In this newsletter I mostly review nonfiction, but on a wintry night many people want to snuggle up with a novel. Here are four suggestions, starting with Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking For is In the Library (Alison Watts translation, Doubleday, 2023). It’s a charming tale from Japan of people searching for change and getting the nudge they need from a wise librarian. On the way they learn about interconnections.
Derek Miller’s The Curse of Pietro Houdini (Simon and Schuster, 2024) is a beautifully-crafted novel with twists, turns, witty dialogue, a witless donkey, and well-sketched characters with broken legs and hearts. The two main characters—a 14-year-old orphan and a distant relative of Mussolini—struggle to stay alive in World War II Italy and smuggle out from a monastery occupied by German soldiers three Titian paintings and a bag of ancient Greek gold coins. The book not only moves well but becomes surprisingly moving.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday, 2022) is funny in places and well-written throughout, but occasionally hostile to Christianity. I highly recommend the poignant 2023 Apple TV+ mini-series by the same name and essentially the same plot, but it positively portrays a pastor and respectfully treats theistic understandings. Finally, if someone you love has dementia, Chris Fabry’s novel Saving Grayson (Focus on the Family, 2023) will give you a sense of what it feels like for the victim and his helpers.
Baseball reminiscences can also warm us up. Joe Posnanski’s Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments (Dutton, 2023) notes how one fan felt when first entering a ballpark: “The colors of the sky and grass and dirt and seats overwhelmed him…. He said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.” Posnanski’s top ten moments include the home run by Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 World Series and the stolen base by Dave Roberts in the 2004 American League championships. Posnanski’s number one is the night in 1974 when Henry Aaron faced down death threats and broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.
The “50 moments” include funny ones. Number 49 recalls Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs tying the major league record by striking out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Cubs fan Tom Bujnowski brought to the Wrigley Field bleachers sixteen cards with a big K on them to post after each strikeout. Wood that day pitched so well that by early in the eighth inning every card was used up, but Bujnowski convinced other fans to paint Ks on their chests.
Philosopher Philip Goff’s Why? The Purpose of the Universe (Oxford, 2023) supplements Discovery Institute’s work on the universe’s “fine-tuning.” Goff notes that “The probability of getting fine-tuned constants by chance is way-more-than-astronomically low.” He adds, “For a long time there was no evidence for cosmic purpose, so it was quite right that the scientific community rejected its existence… but the evidential situation has now changed…. Future generations looking back will find it hard to understand how we ignored for so long what was staring us in the face: the clear and overwhelming evidence in support of cosmic purpose.”
Goff also explains the inadequacy of “multiple universe” theories, but then comes up with an inadequacy of his own: the vague and unconvincing second half of the book argues for the existence of an impersonal, panpsychic “cosmic purpose.” Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (HarperOne, 2021) is much better.
Gal Beckerman’s The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (Crown, 2022) argues that social media are not like the eighteenth-century coffeehouses where revolutionary ideas began. Those places encouraged slow discussion and cooperative working out of problems, but social media “allow ideas to flare and return to darkness.” Beckerman gives interesting case studies, including England’s Chartist Movement nearly two centuries ago and Egypt’s aborted revolution in 2011.
The chapter on Black Lives Matter particularly shows the strengths and weaknesses of depending on sadness and rage. Deaths produced hashtag spikes: 40,000 tweets when Freddie Gray died in April 2015 and 100,000 when a white supremacist killed nine people in a Charleston church. Little changed until the George Floyd murder five years later, which resulted in lots of property destruction but not much public policy construction. Anger led to immediate calls to defund the police, but that approach soon lost popularity and alternatives were poorly thought out.
Special interests: Lovers of geography will enjoy Michael Barone’s Mental Maps of the Founders (Encounter, 2023). Parents of twins will learn from the oddities revealed (and well-illustrated) in Twinkind: The Singular Significance of Twins (Princeton, 2023) by William Viney, himself a twin.
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