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Spring books: The renewal edition

(RNS) — The snow is (mostly) gone, the Easter eggs have (hopefully) been eaten, the Passover matzo has (probably) gone stale. It is spring, the time of spiritual and religious renewal, which can mean everything from a rededication to attending weekend services to talking a walk in the woods or just cleaning house. Here are eight new books — and one bonus track — where religion and spirituality are themes.

Fiction

The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin (Putnam)

Roaming the streets of the Lower East Side in the summer of 1969, the four Gold children, who are Jewish, stumble into the parlor of a psychic. The psychic reveals to each of them the hour of their deaths. As they mature, they must decide how to make the most of the sometimes brief time they have been allotted. “The novel follows each of the siblings over about 50 years as they reckon with their prophecies,” author Benjamin told NPR. “Some of them fight against it. Others claim they don’t believe in it. Some use it to push them to pursue their wildest dreams. And others are surprisingly limited by it even if their date of death is quite far out.”

Song of a Captive Bird” by Jasmin Darznik (Ballantine Books)

This novelization of the life of Iranian poet and pioneering feminist Forugh Farrokhzad follows her from a childhood in 1950s Tehran to a loveless marriage and a dangerous affair. Throughout, Farrokhzad, considered the Iranian Sylvia Plath, writes poetry and develops a sense of Muslim womanhood that has little to do with Iranian patriarchy. Writing for Booklist, Donna Seaman said, “Darznik’s knowledgeably invented characters and compellingly imagined scenarios, both of which are sensuous and harrowing, are deftly set within Iran’s violent, oil-fueled, mid-twentieth-century political and social upheavals, and stay true to the essence of Farrokhzad’s audacious, dramatic, and creative life and courageous commitment to writing revolutionary poems about being female in a tyrannically sexist society.”

Speak No Evil” by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins)

Nigerian-born Niru is a Harvard-bound senior at an elite Washington, D.C., school when his religious parents discover his secret — Niru is gay. That prompts the parents to whisk Niru back to Nigeria, where he is subjected to Christian gay conversion therapy. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Geoff Wisner called the book a “riskier novel, with a deeper understanding of its characters’ conflicted hearts. Mr. Iweala’s novel weaves together sexual, religious and political strands as it builds to a devastating climax.”

 

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” by Michael David Lukas (Spiegl and Grau)

The son of a Jewish mother and Muslim father is sent on a quest to uncover family secrets that take him to Egypt’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, built on the site where Moses is supposed to have been rescued from the Nile. Add into the equation a sacred scroll with possible magical abilities and mysteriously disappearing relics and the result is what Kirkus called “an appealing family drama (that) illuminates the fascinating story of a famous repository of Jewish documents, the Cairo Geniza.”

 

 

Nonfiction

Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary” by Amit Majmudar (Knopf)

The Bhagavad-Gita, the 700-verse Hindu scripture found in the middle of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata,” is the story of Prince Arjuna and how he goes to war with the aid of the god Krishna. Laid out along the way is the Hindu idea of the universe, the meaning of life and the spiritual duty of human beings. Equally fascinating is the translator’s back story — he is a radiologist who learned Sanskrit to more closely read the Gita after experiencing a renewal of his Hindu faith. “The translation is ravishing and faithful, marked by what (Vladimir) Nabokov once called ‘the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist,’” Parul Sehgal wrote in The New York Times Book Review before quibbling with some of the commentary.

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World” by Bart Ehrman (Simon and Schuster)

Ehrman, a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professor of New Testament whose 30 books are popular beyond academia, looks at the sociopolitical and economic forces that turned Christianity from an outlawed sect to the faith of kings. “The great appeal of Ehrman’s approach to Christian history has always been his steadfast humanizing impulse,” Tom Bissell wrote in The New York Times Book Review. ” … Ehrman always thinks hard about history’s winners and losers without valorizing the losers or demonizing the winners.”

 

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” by Jonathan Weisman (St. Martin’s Press)

Weisman was the deputy Washington editor for the “failing” New York Times during Donald Trump’s run to the White House when he fell afoul of anti-Semitic trolls on social media. The harassment he and other reporters with Jewish-sounding names underwent — including the triple parenthesis that is supposed to signify their Judaism to the alt-right — was terrifying, with calls for gassing and lynching them. This book recounts that disgusting chapter of the 2016 campaign but also looks at how other “othered” tribes — immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims — might join together to stamp out such monsters. The book has received generally excellent reviews for its examination of the appearance and spread of the alt-right’s anti-Semitism, but Weisman’s plan of action has split reviewers. Some say he is naive. Others claim he ignores anti-Semitism on the left. “American Jews face an enormous challenge in overcoming our civic complacency and internal fractiousness, and Weisman’s searing study of the rise of the alt-right reminds us that our privileged role in this society can never be taken for granted,” Jane Eisner writes in The Washington Post. “I only wish that his passionate call to arms was based on a deeper understanding of what actually is being done by Jews in the age of Trump, especially because there is still so much more left to do.”

Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover (Random House)

Westover’s fundamentalist Mormon parents didn’t send their children to school but put them to work in their scrapyard, where a couple of the children, including Westover, had serious accidents. She was also physically abused by a brother and was discounted and disbelieved when she spoke up about it. Yet Westover managed to study math at Brigham Young University before going on to Harvard and Cambridge. Along the way she lost her faith, but came to terms with her parents. Sharon Peters in USA Today called the book “a heartbreaking, heartwarming, best-in-years memoir about striding beyond the limitations of birth and environment into a better life.”

Bonus track

Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom” by George Dohrmann (Random House)

No, it is not about traditional religion, but these sports fans give the most avid religious zealot a run for the money. Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner, starts with a quote from Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson: “People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.” Then he delves into a world where people make long and arduous pilgrimages to football games, scarify their bodies to mark their commitment to a team, don elaborate costumes and makeup to signify their devotion (the original “Rally Banana” is a sight to behold) and conduct rituals designed to bring about a desired outcome: a team win. Smells like team spirit.

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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