The Fine Line Between Math and Poetry

After reading the two works featured in this issue of Bookisshh, I realized there is a fine line between math and poetry.  Both disciplines seek to capture and describe all things available to our understanding within the cosmos.  Greater the facility we gain with either, the more we seek to describe.   The more we describe, we learn how our words and systems fail us.  Poets and mathematicians live and die trying to establish a sense of essence.  This week’s authors Ethan Canin and Olga Grushin come pretty close in their depiction of both. 

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While math is able to describe all things present and absent from the world a man discovers that no matter how much time is spent, there isn’t enough time to do so…  Ethan Canin makes this crystal clear as he bridges art and science in, “A Doubter’s Almanac.”  This is the story of fathers and sons, geniuses and spouses, and mathematicians striving to solve significant problems.

Part One, narrated in third person introduces readers to Milo Andret, mathematician and Topology genius accomplishing his best work in the woods of Cheboygan, Michigan.  Milo immerses himself in nature and uses his intuition to construct from a Beech tree, a unique and flawless example of math principle, the Malosz Conjecture.  As a result, Milo is discovered and noted as a brilliant mathematician (post high school) and is invited to UCLA.  During his study, Milo explores the cognition expanding nature of hallucinogenics.  Canin uses the opportunity of Milo’s drug-infused trips to immerse readers in visual and arithmetic explanations of people, places and things much akin to the images created by MC Escher.  Readers experience the ill combination of the drug-induced too rational mind as it relates negatively to lovers, peers, mentors and family.  An omnipresent theme is the enabling effect created by supporters and admirers of Milo the genius. The enabler’s experience however, is disclosed during bittersweet moments of those who suffer their sacrifices.  Meanwhile, Milo climbs up the genius ladder to Princeton and it is there he falls off.

During Part Two of “A Doubter’s Almanac” a narrative shift occurs from third to first person point of view.  As narrator, Hans Euyler Andret, son of Milo steps forward and shares the story of his father.  In doing so, readers discover that like his father, Hans struggles with addiction and giftedness.  Part Two toggles back and forth between Hans’ evolution and Milo’s decline.  There are moments when their stories merge and clarity is not accessible for readers.  During these chapters, man’s learning how to die is artfully detailed with a fine, fine-toothed comb.  It is gut-wrenching how we go from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  *Note to the reader: breaks and walks are recommended for this part of the book.  What can be gleaned from this part of the book is our differentiating ability as a species to know and be able to love.  Further, that love allows us to forgive and encourages us to forget regardless of rational extremes.

“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a gorgeous exemplification of the esoteric nature of math in all its expressions known and unknown to our ever expanding minds.  However, it was too long and the movement of story was too disjointed.  Canin develops and forgets his readers sometimes.  We forgive him due to his beautiful prose.  As a final note, his treatment of women reminds one of the insufficient representation of women in the world of math and genius.  Canin portrays them as enablers, supporters and genderless librarain types.  It is possible for women to extrapolate from their paternal excellence and exceed their efforts and Canin frugally suggest such.  Still it remains a good story and entirely worth the time spent reading it.

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“Forty Rooms” is a startling example of all that writing can be. “Forty Rooms” is a work to savor rather than devour. Unfortunately, Grushin doesn’t exercise restraint in choosing which gorgeous aspect of her craft to use and when. Many varied type and technique of writing is kneaded into this novel.

The narrative employs forty rooms within which critical moments of a woman’s life are dramatized. At the onset of several chapters an common object is detailed as a point of entry.  Using lengthy dialogues about said objects metaphors for life’s impediments are revealed to the reader.  Readers learn how this woman, who spends her life in these 40 rooms keeps her creative talents at bay as she chooses domesticity.

Using enchantments, citing Russian philosophers and poets, Grushin gives us a glimpse into the old country becoming anew through the changing generations. She shows us the tensions of assimilating into a lifestyle not before known. “Forty Rooms” is rich in aspects I enjoy in writing: sensory description, prose, poetry, philosophy and twinkles of history.

The average reader may not desire to savor Grushin’s words and rather may feel put upon to extend their imagination too broadly.  The average reader may miss the opportunity to see Grushin create beauty during the acts of living and dying. Not being the average reader, I will likely read another of Olga Grushin’s works, but will plan ahead and reserve time, as time is what’s needed to enjoy her work.

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