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A Doubter's Almanac
     

A Doubter's Almanac

4.0 1
by Ethan Canin
 

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the author of America America and The Palace Thief, explores the nature of genius, rivalry, ambition, and love among multiple generations of a gifted family.

Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern

Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the author of America America and The Palace Thief, explores the nature of genius, rivalry, ambition, and love among multiple generations of a gifted family.

Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, he gives little thought to his own talent. But with his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley he realizes the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts. California in the seventies is a seduction, opening Milo’s eyes to the allure of both ambition and indulgence. The research he begins there will make him a legend; the woman he meets there—and the rival he meets alongside her—will haunt him for the rest of his life. For Milo’s brilliance is entwined with a dark need that soon grows to threaten his work, his family, even his existence.

Spanning seven decades as it moves from California to Princeton to the Midwest to New York, A Doubter’s Almanac tells the story of a family as it explores the way ambition lives alongside destructiveness, obsession alongside torment, love alongside grief. It is a story of how the flame of genius both lights and scorches every generation it touches. Graced by stunning prose and brilliant storytelling, A Doubter’s Almanac is a surprising, suspenseful, and deeply moving novel, a major work by a writer who has been hailed as “the most mature and accomplished novelist of his generation.”

Praise for A Doubter’s Almanac

“551 pages of bliss . . . devastating and wonderful . . . dazzling . . . You come away from the book wanting to reevaluate your choices and your relationships. It’s a rare book that can do that, and it’s a rare joy to discover such a book.”Esquire

“[Canin] is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story. . . . The delicate networks of emotion and connection that make up a family are illuminated, as if by magic, via his prose.”Slate

“Alternately explosive and deeply interior.”New York (“Eight Books You Need to Read”)

“A blazingly intelligent novel.”—Los Angeles Times

“[A] beautifully written novel.”The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“A book that raises the bar for novelists.”—Literary Hub

“No knowledge of proofs or theorems is required to enjoy Ethan Canin’s excellent eighth novel. He alternately treats math like elegant poetry or infuses it with crackling energy.”The Christian Science Monitor

“Math made beautiful . . . Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.”The Washington Post

“A masterful writer at his transcendent best.”—BBC

“Elegant and devastating . . . A Doubter’s Almanac is exquisitely crafted. Canin takes us readers deep into the strange world of his troubled characters without ever making us aware of the effort involved. . . . An odd and completely captivating novel.”—NPR’s Fresh Air

“Dazzlingly ambitious . . . one part intellectual thriller, one part domestic saga.”The Huffington Post

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“551 pages of bliss . . . devastating and wonderful . . . dazzling . . . You come away from the book wanting to reevaluate your choices and your relationships. It’s a rare book that can do that, and it’s a rare joy to discover such a book.”Esquire
 
“[Ethan Canin] is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story. . . . ‘It was as though the numerals had been expressly fabricated, like more-perfect words, to elucidate the details of creation,’ Canin writes of Milo’s passion for math, though he might as well be referring to his novel, in which the delicate networks of emotion and connection that make up a family are illuminated, as if by magic, via his prose.”Slate
 
“Alternately explosive and deeply interior.”New York (“Eight Books You Need to Read”)
 
“A blazingly intelligent novel.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“[A] beautifully written novel.”The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
 
“A book that raises the bar for novelists.”—Literary Hub
 
“No knowledge of proofs or theorems is required to enjoy Ethan Canin’s excellent eighth novel. He alternately treats math like elegant poetry or infuses it with crackling energy.”The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Math made beautiful . . . Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.”The Washington Post
 
“A masterful writer at his transcendent best.”—BBC
 
“Elegant and devastating . . . A Doubter’s Almanac is exquisitely crafted. Canin takes us readers deep into the strange world of his troubled characters without ever making us aware of the effort involved. . . . An odd and completely captivating novel.”—NPR’s Fresh Air
 
“Dazzlingly ambitious . . . one part intellectual thriller, one part domestic saga.”The Huffington Post
 
“There is a shimmering loveliness to Canin’s glimpses of higher mathematics. . . . A Doubter’s Almanac is a novel whose achievement is fully equal to the . . . tragedy it portrays. Ethan Canin understands both the allure of great intellectual accomplishment and the price it exacts from those who pursue it. Unlike his protagonist, his own prodigious effort has produced a work of exquisite and enduring beauty.”Bookreporter
 
“With A Doubter’s Almanac, Canin has soared to a new standard of achievement. What a story, and what a cast of characters. The protagonist, Milo Andret, is a mathematical genius and one of the most maddening, compelling, appalling, and unforgettable characters I’ve encountered in American fiction. This is the story of a family that falls to pieces under the pressure of living with an abundantly gifted tyrant. Ethan Canin writes about mathematics as brilliantly as T. S. Eliot writes about poetry. With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”—Pat Conroy
 
“Staggeringly ambitious . . . a story of majestic sweep.”—Paste
 
“I have never encountered prose that renders this world so beautifully: the field ceases to be a language and series of figures we don’t understand and becomes a subject for which we have a nearly physical understanding. . . . A Doubter’s Almanac makes clear that no matter how blind we are in some ways, we are still able, in other ways, to see.”Fiction Writers Review
 
“The book is no apologia for bad behavior, a free pass for genius run amok. Canin has crafted a believable and indelible portrait of a frustrated master intellectual at work. . . . [There are] scenes that erupt with the explosive power of a Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller. . . . The life of the gentle, humane Albert Einstein, also once at Princeton, reminds us that not all giants of math and science are monsters. What Ethan Canin reminds us is that, despite everything, Milo Andret, isn’t either.”Newsday
 
“Masterful . . . a work of impressive ambition, operating on a truly epic scale. Moving across seven decades, it is a tale that exquisitely details the zeniths and nadirs of true genius.”The Maine Edge
 
“A tremendous literary achievement.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Epic . . . thoroughly absorbing . . . a nuanced, heartbreaking portrait of a tortured mathematician . . . Canin, in translucent prose, elucidates the way a mathematician sees the world and humanity’s own insignificance within it. A harrowing, poignant read about the blessing and curse of genius.”Booklist (starred review)
 
“Cause for celebration! . . . A fantastic multigenerational novel about a family of geniuses who discover the sometimes painful costs of living with brilliance.”Book Riot
 
“Extraordinary . . . a spellbinding novel about math.”—Kirkus Reviews
 
“A gem.”—People
 
“This is big, serious, completely involving fiction of a kind rarely written today.”The Guardian
 
“Canin’s fifth novel is brilliant—it’s the sort of book that used to be called “a major novel”. . . . This is fiction at its most ambitious and seductive—for all its length and intellectual complexity, A Doubter’s Almanac speeds by with effortless grace. On every page Canin’s humane, precise prose offers marvels. A Doubter’s Almanac is fiction as it should be—rich, compassionate, gripping, and true.”—Dublin Sunday Business Post
Publishers Weekly
★ 08/31/2015
The mysteries of higher mathematics and the even deeper mysteries of the human heart are the unlikely themes of Canin’s (America America) novel. With stunning assurance and elegant, resonant prose, Canin follows the life of Milo Andret, who is both blessed and afflicted with mathematical genius. Milo’s aspirations take him from a lonely boyhood in northern Michigan to Berkeley, Princeton, the hinterlands of Ohio, and, finally, to a defeated return to the rural Midwest. Essentially asocial and so unworldly that he didn’t taste alcohol until graduate school, Milo is gradually embittered by his failures at love and his jealous relationships with his colleagues. Meanwhile, he pursues the exquisitely arduous process of constructing complex mathematical theorems in his mind. When, at age 32, Milo proves one of the greatest theorems in the history of mathematics, he becomes a scientific superstar. But by then he is an alcoholic, and he destroys his career in acts of reckless abandon. Fascinating in its character portrayal and psychological insights, the novel becomes even more mesmerizing in its second half, which is narrated by Milo’s son, Hans (the first half features close third-person narration on Milo). Hans also has a brilliant mathematical mind but is scarred by his father’s cantankerous, often vicious behavior and poisonous disillusionment with ambition and higher knowledge. Hans’s exorbitantly lucrative career as a high-frequency futures trader founders when he becomes addicted to drugs, but his redemption comes through marital and familial love. Though the book is occasionally repetitive, Canin’s accomplishments are many, not least of which is his ability to lucidly explain the field of algebraic topology. But it is his superb storytelling that makes this novel a tremendous literary achievement. (Feb.)
Library Journal
★ 01/01/2016
Taking place over decades, this latest novel from Canin (America America), an accomplished author and professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is a compelling family saga that follows troubled math genius Milo Andret from birth to death. Milo goes from inauspicious beginnings in rural Michigan to solving a decades-old mathematical problem and teaching at Princeton. We are with him when he impresses his first teacher and takes his first drink. He becomes his own worst enemy, cutting short a promising career because of his alcoholism and womanizing. The second half of the novel is told by his son, who inherits many of the same skills and problems. In addition to the involving narrative, the novel is a subtle meditation on creativity, happiness, and fate, and Canin's ability to explain complex mathematics is nothing short of miraculous. VERDICT A moving, spiritual journey, this poetic novel clocks in at well over 500 pages but begs to be read in one sitting. It will delight literary fiction readers of all stripes with its diverse themes, from coming of age to love, grief, and addiction. But a warning; it's tough to keep a dry eye through this one. [See Prepub Alert, 8/31/15.]—Kate Gray, Boston P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
2015-11-05
This complex portrait of a troubled math genius and the effect his gift has on those close to him combines a strong narrative and bumper crop of themes. For his seventh work of fiction, Canin (America America, 2008, etc.) first presents some 200 third-person pages focused on Milo Andret, an only child whose aloof parents give him a freedom he exercises in the Michigan woods. There, he discovers unusual talents as a whittler who carves a wooden chain more than 25 feet long from a beech stump. A late-blooming math whiz, at Berkeley grad school in the 1970s, he specializes in topology, whose practitioners "built undrawable figures in their imaginations, then twisted and folded them." He also discovers LSD, sex, and academic competition, laying the groundwork for long-term addictions. He gains fame in math and a job at Princeton, but heavy drinking, sex, and the drive for another milestone undo him. Canin then switches to the voice of Milo's son, Hans, who reveals he has been the quasi-omniscient narrator of the first section, based on stories told to him by his ailing father. It's an awkward, risky shift that pulls the story away from its focus on a deeply intriguing character (though perhaps a useful lesson in unreliable narrators for the author's classes at the Iowa Writer's Workshop). Hans gives his boyhood observations of Milo's "Olympian drinking" and is surprised to realize how "normal" his own childhood seemed. Yet he also struggles with addiction, from an Ecstasy precursor to cocaine as well as the high of a quant's wins on Wall Street, which is where Hans uses his own considerable math skills. Ultimately a nice guy, he pales beside the fiercely irascible, hurtful patriarch. Book clubs may dig into the many interesting veins here—family, ambition, addiction, lust—but Mean Dad was the motherlode, and it's not clear that Canin's easing of the darkness makes for a better novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812980264
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/25/2016
Pages:
592
Sales rank:
60,770
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Late Arrival

From the kitchen window, Milo Andret watched the bridge over the creek, and when he saw Earl Biettermann's white Citroën race across the span he hurried out the door and picked up a short hoe. Biettermann was driving too fast. Reckless was the word for it--but that's the way he'd always been. Arrogant. Heedless. Lucky to stumble onto the right roads, the right career, the right woman. Lucky even to be alive. For any other driver, the route from the bridge to the cabin would take five minutes: Andret figured it would take Biettermann three.

Outside under the trees, he crossed as quickly as he could toward the garden, his feet today somehow obeying his commands. Next to the strawberries he lowered himself into the folding chair and used the coiled hose to dash a few palmfuls of water onto his shirt and hair. The sun was high. He ought to be sweating.

He heard the car throw gravel as it made the turn into the driveway. Then the engine shut off. A fan came on the way it did in French cars. Biettermann probably loved that fan. One door slam. Andret waited.

Then, a second.

He let them knock at the door to the cabin. His name called: "Professor! Professor!" This was an affectation. Then steps on the cluttered path to the back of the house, where he was bent low over the plants, pulling strenuously at the roots of a marauding false grape.

"Professor Andret!"

He turned to offer his greeting, squinting, wiping the spigot water from his brow. A shock: Earl Biettermann was in a wheelchair. He realized he'd heard something about that. From her, maybe?

He couldn't remember.

She was here, though--that was the important thing--and now she was guiding her husband in a wheelchair, pushing him in front of her across the bumpy ground like an offering. It could have been awful: but he saw immediately that it wasn't going to be.

He also realized with a start that she'd been the one driving.

Impossible

Milo Andret grew up in northern Michigan, near Cheboygan, on the western edge of Lake Huron, where the offshore waters were fathomless and dark. The color of the lake there was closer to the stormy Atlantic hues of Lake Superior than to the tranquil, layered turquoise of Lake Michigan, which lapped at the tourist beaches on the far side of the state. Milo's father had been an officer in the navy during the Second World War, a destroyer's navigator driven by the hope of one day commanding his own ship; but at the age of twenty-four, after an incident in the Solomon Sea, he'd abandoned his ambitions. The incident had occurred in November 1943, just a year before Milo was born. Coming north out of the straits near Bougainville Island, the destroyer had been hit by a string of Japanese torpedoes, and in the wake of the explosions the ship's life rafts had drifted into unknown waters. Milo's father and another sailor had managed to get aboard one of the rafts, and before nightfall they'd picked up two more men. A week later, though, when a British cruiser finally sighted them off of Papua New Guinea, all but Milo's father had been eaten by sharks.

By the time Milo was born, his father had been discharged back to Cheboygan, where he'd found work as a science teacher at Near Isle High School. It was a position from which, for the next thirty-nine years, he would neither be offered a promotion nor seek one.

Milo's mother had been the first female summa cum laude chemistry major in the history of Michigan State University; but she too was willing to forsake her ambitions. She raised Milo until he was old enough to go to school, and then she found a job as a secretary in the sheriff's department in Alpena, the county seat. In Alpena, she typed reports, brewed coffee, and made mild banter with a generally courteous group of men several years her senior, more than one of whom could neither read nor write.

This was most of what Milo knew of the lives of his parents.

After school his father graded homework in his office, and after work his mother sometimes stepped out for a drink with a few of the other secretaries from her building. On most afternoons, Milo walked up the hill from the bus stop to an empty house. By now it was the mid-1950s.

In those days Cheboygan was already something of a resort town, although Milo didn't realize this fact until he was older. For most of his childhood, he knew only the deep woods that ran behind their property--350 acres of sugar maple, beech, and evergreen that had managed to remain unlogged during the huge timber harvests that had denuded much of the rest of the state. He spent a good part of his days inside this forest. The soil there was padded with a layer of decaying leaves and needles whose scents mingled to form a cool spice in his nose. He didn't notice the smell when he was in it so much as feel its absence when he wasn't. School, home, any building he had to spend time in--they all left him with the feeling that something had been cleaned away.

The shaded hollows of his particular tract were populated by raccoons, skunks, opossum, and owls, and by the occasional fox or porcupine. The small meadows were ringed with ancient birches that crashed to the ground when the younger trees crowded them out, their fallen, crisscrossed trunks making shelters and bridges for him to discover. The woods were in transition, his father had told him. When a great tree came down, the report could be heard for miles, a shifting crescendo of rustling and snapping as the trunk yanked away the limbs around it, culminating finally in a muffled thud like a sledgehammer striking moss. Whenever this occurred, Milo would set out to find the corpse. He had an intricate memory of the landscape's light and shade and could tell instantly when even a small piece of it had been altered. Something in his brain picked up disturbance acutely.

How many hours he spent in those woods! He was an only child and from early in his life had invented solitary games--long treks into the landscape with certain self-imposed rules (two right turns to every left, exactly a thousand steps from departure to return, the winding brook crossed only where it bent to the west). These games passed the most precious part of the day for him, the too-short interlude between the time the school bus released him at the bottom of the hill and six o'clock, when his mother came out to the edge of the woods holding the lid of a garbage can and banged it three times with a broom handle to call him for dinner.

The Andrets lived fifteen miles from the beaches on Lake Huron; but it might as well have been a hundred. His father stayed to the land in a part of the state where everyone else was drawn to the water. This was no doubt attributable to his experience in the Solomon Sea, but Milo was too young to understand something like that. On weekends his father went hunting with his friends or tinkered around the house, or if the weather was poor he sat in a chair by the fire and worked puzzles from a magazine. In the Andret family, there was never any question of shared recreation--no canoe trips, no bicycle rides, no walks together at the shore. Such dalliances were from another universe. There were no pets, either, and no games other than a couple of boxes of playing cards and an old chess set of Philippine ivory that had been brought back from the navy. If Mr. Andret was at home, he was either grading schoolwork or performing household repairs, walking around with a tool belt and setting a ladder against the eaves. He would finish one job and move on to the next, never alerting anyone to what he was doing. If his mother was there, she was in the kitchen, at the small table by the window, with a glass and a book. If Milo wasn't at school, he was in the woods.

The Andret house was an old-fashioned, darkly painted, thoroughly ornamented Victorian that had been built by a prosperous farmer at the turn of the century, as though it would one day sit on the main square of a town. It was three stories high with a steeply raftered roof whose scalloped tiles radiated a statuesque formality. But to Milo there was always something disappointing about this formality. From the time he was young it had seemed forlorn to him, like a woman in a ball gown sitting at a bus stop. (This wasn't his own phrase; it was his wife's, uttered many years later, when she first crested the hill.) The walls were an evening blue, both inside and out, and the exterior trim was a deep maroon. Everything a shade too dark. There was a sidewalk in front, but it ended at the property stake. A brass mailbox stood on a post at the head of the driveway, and an exactingly painted garage looked out from buttressed eaves at the rear. The property boasted all the details of a fine residence in a fine little town, except for the town itself, which had never appeared.

The Andrets' house was the only one for miles.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Ethan Canin is the author of seven books, including the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief and the novels For Kings and Planets, Carry Me Across the Water, and America America. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and divides his time between Iowa and northern Michigan.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Iowa City, IA
Date of Birth:
July 19, 1960
Place of Birth:
Ann Arbor, MI
Education:
A.B., Stanford, 1982; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1984; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1991
Website:
http://www.ethancanin.com/

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A Doubter's Almanac: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The complications and resolutions of genius parsed into the eveyday with compelling descriptions of nature: when fiction is truer than life
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Does not talk down or too far up -- at least for me Reminded me of "Disgrace", (Coetze)