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Wednesday, 12 November 2014 16:26

Book explores clash between religion and science

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bookIn Lauren Grodstein’s novel The Explanation For Everything (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013, 336 pages, $24.95), we meet Andrew Waite, a biology professor and widower living with his two young daughters in Southern New Jersey. Andrew is an evolutionist, an atheist who at the same time is haunted from time to time by his recently deceased wife, Louisa. He is a good father and a provocative teacher, but along with his wife has lost the power to connect with others. He spends a part of each day writing angry, unsent letters to the young man, now imprisoned, who killed Louisa while driving drunk.

 

Enter Melissa Potter. She is a transfer student, a young evangelical Christian who asks Professor Waite to be her sponsor for independent research into intelligent design. After agreeing against his better judgment to take on Melissa, Andrew finds himself growing more intrigued both by the girl and by her ideas regarding faith. Gradually Melissa inserts herself into his life, acting as nanny to his daughters and slipping him various books on faith. In the meantime, another student, Lionel, slowly moves away from his religious fundamentalism toward Darwinism and science.

In the clashes between religion and science depicted in The Explanation For Everything, Goldstein never takes sides. She plays fair with the ideas of both sides and accurately depicts how our beliefs shape our world views, showing us what can happen when we become too addicted to certitude, when because of our beliefs we refuse to see any gray in the black-and-white world we have constructed. 

But The Explanation For Everything is more than a novel of ideas. It tells a tale of love and loss, and of the healing derived from our ability to forgive others and ourselves. Near the end of the novel, Andrew Waite realizes how he has damaged others and seeks to make amends. He experiences no sudden epiphanies, no bolts of lightning regarding faith and science. Instead, he finds himself in the middle of that battlefield of the mind where most of us struggle, that field of doubt and questioning where certainty no longer prevails.

The Explanation For Everything has some flaws. Melissa Potter, for example, sometimes comes across as an unbelievable character. Would a student who really wanted a professor to sponsor an independent study refer to that professor’s work and beliefs as “crap?” Would an evangelical Christian really place the idea of justice ahead of that of mercy? Would she threaten to report the professor for sexual harassment when she was the one who instigated the connections made between them? 

But these are quibbles. The Explanation For Everything is a fine examination not just of the ongoing debate between Darwinism and intelligent design, but is also a touching story of a man coming to grips with the meaning of life, especially the meaning of his own life. 

•••

In Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (Chronicle Books, 2014, 352 pages, $40), Shaun Usher, custodian of the blog Letters of Note, has collected letters from over 300 writers, politicians, lovers, pop stars and others. It is a large book that includes facsimiles of some of the letters as well as thumbnail sketches of the correspondents. 

This is one of those volumes that begs for perusal, a book to be read at those times when we have a stray quarter hour and seek entertainment. Here are letters from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon, from Mario Puzo to Marlon Brando (he asks Brando to play the head of the Corleone family), from John F. Kennedy seeking help for the crew of his demolished PT boat (he wrote his note on a piece of coconut, and Usher includes a picture of the message and the coconut). 

Some of these letters will be familiar to readers. There is the note from 11-year-old Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln, advising him to grow a beard; there is the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter; there is the letter from Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald offering advice on writing; there is the complimentary letter from Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame to Henry Ford, complimenting him on what great get-away cars he has designed.

But other letters are more obscure. Physicist Richard Feynman’s letter to his dead wife particularly touched me. In his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman — I highly recommend this brilliant, hilarious memoir — Feynman brushes past the death of his first wife. In this letter, he reveals the depth of love he felt for her. (Katharine Hepburn’s letter to Spencer Tracy, the love of her life who was deceased when she wrote the letter, is also included). 

Humor abounds in Letters of Note. One example: Stephen Tvedten writes an hysterical response to the bureaucrats of Land and Water Management who have complained about dams being built on his property. It turns out that beavers have built the dams, and Tvedten has a field day with the situation, writing, for example: “As to your dam request the beavers must fill out a dam permit prior to the start of this type of dam activity, my first dam question to you is: are you trying to discriminate against my Spring Pond Beavers or do you require all dam beavers throughout the State to conform to said dam request?”

Highly recommended.

The Explanation For Everything by Lauren Grodstein. Algonquin Books, 2014. 336 pages.

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