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On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction [Hardcover]

Karl Iagnemma
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 29 2003
Winner of the Paris Review Discovery Prize for best first fiction and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2002, Karl Iagnemma has been recognized as a writer of rare talent. His literary terrain is the world of science, with its charged boundary between the rational mind and the restless heart.

In Iagnemma’s stories, mathematicians and theoreticians, foresters and doctors, yearn to create bonds as steadfast as the equations and principles that anchor their lives. A frustrated academic tries to diagram his troubled relationship with his girlfriend but fails to create a formula for romance. A nineteenth-century phrenologist must reexamine the connection between knowledge and passion when a young con-woman beats him at his own game. A jaded professor dreams endlessly of his two obsessions: a beautiful former colleague and the theorem that made her famous.

Inventive, wise, funny, and disquieting, Karl Iagnemma’s first collection attests to his spirited imagination and his prodigious literary gifts.


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From Publishers Weekly

The meticulousness of science and mathematics is applied to the mysteries of love in Iagnemma's debut collection, which features eight complex, multilayered stories in which protagonists try to balance the demands of the heart against their need for rational, orderly thinking. The title story introduces a young academic who tries to formulate a series of mathematical equations he can use to force his willful, libidinous girlfriend to make a commitment to him. Some of the stories are period pieces. In "The Phrenologist's Dream," a 19th-century phrenologist falls in love with a former female client who seduces him and then makes off with his valuable set of skulls. In "Zilkowski's Theorem," a pair of Boston mathematicians vie for the attention of the same woman, then end up betting their professional future on the outcome of a Red Sox game. An idealistic, creative young couple find their dreams humorously compromised in "The Confessional Approach," one of the few stories that abandons the science theme; impending poverty forces the couple to sell the woman's finely crafted wooden mannequins to the owner of a shooting range, where they become targets for gun hobbyists. Elegant, witty and concise, Iagnemma's stories precisely capture the hopelessly imprecise nature of love.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Iagnemma, a research scientist at MIT, is a rising star among short story writers, having won both a Pushcart Prize and a coveted spot in last year's Best American Short Stories [BKL S 15 02]. His debut collection explores the places where faith, love, and science all intersect. In "Zilkowski's Theorem," a mathematician deliberates revealing a secret that could boost his career at the expense of the reputation of the woman he loves. In "The Phrenologist"s Dream," set in the nineteenth century, a traveling phrenologist has his heart stolen (along with his collection of porcelain skulls) by a beautiful, hairless woman. In the moving story "The Ore Miner's Wife," a naive Christian bride, fearing a moral lapse on the part of her husband, destroys papers that contain his potentially important geometrical theories. And in "Kingdom, Order, Species," a female forester resorts to breaking and entering in order to meet the reclusive author of an introductory textbook on botany; she hopes the encounter may offer answers to why her love life and career never seem to blossom. These intelligent, quirky, and suspenseful stories offer proof of Iagnemma's stunning talent. James Klise
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointing April 3 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
A disappointing collection of paint-by-numbers short stories. The collection is about half contemporary academia grad-student romances and half odd-ball Victorian historical romance; neither half is sufficiently well done to represent an advance in either (admittedly tired) genre. Iagnemma has a few good plots, but they are stretched too thinly over too many pages. The language lacks precision and his sentences meander; Iagnemma needs a sharper-eyed editor.
These are the kind of stories where a character reads something profound about his life in an e-mail and the narrative is concerned enough to let us know he "clicks 'delete'." The self-consciously clever use of equations in the first story is, finally, just for show, and the story itself works fine without it. Much of rest reads like an MfA thesis by someone with heart, but not enough to say.
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Format:Hardcover
In this short story collection, we're witnesses to the clumsy dance between scientific mind and the human heart. Karl Iagnemma's distinctive characters - a failed engineer, a phrenologist, a mathematician, an amateur geometrician, a forester, a doctor, and others - all muddle through the familiar scientific terrain of conferences, scientific journals, equations and experiments, which serve as a perfect counterpoint to the messy relationships and longings in each of their lives.
Iangemma is perfectly qualified for writing stories using these themes; he works as a robotics researcher at MIT by day, and writes short-stories after-hours. His writing talents have been praised and published in prestigious literary journals. Nevertheless, his writing shows that he is clearly part techie. For an engineer like myself, it's refreshing to read someone who knows the science/technological mindset from the inside, and weaves touches of that sensibility into fine set of well-told stories.
However, make no mistake - this isn't science fiction - it's fiction about scientists. For example, in the title story (my personal favorite) the narrator, a "failed engineer," describes the Venn diagrams and coupled sets of differential equations he's created in attempts to describe his love for his girlfriend. Another favorite story of mine, "Children of Hunger" hasn't been mentioned often in reviews here; in it, a medical researcher in a stale marriage asks his lonely wife to make a key sacrifice to further his research, leading to an ending with a clever twist.
Overall, the stories tilt slightly towards the illuminating the human heart rather than exalting the scientific mind. Nevertheless, Iagnemma's characters do discover something -- the emotional texture of their lives outside the lab, and Iagnemma tells their stories in a way few others have. Recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing Nov. 11 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
In an age where the New York Times has dropped its clean style of writing to favor news written in pirhouettes, Mr. Iagnemma has a fresh voice. His sentences are short and crisp, drawing the reader like a magnet.
I spied the book tossed on some shelf in disease section of Barnes & Noble. I carried it over to the cafe to browse through it.
The first sentence of the title story hooked me and the rest delivered as promised. I read straight, in one sitting, the story about an engineering student trying to woo his ex-advisor's daughter into marriage.
It was clear, well-paced and cleverly constructed. I felt relieved that even engineering students and mathematicians try to rationalize "love" and "romance" into theorems and predictable equations, not only us lesser analytic "mortals." The narrator was charming, the love interest a little fuzzy, but that's okay. It was fun!
I learned tonight that scientists can have a sense of humor, too.
I plan to keep track of this fellow and definitely, capture another glimpse of his book at B & N.
He's carving himself a special niche, right aside the surgeon/physicians writers group.
Enjoy!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Artist and Scientist in One Aug. 2 2003
Format:Hardcover
When I first read the title story of this collection, "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction" in Paris Review a couple of years ago, I was immediately hit by the opening: "When students here can't stand another minute, they get drunk and hurl themselves off the top floor of the Gehring building, the shortest building on campus." A writer myself, I know very well how difficult it is to find a great opening. Nowadays, many writers-- including some high-profile ones-- seem to seek a shocking effect for its own sake, so it's often forced and unnatural. Karl Iagnemma does not have this problem. His stories are as real as they are impressive. The aforementioned opening passage resonates with my years in MIT where students are as crazy and talented as Karl's characters, yet it sends a strong signal to the reader of a non-boring campus story. Oddly, this opening also reminds me of Ha Jin's award-wining novel, Waiting, which opens with: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." Here, two talented writers "sing different tunes with equal skill," as a Chinese proverb says. These openings simply make you want to read on.
And here's more: none of the stories in this collection disappointed me. I'm a picky reader. At first, I thought Karl's stories attracted me because he and I have something in common: we both are scientists trained at MIT (though I didn't know him), and we both are writers. Soon I realized it's the in-depth portrayal of human nature that resonates the most. In his story "Zilkowski's Theorem", a mathematician writes his girlfriend's Ph.D dissertation. He does it for love. But after his girlfriend is converted to a new religion and becomes another man's finance, she wants to be "honest" and publicize the fact that the dissertation wasn't hers.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique and Touching Collection
Mr. Iagnemma's book is filled with a wit and intelligence unlike anything you will read again.
He has the market cornered on humorous stories about scientists' love foibles. Read more
Published on June 2 2003 by Lawrence Markey
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful talent and raw genius
Karl Iagnemma is an amazing writer as this debut book reflects. His natural talent and ability to create characters that appear to be so real allow the reader to connect with each... Read more
Published on June 2 2003 by "suzmarkey"
5.0 out of 5 stars An eclectic, yet pleasant, surprise
My fiance bought this book because it was recommended by Amazon as a companion to the new Tom Robbins book. Read more
Published on May 20 2003 by D. Byrne
5.0 out of 5 stars The man squares the circle
These stories are extended meditations with no shortage of action. The language, the geography, the history - all of it's filtered beautiful through Karl's sharp lense. Read more
Published on May 14 2003 by Bryan Farrow
5.0 out of 5 stars Robot Shoots, Robot Scores
The best collection released this year, by a longshot. The stories are beautifully written, funny, and wrenching. And every single piece kicks ... Read more
Published on May 10 2003 by Steven B. Almond
5.0 out of 5 stars A Terrific Debut from a Talented New Writer
Karl Iagnemma is a research scientist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, but in his spare time he writes incredibly enjoyable stories about Ph.D. Read more
Published on May 5 2003 by Kenneth Goldstein
5.0 out of 5 stars A Terrific Debut Collection from a Great New Talent
Karl Iagnemma is a research scientist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, but in his spare time he writes incredibly enjoyable stories about Ph.D. Read more
Published on May 5 2003 by Kenneth Goldstein
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