot of interesting factual biological information entertainingly provided within its pages, primarily provided by the taxidermist. However, as this is a Website about mathematics in fiction, I will be spending most of the rest of this essay discussing the mathematical aspects of the story involving Lisa Wallace.

The most unusual thing about Lisa is that she is achondroplasic. Although she has some insecurities due to her dwarfism, she is much more outgoing and confident than either of the two other women. In an opening chapter we see her as a little girl, being humiliated by her sister and promising to grow up to be a "rocket scientist". Presumably, she was already thinking that in a field like math (or rocket science) your physical body is not as important as what your mind can achieve. [To some degree, I think that is true, and it is something that I personally appreciate about this discipline. Of course, there are some individuals in math who are beautiful and/or physically fit, but it is difficult to think of a field in which those things matter less than they do in math.]

The book includes just a tiny bit of discussion of what quasicrystals are and why they are studied both by scientists and by mathematicians. For instance, it says:

(quoted from The Embalmer's Book of Recipes)

Crystal lattices have who's called pure periodic symmetry in three dimensions . . . but then in the early Eighties, everything suddenly became very confusing because materials were found that showed X-ray like point diffraction patterns, but which were definitely not crystals. And they weren't amorphous solids, either. So they became known as quasi-crystals. Their symmetries were quite different, and ordered in different ways, they didn't fit into the two hundred and thirty symmetries that Lisa just mentioned. A whole new branch of crystallography came into being.

Penrose tilings are casually mentioned much later, but it is probably not clear to the uninformed reader that this is connected to the lack of symmetry in quasi-crystals described above. All together, there is not enough of a discussion of the mathematics of quasi-crystals to truly inform someone who was not previous familiar with them, but it may be enough to spark their interest and get them to look it up elsewhere. [If you're someone who is reading this seeking such information, let me just explain the basic idea, hopefully in easy to understand terms. If you could look at the atoms in a crystal like salt, they are arranged in a very neat regular pattern, like the squares on an empty chess board. The chess board has a lot of symmetries. If the chess board was infinite rather than having edges, you could shift it around so that a black square ends up where another black square had been and it would look exactly the same. Similarly, rotating the board around the center of any square by 90 degrees also leaves it looking exactly as before. That is what we call a "symmetry", and it had been assumed that all crystals were symmetric in that way. But, just as you can "tile" an infinite plane with black and white squares to make a symmetric infinite chess board pattern, you can tile it with "dart" and "kite" shapes invented by mathematician Roger Penrose, and the odd thing about that tessellation is that it does not have any symmetries. You cannot shift or rotate it so that it comes out looking the same. It is a non-periodic tiling. Completely independently of Penrose's theoretical discovery, scientists were discovering that some physical solids that they thought were crystals also had no actual symmetries. The field of quasicrystals combines these two into a single subject of research.]

The readers are invited into the minds of the three principle characters; we learn something about the way they think. I believe we are supposed to recognize that Lisa thinks geometrically. Frequently she has an image of "pale spheres" and has to try to figure out why she is thinking about it, running through memories of baby dolls with hair made of metal shavings from her father's workshop and a photo of (glass) eyeballs in the taxidermist's house. Consider also this passage:

(quoted from The Embalmer's Book of Recipes)

Lisa has identified the patterns and colors of events and conversations and has fitted them into a complex lattice, weaving them into places where they sit easily, each compartmentalised into its own Voronoi cell.

This way of thinking is presumably intended to tie in with her math research. This seems improbable to me, both because none of the geometers I know seem to think so geometrically, and because the study of quasicrystals is actually much more algebraic than it is geometric. (I wonder if the reference to arrows of different lengths radiating from a common point that Lisa imagines at some point was a reference to root systems, one of those very algebraic things utilized by crystallographers.)

Perhaps you're now wondering about the plot and how the three women's lives are intertwined. Lisa and a physicist colleague (who works on the more scientific aspects of quasicrystals) visit a farm in the UK's Cumbria Lake District to see the physicists former lover. The farm belongs to the widow and the former lover who lives in a house on her property is the taxidermist. We see each of the characters in romantic/sexual relationships, and we see them interacting together as friends. However, I think focusing on the plot would be a mistake. This is a book of interesting moments -- like the way people react to Lisa's dwarfism -- and big ideas (eugenics, the Foot & Mouth epidemic, and love).

The author has a few brief comments on her Website concerning her selection of the area of research for the mathematician. Click here to read it (and scroll down to the beautiful picture of Dutch tulip fields).

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Embalmer's Book of Recipes
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
  2. Delicious Rivers by Ellen Maddow
  3. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  4. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  5. Emilie: La Marquise Du Ch√Ętelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson
  6. The Queen's Gambit by Scott Frank (writer&director) / Allan Scott (writer) / Walter Tevis (writer)
  7. Mrs. Einstein by Anna McGrail
  8. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  9. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  10. Time Bends (The Students Tale) in The Rags of Time by Maureen Howard
Ratings for The Embalmer's Book of Recipes:
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Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

MotifAcademia, Female Mathematicians, Romance,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)