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As an immigrant from a “rich Arab country,” Lamya H was often asked by acquaintances in the American LGBTQ+ community how she could possibly remain a practicing Muslim, given Islam’s reputation for oppressing women and queer people. Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya’s memoir, is a generous, probing and candid response to that query.

Through its 10 chapters, the memoir generally follows the arc of Lamya’s life, beginning when she was a young girl in an international Islamic school, discovering her attraction to women and sometimes feeling suicidal. She moved to New York City at 17 to attend university, feeling unsure of her sexuality and of America’s gay culture. Now in her mid-30s, she has found love, her people and a life she could not have imagined as a teenager.

What is beautiful and brilliant about Hijab Butch Blues is that in each chapter, Lamya evokes a formative moment in her life through emotional and intellectual dialogue with a story from the Quran. The first chapter, “Maryam,” centers on a narrative that Christians will recognize as a version of the story of the Virgin Mary. As a young teenager, Lamya was transfixed by it because of how a despairing Maryam considers committing suicide, just as Lamya herself had. Thoughtful and questing, Lamya continued reading and found in Maryam’s story a way forward. The year she discovered this story, she writes, is “the year I choose not to die. The year I choose to live.”

Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

In a chapter on Allah, Lamya recounts her questions about the nature of God, which she began asking as a 6-year-old. Is God a woman? A man? A pious religious teacher told her that Allah is not a man or a woman. This was a mystery and a revelation, and it helped her in later years as her family attempted to mold her in traditionally gendered ways. She learned how important it was “for me to use the pronoun they for God,” she writes, “my God, whom I refuse to define as a man or a woman, my God who transcends gender.”

Chapter by chapter, readers will feel a growing appreciation for Lamya’s intelligence, eloquence and courage. Along the way, we learn vivid details about her life and outlook—that, for example, she was a diligent, bright student with a disruptive sense of humor; that her parents immigrated to an Arab nation from a South Asian country for better opportunities and, as a result, that she and her brother experienced bias because of their brown skin; that she was immediately uncomfortable in New York’s gay bar scene and struggled to feel “authentically gay”; that she is ambivalent about America; that she loves her parents and feels OK not coming out to them.

Lamya H is a pseudonym, and her reasons for using one make sense. But even without using her real name, in Hijab Butch Blues she is observant, passionate and anything but voiceless.

Lamya H’s memoir is a generous, probing and brilliant response to the question of how she could be both a queer person and a practicing Muslim.
Behind the Book by

My friend writes a book. It’s a utopian work of speculative fiction, clever and imaginative and hopeful—a brilliant blend of art and activism. I bring flowers to her book launch and find a seat near the back of the cozy community garden where we’re gathered. Even before the reading starts, the space is abuzz with conversations about the worlds in her book and the limitations and radical possibilities of our current world. The evening feels magical. Fairy lights twinkle and apartment buildings tower above. 

As the event planners set up the stage, I turn to the person sitting next to me—one of the few people I don’t know here—and introduce myself, excited to talk to someone new during the social scarcity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This person is easy to converse with: They tell me about their recent move to the city to start an MFA program and the angry activist nonfiction they write. I am intrigued; I love angry activist nonfiction. I promise to introduce them to some of my activist-writer friends, give them suggestions of bookstores to check out and places to write. I want to know so much more about the project they’re working on, and I’ve gotten through only a tenth of my questions when they say, “What about you, Lamya? You seem like a writer. What do you write?” 

I freeze. 

I, too, wrote a book. A memoir: a retelling of stories from the Quran as queer, brown, immigrant narratives, interspersed with stories from my queer, brown, immigrant life—a book I hope is both art and activism. But I don’t know how to answer my new friend’s question because I wrote under a pseudonym. 

Read our starred review of ‘Hijab Butch Blues’ by Lamya H.

I wrote anonymously for many reasons, most of which are predictable and boring. Privacy. Safety. That I’m not out to my family. That my writing—in which I talk about God as nonbinary, the queerness of Musa’s (Moses’) miracles, Maryam (the Virgin Mary) as not liking men—could be considered controversial. That I’m complicating prophetic figures who are important in a lot of religions, writing about them as flawed, as making mistakes. I’m speculating about their sexualities, not for the sake of provocation but because these prophets feel like my friends—beautiful and messy and real—and their journeys have helped me figure out how to live. That it’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable. That I want to write in complicated ways about Islam and still keep going to my mosque. That I want to write in complicated ways about the Islamophobia of queer communities and still be invited to potlucks and spoken word readings. 

I wrote a book so open and honest that it was only possible for me to write under a pseudonym, but what I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision. Grief like in this moment at the book launch, unable to speak about my book with my new friend. Grief in a broader sense, too: the limitations my anonymity places on my ability to use the book as a starting point to create intentional spaces and communities. After opening night for a play called Coming Out Muslim 10 years ago, I joined a space created by the artists for queer Muslims to connect, which led me to find the chosen family and organizing community that I still participate in and am infinitely grateful for. My book won’t be able to do that for others in the same way. 

“It’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable.”

And there are smaller pangs of grief, too: the loss of specificity in my book when critiquing certain spaces for homophobia or racism, which inadvertently ends up protecting these spaces; not being able to share my book with the myriad folks who helped me learn how to write at writing retreats and workshops; not being able to thank my friends by name in the acknowledgments. 

But my choice to write anonymously hasn’t stopped me from experiencing the joys of my book starting to go out into the world. A few weeks ago, someone whose name sounded familiar commented on my Instagram. It turns out she had written a beautiful essay some years ago that was foundational in teaching me to use stories and vignettes to talk about bigger concepts such as racism and homophobia, an essay that I had annotated and read over and over. I sent her an advanced copy of my book in gratitude, and it felt exciting to connect virtually, despite the anonymity. Another person emailed me about doing an event about racism against South Asians in the Arab country I grew up in, and they said I can present with my camera turned off, that her organization will do whatever needs to be done to protect my privacy. It’s a reminder that I don’t owe using my real name to anyone. I don’t owe my face being on the jacket cover. I’m allowed to write on my own terms. It’s possible to stay safe while still using my book as a tool for connection and conversation. 

“What I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision.”

At my friend’s book launch, in the moment before I respond to my neighbor’s question about my own writing, I think of that joy, that sense of connection. I think about how I can selectively choose to invite people in, that my writing anonymously is also an act—however small—of wanting to make the world a better place. My new friend is waiting for my answer. I take a deep breath. 

“I do write,” I say. “We should get coffee sometime. I’d love to tell you about my work.”

Headshot of Lamya H by Lia Clay for the Queer Art Community Portrait Project

Lamya H, the author of Hijab Butch Blues, reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

Journalists estimate that between 1 and 3 million Uyghur people are currently being held in detention camps by the Chinese government as an act of cultural genocide. That we in the U.S. know about this is largely due to the courageous reporting of Uyghur American journalists such as Gulchehra Hoja. In her stunning memoir, A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope, and Survival, Hoja recounts her childhood and education in East Turkestan, as well as her love for her family, language and culture, precious things that she has had to leave behind as an activist in exile in the U.S.

Located in the northwestern corner of mainland China, East Turkestan is the homeland of the primarily Muslim Uyghur, whose culture is rich with ancestral traditions in music and dance. Coming of age in an educated and musical family, Hoja trained as a dancer before turning to acting. She produced and hosted the first Uyghur language children’s TV show, gradually becoming aware of the increasing censorship and control the Chinese government exerted over both Uyghur people and the media. A trip to Europe in 2001, and a first glimpse of an uncensored internet, led Hoja to immigrate to the United States, where her journalistic skills quickly landed her a position at Radio Free Asia. 

Hoja’s exile in the U.S. and persistence in reporting on the suppression of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government has resulted in grave consequences for her family back home. A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs dramatizes the violation of Uyghur human rights by grounding the political in the personal. Family and friendship are as much a part of Hoja’s story as the larger national and political context, reminding readers that every missing Uyghur is a person with a story of their own.

Uyghur American journalist Gulchehra Hoja’s stunning memoir recounts her love for her family and homeland, both of which she had to leave behind.
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The Lives We Actually Have

Book jacket image for The Lives We Actually Have by Kate Bowler

Like the psalmists, authors Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Good Enough) examine and affirm the multifaceted human experience in The Lives We Actually Have. In 100 entries written in verse, Bowler and Richie celebrate the beautiful, lament the ugly and recognize the mundane alongside the blindsiding. This book is not the shallow expression of prayer most of us are used to. Instead, these pages hold blessings that make every human experience, even a “garbage day,” worthy of noting and appreciating.

The authors include blessings for every kind of day, including ordinary life, tired life, lovely life, grief-stricken life, overwhelming life, painful life and holy life. Along the way, they do an incredible job of reclaiming blessings from social media’s “#blessed” culture, speaking truthfully about the range of experiences inherent to being human instead of offering blessings for the pristine, uncomplicated lives we wish we had.

Bowler and Richie go where most Christian authors won’t: right to all the messy truths of being alive. Their willingness to meet us where we are makes life feel a little more manageable and a little more worthy of love. Through their words of blessing, readers will find courage, rest, hope to carry on—and maybe even a laugh.

The Book of Nature

Book jacket image for The Book of Nature by Barbara Mahany

Born out of author Barbara Mahany’s curiosity, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text weaves together theology, nature, science, liturgy and poetry. Instead of losing readers in so many captivating details, she brings all these seemingly different mediums together to create a compelling argument that the natural world is the key to understanding God. To Mahany, and the countless theologians, authors and scientists she references, nature is what makes sense of scripture.

Mahany opens her book by sharing how she came to write about the Book of Nature, which is an ancient name for the practice of “reading” nature like a sacred text, “the text of all of creation, inscribed and unfurled by a God present always and everywhere.” Her initial spark of interest led her down a rabbit hole, finding references to the Book of Nature throughout Christian history. She then explains how the separation of religion and nature—that is, science—came about during the Enlightenment and reminds readers that it doesn’t have to be that way now. Through her essays on the earthly, the liminal and the heavenly, Mahany reveals the divine’s presence in our world.

For those in the Christian faith who grew up learning about God only from Bible lessons, The Book of Nature provides permission to wonder, get curious and find God in the tiny details of a sprouting garden, a forest glade, birds in flight or the moon. By showing readers how many respected theologians, seminarians, desert mothers and fathers, tribal leaders and saints found God in nature, Mahany reminds us that there are different ways to encounter God all around us, beyond just in scripture.

 Dancing in the Darkness

Rev. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and his ministry is steeped in a theological tradition of liberation, love and justice. Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times, his latest collection of essay-sermons, lays out the need for Americans to use the tools of “Just Love” (love linked to justice) to overcome despair and denial. Because of our country’s racialized history, Moss writes that we are doomed to stay in a state of “political midnight” if we don’t reckon with injustice while holding onto agape love.

Moss weaves personal stories, history and prophecy together in a fast-paced, faith-filled way. Readers will breeze through these essays and feel energized to hold onto hope despite the challenges we face as a society. With practical calls to prayer, meditation and authenticity, Moss leads readers into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a “beloved community.”

Dancing in the Darkness is a wonderful soul-reviver. Readers will come away feeling spiritually buoyed, just like they might if they attended worship at Moss’ church. The effect is empowering without giving into unrealistic visions of utopia. It’s like a spoonful of sugar that will help us fight for the world our children deserve to inherit.

All My Knotted-Up Life

Book jacket image for All My Knotted-Up Life by Beth Moore

Many readers have been anticipating the release of All My Knotted-Up Life, author and minister Beth Moore’s memoir. After decades as a women’s Bible study teacher in the Southern Baptist Church, a denomination that only allows men in leadership roles, Moore finally shares her story. She reveals a few surprising secrets here, but her trademark belief in the goodness of Jesus is the memoir’s main draw.

Beginning with her childhood, Moore tells her story of living in a home fraught with mental illness and sexual abuse and the safety she felt going to the Baptist church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. As Moore moves chronologically through her life, we see her family fall apart and come back together, and we see Moore get married and have children all while feeling called to ministry. Moore struggled to figure out what that would look like in the Southern Baptist Church, but she found a way—first by working around the Southern Baptist Convention’s gendered leadership rules and then by leaving the organization completely—and became one of the most well-known leaders in evangelical Christianity. 

All My Knotted-Up Life will leave some readers wishing they knew more of Moore’s story. Because of her ability to see the humanity in all people, including her abusers, I was personally left wanting to see more of her process of forgiveness. But for Moore, true forgiveness is up to Jesus, who is at the heart of this tender memoir.

These Christian nonfiction books will make readers feel a little bit better about being human.

The lights started shortly after Matthew Vollmer’s mother died. It was the fall of 2019, and Vollmer’s father now lived alone, sleeping in the same bed where his wife of decades had released her final breath. He had spent 10 years caring for her as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases slowly took their toll. Now Vollmer, his sister, their respective families and their father were learning to live without their mother’s buoyant laughter. 

So it was understandable when friends and acquaintances offered a quick explanation for the appearance of mysterious lights near the elder Mr. Vollmer’s rural North Carolina property. They must be Mrs. Vollmer, of course, signaling to her husband from beyond the grave.

This easy answer didn’t sit well with Vollmer, who had long wrestled with matters of faith after leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church in college. The other members of his family were still Adventists, and this well-meaning explanation didn’t align with their beliefs either. Adventists believe that once you die, you’re dead until Christ returns and resurrects the dead. Vollmer’s father even suggested to a few people that the lights might not have been from his late wife but from a demonic source instead.

Vollmer explores these possibilities with open-minded curiosity in All of Us Together in the End. An English professor at Virginia Tech who has previously authored short story and essay collections, Vollmer brings a fiction writer’s knack for narrative to this account of his life, vividly recounting family gatherings during the COVID-19 lockdown and other tender moments. Likewise, Vollmer’s analytic prowess shines in his research into possible causes for the lights. He turned to an author of a ghost lights book and a shaman, among other sources, attempting to make sense of not only this phenomenon but also the hole Vollmer’s mother left in the family.

Throughout this journey, Vollmer invites readers into his world via detailed renderings of the places he’s called home. He recalls his childhood house with exquisite detail and recounts searching for the lights outside his father’s window so powerfully that readers can place themselves in the scene. And as he searches, Vollmer evokes a painfully universal experience: the process of moving forward with a life that doesn’t make sense after a loved one’s death.

Matthew Vollmer brings a fiction writer’s knack for narrative to his first memoir, an account of the mysterious lights that appeared near his father’s home after his mother’s death.

In his third memoir, the hilarious and heartbreaking How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, author Harrison Scott Key quips, “Men never talk about being betrayed. I want to. I feel I must. I have many deep convictions, and one of them is that suffering can and should be monetized.”

Key has done an excellent job thus far, with his debut The World’s Largest Man, winner of the 2016 Thurber Prize for American Humor, and 2018’s Congratulations, Who Are You Again? Fans know that his books are a potent mix of sharp, poignant and funny, thanks to the author’s penchant for openly talking about his baser instincts and his ability to take small, meaningful moments and extrapolate them out to large, cleverly expressed truths.

“Even if nobody bought it, even if my agent hated it, I had to get this mf-ing book out of my brain and my heart.” Read our interview with Harrison Scott Key.

In How to Stay Married, an onslaught of truths began with a devastating 2017 revelation: Lauren, Key’s wife since 2002, had been having an affair for five years. Her affair partner, called “Chad” in the book, was a married neighbor with a family that often spent time with Key’s own. The shock was deep and destabilizing, sending the author on an urgent journey of discovery (When did it go wrong? How did he miss the signs? How will their three daughters react? Should he buy a truck?) and a deep exploration of his Christian faith.

With wit and anger, humility and warmth, Key chronicles the myriad ways he has strived to understand how a couple with a lovely origin story could have grown so far apart. A chapter called “The Little Lawn Boy Learns His ABCs” is a tour de force of alphabetized self-examination (and, sometimes, self-flagellation), and a chapter by Lauren called “A Whore in Church” offers plain-spoken insight into the pain of her past and her choices in the present.

As the couple worked to figure out, together and separately, what the future might hold, Key found himself wondering, “What if, in some cosmically weird way, escaping a hard marriage is not how you change? What if staying married is?” How to Stay Married makes a strong case for that approach to romantic partnership, while offering plentiful food for thought about faith, humor, courage and love.

Humorist Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of the fallout following his wife’s affair offers plentiful food for thought about faith, humor, courage and love.

Our top 10 books of June 2023

Our top picks for June include the latest from S.A. Cosby, Dominic Smith and Uzma Jalaluddin, plus the first major biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in decades.

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Our top picks for June include the latest from S.A. Cosby, Dominic Smith and Uzma Jalaluddin, plus the first major biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in decades.

Before the release of each of his previous two books—The World’s Largest Man, winner of the 2016 Thurber Prize for American Humor, and 2018’s Congratulations, Who Are You Again?—Harrison Scott Key had what one might call a bit of a freakout. 

As Key explains in a call from his Savannah, Georgia, home, “You’re working on a book for two, three, sometimes four years, and it’s like a lightning rod that focuses all of your creative vitality.” Then, when you’re finished, “you have all of this psychic energy that has to go somewhere. I usually just try to pour it into a new book idea . . . and I usually hit a wall with that . . . and then I start wandering around the house and talking about how maybe I’ll go to dental school because I clearly can’t write anymore.”

While the author has become accustomed to the stressful “interregnum” between a manuscript’s completion and the reading public’s reaction—via interviews and reviews, as well as a flurry of promotional events—Key has experienced even more heightened emotion and anticipation since the completion of his newest book, How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told.

Read our starred review of ‘How to Stay Married’ by Harrison Scott Key.

The subject matter’s the thing: In his third memoir, Key takes his trademark mixture of radical honesty and frequent hilarity to a new level as he describes what it was like when Lauren, his wife of 15 years and the mother of their three daughters, revealed that, for the preceding five years, she had been having an affair with a married neighbor, whom Key dubs “Chad.” True to the book’s title, the couple has managed to remain married but not without several years of rage, despair, negotiation, crying and therapy, including a lot of talking with each other, friends, family, professionals and more. 

Lauren’s shocking revelation came in 2017, and the book’s emotional roller coaster of events concludes in 2022, rendering them still relatively fresh. “Even if nobody bought it, even if my agent hated it, I had to get this mf-ing book out of my brain and my heart,” Key says. “The benefit of writing about it as it was happening and in the year after the drama concluded is that the scenic details were very accurate and intense. . . . Obviously, the downside is that you haven’t really processed what’s happening, and so your perspective on it is very different than it will be in six months, in two years.”

Whether Key welcomed it or not, additional processing did occur during the editing stage of the book. “Even in just the last three months, I probably read through the entire thing four times,” he says. “Being forced to live through these scenes and face the really awful realities of things that happened has been therapeutic, because it has exposed me to them over and over so that I’m not afraid of these memories anymore.” They will be stirred up again as he promotes the book, of course, but “I am not unused to people reading about behind-the-scenes stuff in my life, the kinds of things people don’t talk about,” he says. “What makes this book weird is my wife and her role in it; that part is very strange.” 

“Even if nobody bought it, even if my agent hated it, I had to get this mf-ing book out of my brain and my heart.”

Book jacket image for How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key

By this, Key means the impressively honest and vulnerable chapter that Lauren contributed called “A Whore in Church.” He told Lauren, “I think you need to talk about your mom and your dad and your childhood and everything that’s happened with us. You should just vomit it out there because I feel like it will be really good, and I feel like I can’t tell my story if you don’t tell your story.” And so she did.

Upon reading Lauren’s chapter, Key wasn’t surprised that it was well written and evocative. In fact, “Reading it was horrifying and exhilarating . . . and I loved it,” he says. His previously trepidatious publishing team felt the same way. “When I shared it with my editor and agent,” he says, “they were like, ‘Holy crap, this is awesome, it has to be in there.’” And it is: an unusual aspect of a book that is itself unusual in its unflinching—and often very funny—look at a marriage in extreme crisis, written by a man as open about his own faults as he is about his wife’s—or, you know, Chad’s (wears cargo shorts, listens to Kid Rock).

During Key’s quest for understanding about the breakdown of his marriage, he also found himself reconsidering his Christian faith. “My religion was this enormous toolshed full of strange tools,” he says, “and it wasn’t until this experience that I realized I was so bereft of solutions that I needed to maybe go out into that old Jesus-y toolshed and see if some of it could help.” Key also read widely, from the book of Psalms to the Tao Te Ching, and “just the fact that the stuff I was experiencing was not new . . . was really reassuring.” 

“This idea of forgiveness and mercy when you want to punish, it’s so counterintuitive for most people.”

Ultimately, Key says, “this idea of forgiveness and mercy when you want to punish, it’s so counterintuitive for most people, but really the spine of Christianity is forgiveness . . . and not until this moment with my wife did I really understand.” He adds, “I would not be here, I would not be in this house, my family would not be whole, without that faith.” 

As Key readies himself for the debut of How to Stay Married, he says Lauren is “owning what’s happening in the story. She and I have gone into this holding hands.” And who knows what else might lie ahead for the duo? The author says with a laugh, “Both of us can X-ray marriages now just by interacting with people. . . . Maybe that’s our next calling, to be the Oprah and Dr. Phil of marriages on TV.”

No matter what future adventure might be on the horizon, for now, Key says, “the ability to see through pain and anger and trauma and bad choices and see the human heart that’s in there—if I could take anything away from this experience, it would be hopefully a better ability to do that.”

Headshot of Harrison Scott Key by Chia Chong

In his third memoir, the award-winning humor writer tackles a rather somber subject, to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.

In many religious traditions, paradise names an otherworldly realm overflowing with lush greenery, luscious fruits, honeyed scents and cascading waterfalls. In others, paradise can be attained in this world, even in the midst of the clattering cacophony surrounding us. Bestselling travel writer Pico Iyer shares his own search for paradise in The Half Known Life, traversing the world’s vibrant religious traditions to uncover paradise’s contours, its purported locations and the role it plays in earthly conflicts. 

With vivid imagery and sterling prose, Iyer documents his wanderings from town to temple. In Tehran, Iran, for example, he learned that Rumi counseled readers to find a heaven within themselves because paradise is not some idyllic place that transcends this world. Rumi’s poetry created a “paradise of words,” Iyer found, amid the unceasing strife of the country’s various Islamic branches. In the Kashmir region of India, which some claim was the location of the Garden of Eden, Iyer embraced a paradisiacal moment as he floated in a houseboat in the middle of a lake. In Sri Lanka, he visited Adam’s Peak, a forest outcropping that Buddhists, Christians and Hindus all claim as sacred ground. In Jerusalem, Israel, he wondered where a “nonaffiliated soul” could find sanctuary and “make peace among all the competing chants.” He tried his luck at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “a riot of views of paradise overlapping at crooked angles till one was left with the sorrow of six different Christian orders sharing the same space, and lashing out at one another with brooms.” At the end of his quest, Iyer woke to a “thick pall of mist” in Varanasi, India. It was so difficult to see through that it “made every figure look even more like a visitor from another world.” Observing them, he writes, “it was easy to believe we were all caught up in the same spell, creatures in some celestial dream, ferried silently across the river and back again.”

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul and the world’s urban and rural, secular and religious, landscapes.

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul.
Review by

The Mennonite community is at once an evangelizing religious group and a “tribe.” As novelist Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria) explains, the tribe consists of the white descendants of its Swiss, German and Dutch founders, but the religion is growing fastest in Africa. Samatar embodies that duality: Her white American mother met her Black Somali father on a church mission. They raised their family in the United States, where Samatar went to Mennonite schools.

So how does Samatar make sense of her identity? To answer this question, she set out to explore how Mennonites have interacted with other cultures and chose an extreme example: The 1880–84 trek of a small, sturdy group of “Volga” German Mennonites led by minister Claas Epp Jr. Inspired in part by an 18th-century German novel, he thought Jesus would return to Central Asia in 1889. The trekkers landed in what is now Uzbekistan, and while the world didn’t end the way Epp expected it to, the Soviets did eventually force his community out of the country.

The White Mosque is Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a tour she took retracing the trekkers’ challenging path to their new settlement, where they lived for some 50 years. But her pleasantly digressive book encompasses much more: Central Asian culture, the memoirs of teen trekkers, Mennonite martyrs, doomsday beliefs, her father’s disillusionment, her own searching adolescence at a Mennonite boarding school. She even includes a beautiful reverie on how the settlers must have felt on the day that Jesus did not return. (Epp just kept moving the date until he suffered a mental collapse.) 

Samatar’s trip culminates in what remains of “White Mosque” village, where current Muslim residents have established a museum commemorating their odd but fondly remembered former neighbors. Back in 1935 when the Soviets rounded up the Mennonites for exile, their distraught local employees wept.

Understandably, when Samatar embarked on her pilgrimage, she was seeking a kind of self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition. Instead, she learned to love the trekkers’ “wrongness.” After all, fragmentation can make a lovely mosaic.

The White Mosque is Sofia Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a fringe Mennonite group in Central Asia, and her own search for self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition.
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Escape, by definition, is rarely easy, and in Uncultured, Daniella Mestyanek Young illustrates just how difficult it can be. Leaving the Children of God, the cult she was born into, and surviving the U.S. Army, a group she chose to enlist in as a young adult, have both left many scars. Lucky for readers, she found her way through both experiences and then wrote it all down.

The Children of God, founded in California in 1969 by “failed fifty-year-old preacher” David Berg, appealed to members of the counterculture as a spiritual path to inner peace. The author’s mother grew up in “the Family,” as their cult was known, and became pregnant at 14, but Mestyanek Young didn’t learn who her real father was until she was a teenager herself. By then, she had been beaten and sexually abused by various “Uncles,” who were aided and abetted by “Aunties,” who disliked Mestyanek Young’s constant questioning of and growing resistance to their many rules—including “sharing” sex as a form of God’s love. Women and girls were expected to serve men’s demands, and education for children was minimal, which made it especially difficult to transition to the wider world at age 15.

As hard as it is to absorb the grotesque details of her childhood, so unflinchingly disclosed, reading about Mestyanek Young’s life after leaving the cult behind is no easier on the heart. Her career as one of the first female combatants in Afghanistan helped elevate her to a captain, while making her an easy target for soldiers unused to such parity. As the Army slowly learned to accommodate women, she was repeatedly warned, “Don’t get raped.” But what, she wondered, were the men being warned about?

Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between these two groups—God’s Army and the U.S. Army—but their similarities. Uncultured vividly cautions readers to choose a group in which you can be yourself—and be free.

In her debut memoir, Daniella Mestyanek Young ponders not the differences between the cult she grew up in and the U.S. Army, but their similarities.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman

Sophia’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Goldman, knits hats for just about everybody she knows, and Sophia helps by making the pompoms that go on top. “Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,” Mrs. Goldman tells Sophia, explaining that “a mitzvah is a good deed.” When Mrs. Goldman gives her own hat away, Sophia wants to knit her something special, but knitting turns out to be harder than she realized. I love this sweet introduction to the Jewish concept of mitzvot. Author Michelle Edwards’ text has lots of delightful little details, like when Sophia notices that a hat she and Mrs. Goldman began knitting together many years ago still smells like chicken soup. But what gets me every time is Edwards’ description of Sophia’s emotions when she realizes the perfect solution to her knitting woes: “Sophia feels her heart grow bigger and lighter, like a balloon.” If ever a book were a mitzvah, it would be A Hat for Mrs. Goldman.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor


Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher whose obsessive analysis of the effects of unchecked consumerism becomes more prescient with each passing day. In his 1988 essay collection, America, Baudrillard follows Route 66 across the United States toward Death Valley, California, as he seeks to answer a seemingly simple question: What makes an American? The thing that synthesizes American identity, he finds, is faith: from the evangelical fervor of Salt Lake City, to Las Vegas’ ascendant belief in the dollar, to the ever-elusive future of San Franciscan tech lords. Everywhere he looks, Baudrillard finds sprawling cities not built on trade or natural resources but suspended on dust clouds, spinning rivers of capital and an unshakable belief in American mastery over nature, by whatever means. Even if you disagree with Baudrillard’s funny, sometimes biting analysis of the United States, his surprisingly nuanced poetry, complex worldview and foreign perspective still make for a unique and engaging read during these dynamic times.

—Anthony, Editorial Intern

Open Book

Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I knew that Jessica Simpson had started out singing in church. What surprised me when I read her memoir, Open Book, however, was how much Simpson’s Christian faith still matters to her all these years later. The book opens with the day she decided to stop drinking, after years of using alcohol to quell her anxiety through tough relationships and even tougher career breaks. As she gets honest with friends about her dependency on alcohol, the group decides to pray together to validate Simpson’s decision. This moment of honesty and faith is a good entry point, since these values are Simpson’s guiding lights throughout her memoir. She’s honest with readers about childhood sexual abuse, the demands of record labels, her marriage to Nick Lachey, her relationships with family and the wild ups and downs that have shaped her life’s terrain. At every point, Simpson’s Baptist roots ground her and keep her from straying too far from her authentic self.

—Christy, Associate Editor

The Sparrow

First published in 1996, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction classic The Sparrow examines organized religion and faith on a cosmic scale. Spanning the years 2014 to 2060, the novel follows an interstellar mission led by skilled linguist and Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz to discover the source of hauntingly beautiful music that was detected on a planet four light-years away. Accompanied by a motley yet qualified group of friends, Emilio feels called by God to explore the planet and make contact with its alien inhabitants, the music makers. But as the trip unfolds, the group’s well-meaning intentions have catastrophic consequences that cause Emilio to have a crisis of faith. Raised Catholic, Russell left the church at an early age, identified as an atheist for several years and later converted to Judaism. This background, combined with her skills as a multilinguist and her career in paleoanthropology, provide a unique perspective from which to tell such a rich, multifaceted story.

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Hana Khan Carries On

Uzma Jalaluddin’s enemies-to-lovers romance Hana Khan Carries On is a joyful homage to the classic 1990s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, with an Indian Canadian family’s halal restaurant subbing in for the Shop Around the Corner. Hana is our leopard-print hijab-wearing heroine, and she dreams of someday telling true stories that honor her Muslim culture and community. The local radio station where Hana interns is hyperfocused on Muslim stereotypes, so she creates an anonymous podcast to express her true thoughts. Meanwhile, her family’s business has run up against a competing restaurant, with an attractive man named Aydin leading the charge. But as romance grows and the restaurants duke it out, the heart of the novel remains with Hana. Despite microaggressions at the radio station and outright racism on the streets of Toronto, she remains strong in her culture and religion, never abandoning these parts of herself. She finds happiness by being her whole wonderful self—a lover, a fighter, a devout Muslim woman, an open-hearted storyteller and a heroine to believe in.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Whether your own approach to religion is devout, irreverent or somewhere in between, you’ll find characters to relate to within these narratives.
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Ten-year-old Tad Lincoln loved the theater, especially one animated performer he watched at a Washington, D.C., playhouse in 1863. “I’d like to meet that actor,” he said. “He makes you thrill.” Tad quickly got his wish: After the performance, the stage manager escorted him and his friend into the actor’s dressing room, where John Wilkes Booth greeted them warmly. “The future murderer of Tad’s father gave a rose to each child from a bouquet presented him over the footlights,” writes historian Terry Alford in his endlessly fascinating book In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.

Alford knows his subject inside and out, having written Fortune’s Fool, a landmark biography of Booth that Karen Joy Fowler has praised as a major resource for her novel, Booth. In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns’ and the Booths’ enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people’s spirits. Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones. The two families even sometimes turned to the same mediums, which is just one of many historical threads that tie these two tragedy-bound families together. And yes, there were numerous White House seances, one of which was said to have levitated Abraham Lincoln in the Red Room as he sat atop a grand piano!

Alford seamlessly tells the two families’ stories, starting with the major players’ childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after. He’s a fair-minded narrator of these complicated historical figures, never casting judgment but rather letting the historical record speak for itself through his riveting, elegant prose. He presents, for instance, Lincoln as a young man playing a prank on a friend by persuading two other friends to dress as ghosts as they walked home one dark night. “Never have I seen another who provoked so much mirth and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee. He could make a cat laugh,” wrote one admirer. That characterization certainly contrasts with the more common portrayal of a brooding, whip-smart but sometimes awkward Lincoln.

Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln’s assassination, which he memorably describes. Particularly fascinating are the details of its aftermath—how, for instance, Mary Todd Lincoln was left with restricted funds, living in boarding houses and rented rooms as she tried to deal with the deaths of her husband and, ultimately, three of her beloved sons. In 1872, a noted “spirit photographer” produced an image of her that supposedly showed Lincoln standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, with one of their lost sons nearby.

The history of Abraham Lincoln and his enthrallment with spiritualism has never been more surprising than in Terry Alford’s In the Houses of Their Dead.

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