The funny business of change

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Caroline Leavitt
August 3, 2008

Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss
By Danica McKellar
Hudson Street, 335 pp., $24.95

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . : Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
By Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein Penguin, 224 pp., paperback, $12

A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know From Watching Television
By Jeff Alexander Berkley, 272 pp., paperback, $14

Laughter can defuse tense situations, bring people closer, and yep, here, in three exhilarating books, it can make any kind of serious personal growth a blast.

For many people, algebra equals anxiety. That's a common enough equation, but for girls there's another factor, in that they still don't feel encouraged to excel in math, and many still worry that boys won't like them if they do. Enter Danica McKellar - an actress on "The Wonder Years" and "The West Wing," and a math genius to boot - to deal with this inequality in "Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss." McKellar's message isn't just to clear up math confusion, but to encourage teenage girls to claim their smarts and their power, and to realize that math is a stepping-stone to any number of incredible careers.

Every page of this winning book is lively and interesting, filled with quotes from teenagers about their successes in math, zippy little drawings, and short-cuts for solving even the thorniest math problems. There are testimonials from "cool nerds" like Stephanie Perry, the financial editor of Essence magazine; sections on how to beat stress; and even pop quizzes on whether your friends are really supportive. And of course, there is the math. To help young mathematicians, McKellar makes math user-friendly, comparing integers to mints and variables to blind dates, and her explanations of difficult algebra equations are clear and to the point. She even shows girls the best way to study, advising them to save time by focusing only on what they might need a cheat sheet for.

Math may not seem cool in school for girls, but as McKellar shows with profiles of fabulous and successful women, it is smart, exciting, and glamorous. Don't dumb yourself down, McKellar urges. Study now, and later, she promises, any math-addicted girl will want to kiss herself for caring enough to learn - and kiss her math, too.

The word "philosophy" doesn't exactly conjure up the image of a barrel of monkeys, but you may change your mind when you delve into the exuberant "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . ." Authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, both Harvard philosophy grads, realized that jokes present the same concepts as metaphysics, existentialism, relativity, and more, resulting in a book that teaches philosophy with a laugh track.

Jokes, say the authors, tease the mind the same way philosophy does, revealing hidden truths. What is the meaning of life? Is there a god? And what is philosophy? Get ready to laugh as you learn. Each chapter has a zany introduction from two fictional Greek scholars who banter about some aspect of philosophy, setting the scene for the nuggets of wisdom to come. The authors explain Kant's moral imperative, tell you why Pascal's wager is known as hedging your bets, and, best of all, show why and how philosophy has meaning and merit in how we choose to live.

What's so exciting about this book is the effortless way the jokes, by turn ribald, sly, and hilarious, smooth the path to a deeper understanding of our place in society. Irresistibly funny, this book is a terrific way to broaden your outlook and become a deeper thinker to boot.

Can we learn valuable life lessons and self-improvement from the idiot box? Don't touch that dial, because yes, we can, says TV critic Jeff Alexander in "A TV Guide to Life." In fresh, funny prose, Alexander acts as "the reader's shaman," interpreting popular shows (he concentrates on those that are purely entertainment) and pulling out the important story points we could all live by - or avoid at all costs. TV, he suggests, actually conveys messages opposite to those that life does: It's fine to get into office romances ("The Office"), death is not permanent ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), and people always show up uninvited at your apartment and no one ever has any locks to stop them ("Seinfeld").

From friends to love to family and work, Alexander skewers the way life is presented on TV. By picking apart the unreality of how these things unfold on TV, he urges readers to start to recognize the things in life that really do work, and how to keep them humming along. He also says we can read a country's mood by the shows that it prefers. I can see his point. "The Twilight Zone" aired during the Cold War years, and now we have the friendly-serial-killer show, "Dexter," and what might that tell you about what we value today?

At the end of each chapter, Alexander supplies what he calls "learning experiences," hilarious prompts to get readers thinking about their own lives and values, which hopefully are different than the ones they learn on popular TV. Reading this self-helper in spite of itself, you might have too much fun to notice just how much you're learning.

Caroline Leavitt's new novel, "Breathe," will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She can be reached at

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