Nick’s picks of the year’s books

Regular Crosslight reviewer Nick Mattiske chooses five of his best reads of 2018.

In Paul: A Biography (SPCK) Tom Wright shows how Paul’s letters were not just abstract theology, but were part of how Paul individually, and the newly sprouting church collectively, worked out the implications of preaching that an executed, vagabond teacher and healer is the Messiah who had rescued the world. And as Wright imagines Paul sitting in jail, in both prayerful hope and despondency, he conveys how unsettling this must have all been for a tenacious man who nevertheless, unlike us, didn’t know how it would all pan out.

Forms of Enchantment, is a collection of the art criticism of the perceptive and wide-ranging Marina Warner, handsomely produced in typical style by Thames and Hudson. Warner describes the giving of flowers to the sick as ‘between ritual and everyday action’. This phrase could describe her view of visual art. It is for her a form of storytelling that, like fairy tales and religious stories, speaks to the ‘infinite mystery of things’.

Other authors might have tried to do justice to the huge topic of Brian Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century (Princeton) by cramming as much as they could into the narrative. Stanley’s successful approach is to take a number of key themes and illustrate them with case studies, taken from around the world. This is appropriate as in the twentieth century Christianity became unarguably a global rather than Western religion.

Diving for Seahorses (Newsouth), from sisters Hilde and Ylva Ostby, novelist and neuropsychologist respectively, is not about seahorses. Rather, the title refers to the seahorse-shaped hippocampus in the brain, which coordinates memory. We might think of memories as being like a library of books, which we can delve into on demand. However, MRI scans suggest memories are stored in more complex fashion, in patterns across the brain, liable to distortion, loss and overload. They are approximate and interpretive, more like paintings than photographs, and are closely linked to our imaginations. The Ostbys’ fascinating book details how this plays out in police investigations and chess tournaments, and what the implications are for improving memory.

Jonathan Gornall is a journalist who revels in the exhilaration of sailing and twice tried to unsuccessfully row across the Atlantic. In How to Build a Boat (Simon and Schuster) he describes his attempt to, yes, build a small boat, ostensibly for his three-year old daughter, though we know it is as much for him, possibly to make up for his past nautical misadventures. Sailing on a ‘sea of ignorance’ he ‘absurdly’ decides to use old-fashioned methods and materials, but becomes an evangelist for the pleasure of hand-crafting objects you can ‘fall in love with’.

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