Winter books: The getaway edition

(RNS) — In the middle of winter, curling up with a good book and a blanket can take the chill off.

When it is too cold to go out, go away instead — to Istanbul and Oxford with three young Muslim women, to England's southern coast with a visionary, or back to the ancient past with a band of wandering Jews — in the pages of a book.

Here are eight recently published books that deal with religion and spirituality in plot, theme or subject matter — without proselytizing.


"As a God Might Be" by Neil Griffiths (Dodo Ink)

In this novel, Proctor McCullough is a successful, happily married father who is not much interested in religion. Then, an unmistakable sign from God — "a rent in the world's fabric" —  convinces him to put all of that aside to build a church and a new religious community. Along the way, Griffiths, a British novelist shortlisted for what was formerly known as the Whitbread Prize, examines the meaning of faith, the role of doubt and the sacrifices made for love, marriage and God. Lara Feigel, writing in The Guardian, said, "What religion has traditionally offered fiction is a raising of the stakes, and this is also the case here. The plot hinges on an act of murder, which introduces questions of salvation and redemption – of how far love can be tested."

"Three Daughters of Eve" by Elif Shafak

Turkish author Shafak explores themes of the religious and the secular, Islam and feminism and East versus West in the story of three young Muslim women who become involved with a professor of divinity at Oxford. The book made several lists of "best books" of last year. Shafak's "portrait of a woman in existential crisis feels universal, shining clarifying light on Islam — and religious spirituality in general — within the frame of today's world,” Kirkus said in its review, while Publishers Weekly said, "Readers interested in debates about the nature of God will find the book intriguing."

"Fire Sermon" by Jamie Quatro (Grove Press)

This is the debut novel from Quatro, a Christian whose 2013 story collection, "I Want to Show You More," was a critical darling for its tales of apocalyptic fervor, religious fanaticism and the push-pull between faith and doubt and love and lust. Here, she tells the story of Maggie and James, both devout Christians married to other people who fall in love through each other's writing. "Maggie’s quandary — should she grab happiness if it causes tremendous pain and risk losing her connection to God? — is affecting and memorable," Publishers Weekly said in its review. "Quatro’s novel will appeal particularly to readers interested in a dissection of how one reconciles belief with desire."

"The Infinite Future" by Tim Wirkus (Viking)

Wirkus, a Mormon, is best known for his 2014 novel "City of Brick and Shadow," which featured two Mormon missionaries-turned-amateur-sleuths. This novel features three characters, one of them an excommunicated Mormon historian, in search of an elusive sci-fi author and his supposedly mind-blowing manuscript about the nature of the universe. Writing for Booklist, Alexander Moran called it "stupendously inventive and rewarding" and likened it to Michael Chabon's acclaimed "Moonglow," while Jaclyn Fulwood at Shelf Awareness, a publication of independent bookstores, said, "Wirkus swings wide, presenting an obsessive quest, a road trip story, a two-sided look at Mormonism and faith itself, a mystery and, finally, 'The Infinite Future,' the lost novel."


"In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media" by Julia Duin (University of Tennessee Press)

Part exposé, part how-I-got-that-story memoir, this book by a veteran religion reporter is a deeper dive into the Pentecostal snake-handler scene than viewers got in National Geographic Channel's short-lived "Snake Salvation." The book "intimately recounts the story of serpent handlers raised in an Appalachian religious tradition where their ritualistic expression of faith is more ridiculed than understood," Ralph Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee who studies snake handlers, said of the book. It "sheds a modern light on a misunderstood religious practice.”

"What the Qur'an Meant and Why It Matters" by Garry Wills (Viking)

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian also known for writing about his Catholicism, reads the Islamic holy book and attempts to explain it for a non-Muslim audience. Lesley Hazleton, a Muhammad biographer, called the book "a delight" in the New York Times Book Review, while Shadi Hamid, a Brookings fellow and an expert on Islam, gave the book a generally favorable review in The Washington Post but faulted Wills for some Western blind spots. "This is not a book by a scholar of Islam, so it shouldn’t be judged for its lack of originality," Hamid writes. "It is a book for people who know little about the religion."


"The Story of the Jews, Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900" by Simon Schama (Ecco)

British historian and Public Broadcasting Service staple Schama continues his retelling of the saga of the Jewish people, this time from the Spanish Inquisition to the European pogroms. He winds up just after the 1896 publication of a widely distributed pamphlet advocating for a Jewish state. This is popular, not academic, history (note it is the "story" of the Jews, not "history") and Schama, the author of best-selling books such as "The American Future" and "Rough Crossings," is routinely lauded for his easy style. "Schama is a remarkable storyteller," Roger Cohen said in The New York Times Book Review. " His approach is cinematic. He sets scenes with great vividness and writes, from street level, with an unflagging verve."

"The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters" by Richard Elliott Friedman (HarperOne)

Friedman, a scholar known for his accessible writing, argues that the biblical story of the Jews' journey out of Egypt is more history and less Hollywood a la Cecil B. DeMille (no special effects). The Exodus, he argues, is the source of much of what makes us human — the ideas of welcoming the stranger, of loving thy neighbor and of offering compassion. Reviews have generally lauded Friedman's plain writing style, with a few caveats for oversimplification. "Friedman has a strong sense for making his readers understand why academic disputes matter," Matt Bowman writes in the Deseret News. "The book is a valuable exploration not only of the Exodus, but of how scholarly research works."