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The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

Pico Iyer (Riverhead)

Iyer’s dreamlike quest to define earthly paradise takes him to some of the world’s holiest sites, from the Western Wall in Israel to the Imam Reza shrine in Iran. Thorny questions—is paradise possible in a world rife with suffering?—are tempered by elegant prose that at turns stuns and enlightens. Luminous and searching, this explores the global and the spiritual with equal mastery,


How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South

Esau McCaulley (Convergent)

McCaulley vividly charts his path from a hardscrabble childhood in Alabama to the halls of academia, situating his story within frameworks of Black identity that challenge notions about “overcoming racism.” Interwoven with the author’s struggles with faith and eventual decision to devote his life to putting into words “the varied experiences of God in the souls of Black folks,” it’s the year’s most potent meditation on race and religion.


I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness

Daniel Allen Cox (Viking Canada)

At the outset of this striking collection of essays, Cox comes out as gay via a “breakup letter to Jehovah” sent to his church elders. What follows is no less captivating, whether Cox is offering commentary on his break with the controlling Watch Tower Society, meditations on Y2K in New York City, or reflections on his insecurities about becoming a writer given the “anti-intellectual” religious tradition of his youth. There’s a live-wire intensity running through Cox’s prose that makes this easy to read and difficult to forget.


Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins

Jacob L. Wright (Cambridge Univ.)

Why did “the most influential corpus of literature the world has ever known” emerge in a far-flung corner of the ancient world? Wright’s eye-opening answer traverses Israel’s Babylonian exile, rifts between the Northern Kingdom (of Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (of Judah), and the surprising role of scriptural contradictions, making for a lively and astute account that assuredly brings biblical history to life.


Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Wiman wrestles with notions of despair in religion, art, and life in a bewitching mix of poetry and prose that bravely courts the destabilizing and the unknown. Tackling mysteries of belief, the limits of art, and the realities of human suffering with equal acuity, this spellbinding meditation lingers powerfully and sometimes painfully in the mind.


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