A somber counterweight to the usual lore about scientific genius.

WHEN WE CEASE TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD

A belletristic exploration of the psychic and social tolls of 20th-century scientific innovation.

The Nobel-winning chemist Fritz Haber discovered the process that made lifesaving nitrogen fertilizer but also facilitated chemical weapons that killed thousands in World War I. The physicist Karl Schwarzchild discovered the phenomena behind black holes but was haunted by the violence he witnessed during the same conflict. Alexander Grothendieck was a pioneering mathematician who became a troubled and eccentric recluse. The central figures in quantum physics were all stricken with physical and mental illnesses, as if they buckled under the weight of their research. The first novel published in English by Chilean author Labatut—which was a finalist for the 2021 International Booker Prize—is constructed out of vignettes on these figures, coolly undermining the notion of consistent forward scientific progress. Rather, he writes, we are "borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.” Each section of the novel centers on one of the scientists in question, and in the early going Labatut comes off as more of a scientific historian than a novelist; the first chapter, on Haber, reads like a biographical sketch. But by the time we get to Erwin Schrödinger, Labatut’s writing becomes more interior and complex as the physicist scrabbles for footing within the scientific community and Indian religious tradition, then descends into an obsession with an underage girl he meets at a sanatorium. Just as quantum physics threw the bedrock principles of the universe into question, the novel shifts further from fact, closing with a fully fictional coda. In structure and content, the novel is highly mannered, but Labatut’s high-concept approach makes room for an emotional impact; you can feel the center stop holding as scientific triumphs become Pyrrhic victories.

A somber counterweight to the usual lore about scientific genius.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-68137-566-3

Page Count: 192

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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Sure to enchant even those who have never played a video game in their lives, with instant cult status for those who have.

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW

The adventures of a trio of genius kids united by their love of gaming and each other.

When Sam Masur recognizes Sadie Green in a crowded Boston subway station, midway through their college careers at Harvard and MIT, he shouts, “SADIE MIRANDA GREEN. YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY!” This is a reference to the hundreds of hours—609 to be exact—the two spent playing “Oregon Trail” and other games when they met in the children’s ward of a hospital where Sam was slowly and incompletely recovering from a traumatic injury and where Sadie was secretly racking up community service hours by spending time with him, a fact which caused the rift that has separated them until now. They determine that they both still game, and before long they’re spending the summer writing a soon-to-be-famous game together in the apartment that belongs to Sam's roommate, the gorgeous, wealthy acting student Marx Watanabe. Marx becomes the third corner of their triangle, and decades of action ensue, much of it set in Los Angeles, some in the virtual realm, all of it riveting. A lifelong gamer herself, Zevin has written the book she was born to write, a love letter to every aspect of gaming. For example, here’s the passage introducing the professor Sadie is sleeping with and his graphic engine, both of which play a continuing role in the story: “The seminar was led by twenty-eight-year-old Dov Mizrah....It was said of Dov that he was like the two Johns (Carmack, Romero), the American boy geniuses who'd programmed and designed Commander Keen and Doom, rolled into one. Dov was famous for his mane of dark, curly hair, wearing tight leather pants to gaming conventions, and yes, a game called Dead Sea, an underwater zombie adventure, originally for PC, for which he had invented a groundbreaking graphics engine, Ulysses, to render photorealistic light and shadow in water.” Readers who recognize the references will enjoy them, and those who don't can look them up and/or simply absorb them. Zevin’s delight in her characters, their qualities, and their projects sprinkles a layer of fairy dust over the whole enterprise.

Sure to enchant even those who have never played a video game in their lives, with instant cult status for those who have.

Pub Date: July 5, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32120-1

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2022

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