"Beguiling . . . A corrective, describing mathematics its focus, abstraction, odd hunches, blazing epiphanies as a powerful intoxicant, a door to euphoria . . . The book unfurls effortlessly . . . I was riveted. Olsson is evocative on curiosity as an appetite of the mind, on the pleasure of glutting oneself on knowledge." Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"[The Weil Conjectures] builds with the poetry and precision of a theorem." Elizabeth Winkler, The Wall Street Journal
"A wonderful book . . . Reading it is akin to kicking a can along the road of higher learning, with Simone Weil standing guard as her brother Andre scribbles equations in the cosmic dust. A book causing me to dwell in [the Weils'] realm and the arc above, where mathematics, as E.T. Bell put it, is the queen of science." Patti Smith (via Instagram)
"By interweaving the stories of Simone, her brother André Weil (a renowned mathematician), and Olsson’s own mathematical studies, Olsson makes a compelling case for a discipline that can often seem coldly unresponsive to human concerns. Olsson illuminates the beauty and humanity at the heart of mathematical endeavors, with the commitment and charisma necessary to keep laymen engaged. Noor Qasim, The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
"[Olsson is] an everywoman guide, and what she does brilliantly is to explain the maths clearly and often fascinatingly. Also, and this must be unique among accounts of the Weils, she creates a vivid sense of Simone grappling with the maths alongside us." Lara Feigel, The Guardian
"An experimental, tantalizing hybrid of biography, memoir, and meditation . . . Digression, the organizing principle of this book, is the temptation of the intellectually adventurous and inquisitive, who will binge on Olsson’s bracing prose . . . a book ecstatic with intimations rather than mere equations." Steven G. Kellman, Texas Observer
"Karen Olsson paints vivid portraits of both siblings . . . With [The Weil Conjectures], she invites the reader to sit with the Weils, to appreciate their relationship and ponder what their lives and work say to contemporary writers and mathematicians." Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American
"Simultaneously, Olsson plumbs the depths of her own confrontation with math at Harvard and later, with writing, which provides introspection and compassion to the Weils’s story where forces of literature and logic act upon each other to create a nuanced exploration of abstraction versus a lived life." Kerri Arsenault, Lit Hub (Ten Books You Should Read This July)
"A remarkable tour de force . . . an idiosyncratic, even impressionistic portrait of brother and sister, demonstrating along the way an appreciation for top-flight mathematics . . . [Olsson] illustrates the marvel and god-like wonder of mathematics, fructified by sky-high abstraction and the determination of its exponents to suffer endless battles with confusion and ideas that refuse to work." Mark Ronan, Standpoint (London)
"[An] appealing combination of memoir and biography . . . [a] unique meditation . . . [an] effective dual biography." Kirkus
"An unexpected and wholly original delight. By focusing on what has to be the most extraordinarily brilliant brother-sister pair of the last century, Karen Olsson takes us to a realm where sublime mathematical abstraction meets mystical love. The author's relaxed personal tone and novelistic eye for the telling detail make the book effortlessly readable." Jim Holt, author of When Einstein Walked with Gödel and Why Does the World Exist?
"Deftly moving to and fro between André and Simone Weil’s lives and her own search for mathematical clarity, Karen Olsson informs, persuades, inspires, and delights this reader." Lily Tuck, author of The Double Life of Liliane
"I always thought my mind wasn’t rational enough to be good at math, but I had a mystical appreciation for it that I’d forgotten about until I read this book, a double portrait of the Weil siblings, the mathematician and the mystic. I loved it for Karen Olsson's humanizing, playful approach to these very serious people, but also for her rigor, her thoughtfulness about writing and creativity, and her refreshing blend of two disciplines I tend to think of, erroneously, as irrevocably at odds: math and literature. The Weil Conjectures has that undefinable x common to all the best books. I can’t wait to read it again." Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse
"Beautiful and enigmatic, Karen Olsson's book draws us to the brink of spiritual and mathematical genius, to the edge of a field 'between knowing and not knowing,' to the verge of an audacious conjecture. The Weil Conjectures is a story of brilliant siblingsone philosopher, one mathematicianwho spent their lives at the service of the unattainable. In haunting prose, Olsson asks us to remember, in the words of Simone Weil, that "the eternal part of the soul feeds on hunger.' A true achievement." John Kaag, author of Hiking with Nietzsche
"Karen Olsson has given us a moving, lyrical meditation on André and Simone Weil and the ways genius can take such radically different forms, even within the same family. Few writers could convey with such brilliance and compassion the tensions between literature and mathematics, isolation and communion, logic and intuition, the annihilation of the self and a godly love for others." Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club
An odd but appealing combination of memoir and biography of two significant French sibling intellectuals, André Weil (1906-1998) and Simone Weil (1909-1943).
Novelist and former Texas Observer editor Olsson (All the Houses, 2015, etc.) admits that her life, viewed on its own, might not suffice for a memoir. Seemingly marked for a career in the humanities, she entered Harvard and was drawn to the concrete, right-or-wrong nature of mathematics. At that time in life, she notes, "so much is up in the air, open to question, unreliable. I think part of what I liked about math, she writes, "was simply that it seemed like a sure thing, as sure as a thing could be, a solid mass of true and rigorous and irreproachable knowledge that I could grab like a pole on a bus." The author held her own and graduated but chose to pursue a career in journalism while never losing her fascination with creativity, the epitome of which is the abstract purity of mathematics. Stirred by reading the Weil memoirs, letters between the two, and a series of internet lectures by a Harvard mathematics professor, Olsson delivers a mixture of philosophy with an account of their lives and her own. Simone was an activist, philosopher, and later mystic, little known during her short life but immensely influential to the postwar generation. Her intense sympathy for the oppressed was accompanied by an obsession with sharing their suffering (working at miserable jobs; semistarvation), ineffectual, often self-destructive efforts to help, and much introspection. She was close to her brother, a brilliant mathematician who often responded to her appeals to explain his work. The responses were no more comprehensible to Olsson than Simone, but they encouraged her to muse about the nature of creativity and write this unique meditation.
An occasionally rambling but effective dual biography.