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Publisher's Summary

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 UC Berkeley, he realizes the extent - and the risks - of his singular gifts.

California in the '70s 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.

©2016 Ethan Canin (P)2016 Recorded Books

Critic Reviews

"David Aaron Baker's delivery of this outstanding novel is a tour de force of the narrator's art.... Baker gives each family member a distinct voice and memorably acts out a violent scene with such restraint that the listener imagines himself in the room. The repartee between the gravelly voiced aging father and the brainy son is skillfully portrayed. Be it the subtle musings of an Egyptian doctor or the fast-clipped banter of Milo's lifelong rival, Baker masterfully turns this complex story into a mesmerizing modern tale." (AudioFile)

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The curse of genius?

A superb story told in elegant prose, the first half of The Doubter's Almanac is the story of Milo Andret, who grows up in the 1950s in Michigan. He’s a loner and average student, although he always knows exactly where he is on the plane of the earth, an ability that will purportedly serve him well in the field of topology (geometric properties and spatial relations). He is confused by the domain of human relations, and can “neither predict nor understand the behavior of others”, so he concludes that he’s “entirely alone in the world.” This axiom shapes his whole life. After working as a car mechanic, he eventually ends up in grad. school at Berkeley. He meets a girl named Cle, and with her discovers sex, alcohol, and LSD. Milo is old for a mathematician (they allegedly do their best work prior to age 40), and the sex, drugs, and alcohol seem to allay his fears and frustrations. Milo does go on to solve the fictional Malosz conjecture, win the Fields Medal (the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics), and become a professor at Princeton University.

There is an interesting incident in Milo's childhood that figures repeatedly in the story. When he is roaming the forests where he can always place himself, he finds a blown-down tree. Working by himself for weeks, he carves the stump into a 25-foot-long continuous, seamless wooden chain. It’s a beautiful thing, described so well by the author that I could easily picture it and want to possess one just like it. Milo does not readily share the chain with others, but it's a project closely linked to his future work and an interesting symbol.

The second part of the book is narrated by Milo’s son Hans, who chronicles exactly how horrible a person Milo really is – a nasty, drunken womanizer who alternately curses and ignores his family and demeans his colleagues, all without shame or apology. He seems to believe that the “curse of his own genius” entitles him to behave this way, but there will be a high price to pay. He has become a nowhere dense set – a set whose closure has empty interior. This second part also describes the ongoing struggle between Milo and his son. Milo insists that Hans has inherited the mathematical gift and seeing what this has done to his father and himself, Hans attempts to flee the curse in his own destructive ways. Hans must also warily watch his own children for signs of what he fears might befall them.

I was impressed with Canin's ability to write about number theory, submanifolds and differential equations, but always in a way that added to the story and was not distracting nor overwhelming to the reader. I loved his use of mathematical terms to describe ordinary things – “a mud-colored polytope of his mass shot glitteringly into the air”, “the twisted white catenary of the phone cord bridging the darkness from his desk”, “The cut edges of the glasses were projecting stellate tessellations across the mahogany.”

I'm not sure that I agree with the conjecture that genius (of any type) is a curse, but not being any sort of genius myself, I do wish I could have just a small taste. Not all people gifted with extraordinary ability repeatedly sabotage themselves as Milo and Hans do. I did wonder why Milo's family withstood his verbal and physical brutality, and then returned for more. I think Milo becomes utterly overwhelmed by the pressure to work, produce, and to achieve, in addition to the ever-present anxiety that whatever special mathematical gift he had been blessed with could just as easily disappear. There is also the more frightening realization that his supposed genius may not even be so. Knowledge can be a binary gift, something that the world needs and celebrates even as it ostracizes from the world those who possess it. This does not have to be mathematics; it can be any legacy, the qualities we inherit and, with any luck and wisdom, we can strive to improve upon.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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A Doubter's Almanac

I'm conflicted about the book, which is a good thing because it means I'll be thinking about it even having finished it.
It's a brave author who leads with a character who is so unlikeable. Milo has his doubts & character flaws, but the first portion of the book is a warts and all view that makes sympathy for Milo difficult. The interplay of genius, the compulsion to pursue the path of one's gift and the personality that resulted are an intense look at the effects of such an intellectual gift. The second part of the book is a let down, partially because it's unclear why anyone would feel the devotion to Milo that at least three characters have. Additionally, the positing that mathematical genius is hereditary (and pretty much a curse) isn't based on any reality, and plays into a kind of "you get math or you don't" way of thinking that research disproves since the children all have their math skills while being almost actively discouraged from following them.
Still, the examination of Milo's life (and mathematical gift) and how that plays out is fascinating. Also, great writing and kudos to any author who would make mathematics a base of a novel (and make it accessible).

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Thoughtful and poignant.

Excellent narrator. If you liked All the Light We Cannot See - or The Innovators - you may find this very engaging.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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WOMEN ARE THE SUN

“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a 21st century novel destined to be a classic. Though some may argue otherwise, Ethan Canin writes about a universal truth; i.e. “women are the sun; men are the moon”. Canin catalyzes one’s doubt and ambivalence about life’s meaning in a story about moral transgression, addiction, guilt, and redemption.

The story begins with details of a person with a superior intellect, and an amoral life. He is Milo Andret, a mathematician blessed with the ability to understand complex spatial relationships, even as they change shape. Milo is never lost in a physical wilderness but is trapped in a space reserved only for himself. In some ways, Milo reminds one of Ivan Karamazov (Dostoyevsky’s protagonist in “Brothers Karamazov”), a rationalist that denies God because of the irrationality of faith and the cruelty of life.

Milo, like Ivan, treats others as superficial human beings who only have relevance in respect to what they can do for him. Milo is a self-absorbed genius who begins as a naïve young boy looking for recognition from others for a superiority that he only vaguely sees in himself. Milo is a boy narcissist who matures into a misogynistic adult and dies as a repentant grandfather. Canin reveals the nature of geniuses who exploit their intellectual superiority. They alienate others. Some will lie to win praise. They are awarded for “presumed” new discoveries that are beyond the reasoning ability of their peers.

Canin has written a good story; expertly narrated by David Baker. It is a tribute to the seekers of proof about the nature of existence. The nature of existence seems beyond the grasp of the human mind. Through Milo and his family, Canin implies neither men nor women should ever give up. What Canin’s hero confirms is that women are the sun and men are the moon. Nature and nurture make us who we are but the principal source of power is in the sun.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Corrales, NM, United States
  • 06-14-16

The death rattle drags on forever

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

First part of book, describing the active portion of a mathematician's career was well-written and interesting. Unfortunately the later part, in which this alcoholic character is in his dying days, drags on FOREVER and is very boring.

Has A Doubter's Almanac turned you off from other books in this genre?

yes, done with Ethan Canin.<br/>I liked some of his short stories years ago, but this one will make it impossible for me to read anything more of his.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

Falsetto for female characters sounds like a drag queen.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Disappointment that Canin is unable to carry an interesting story and keep up the interest level. There was just this endless bloody boring phase where everyone is grappling with this old dying alcoholic's legacy, and it just feels like, why the hell are you dragging me the reader through this crapola.

Any additional comments?

If you like alcoholics with liver failure and people sorting out their own emotions endlessly, this is the book for you. Otherwise find another book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Well written but bo-ring story

Work is very very well with however despite a strong start with an interesting set up the characters become less interesting as the book progresses and the overall subject matter is quite dull.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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moving, haunting, quieting

So many angles in which to view this novel; as a son, a father, a friend, a lover, a brother. A story that reveals layers of understanding in us all, and some things many can never comprehend.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Good to the last drop!

I absolutely loved the intricately woven tale of unique, intelligent characters! Enjoy the unpredictable adventure!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Loved it

It is good in the beginning but the second half brings it all together. Great listen.

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  • Burnett
  • Marina, United States Minor Outlying Islands
  • 07-20-16

Doubt's proof

good story but missed opportunities to reveal a great truth. Great descriptions of complex concepts