While Michelle Obama is the stylish first lady du jour, and Hillary Clinton has become the most politically successful post-White House first lady, there’s no doubt in my mind that Laura Bush is the most subtly complex. Long before Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (Random House, $15), women of all political stripes were fascinated by Mrs. Bush’s subdued political presence and the imagined inner workings of her marriage to our former president. Sittenfeld’s fictional portrait of the first lady’s life from childhood to the East Wing is by turns hilarious and unsettling, executed with empathetic ambivalence and teeming with the kind of rich details that make the reader wonder, could things have really happened that way?
An impassioned response to the claims of “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Why Faith Matters (Harper One, $24.95), by Los Angeles-based Rabbi David Wolpe, offers an unapologetic, yet nuanced, argument for the continuing relevance of religion in the modern world. Inspired by the role of personal and communal faith in his own battle with lymphoma, Wolpe illuminates the enduring power of belief by taking us to the places where religion meets violence, scholarship, science, and even personal health. Weaving personal, philosophical, and historical narratives, he creates a convincing argument for the continued influence of reflective, engaged, and compassionate faith. This is a timely and beautifully written book that is sure to provoke thought among readers from both religious and secular backgrounds.
Charged with compiling a selection of biblical poetry, James Kugel, a pre-eminent scholar of Hebrew at Harvard, delivers a well-rounded collection of 18 examples of poems from the Hebrew in his anthology, Great Poems Of The Bible (Simon & Shuster, $15). Approaching challenges of translation and interpretation with deftness and honesty, Kugel has made this volume both accessible and learned. His commentaries bring the sacred text to life and are sure to provoke thought among fans of poetry and scripture alike. Kugel looks at a number of selections from the Psalms as well as excerpts from the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and other books of the Bible.