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Christopher Beha
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Christopher Beha

Worth a slow read

Books | What Happened to Sophie Wilder stands out from the crowd of literary novels

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

I don’t review many literary novels, which I often find precious rather than valuable, but Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House Books, 2012) is the extraordinary exception. Two young writers in New York are the main characters, and here’s how Beha describes the born-again experience one has: “It is in the nature of what happened next that it can’t be conveyed in words. The few times Sophie tried to explain it later, even to herself, she fell back on cliché: something came over her; she walked out changed.”

Then, beyond clichés: “It got closest to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied. After all her reading in the week leading up to that day, she thought of that occupying force as the Holy Spirit. But mostly she knew that it was something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor. Once it passed on, she knew that her very outline had been reshaped by it. … Everything later followed from that.”

Everything important in the novel follows from that. When Manhattan has a blackout and stars are visible Sophie “imagined that the whole world was lit up like a city, so that no one ever saw the stars. It’s going to happen eventually. What will people make of us then, and all our talk about the heavens? Songs about constellations. Stargazing poetry.” The other character, thoroughly secular Tom, says, “They’ll get the convenience of cities, the survival of mankind. That will be worth the disappearance.”

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Sophie replies, “How will they know it was worth it, if they’ve never seen the stars? How could they measure their loss beneath an empty sky?” Tom “didn’t know how to answer this.” Of course not, because they’re talking about stars but Sophie is also talking about God, and how those blinded by modern light don’t know what they’re missing. On my treadmill I read fast most books, but this one I had to read slowly, and after finishing it all reread parts.

Short takes

Michael Horton’s Pilgrim Theology (Zondervan, 2011) is an excellent theology text that comes with a study guide. Paul Cantor’s The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture undermines the argument of some that study of the classics produces deep thoughts that study of film and television cannot: The worth of many humanities and social science classes depends on the professor, not the subject, and U. of Virginia professor Cantor skillfully shows how (among many other things) Have Gun Will Travel and Star Trek prepared Americans for liberal regimes.

Seventy years ago—May 13, 1943—the German Afrika Korps surrendered to Allied troops in North Africa, who took more than 250,000 prisoners. In World War Two: A Short History (Basic) Norman Stone brilliantly tells the story of that campaign and many others in a fast-moving 200 pages: If you want to know the main thrusts of that war in one sitting, this is the book.

J.I. Packer’s Puritan Portraits (Christian Focus, 2012) is also worth a slow read: It includes nine introductions to classic pastors such as Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, John Owen, and John Bunyan. Christian’s Questby Jacqueline Busch and Melvin Patterson is a fast read, “an urban adaptation” of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Moody, 2012). I’m not sure if Packer, a very distinguished Brit, would approve of the first sentence—‘Hey! Yo, Chris! Wait up!’ Christian cringed at the sound of Hopeful’s voice”—but I enjoyed it.

In a book industry where truth in advertising is rare, Betsy McCaughey’sBeating Obamacare: Your Handbook for Surviving the New Health Care Law (Regnery, 2013) is exactly what its title proclaims, a 168-page dissection of the 2,572-page healthcare law. Demons of Poverty by Ted Boers and Tim Stoner (Micah Enterprises, 2012) is an excellent title for this case study of a project in Haiti that went awry. Alvin Schmidt’s The American Muhammad: Joseph Smith, Founder of Mormonism(Concordia, 2013) draws the parallels between the two founders. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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