Circe by Madeline Miller (♦♦♦♦)

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Granddaughter of Oceanus, daughter of Titan Helios and sea nymph Perseid, Circe was different from the start. While her siblings discovered their unique gifts very early on and gained their independence—either by claiming their inheritance, like Perses and Aëstes, or by marriage to a wealthy demigod, like Pasiphäe—, Circe remained among her family in the halls of the gods. Her love for young fisherman Glaucus changed everything. Circe used a potion to transform Glaucus into a worthy suitor. Glaucus, seeing his station changed, fell in love with one Circe’s cousins, a sea nymph named Scylla. Out of jealousy, Circe put a potion on Scylla’s bath and, unintendedly, transformed her into a monster. Circe’s confession forced Helios to go to see Zeus, for witchcraft is something that gods fear can tip the balance of power. Zeus declared an eternal banishment for Circe from the halls of the gods to the island of Aiaia.

Exile was not easy but, as Circe learned, it had its advantages; being away f…

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin (♦♦♦♦)


Milo Andret, only child of a rather unusual couple, grew up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s. His parents’ lack of supervision gave him the freedom to roam the woods at length, and an unusual depth of mind and unique orientation skills developed in consequence. With the years, Milo developed an interest in mathematics and was admitted to UC Berkely as a graduate student. The Chairman recognized himself in Milo and steered him towards the research field that would him eventually earn him the Fields Medal.

Though not entirely popular, as a graduate student at Berkely and later as an assistant professor at Princeton, his savant mind garnered him praise, but in the California of the 1970s, Milo discovered the pleasures of the flesh and the dangerous allure of drugs and alcohol; the latter would become a demon that would derail his career and affect two more generations of his descendants.

I seem to have gravitated towards books on ‘people fighting their demons’ since the start of this year. This is unintended. I accepted The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson without knowing what it was about and I ended up liking it a great deal; I’m happy to report that I liked A Doubter’s Almanac just as well. For the most part of this year, if not all, I intend to read some of this year’s book releases and catch up with some reading of ARCs provided to me by Netgalley in the past; this is the first post towards that goal.

I requested this novel because the protagonist was a mathematician, but the few concepts that the author explains through his characters are basically abstract mathematics, thus one does not need a science background to understand and appreciate this novel. A Doubter’s Almanac is not only a novel about the curse of genius in three generations of the same family, but it is also a heartbreaking—and at times hilarious—personal and family saga spanning fifty plus years, covering all along themes such as the fine divide between genius and madness, drug and alcohol abuse, a love triangle, spousal cheating, obsession, betrayal of trust, and how life’s achievements are and should be measured.

A Doubter’s Almanac may be about the lives of a few mathematicians, but it is written in a very lyrical prose. The novel is divided into two parts, with each chapter—further divided into bite size subchapters—titled as a method to develop a mathematical proof. I have to say that I was misguided by that, because I assumed it was going to be a novel about success, but it is actually quite the opposite. That said, reading A Doubter’s Almanac does not feel like a chore, perhaps because despite Milo’s many flaws, he is a fascinating character to read about, so much so that I loved more the first part in which he was practically the only driving force, and less the second part in which the author pulled off a 180° and changed the focus of the story.

I usually don’t attach a high rating to novels with flat-line storylines. I call that to those plots that don’t seem to go anywhere even though I enjoy them throughout. There are no highs or lows in those stories, and they become pointless after a while. I thought that this novel was going to be like that but it ended up being more fulfilling than I thought it would be after the author pulled that 180°. In other words, that switch most likely saved the novel from sameness.

Disclaimer: I received from the publisher a free e-galley of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Comments

  1. Carmen, you have made me want to read this. And thanks for sharing your reading goals for the year.

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    1. It is a fascinating novel about a fascinating character.

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  2. Nice review. Sounds like Milo had a rough life with a rise and then many downs. Do you like novels about mathematicians or scientists? Sometimes when stories change focus - I don't like that but it seems this one stayed on with you. I haven't read this author yet but have seen his books around. Glad you got to this one.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. Yes, Milo had it rough, and so did his son. I like novels about scientists but don't find many of those. The switch was successful but it took me some time to like the new direction; I liked more part I that focused on Milo almost exclusively. The second part was about his family life.

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  3. I've heard of this author, but I've never read one of his books before. This sounds like a great book!

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    1. It was, though it may not be everyone's cup of tea. :-)

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  4. Great review. Glad this turned out well and turned you around.
    Lynn :D

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    1. Thanks, Lynn. It did; the switch in the POV paid off.

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