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Equilateral: A Novel Hardcover – April 16, 2013

3.7 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Kalfus’ previous novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006), won raves for its trenchant satire of post-9/11 relationships and garnered a National Book Award nomination. Coloring outside the lines of mainstream fiction and into alternative history, his latest work tells the fanciful story of Sanford Thayer, a famous nineteenth-century astronomer who galvanizes support for a grandiose plan to a light a triangular beacon in the Egyptian desert bright enough to captivate earth’s Martian neighbors. Inspired by the 1877 discovery by colleague Giovanni Schiaparelli of Martian canals (in reality, later debunked as an optical illusion), Thayer marshals the financial support of businessmen worldwide who salivate over the bounty Martians will bestow on earth when they realize its inhabitants are civilized, too. Yet only weeks away from its planned completion, construction of the triangular trench, dubbed the Equilateral, is going badly, with Thayer fighting fevers and insurrections from the project’s Arab excavators. Although Kalfus’ new novel may appeal to a more selective audience, his writing takes a big step forward with stylistic elegance and deeper insights into human nature. --Carl Hays


“A virtuosic portrait of the animating power of self-delusion.” ―Nathaniel Rich, The Daily Beast, Novel of the Year

“Kalfus writes so well that his storytelling carries us along...that narrative becomes darker and more complex, evolving into a more intricate fable, an exploration of man's hubris.” ―Andrew Wulf, New York Times Book Review

“Few American novelists get as many rewards from their investment in ideas.” ―The New York Times

“Like Thayer's enormous triangle, the Big Idea underlying Equilateral the novel isn't illuminated until nearly its completion. It's a pretty neat trick for a novelist to pull off, to obscure the fact that what at first looks like an intricate fantasy novel actually contains pointed social commentary.” ―Maureen Corrigan, NPR's "Fresh Air"

“Equilateral reads as a compact and deeply satisfying work of fiction, which, moreover, boasts that rarest of endings: one that's surprising yet, if you've been reading closely, inevitable.” ―NPR.org

“Thayer's late 19th-century fascination is enough to carry the book, but Kalfus adds a love triangle as well as a cast of characters -- some who support the professor's efforts and others who rebel against them -- for an even richer story.” ―NPR's "Morning Edition," Critic's List: Summer 2013

“Kalfus…has woven a tale that is both fantastical and believable. He's done it not just with an expansive imagination and sharp writing skills, but a convincing aptitude in the disciplines of astronomy, trigonometry and history…erupts in a satisfying climax.” ―Denver Post

“Intriguing . . . a slender but substantial new novel by Ken Kalfus…who manages here to blend history, humor, politics, science--and even a little bit of romance.” ―Los Angeles Times

“By turns sophisticated, suspenseful, and entertaining, Equilateral uses this fantastic conceit to deconstruct the late 19th century's empirical, Social Darwinist ("survival of the fittest"), and colonialist worldviews, elements of which remain dominant in our own time.” ―Philadelphia Inquirer

“Just crazy enough to work.” ―Flavorwire, "20 Highbrow Books to Read on the Beach This Summer"

“Kalfus has as demonic imagination. The glamour of consistent disaster is recognizable in every line, every scene, every lacquered articulation: it is what we moderns like to call a neo-classical construct. I'm overcome by the splendor of what he's done.” ―Richard Howard

“Magic. . . . As it progresses, it's hard not to regard the novel with something akin to the awe with which the characters regard their project.” ―Washington Independent Review of Books

“When a new Ken Kalfus novel appears I stop eating, drinking, shaving, and breathing until I finish it. Equilateral is one of his smartest and most ambitious books yet. It left me thinking and wondering well past my bedtime.” ―Gary Shteyngart

“This is an interesting twist on historical fiction, bringing to life a bygone worldview rather than dramatizing a real-life event . . . . The novel contains a shimmer of science fiction without ever coming untethered from the realities of earth, desert and humanity . . . . Profound.” ―Kansas City Star

“Kalfus has crafted a powerful, mesmerizing story about ambition--and its limitations.” ―The Daily Beast

“Kalfus maps the boundary between science and mysticism while simultaneously muddying, in a way the 20th century soon would, the previously bright line between scientific certainty and arrogant, self-deluded error.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Startlingly original . . . Equilateral overflows with intrigue and action . . . [Kalfus] invest[s] characters like Thayer and his devoted private secretary Adele Keaton, among others, with a depth that engages us fully in their bizarrely inspiring quest . . . . Kalfus nicely balances a fast-paced plot with consideration of the big themes that lurk under the surface of the story.” ―Bookpage

“[A] slyly satirical novel…. Kalfus wittily skewers the Europeans' cosmic fantasies before reaching the ambiguous ending, which... befits the story's equal attention to the wonder of prospective first contact and absurdity of human self-delusion.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Kalfus's previous novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, won raves…and garnered a National Book Award nomination…. His latest work…takes a big step forward with stylistic elegance and deeper insights into human nature.” ―Booklist

“A thoughtful, wisely rendered modern science fiction pastiche with just the right dash of an Ibsen play.” ―Shelf Awareness


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1st edition (April 16, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620400065
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620400067
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,294,852 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It may seem wrong to begin a book review by spending time reviewing the physical book itself, rather than its content. After all, the phrase `don't judge a book by its cover' is in common parlance.

Except, of course, when `judging a book by its cover' is a perfect illustration of the contents. As it is here. Dear would be reader, I really urge you to pay the extra pennies and make space on your bookshelves for this decidedly, but deceptively, slim tome, rather than go for the Kindle download. Firstly, you will have one of the most beautiful, alluring, evocative cover images I have seen for a long while. Like Kalfus' meticulously crafted language, the carefully assembled juxtaposition of images will snag away at your subconscious. Much more is going on than you will initially see. As befits a book where Victorian engineering - where many ideas were held inside those intrinsic bold construction projects - is a major grounding and springboard, we have a beautiful, weighty, piece of craft. The pages are satisfyingly thick, a pleasure to turn, there is a sensory delight (and a subtext of the sensuous is part of Kalfus' writing) There are the beautiful geometrical illustrations. The binding has been done in such a way that rather than lying flat across, it forms a little ridged trench along the long edge - and as much of the book is precisely about a fantastic engineering project in the Egyptian desert - the building of an enormous equilateral triangle of trench - this is like the book itself manifesting the construction!

Ken Kalfus has written a book dense with ideas, every word, it feels, carefully chosen and slotted into place.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From time to time, people have assembled time capsules to demonstrate the achievements of our present age to later generations. Or to beings in other planets in other galaxies, as in the plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft in 1972 or the golden record carried into space by Voyager five years later. This brilliant novel by Ken Kalfus is not only an account of a fictional (though plausible) attempt to communicate with another planet more than a century ago, but also a time-capsule of the moral and intellectual climate of the late Victorian era -- and in this respect it is pitch perfect.

A little historical background. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli used a powerful telescope to prepare a map of the planet Mars, which he claimed to show a network of straight-line features, or "canals." More modern instruments have shown these observations to be an illusion, but the discovery captured the public imagination as proof that there must be intelligent beings on Mars capable of undertaking large-scale earth-works. American orientalist and scholar Percival Lowell (his brother was president of Harvard and his sister a famous poet) built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, to study Mars on its closest approach to Earth in 1894. I suspect that Ken Kalfus has based his fictional character, British astronomer Sanford Thayer, partly on Lowell, and his novel is set in the same year. But Thayer is not content with merely observing the red planet; he intends to communicate with it.
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This is a most unusual book. I would compare it to a recipe that calls for flour, celery, cherries, hot pepper sauce, and coffee grinds and then declare it delicious. This book is a strange combination of history, romance, cultural differences (East vs. West), astronomy, comedy, math, and science fiction.

The main character of Thayer, the British astronomer, is comedic yet pathetic. Other characters, both major and minor, are unique but believable. The clash between Eastern thinking and Western "reasoning" is a major part of how the plot is drawn. The very idea of attempting to communicate with Martians via a perfectly drawn triangle is far-fetched, but history has recorded more than one far-fetched (or horrifying) idea that seemed perfectly acceptable at the time. With all our scientific knowledge and rational thinking, are we being just as foolish today?

I would never have thought that mathematical drawings would interest me, but the drawings in this book are fascinating and necessary additions to this very strange but very enjoyable novel. Probably not for everyone, but if you are inclined to see humor in the most unusual places, try this.
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Format: Kindle Edition
'...red like the eye of a nocturnal predator, red like a fire on a distant shore, the subject of his every dream and his every scientific pursuit.

' "Mars," he says.'

It's 1894, Mars is about to come into its closest alignment to Earth and Professor Sanford Thayer intends to attract the attention of the Martians. With the support of 900,000 fellahin and financing from the entire Western world, he is excavating a massive equilateral triangle in the desert sands of Egypt and on June 17th, he will turn it into a burning signpost...

This shortish novel took me completely by surprise with its scope and deceptive simplicity, and left me breathless. Not a word is wasted or misplaced as Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science. Sly and subtle humour runs through the book as Kalfus' present tense narration makes us complicit in the attitudes of the time: the unquestioned superiority of the white man, particularly the Brits, and hence the moral and intellectual inferiority, degeneracy even, of other races; the ascendancy of scientific thought and the belief that scientific advancement equates to moral superiority; the status of women, both 'white' and 'native'. There is another triangle at play here too as Thayer's emotional entanglements with his secretary and serving maid are played out.

There's all of that in this book, but most of all there's a rollicking good sci-fi story in the best tradition of Wells or Wyndham. The scientists have the unshakeable belief that the Martians' advanced scientific skills (as evidenced by their canal-building) prove that they will be more highly evolved in every way than us and will therefore be a peaceful and civilised race.
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