Thursday, February 23, 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Book:  Carry the One
Author:  Carol Anshaw
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster

Admittedly, most of us tend to space out a little bit when we hear someone nattering on about the practical applications of mathematics in everyday life.  But, the simple fact is that math pokes its mulish little husky head into everything we do.  For instance, one of the most common and important artifacts of mathematical theory is known as Carry the One. 

Most of us are familiar with the base-10 notational system, also known as Decimal.

Deci means 10, and is represented by the numbers 0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  and 9.

When you count in Decimal and get past the 9, you add 1 to the next column—this is what we were taught in our earliest days in school as the principal of Carry the One.

Raise your hand if you know that 9 + 1 = 10 in base-ten math.

Now, here’s the cool and quirky thing: no matter which notational system you happen to be using, the same rules apply whenever you carry the one.

Let me explain….

Binary is the name for the base-two notational system – this is generally used in computing.

Bi means 2, and is represented by the numbers 0 and 1.

So, when you count in Binary, you can only go as high as a 1.  That means if you count above a 1, then you have to “carry the one.”

In Binary 1 + 1 = 10, but 1 + 1 = 2 when you’re counting in everyday Decimal.

Likewise, Quaternary is the name for the base-4 notational system, which often occurs in human language and genetics. 

Quat means 4, and is represented by the numbers 0  1  2 and 3.

Since Quaternary only goes as high as a 3, if you count above a 3, then you once again have to “carry the one.”

That means in Quaternary, 3 + 1 = 10, when we all know 3 + 1 = 4 in Decimal.

And that is how, even if you apply the same rules, everything changes when you carry the one.

Carol Anshaw’s fourth novel, Carry the One follows a trio of siblings on a 25-year odyssey following an ill-advised car ride that kills ten-year-old Casey Redman.  Following the hastily planned wedding of pregnant sister Carmen to Matt, stoned brother Nick calls shotgun as his equally stoned mail-carrier girlfriend, Olivia takes the wheel. Lesbian sister, Alice and Matt’s sister Maude continue their post-wedding dalliance in the back seat while folk-musician, Tom, clutches his guitar and watches the show.  No one expected a ten-year old girl to be in the road at 3 a.m., but she was.  All of the passengers in the car casually step back as Olivia is sent to jail, not so much for the death of Casey or for driving under the influence, but because of the bags of undelivered mail found in her trunk.

Carmen, the political activist, whose marriage to Matt falls apart while son Gabe is still young, remarries a good man whom she isn’t really sure she wants, all the while championing important liberal causes on both the local and national fronts.  Alice, the talented lesbian artist, sees her career ebb and flow as she drifts from relationship to relationship because she can’t move past her love for Maude, who moves to Hollywood to become a straight, B-grade actress.  Nick, the gifted astronomer, tries to clean up and be a good man for Olivia after she’s released from prison, but drifts from addiction to sobriety and back, in an increasingly tight spiral. 

Carry the One captures bits and pieces of everyday life for each of the siblings, often passing over landmark events to focus on the more routine elements of relationships, careers, family, and shared memories.  We see Nick and Olivia travelling the competitive cat show circuit, Carmen and her anorexic stepdaughter at the Hammam in Paris, and Alice’s jam jar of wet butts and long list of ex-lover teas.  We follow as Carmen and Alice drop Nick off at the front door of yet another Rehab facility—then learn from Nick the best high you can get for your money.

The story is full of curious parallels that sneak up on the reader in hushed, but not-so-subtle tones.  We learn that father, Horace, an aficionado of tragic operas, foreordained the lives of his children through their birth names.  Alice was born Lucia after Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Nick was born Nabucco from Verdi’s dramma tragico of the same name. And Carmen kept her birth name, which came from Bizet’s bourgeois opéra comique. Of course, Horace was likely named after the Roman lyric poet known for his scurrilous iambic verse, which, ironically, is viewed as "the common currency of civilization."

Ms. Anshaw’s presentation of these three tragic characters is both nuanced and flawless.  We are given an Artist, an Astronomer, and an Activist.  Three completely different people with different minds, different personalities, and different pathways, who are all interconnected through the thin threads of blood.  We learn that the siblings likely would not be friends if not for the family connection, yet the shared connection to their parents is more tenuous and fractured than their connections to each other.  When Horace is diminished with Alzheimer’s, his role in the book and in the lives of his children fades to nothingness.  Similarly, when mother Loretta dies alone from cancer, the loss is not so much felt as it is validated.

Throughout the book, the reader follows Nick through his addictions to drugs and booze, and witnesses his earnest yet insincere attempts to remain clean.  The reader wants Nick to succeed, much more than he ever does, and we eventually become almost numb to the deeper depths of his addictions.  And, while we see Alice kick an addiction to cigarettes early on, we soon learn that her real addiction is to Maude.  However, unlike with Nick, the reader remains engaged with her obsession—but her friends do not.  And, through Carmen’s addiction to right the wrong du jour, we reach another level of numbness, which is brilliantly defined by her son Gabe’s avoidance of her as she sits on the bench in the train station, wearing her activist uniform and holding her hand made sign that simply reads, “Hope.”

Three siblings, three addictions, and three lives half-lived is a powerful symbol contrasted against that of the young girl killed that night in 1983, who remains alive within each of them.  Nick remembers her as she was. Alice, the artist, paints her as she would have been. And Carmen fights for a better future she will never have.  

And once again, this is how, even if you apply the same rules, everything changes when you carry the one.

Carol Anshaw’s novel, Carry the One is a powerful story about life and death and everything in between.  At times, brutal and honest, it is balanced with understated humility and humor.  Her prose is beautiful, verging on lyrical, and her ability to capture the effects of time on love, addiction, memory, and responsibility is both gifted and skillful. 

I’m giving Carry the One a 5.5 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale, because several days after finishing, I’m still thinking about the characters, their lives, and their choices.

Simon and Schuster provided a pre-release copy of this book for review.  

Carry the One will be released March 8, 2012.


  1. Another powerful review. Today, I also learned more about math than I ever learned in school. The way it applies to this book is magical. The many layers that Salem West points out in "Carry the One" will enhance my future reading of the book. And I look forward to seeing how Carol Anshaw handles the "bits and pieces of everyday life", for they truly are the building blocks of everyone's lives.

  2. The math made me sleepy. I had a 9th grade algebra flashback. Suddenly had a violent urge to cut class and do a doob. Then I skipped to the review. Whew. Better now. "Carry the One" just got added to the To-Read pile. Thanks for the math lesson. I mean review.

  3. I'm always looking for something a little different and challenging for my reading pile and it looks as though "Carry the One" is going to fit the bill nicely. Thanks, Salem.

  4. I've been a fan of Carol Anshaw's work for many years, and was thrilled to learn about the release of her new book. If "Carry the One" is even half as engaging as this review (and I'm certain it is), it's going to be a superlative read. Thanks, Salem, for putting it out in front of us. I've already pre-ordered my copy. Oh...and while I was shopping, I picked up a copy of "Schraum's Outline of Discrete Mathematics" -- I'm still working on that 1 + 1 = 10 thing....

  5. Oh My. math........
    I nodded off for a minute, then had to go back and re-read the review. That, was one complex and intriguing analysis of an even more complex and intriguing novel.
    This sounds like a rich, well conceived story with a cast of unique individuals.Thanks for introducing me to Carol Anshaw.Great job.

  6. Thanks so much for the post.I see you offer priceless info. Will definitely come back for more of this.

  7. Thanks for dropping in and lighting up,, Baxter. Seriously, "Carry The One" is a fantastic book that throws a lot of conventions out the window, definately worth the read.

  8. I just finished this and haven't written my review yet, but I basically agree with you assessment. Good review!

  9. Greetings Brooks, thanks for stopping by. I'm tagging you on my Blog Roll, and looking forward to reading your reviews.