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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

This book, which takes its title from a Descartes quote stressing the importance of doubt in the pursuit of truth, is a  tightly focused and powerful book.  Unfortunately for me,  I really did not like anyone in it.  The ability to like characters is not a key to success in a novel (thank goodness, in many respects), but there is a lot that is very painful about each and everyone of these characters.  They encompass, en total, some of the big pitfalls to the human condition.  The prevalence of substance abuse that runs through the novel is another reason that it can be hard to muster up a lot of compassion--which is odd, because in many instances the descent into alcohol or something mind altering is something that brings out the helper in a reader, but these characters are unlikable enough that when they get into trouble, I just didn't want to help them, I just waited for fate to run its course.
The novel tells the story of Milo Andret's life, from a solitary 1950s childhood in the woods of northern Michigan through his academic years of feverish productivity and being awarded the prestigious Fields Medal. It also tracks his frustrations, thwarted in love at Berkeley and confounded by a devilishly difficult problem at Princeton before a disgraced return to the Midwest.  The book covers a lot of points of view en route, and that is its strength, although inevitably I liked some view points better than others.  A very thought provoking book that is well worth a read.

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