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A Doubter's Almanac

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Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, Milo gives little thought to his talent, and not until his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley does he realize the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts. California in the seventies is an initiation and 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, and the rival, he meets there will haunt him always. For Milo’s brilliance is inextricably linked to a dark side that ultimately threatens to unravel his work, his son and daughter, and his life.

558 pages, Hardcover

First published February 16, 2016

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About the author

Ethan Canin

32 books283 followers
Highly regarded as both a novelist and a short story writer, Ethan Canin has ranged in his career from the "breathtaking" short stories of Emperor of the Air to the "stunning" novellas of The Palace Thief, from the "wise and beautiful" short novel Carry Me Across the Water to the "epic" America America. His short stories, which have been the basis for four Hollywood movies, have appeared in a wide range of magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, and Granta, and have been selected for many prize anthologies.

The son of a musician and a public-school art teacher, he spent his childhood in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California before attending Stanford University, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then Harvard Medical School. He subsequently gave up a career in medicine to write and teach, and is now F. Wendell Miller Professor of English at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he has been privileged to teach a great number of talented new writers. In his spare time he is very slowly remodeling two old houses, one in the woods of northern Michigan and the other in Iowa City, where he lives with his wife, their three children, and four chickens.

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5 stars
1,003 (22%)
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135 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 714 reviews
Profile Image for Melinda Borie.
397 reviews25 followers
December 22, 2015
Deliver me from art about troubled men whose genius is used as an excuse for them to be assholes.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews34 followers
November 1, 2015
This novel is extraordinary- It could win the Pulitzer Prize --it's that good -
and that type of quality!!

I read a lot of books - I write a lot of reviews. I lost my first review for "The Doubter's
Almanac" during a new phone transfer.
I lost my notes and quotes.. ( I'm sad about it), but I haven't lost my memory of what's most important to share.

*Milo* is an incredible unforgettable fiction character. There are so many sides to him. He's brilliant -and deranged - arrogant and forcible -hopeless and disgraceful-
unbalanced and intense. Milo is a character you 'feel' ...( many emotions)...and 'think about' intensely ( because there is mystery about him)

The story begins when Milo is a boy living with his parents in Northern Michigan.
We get to see how Milo's mind is developing. Much later in the book - I looked back to the beginning again...wondering, who had the greatest impact on Milo. His mom? Father? Kids at school who were bullies? His teachers? Professors? Drugs? Alcohol?Woman, Marriage, love? Math? Is there ever any one dominant person or thing that has the biggest impact on a person's life like Milo?

His childhood was lonely. He was antisocial. Reading about how young Milo spent his free time in the woods was especially bittersweet for me to read ...
He carved an exceptional wood chain - that brought up memories for me of obsessive crazy projects I did myself as a kid. - but Milo's chain story could have been one of those moments - a dominate life experience- that would, could, and did shape his adult life.

Every step of the way ... moving into adulthood ....I remember my emotions changing.
I found myself sometimes speaking out loud to Milo telling him what to do - only to realize ..
"Ah, isn't that what everyone else was doing"?

Hans, Milo's son, begins to narrate this story about half way through. The story of Milo gets rounded through his family - son- daughter -wife - addictions
and other struggles. The entire bunch have brilliant minds.
Prepare yourself for sadness --yet the wise insights are powerful. Especially about the choices we make in life.
(something I'm grappling with myself 'today')
I might need to take a lesson from this story -reevaluate and ask myself - "am I spending my days the way I sincerely want to do - or has my fun started to feel like a job?"

You don't need to be a genius to get much value from reading this novel.

The title of this book is one to think about - it's as worthy of a discussion as this brilliant book. The book's cover design is fabulous- a creative fit! love it!!

Thank you to Random House Publishing, Netgalley, Ethan Canin (phenomenal author)

Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,204 followers
March 1, 2016

It's a sad story to begin with . Milo as a boy lives a lonely life . It's an odd family life , dysfunctional without a doubt where his parents hardly speak to him or to each. His mother sits in the kitchen with a drink in her hand and his father sits in his study or putters around the house . Milo spends a lot of his time alone in the woods near his home and it is then that we recognize his genius as he carves a chain from a fallen tree . Milo is a genius, a math genius and in this beautifully written, descriptive novel, we learn about his special capability as he is discovered and he goes to Berkeley from rural Michigan, unprepared for the world . Without knowing a loving home , although his parents loved him, and without real friendships , Milo at first seems to manage in the academic world but things change.

I was totally lost with the math talk but it really isn't about math . Those parts really did not hold my interest but I found myself trying to understand this smart , quirky guy . Trying to understand the struggles, the highs and lows of discovering what no one else has, the weight on ones mind that come with this drive for this knowledge, his search for answers, spending years working to solve a single mathematical proof. While it was difficult to understand him and connect , I couldn't abandon him even with his incapacity to care. He infuriated me with his arrogance , rudeness and lack of concern for people and the way he conducted his relationships with women but yet for some reason I still cared about Milo, even though I didn't like him very much

Less than halfway through the novel , the narrative changes from the third person story of Milo to the first period narrative of Hans Andret , Milo's son telling us that he was the one telling the story. Hans is also a mathematician and as his sister and his children, he also bears the burden of this genius. And yet another dysfunctional family but with Hans' narrative I was even sadder for this family . The third person narrative of Milo's story provides for emotional distance between the reader and the character but that changed with Hans' first person narrative which at once gave a more intimate view of his feelings and thoughts as he too struggles with his genius while trying not to repeat the mistakes of his father.

There is so much here in this lengthy book - addiction to alcohol and drugs , genius , personality disorders , pursuit of happiness which a lot of times is illusory , genuine love in spite of it all. It was Hans' telling that broke my heart for this family but Hans with his own family provides some hope that there is a capacity for caring. The story is full of doubts - doubts about mathematical theories, about one's feelings, doubts about how to move forward. I may have given it five stars but it felt somewhat dragged out in the last part of the book. This is a fascinating novel with characters who left me wondering about decisions we make and how we live our lives and how much we can control who we are and wondering why they touched me so much even when I didn't like them at times. Yet they did.

Thank you Random House Publishing House - Random House and NetGalley.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,206 reviews188 followers
March 2, 2016
I have SO MANY FEELINGS about this book. It’s one that is nearly impossible to rate because while the writing is high quality, there are characterization problems that make me want to turn the book on its side and launch it like a Frisbee. Preferably into a lake.

My first and biggest beef is with how the female characters are developed, or rather, not developed. Main character and math genius Milo Andret is smart. So smart, we are led to believe, that the women in his life are totally fine being alternately condescended to and ignored by him. His long-suffering wife is described several times as “saintly,” as if repeatedly setting aside her own talents and dreams in order to serve her alcoholic husband’s whims is a trait to be admired in a woman. His daughter, who is by all accounts smarter than her brother, still gets the short end of the stick when it comes to fatherly attention (after all, what genius mathematician has time to parent a lowly girl?), and when she dares to point out the imbalance, is portrayed as whiny and petulant.

Throughout the book, Canin’s thesis seems to be that Andret’s genius brings with it inevitable character flaws that everyone around him must tacitly accept because they are genetically predetermined. It may be true that intelligent people aren’t the best at relating to others, even that they tend toward narcissism. However, I refuse to accept genius as an excuse for being a shitty person. I happen to be married to a brilliant man myself, and never once has it crossed my mind that his smarts make him above the rules of human decency. I mean, I’m super impressed that he passed differential equations, but the dishwasher still needs unloaded.

Yet time and again, despite Andret’s total lack of regard or care for them, his family members rally around him, putting up with verbal and physical abuse, nursing him through the effects of addiction, and constantly thinking about his feelings. We’re somehow supposed to believe that there’s something about Andret, some unnamed quality that makes everyone around him capable of unconditionally loving him. And in the world Canin has created, “love” looks a hell of a lot like “enabling.”

If anybody ever needed tough love (and a swift kick in the ass), it’s Milo Andret. If I could find a way to jump into the pages of A Doubter’s Almanac, I would gladly deliver it myself.

With regards to Random House and NetGalley for the review copy. On sale now.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,035 reviews48.5k followers
February 9, 2016
“The Doubter’s Almanac” is a long, complex novel about math, which sounds like the square root of tedium, but suspend your flight instinct for a moment. Ethan 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. And to be fair, although the story manipulates complex equations, “The Doubter’s Almanac” really isn’t about mathematics so much as a family of mathematicians wrestling with the curse of their own genius.

The plot focuses on the not-so-beautiful mind of Milo Andret, who. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Seton Rae.
81 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2016
Ethan Canin is one of the best writers of our time. He has a masterful command of both style and structure, and writes with keen, intimate observation that rarely gets in the way of the plot. These gifts are on full display in "A Doubters Almanac," a multi-generational saga about a family cursed and blessed with both genius and addiction.

At the center of the story is Milo Andret, whose unique, mathematical brain propels him to tackle nearly impossible problems. Yet Milo is the ultimate unsolvable problem, a self-destructive alcoholic who remains a cipher to himself and to his family. Through Milo's son, Hans, Canin charts the topography Milo's life. Hans's search is less about gaining insight, and more about about revealing what can be known.

"Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," Tolstoy wrote, but Canin's novel calls this conclusion into question. The unhappy Andret family is shadowed by Milo's mathematical gifts, and by his early success. But Milo's spiral into addiction, and the damaged family members left in its wake, are familiar and believable. Unhappy families, Canin suggests, are not necessarily unique. They're just more interesting.

This is a book that begs to be discussed, the perfect selection to share with a book group or recommend to a friend. There are many ways of looking at Milo's story, and at those of his family members, and these perspectives provoke strong reactions. I finished the book angry, in love, and full of questions. I can't wait for this to be released and discussed on a wider scale.
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews517 followers
October 3, 2016
Little Boy Blue and the Man on the Moon
Math is a wonderful thing
Math is a really cool thing
So get off your "ath"
Let's do some math

This novel is well-written and especially unique in its structure, having the Pythagorasian father narrate nearly half the book then his math whiz son narrate the remainder.

The book is touching with its themes of the unbearable pressures of being a demigod of mathematics, and the resulting self-destruction, alcoholism, mental illness and/or addiction, as well as growing up, a genius yourself, to such a brilliant mathematician.

Nonetheless, due to the intensity and black subtext, I would not recommend someone buy this, excepting those who have someone close who is brilliant and suffering mental illness and/or addicted to drugs/alcohol.

Profile Image for Karen.
42 reviews11 followers
March 7, 2016
I feel pretty certain this will be the most exquisite book I read in 2016. Ethan Canin's prose is stunning, and the scope of his knowledge here is really extraordinary. It's a long book, but worth every minute.
Profile Image for Carol.
24 reviews20 followers
February 24, 2016
I so loved this book. And oh how I covet Ethan Canin's mind!
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,342 reviews700 followers
April 11, 2016
If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. ~Rene Descartes

“You make a decision, and you turn it into the right one” ~Helena Andret

This fine novel will most certainly be on “The Best of 2016” list in literature. That said, I don’t think it’s for the average reader. If you are a mathematician or a philosopher, you will find this even more amazing than I did. I have a rudimentary education in higher math, and it was enough for me to find this novel fascinating.

The main character, Milo Andret, has a gift: he always knowing his exact coordinates on this planet earth. He is never lost because he always knows where he is and where he needs to be. Additionally, he is a genius in math. At a young age, UC Berkeley recruits him. At the time, drugs and alcohol are common, if not expected. And author Canin shows how easy it is for the young, inexperience, and genius to get caught up in the vortex.

After completing his PHD at Berkeley, he lands at Princeton. It is his experiences there that author Ethan Canin magnify the pressure that professors are under. Milo is an ambitious person on his own. Add to that the stress of publishing something so original that he will forever change the science of math, makes Milo spin out of control. His hubris will be his ultimate demise.

From there, his son, Hans, writes in first person what ultimately happened to his father. From Hans, the reader learns of the toll of genius to the family of said genius, especially when the children inherit the gifts. From Hans, we learn the unease of looking at one’s own future.

Hans and his sister Paulie live through a painful and unusual childhood. Both Paulie and Hans are mathematical geniuses, and both have to witness the self-destructive behavior of their father. Both understand at a young age the challenges their mother faced raising them.

From here it’s a reconciliation of life as a gifted person and living life among the rest of us. It’s about addiction and it’s destructive forces, especially to the ones you love. Author Ethan Canin uses math and it’s powerful force to those who can comprehend it’s complexities. I found that the math themes were not distracting; in fact made it more interesting. Canin explained the theories enough for the reader to follow.

I highly recommend it for those mathematically inclined. I highly recommend it for those who love literature. And finally, I highly recommend it for those who are interested in being understanding to those geniuses who end up self-destructive. It’s a beautiful read.
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
523 reviews445 followers
September 29, 2018
This is a book about a particular (fictional) mathematician and about the perils of being a mathematical genius.

"It happens." He turned again to the garden. "To the brain, I mean. It's the drink, naturally. And the hepatic function. But there is clearly something else occurring, too. Certainly in other men I've seen it. There is something in certain abilities that is never far from--far from--" He looked out at the lake. "I cannot really know."
"No, please go on."
"Far from terror, perhaps. It is not such a rare phenonomenon, you see. I used to encounter it around the maths division when I was at university, and I have seen it here, even, in my little country practice. It seems to be quite primal. At its crudest, it is a bona fide paranoia. Plenty in the field are gone before the age of twenty. I've seen that, too. Perhaps it is a harbinger. I believe it to be physiological." He looked down. "I sometimes imagine it as God's revenge."
"Against mathematicians?"
"One must bear in mind that they might be considered spies." He was smiling now.
"By the Deity, you mean?"
"Indeed. Your dad's cantankerous nature, by the way--you know that this is his liver, too, don't you? And of course the drink plays a part in it--but it is also the man himself. The emotions are ablaze in him." He set down the bucket. "For people like you and me--well, we are shielded by all our damping circuitry. We maintain a cushion against the world, if you will. A comfort against the ravage. But I believe it is not so for him."
He regarded me. "Think of what life must be like for a mind like your father's. I mean, human existence is bounded by tragedy, is it not? And shot through with it, as well. I was born in Lahore, so I know this in a particular way. But your father, too--he knows it just as particularly, in his own way. I have learned to keep such thoughts somewhat at bay. And so have you. But for him, there is no ignoring it. There is no joy in God's creation. No pleasure in sunlight or water. No pleasure in a good meal. There is no pleasure in the company of friends. There is nothing. Nothing that might assuage the maw. He stands directly in its whirlwind. I've come to believe that this is the consequence of a brain like his."

It's a really good book. The characters are real. And, by the way, the mathematical gene, whatever it is, is passed down through the next two generations, undiluted.

But what about what the book purports to be saying about mathematicians? About how they are different and, unlike everyone else, destined to stand naked before the universe? Do you think that's really the case? What about musical prodigies? Physicists? Think of all the others who are outside the norm in some way: people who are gay, people who are obese, the deaf, the Kurds and Armenians in early-twentieth-century Turkey, the Yasidis and Arab Christians in Syria, or, for that matter, minorities generally or a downtrodden class. A rock star propelled into worldwide celebrity. I don't know about all their brains, but it could be said of many that they stand "directly in (the) whirlwind."

It is the fashion these days to politicize some of such differences and say they constitute a boundary between kinds of people that cannot be crossed. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. In this case, the highest-ranking Goodreads reviewer of A Doubter's Almanac is having none of it. Her review consists of one sentence saying she's sick of reading about male geniuses whose mental problems are an excuse to be assholes. Certainly, mathematical geniuses will never have sufficient mass to proclaim, "Mathematicians of the World Unite!"

Moreover, liberal democracies, although they are different from totalitarian societies in not policing our every move, are not so passive and laissez faire as some of our champions of "free will" think. Not at all. Instead, we internalize our norms, and although we prefer it to totalitarianism, our internal enforcers have teeth. Morality has its power component. In that way, we are each of us a minority placed on the Procrustean bed of our societies.

I am still of the view that we are all simply more human than otherwise.

Why else would we read a book like this, if we weren't considering something along the lines of what it means to be a human being? If we weren't learning something about ourselves, or perhaps reading a tragedy, the winning reviewer would be right.

A couple years ago I planned to read three books about mathematicians that had taken up residence in my stack. The first was The Mathematician's Shiva, the second was My Search for Ramanujan, and this is the third.

Five big stars. Recommended for anyone.

I'd considered the audiobook on this one, but after listening to a sample, something about the quality of the narration bothered me enough that I avoided it.

Addendum, September 29, 2018: Is the problem with unusual minds brain-based? The answer is still blowing in the wind.
Profile Image for Loring Wirbel.
292 reviews82 followers
December 13, 2015
Ethan Canin's novels have been concentrated and focused bits of historical fiction or naturalist studies, so hearing that he was inventing the life of a mathematician studying topography and non-Euclidian geometries left a feeling of trepidation - would he pull it off with grace? Many literate authors try science and math approaches that end up feeling like uncomfortable tourism. Only a deeply passionate author that is at the same time steeped in science can shake the rafters with a nerdy work, Richard Powers being the master of this particular trade. Canin suggests in the first third of the book that he will conquer this mix of analytical accuracy and gut-wrenching emotion, in fact conjuring a love affair that bears a slight resemblance to Powers' own The Gold Bug Variations. The reader slowly feels that Canin will do well learning at the feet of the master Powers.

But then, the book takes a radical shift less than halfway through, when the linear narrative of the mathematician is succeeded by the more disjointed and freer-flowing storytelling of his son. Both generations are flawed by different demons - father by alcoholism, a superficial interest in sexual conquest, and a brutal candid nature that allows no humility to enter; son by MDA and later cocaine, an obsession with quant performance at Wall Street hedge funds, and a willingness to excuse his father's behavior far too often. It is only the son's willingness to go through his own rehab that allows him to return to northern Michigan to take care of his father in the last months of dad's life.

By all rights, a device as brash as shifting the narrator should hobble the book, at least slightly. Canin's later-life experimentation as an author with mathematics should be shoddy, or at least rife with error. But Canin succeeds remarkably. He has studied topological and geometrical fields at great length, not simply to get the names of theories and mathematicians right, but to explain the emotional feeling of probing a problem. The clean break in narrative style midway through the book somehow becomes the most natural thing in the world.

In contrast to many highly-rated recent novels by the likes of Hallberg and Franzen, where plot lines are vast and themes are writ large, A Doubter's Almanac might be considered a small book, despite its 550 pages, because it focuses on the brokenness of a single family. But the sweep of Canin's language and emotional gestures is vast for a book so apparently small. The topics might seem well-worn: a father slowly dying, an ex-lover from college years coming back to bid farewell, a wife/mother valiantly trying to hold a family together yet rarely appreciated, a sister that must bear the full brunt of a father's alcoholism while never learning how to forgive - in lesser hands, these characters would be maudlin or downright corny. Canin provides a majesty so grand, he will captivate the reader. I wept through the last 80 pages, reconciling with the death of my own broken father two years ago.

Detached readers might feel a bit uncomfortable with a writer that grabs for heartstrings so explicitly, but Canin is not Nicholas Sparks. He delivers sucker punches. His latest book is sure to become one of the most highly praised of 2016.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
148 reviews2 followers
February 19, 2016
Best literary novel I've read in a couple of years. Hate to reduce it to a simple comparison, but if you need one think: Goldfinch + Prince of Tides. Can't rank it in comparison to Prince of Tides since it's been so long since I read that, but Doubter's Almanac comes before Goldfinch in my book. PS I hope this cover looks better on the hardcopy because looking at it electronically, I don't know what they were thinking!
Profile Image for Brandice.
860 reviews
July 26, 2020
A Doubter's Almanac was great! I really enjoyed the way this book was written and the story was interesting. There was a lot of sadness in the book, but it was a really great read, well worth the hype.
Profile Image for Barbara Hall.
200 reviews2 followers
March 4, 2016
Compelling, difficult, beautiful, heart wrenching: an epic novel of a father and son, both math geniuses, whose lives are driven and destroyed by their extraordinary gifts. Themes of love, family, and genius are explored. Though mathematical theorems are part of this novel, the reading experience is not lessened if the reader is not math oriented. At its core, this is a human story of deeply gifted and deeply troubled characters, who are realistically, yet sympathetically portrayed by the extraordinary talent of Ethan Canin. One of the best novels I've read thus far in 2016.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews767 followers
October 9, 2015
For seven years, ever since I read Canin’s AMERICA AMERICA, I’ve been waiting for the author’s next novel. The similarities of these two works are few, but stand out: the downward spiral of alcoholism, and the exploration of family through the generations. But, while AMERICA AMERICA examines the price of political aspirations and fatal flaws in a family (with some parallels to THE GREAT GATSBY), THE DOUBTER’S ALMANAC is more insular by virtue of its subject. The life of a brilliant mathematician is candidly revealed in all its essence. By nature, mathematicians are often asocial, or on the spectrum of social disorders, and Milo Andret is, in some ways, a classic example of a socially awkward introvert. His son, Hans, is also brilliant, also a mathematician, who followed a different path, albeit with some of the same demons following him. This is their story.

Part one, the first half, is the story of Milo. Part two is narrated by Hans, but is more expansive, about the effect of Milo on his family. Truth be told, there were a few times I wanted to give up in the first half. Although Canin creates an authentic atmosphere, with his knowledge of mathematics, topology, physics, and other related fields (it is imperative to substantiate the protagonist’s talents, otherwise it is disingenuous), the story periodically ground to a halt, with the excess of theorems and data. The obscure or esoteric information may have been integral to Andret’s character, but it also dragged the story down. Also, Andret's behavior patterns were reiterated too often, and it became almost stifling.

Moreover, Andret’s alcoholism and heinous traits became alienating at times. Milo’s story became repetitive and often sequestered—and the author’s text so ponderous, labored, and verbose—that I questioned the desire to continue. In some ways, the stilted monotony reminded me of Joshua Ferris’s THE UNNAMED—a character who repeats his behaviors day after day, with no generous payoff to the reader. But, then again, I felt a spark, secreted and as yet undisclosed, that urged me to read on. Underlying the personal demons is the feeling of being irrelevant. As an exceptional mathematician, one is aware of the fact, mathematically, of irrelevance.

“A molecule in the sea. An iota. That’s all he was. He’d spent the good part of his life angling for a single glance at nature’s scriptural code and yet was at every moment nothing more than an abject slave to its billions of unnamed postulates. That was the joke…It was in his nature to get jokes late.”

Perhaps, part of the problem was the lack of levity. When something did have humor, it was typically sour, cynical, angry humor. A book of almost 600 pages can suffer when it’s all told through drama and earnest seriousness, especially when the narrator is telling a contemporary story about the vicissitudes of his family. But, in part two, the story picks up, and there was lightness through the darkest moments, maybe a sense of optimism at times. And the pace picked up, as it also captured and developed more characters, such as Andret’s wife and children, as well as Hans’s life as an adult with a wife and children. It allows for more reflection, too, in the latter section. The characters are sympathetic, relatable, in contrast to the first section of the book.

This is predominantly a slow read, requiring patience. I am glad that I didn’t give into my temptation to skim; if I had, I would have missed the more nuanced temperament and texture of the second half. The gradual exposé and confession of a uniquely talented family unfolds, and the universal periods of torment and happiness that even undistinguished individuals can relate to are well demonstrated.

“My life was all still nothing more than the world that had presented itself to me. And what had presented itself to me…seemed no more significant to my future than what I had experienced for all the years before.”

If you stick with it, there are notable rewards. Along the way, there are some juicy passages.

“His thoughts were the ship on whose prow he stationed himself while the ice-strewn seas leaped and dived below. They were matters of calculatedly outrageous assumption, elephantine diligence, missilelike prophecy, and an unending, unruly wager regarding their eventual worth; they were going to be attacked with branching, incremental logic, and met after months of toil…by either the maniacal astonishment of discovery or by the shame-tipped dart of folly…I knew it even as a teenager.”

Profile Image for David Lutes.
78 reviews
April 4, 2016
A parallax is a shift in perspective which reveals an object's relation to other objects. Canin employs the astronomical concept of parallax to the narrative structure of A Doubter's Almanac to bring us, surprisingly, a novel of family, love, and tenderness. The narrator does not change, but a mid-book perspective shift gives us a more intimate look at the relationships to Milo, a mathematician so brilliant he never bothers with things like kindness or empathy. The beginning of the book is a pleasure to read with rockstar mathematician Milo dominating his field in angelic assent. The latter half is a more gritty look at the dark side of the Andret family genius. Canin has packed so much into this dense and weighty novel that it shines in many various and surprising ways. It's about genius, man's relationship to nature, family, addiction, love, struggle, achievement, failure, and on and on. A Doubter's Almanac is a beautiful book and the best I've read in quite a long time.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews127k followers
February 17, 2016
This is a fantastic multigenerational novel about a family of geniuses. Having big brains may help people solve math problems and understand science, but when it comes to love and compassion, the Andret family is lacking in that department. The patriarch is a mean s.o.b. and his son, Hans, is doomed to follow in his footsteps unless he turns his life around. I am a sucker for big, beautiful dysfunctional family sagas, and this one is just what I needed.

Tune in to our weekly podcast dedicated to all things new books, All The Books: http://bookriot.com/category/all-the-...
Profile Image for Ann-Marie "Cookie M.".
1,111 reviews121 followers
April 18, 2020
I give this book 4 1/2 rounded up to 5, although I admit it will not rate that high for most people. "A Doubter's Almanac" is the story of topological mathematical genius and the havoc and madness it brings to a family.

Topology is the study of geometrical something-or-others, too complex for my poor brain to comprehend. My abilities lie in other areas of mathematics. You cannot lose yourself in finding replicating patterns, or, I can't. Or, if I do, I always find my way home again.

I don't know why there is something entrancing to me about the idea of a mind that is so entrapped by minute reality that daily life and neurotypical reality are impossible to deal with.

The family in this story is at once tragic and yet delightful, disfunctional, yet super capable of playing the hand with which they were dealt, each generation doing a bit better than the one previous.
Profile Image for Anne Ross.
Author 2 books91 followers
March 6, 2016
I really tried (150 pages and a peek into Part 2) but just could not follow this protagonist any farther. Ron Charles wrote in his very positive review, "Milo isn’t an easy character to like or even to sympathize with, and Canin takes a considerable risk in plotting his slow demise to the millionth decimal point." And that's exactly why I put the book down.
Profile Image for Lisa Roberts.
1,477 reviews
February 25, 2016
This is a great story with fabulous characters and character development. I have not read Ethan Canin for many years, maybe it's been years since he wrote a new book, but this huge novel, almost 600 pages or 19 hours of listening, is worth the time you'll invest.

It's the story of a mathematician and his family. Milo is a genius, or savant, or brilliant or whatever label you want to put on his gift for mathematics and that gift or curse is passed down in his family. To the reader he is a confusing character because I vascillated between loving him, wanting to push him off a cliff and wanting to wrap my arms around him and make him see his madness.

It is difficult to read about Milo's wife and what she must endure and how she protects or tries to protect their children. This begins the second half of the book; a focus on Milo's son, Hans and his life with Milo and then trying to see his life without Milo as Milo spins out of control.

I loved these characters, flawed as they were. Excellent writing.
Profile Image for Lolly K Dandeneau.
1,846 reviews232 followers
September 18, 2015
When I mentioned in a status update that this is like a heavy coat, I meant it.
"Something in his brain picked up disturbance acutely." In this case, the disturbance was his own genius. His research makes him legendary, his mind complicates every relationship in his life, collecting enemies, supporters, lovers and self-doubt along the way. Drowning in his own brilliance, fighting his own ambition and succumbing to failures we find a man so seeped in his own constantly churning mind that he destroys the ones who love him most.
The early years are beautiful as Milo Andret wanders the enchanting woods of Michigan, seduced by nature and it's welcoming solitude. Like creatures watching Milo from the trees, the readers are privy to the hive of a gifted mind, as close as most of us will ever get. Through the years, Milo's thoughts are like bee stings and while the work is everything, life (other people) will never be denied entrance and break into his unique world disrupting all his plans.
Milo gets in his own way, and once he has a family his darker side eclipses his brilliance. The reader feels disgust and a strange empathy for him but it is impossible not to rage against his cruelty toward his wife and children. Milo lashes out at Helena (his wife), making her seem feeble minded and while she isn't able to understand his work- her greatness is her humanity. Helena is not, after-all, the fragile one in the story and may well be the greatest love he could ever have hoped for. Abuse her, Milo does- with his honesty, his distance, his self-indulgence and most of all with his battle against his own mind.
The second half of the novel is told from Hans, his grown son's perspective, who is filled with similar struggles and addictions. The ache of the novel is here, when his child speaks of loving such a man and having so much of his father inside himself. His daughter Paulette (Paulie) has a different view of the 'great father', always dismissed though she too was mathematically gifted, or cursed depending on how you see it. The novel weighs heavy on the heart, not a bit of lightness here as it is an excavation of Milo's life and every person that was shackled to him willingly or by fate. I've been finished for a day and still find myself in awe of the character (because there are such brilliant people) and in sympathy with the fictional beings that surrounded him. It explores the struggles of genius and how others cope, those with similar gifts and those without. Milo is the one who steals the oxygen out of any room, he is the unpredictable hurricane and his family the roots trying to remain grounded amidst the chaos. A Doubter's Almanac has to be digested by each read as everyone will find themselves provoked in different ways. The humor for me is loving a book that spends quite a bit of time in math, where I feel like a simpleton. Yet, this isn't a 'math' book by any means. This is one of the best books I have read this year.
About Helena "She was a kind woman, my mother, forgiving to a fault; but she was also vexed for a good part of her life by a loyalty and a hampering self-consciousness that could seem like a prison."
Hans- "I don't blame my father for ignoring my descent- he had his own ruin to think about."
Milo's brain really is unraveling and we are, for a time, able to slip into the cracks as his world splits open.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,445 reviews334 followers
October 8, 2015
In the Woods of Michigan It was serendipity; I was Up North in Michigan, a stone's throw from a spring fed pond, two hours away from Cheboygan--reading a book whose character's life took him from Cheboygan to a cabin on a small inland lake in Michigan. The character also lived in Lansing, where I lived for many years, in a small Ohio college town similar to where we lived when my husband was in seminary, a half hour's drive from OSU, and in Princeton, a half hour's drive from where we first lived in Pennsylvania. The landscape was all so familiar.

The book was A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin who also wrote America, America which I read several years ago, an impressive book which has stayed with me. When Canin's new book appear on NetGalley I immediately requested it and was pleased to get an ARC.

The book revolves around an unforgettable character and the son who struggles to understand him. It is about the search for one's father, a quest to understand life and how to live, an exploration of existence.

A Savant from the Woods In the 1950s Milo Andret grew up fifteen miles inland from the resort town of Cheboygan. His parents were insular and joyless. Milo spent his free hours in the woods surrounding his home, preferring to be alone than with people.

When Milo was thirteen he found a beech tree felled in a storm. Inside the tree he envisioned an interlocked, continual chain and he spent the summer carving it out. Over 25 feet long, each link twisted upon itself like a Mobius strip, he secreted it away in a hollow tree behind a cover with reversed screw threads. It would be his life's magnus opus.

He eventually showed the chain to his shop instructor who warned that no one would believe he made it. The year the freighter SS Carl D. Bradley sank along with the fathers of many of his classmates Milo was targeted and beaten by bullies who had heard of his remarkable achievement. His father's response was, "Welcome to the world."

A teacher identifies Milo's special ability and pushes him into a mathematics competition; his winning would bring fame to the school. He won.

Milo attended university in East Lansing and after years of pumping gas in Lansing is accepted into U.C. Berkley. It is the 1970s and Milo discovers love and ambition, addiction and competition.

Pressed into topology by his advisor Milo solves a mathematical problem and finds fame and a position at Princeton. Milo is expected to conquer another mathematical question. His days are spent deep in thought, imagining and testing and failing to find another big idea. His life becomes a slow dance of unraveling into darkness, alcoholism, and decline. He loses his position at Princeton and slides down the scale until he is at a small Ohio private school. Milo has won the Field Medal in Mathematics but his theory is challenged. As Milo tells his son, mathematicians are destined to lose, never able to find what they are looking for.

The Son, Fellow Mathematician, Addict, Lonely Yet Ever-hopeful Soul The first part of the novel is Milo's early story; in the second part we learn his son Hans has related the story as his father told it to him. We now view Milo through the eyes of the son who desperately wants to understand his father and we learn about Han's own struggles with genius and addiction.

When Hans was thirteen his father takes the family to a wreck of a cabin on a muddy Michigan lake. It was in the Michigan woods that he completed his first great work, the continual chain of wood. He thinks that here he will find his way again. Nature surrounds them. The children watch a pair of red ants drag their prey across the sand and realize the truth about life.

Milo is incommunicative and prey to his demons while his wife plays Pollyanna, looking for the bright side, trying to make choices right. But she is wearing out, ruing the loss of the glamor of being married to an important man, living in Princeton. Her bitterness is expressed in wise insights. When Hans remarks that the Mayflies seem to be committing suicide in pairs she responds that he is right: they are mating. And later when daughter Paulie asks why clean a rented house her mother replies because that's what life is--cleaning a rented house.

The story ends with Hans returning to the lake cottage to be with his father who is in his last days, Everyone who ever believed in Milo, for however short a time, and everyone who ever doubted him, for however long a time also come. It is a time of reckoning.

Milo Andret is not an easy man to live with, and I mean both within the novel and for the reader. While I was reading The Doubter's Almanac I would wake, at night, and in the morning, puzzling over Milo and wondering if he would solve the questions tormenting him.

It is a dark novel, a hard story. Milo is a failure. He dies over a long time, beginning with the first drink he takes at grad school. Unable to meet his own high expectations and the expectations of his mentors he lashes out indiscriminately. It isn't easy being a genius; people hold them to unreasonably high standards. He holds on to his alcoholism more ardently than he does his lovers.

Days have passed since I finished the novel but the somber and sorrowful feeling lingers. I think of the alcoholics of my family. I think of my father's slow death from cancer, and how my mother asked for morphine knowing she'd never wake again, but unwilling to suffer any longer. After such things sorrow remains, and the questions of life's meaning or lack thereof. I wonder if having a special ability necessitates extraordinary achievement. Had Milo chosen his own path would he have been dissatisfied and driven? I want to read the book again. It is deep and rich and revealing.

The novel offers hope: one can learn, we can become wise, we can choose a good enough life, we can decide that fun and happiness are more enduring than awards and prizes.

Never give up, Milo has instructed Hans. What is it we should hold to, to not give up? Our decision will form our life.

I received a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,894 reviews431 followers
October 19, 2016
I finally finished 'A Doubter's Almanac', which is a character study of a genius family. Reader, we are supposed to be sad for this family, maybe, but I felt only disgust. The family, and most critics, had a higher toleration for the spoiled prima donna who begins the tale, who gradually spins out of control taking down the happiness of his wife and kids than I have. Plus, I was plain bored with the ordinary foibles

Despite the high-quality literary craftsmanship with which the author Ethan Canin has polished his story of a sour genius, mathematician Milo Andret, to me the main character Milo is a disgusting sh*t, undeserving of any admiration or sympathy by his family or us readers. He is a dreadful, cruel, vicious, nasty self-centered selfish waste of a human being, completely not worthy of his wife's or his son and daughter's love or affection. I wanted to spit on him, but I'll settle for writing a spittle-drenched review.

The entire book revolves around this genius misanthropic emotionally-abusive knuckle-dragging mouth-breather. Oh, he doesn't hurt by physical violence, gentle reader, he uses neglect and rage, when he isn't demanding sex from women who attract him. Awful social skills arouse pity from a number of characters who don't know any better about how poisonous these chronic sufferers of self-pity or anxious boredom can be to everyone around these monsters. Instead, people react instinctively with sympathy or interest expecting a sad past or some tragedy to be haunting Milo. The only tragedy may be that he could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but his selfish demanding solipsism despite his genius and stature quite killed my sympathy. There may be a bottomless pit inside of Milo drowning him, but it can't be filled even if the entire universe were poured into him, much less love, caring and respect.

If it wasn't for the glowing recommendations of many GR members I would never have finished reading 'A Doubter's Almanac'. Some of the reviews mentioned the book got better in the second half, and these reviewers were correct. There are beautiful descriptions and sentences which are a delight to see. The author is a talented writer, but ultimately I found his subject intolerably lame. However, no doubt the two different styles of writing between the first half and the second half of the novel, and the two shifts of point-of-view, helped Literature and other critics and readers decide this is a high quality book and an interesting study of the internal dynamics of a dysfunctional upper-class, highly-educated family of mathematical geniuses.

I felt the sympathy that Milo receives from many other characters in the book, all of whom bend backwards to excuse, help, forgive or reward Milo's bad behavior because he is a genius, or their father, is seriously misplaced. Milo should have been left on his own to drink himself to death.

The first half of the book, a narrative describing the birth, childhood, parents and University career of Dr. Milo Andret, winner of a major award and world-famous for his proof of the Malosz Theory, which changes the face of topological space mathematics

Hans, Milo's son, makes more money than his father from his mathematical genius . Hans tells his life story - birth, childhood, career and marriage - in the second half of the book. I found his narration much more palatable

Apologies, Ethan Canin fans. I found this genius Milo nothing more than a lower life form similar to the virus which caused smallpox -very special, but nobody has missed it much since it was exterminated from Earth.
Profile Image for Mike W.
162 reviews21 followers
July 15, 2016
3.5 stars.

Good fiction is about the business of being human. A Doubter's Almanac is in some sense about the business of being super-human. Milo Andret is a socially backward and mostly unremarkable youth but for an innate sense of direction and some visuo-spatial reasoning skills. It isn't until college that these skills and others manifest as mathematics genius and he's "recognized" by a UC Berkely professor who brings Milo into their math department as a PhD.student.

Young and mostly innocent, Milo begins to tackle very complicated math. We're talking the kind of complicated that leaves just a handful of people able to even discuss and understand it (think Will Hunting). As Milo's talents allow him to make significant, prize winning progress in mathematics, he also begins to mature in worldly ways, learning to love women and whiskey, and not necessarily in that order. Milo's genius attracts many quality people to him, but his awkwardness persists and seems to be the source of behavior that wouldn't be tolerated in others by self-respecting people.

The first portion of the novel is a third person account of Milo and his developments while the majority of the novel is a first person account told from the perspective of Milo's son, Hans Andret, also very gifted, also a mathematician. Where the first portion of the book builds a sense of awe and foreboding, the second is a front row seat to a train wreck, confirmation that the earlier angst was warranted.

Readers who have had their own personal share of family drama and dysfunction may well be agitated with the remainder of the novel. It is not pleasant, it is not pretty. It does feel authentic in its portrayal of a man with a great mind that is not armed with a proper mechanism to cope with his understanding of the universe or to empathetically interact with his fellow man, even those he is supposed to love the most.

Canin is a fantastic writer, and he has taken great pains to make the mathematics accessible to all. In fact, is not required that anyone understand math to understand this novel. Recognizing the depths of your own ignorance actually adds to the sense of amazement that builds around Milo's abilities. But this isn't a novel about math anyway, it's about people, and understanding Milo's behavior at times can be more confusing than any mathematical problem he tackles. The result is a well written novel that evokes a wide range of emotions. The fact that many of those emotions are painful or difficult makes this a complicated read that will please many but may prove too arduous for some.
Profile Image for Erika.
63 reviews12 followers
February 17, 2016
4.5 stars.

This book was exactly what I had hoped it would be: the first sprawling, epic dysfunctional-family saga of 2016 (at least of what I've read!). I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be thinking about Canin's cast of characters for a long time.

The story first follows Milo Andret, a scarily-talented mathematician whose path through life is anything but a straight line, and then follows his son Hans, a man who is both blessed with similar talent and cursed with similar demons. Along the way, Canin ponders some pretty big questions about the nature of "Genius" - Does a person's exceptional talent somehow make their horrible behavior more forgivable? What constitutes an appropriate use of that talent? And, in the end, is the label of "Genius" worth what it costs?

If you're someone who needs all of the characters to be likable in order to enjoy the book, then this is not the book for you. Milo is, at times, a world-class asshole, and there was one scene where he treated his family so poorly that I wanted to throw the book across the room. But when I finished this book, I felt like I had been through something important with these characters and was sorry to see them go. I can't ask for much more from a book, and that's why I think this is one of the best books I've read in awhile.
Profile Image for Daryl.
637 reviews17 followers
January 11, 2016
I won an advanced reader's copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads program. What a wonderful, sprawling novel. It centers around the life of Milo Andret, a brilliant mathematician, from his childhood in the woods of Michigan throughout his life in academia and beyond. A significant portion of the plot relies on Andret's attempts to find proof for a certain mathematical formula (this, and several other mathematical theorems, as far as my limited research can tell, is a fictional creation). If that sounds somewhat dry, it's not. The book is not about math, but about Milo. And Milo is a fascinating character: brilliant, abrasive, anti-social, curmudgeonly, and seemingly incapable of maintaining a relationship with another human being. The writing is masterful, and while the reader may not like Milo as a person, I was very intrigued to find out what would happen to him next. About halfway through the novel, the viewpoint switches to Milo's son, whose life and problems feel a bit more typical and less interesting. I felt the plot line dragged a little at this point, but it quickly gets back to Milo. This was a wonderful, thick (at 550 pages) novel that seldom let me down. Easily 4 1/2 stars.
Profile Image for Becca Chopra.
Author 4 books35 followers
November 14, 2015
The back cover copy on this book is totally accurate - I found Ethan Canin's latest novel "mesmerizing." I'm not a mathematician, not even interested in math, but the author made me interested. Surely Canin had to have background in this field because he takes us into the mind of a genius in the field of topology and his progeny that share this gift/curse. Indeed, when I looked up the author to learn more of his background, he had been an mechanical engineering major before switching to creative writing.

In an interview, Canin said he "had taken physics and math classes for my first two years before idly stumbling one day onto the collected stories of John Cheever, a thick red paperback book that changed my life. Perhaps it was the normal maturation of a brain, but suddenly as a sophomore in college I decided that the fixity of engineering, the precision and derivability that had so drawn me as an eighteen-year-old, was now limiting. I wanted a field in which nobody, not even the experts, knew anything. This field, I understood, was writing."

In The Doubter's Almanac, Canin looks at the brain of a mathematician and, whether or not you care for the field, he makes you care about the characters who struggle with their genius and obsession with solving proofs at the expense of living normal lives. What he obviously experienced himself in terms of the limitations and fixity of engineering and math is beautifully expressed in the unusual life of Milo Andret and then his son. I would say it is written in the style of John Cheever - simple events written in spectacular prose.

I don't often want the heft of a 550-page book for a plane ride, but this book made one of the longest flights I've ever taken one of the most enjoyable. I highly recommend this look at genius and its dark side, and the intriguing family with its exceptional talents.
Profile Image for Allen Adams.
517 reviews29 followers
February 17, 2016

“Talent is a flame. Genius is a fire.” – Bernard Williams

What is the true cost of genius? How does a single-minded fanatical brilliance impact the rest of one’s life? What effects does it have on interpersonal relationships and one’s sense of self? Great problems require great solutions, but those solutions can often prove to be obstacles in their own right.

Ethan Canin’s “A Doubter’s Almanac” tells the tale of the issues raised by the obsessive genius of one particularly gifted family.

Milo Andret’s is a unique and powerful mind. From a young age, he saw and understood the world in ways that few others ever have. His academic career led him to the tumultuous campus of Berkeley in the 1970s. Even there, walking alongside other immensely gifted individuals, he is an outlier, both intellectually and emotionally.

His masterwork comes when he solves the Malosz Conjecture – a long-standing mathematical mystery that has thwarted generations on mathematicians. That solution allows Milo to write his own ticket; it lands him on the faculty at Princeton University and results in his being awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.

But Milo’s genius is a troubled one. He struggles to follow up on his one big discovery. Soon, he is drinking too much and making numerous poor decisions with regards to the opposite sex. This combination of factors ultimately results in a great fall – one that drops him from the dizzying heights of Princeton and world renown to a pitiable job teaching math at a tiny Ohio Baptist college.

And Milo isn’t the only one punished for his actions. His family – his long-suffering wife Helena and his children Niels and Paulette – also must suffer the consequences. As the once-great man grows older and exponentially bitterer, his children are left to determine how they will choose to deal with the vast intellectual gifts that are their genetic inheritance.

The book’s second half follows Niels as he deals with the aftermath of being raised by the self-loathing Milo. He manages to exploit his gifts in a positive way, but only after struggling against many of the same demons faced by his father. Ultimately, Niels finds himself once again alongside his father, doing his best to salvage and rebuild their relationship before it is too late.

Genius is rarely without consequences in fiction, but “A Doubter’s Almanac” offers up a particularly brutal take on the true impact of that genius – not just on the person him or herself, but also on the secondary and tertiary figures in that person’s orbit. And make no mistake – the interpersonal gravitational pull of true genius is powerful indeed, drawing people in and trapping them, for better or worse, in a place where relationship dynamics will rarely (if ever) be anything other than a one-way street.

Canin is a masterful writer, creating rich and textured connections between his characters. Romantic relationships, mentor-mentee interactions, family dynamics – all are addressed with both broad strokes and nuanced detail. It’s fascinating; while the narrative is largely driven by the intellectual nature of mathematical pursuits, the beating heart of the story springs from people. It’s a delicate balance – one that the author strikes beautifully again and again.

The agonies inherent to ambition are also never far from the forefront. Whether it is Milo’s early striving or his later desperation, his naked hunger for greatness is inescapable. That hunger is hopelessly entwined with every interaction, whether it is with a lover or a peer, a wife or a child; his yearning effects and infects every relationship he has.

“A Doubter’s Almanac” is itself 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. Ethan Canin combines delicately muscular prose stylings with a narrative that engrosses on levels both intellectual and emotional.
249 reviews5 followers
February 25, 2016
An incredible literary tour-de-force! This is one of those books you keep reading long after your bedtime, unwilling to put it down. Beautifully written, elegantly conceived, and brilliantly plotted . I highly recommend this family saga! From Amazon:In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the New York Times bestselling 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.”
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