Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac-Ethan Canin

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 558
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2016

Milo Andret is a mathematician. Is he a genius? He is certainly haunted by his rival and the woman he met as an undergraduate even as he lives his life in the present with his wife and children.

This is an surprisingly engaging portrait of a truly difficult man. Milo is obsessive and selfish as well as egotistical in a way that isolates himself from everyone in his life. Canin makes his early life so lyrical and beautiful-the maths in the woods and the carvings Milo can make but things quickly really begin to derail as an undergraduate. Milo's lyrical view of the world narrows to a tunnel of math and poison-his rival who stole the woman he sort of but not really was involved with. He never moves from this and this poisons and ruins his family dynamics. Since parts of the novel are narrated from the viewpoint of his son, Hans, you get this portrait of a bristly utterly unapproachable man married to a saint. Hans is unflinching in his own drive to understand Milo though he too forgives Milo for a lot (too much) in my opinion. Having this angry, failure, alcoholic of a man (Milo) dominate this book really is quite a risk and it doesn't always pay off-parts of this 500+ tome really really dragged for me. Hans was more interesting as he negotiated his own mathematical promise and I really did like the character of his mother but they really don't get enough exposure over these pages compared to Milo's character.
What did get a lot of exposure was the maths. Thankfully there are few equations and numbers involved since Canin spends a lot of time translating mathematical concepts into his own flowing prose but personally wrapping my head around the particular distinctions within the mathematical world and Maslosz's conjecture was hard going. It felt like whole chapters of this book were the working out of...phrases of maths which I found difficult to follow. I am, however, of a decidedly non-mathematical type of mind so I assume all responsibility for it since Canin does his best to translate the numbers into words.

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