Friday, October 18, 2013

2013 Wisconsin Book Festival

The Wisconsin Book Festival in partnership with Madison Public Libraries kicks off this weekend. This year's festival combines local voices with nationally-known authors in a variety of community based activities and talks. Programs will uphold the Madison Public Library's mission to learn, share, and create. The festival is an opportunity for people to come together from across Wisconsin in celebration of books, reading, and ideas.

The Wisconsin Book Festival's offerings are sure to peak the interest of readers everywhere.

Check out the full schedule, including venues, dates, and times at The Wisconsin Book Festival website,

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Throwback Thursday

Copies available at UW-Madison
From the November 2004 New Books List:

Bernstein, Jeremy. (2004). Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. 

"The author of this fascinating book on one of the US's preeminent scientist-administrators of the 20th century is himself a respected physicist and noted essayist for the New Yorker. J. Robert Oppenheimer became famous for directing the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, which developed the atomic bomb. Later he headed the world-renowned Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which had on its faculty the world's most famous scientist ever, Albert Einstein. Bernstein writes engagingly and with much personal knowledge (having also served at the Institute under Oppenheimer). He recounts Oppenheimer's eclectic life as it evolved in the US through his education and service at several prestigious institutions. There are absorbing vignettes, some sad and others enlightening, of several well-known individuals, mostly scientists, whose lives intersected with Oppenheimer's. The book is not a review of Oppenheimer's contributions to physics or the development of the atomic bomb; rather, it provides insight into the human side of a brilliant individual, all things considered. Of course, his leadership of the Manhattan Project, and his persecution by Congress for alleged communist sympathies, defined Oppenheimer's career. Bernstein provides personalized insights into both. Excellent endnotes; good index; rare photographs." -- as reviewed by N. Sadanand in CHOICE Reviews, Sept. 2004

Friday, October 11, 2013

Book Review: The Darkness That Comes Before

R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before is fantasy for the thoughtful, and those tired of standard fantasy tropes (boy meets wizard, finds magic sword, defeats dark lord) will likely find much to appreciate. The novel is the first book in a three-part series, focusing on an unfolding religious war in a fantasy world that seems loosely based on southern Europe in the early middle ages. Like other recent epic fantasy novels, the events portrayed happen on an enormous scale, told through the lens of a cast of characters on different sides of the conflict. Unlike other fantasy, Bakker doesn’t stop at weaving a gripping story, but also uses his world to ask some powerful questions.

Bakker has a background in philosophy, and it shows in his work. There are layers in The Darkness that Comes Before to be unpacked by the discerning reader. For example, the first introduced protagonist is a monk of an order dedicated to understanding the relation between cause and effect. After leaving his secluded monastery, this character soon finds that he understands cause and effect well enough that, by learning the motivations of the people around him, he can almost completely control their actions. However, when he encounters sorcery for the first time, something he was never taught to understand, he can only run. Though Bakker never explicitly states it, he seems to be questioning the role of free will, both in the face of god-like beings and charismatic leaders. Even the more standard fantasy elements have a decidedly philosophical nature. While there is magic in The Darkness that Comes Before, it is based on philosophical abstractions – the most powerful sorcerers are those who can create abstract points, lines, and curves out of energy, while second-rate schools of sorcery must rely on metaphors, such as conjuring a dragon’s head in order to create flame.

The world that Bakker constructs is uneasy; nations shift and chafe against each other, religions quarrel, monarchs scheme, rival schools of sorcerers debate all-out war, and the main characters of the story are caught in between. Underlying everything is the constant uneasiness of an impending apocalypse, which some characters feel, and others chose to ignore. Every faction has an agenda, and while certain characters (and creatures) may rightfully be called “evil,” there are no groups or individuals one could easily label as “good” – certainly not the protagonists.

The novel is a challenging read. The main characters are scattered and disjoint for the first two-thirds of the book, and the plot doesn’t quite come together until the last third. This was deliberate on the part of Bakker, since his series is so epic in scope that he needs that time just to properly set up his world. His books also lack any form of strong female characters. This (according to Bakker) seems to be a deliberate statement, both about the fantasy genre and about the social role of women within the time period of the book. To many, however, the book will come off as sexist. The names of his settings are long, and complex, and difficult to pronounce, even in one’s head. Like Tolkien before him, it seems that Bakker has gone to the trouble of creating is own language(s) to flesh out his story. Bakker also pulls no punches when it comes to the cleanliness of his world. Unlike Tolkien’s or Terry Brooks’ work (where everything is clean, and characters either seem to get scratches or mortal wounds) Bakker’s world is never a clean, neat place. When armies march, there is bickering, and filth, and starvation, and disease. When the main characters are wounded, mentally or physically, there is never a magic potion that makes them all better. There is sex and violence, often graphic. For those who have read a great deal of standard fantasy, this comes as a refreshing change, but many may find it to be a turn-off.

That said, I really cannot recommend this book enough. The best books, fantasy or otherwise, are those that make us think, and The Darkness that Comes Before does exactly that. It’s fantasy with layers of philosophy, or perhaps philosophy with a veneer of fantasy. Bakker uses a gripping story to ask powerful questions, and really, what more could one want?

Submitted by Tor Odden

Monday, October 7, 2013

Highlights from the New Books List: October

Copies available at UW-Madison
Morus, Iwan Rhys. (2005). When physics became king. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

"Making physics the king of the sciences required more than simply producing powerful theories. It meant convincing people that the theories were true, that physics was the best way of finding out the truths of nature, and that such knowledge was important to society. [...]

Against the background of the changing status of the field, Morus explores the ideas, institutions, and settings through which a new and international discipline was forged. He demonstrates that the rise of physics as an uncompromising discipline was accompanied by the strenuous efforts of physicists to define the field's social roles. [...]

A few good histories of physics during that remarkable age exist [the 19th century] — but none as readable or comprehensive as Morus's superb book." -- Robert M. Brain, as reviewed in Physics Today, April 2006, p. 67

Copies available at UW-Madison
 Gribbin, John. (2013). Erwin Schrödinger and the quantum revolution. Hoboken: Wiley. 

"In his latest book, Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, prolific science writer John Gribbin tells a fascinating tale of scientific endeavour starring Schrödinger -- a man as complex and unpredictable as the phenomena he studied. As the major players in the book show, the Germanspeaking world dominated science in the first half of the 20th century, and nowhere more so than in quantum physics.

From Max Born to Ludwig Boltzmann, Friedrich Hasenöhrl to Werner Heisenberg, Gribbin expertly elucidates the relationships and discoveries that shaped Schrödinger's thoughts, including his lengthy correspondence with Albert Einstein, which led to the famous cat-in-the-box thought experiment in 1935.

Yet what sets Gribbin's book apart is the elegance with which it delivers a simple but neglected truth: that each of us is a product of our times. Gribbin addresses the myriad forces which shape both the process of scientific discovery and those making the discoveries. From the fortunes of nations to the work of peers, political ideologies to romantic affairs and religious convictions, he deftly identifies the influences that sculpted Schrödinger and his pivotal role in the quantum revolution.

Anyone wishing to dip their feet in the muddy waters of quantum physics will enjoy this scientific soap opera. But it should be required reading for those eager to understand how the process of scientific discovery really works." -- Andrew Purcell, as reviewed in New Scientist, Vol. 213, Issue 2858 (2012).