Recommended nonfiction

SIX WIVES: THE QUEENS OF HENRY VIII, by David Starkey, HarperCollins, $29.95

Starkey is regarded as the preeminent Tudor historian in England, and as this impressive biography demonstrates, that's no media hype. He's earned his position through brilliant analysis, perception, and an unwavering determination to get to the truth, even when it means sacrificing his own previous theories. Here, he shows that the wives of Henry VIII were not the brainless ciphers that history has portrayed. He reveals much about them that was previously unknown and unfathomed, but also disproves many of the prominent myths. (July 24)

TERROR IN THE NAME OF GOD: WHY RELIGIOUS MILITANTS KILL, by Jessica Stern, Ecco, $27.95

In this significant addition to books on terrorism, Stern examines the latest manifestations of murderous campaigns by true believers - fanatical Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Eager to comprehend evil from the inside, she sought and often obtained entree into the inner sanctums of terrorist organizations in the United States as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, and Pakistan. In interviews with holy warriors from different religious communities, she discovered common themes and expressions. She also sometimes found herself empathizing if not sympathizing with those who spoke passionately of their beliefs. Her judgments, based on her journey into the netherworld of some of the most dangerous people in the world, are sobering and alarming. (Aug. 28)

BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS, by Elaine Pagels, Random House, $24.95

Pagels has a gift for bringing ancient Christian texts alive, and for displaying their profound, sometimes startling import for contemporary experience. In "Beyond Belief," she draws on the more than 50 Christian writings discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, to reveal a diversity of early teachings about Jesus. In her graceful, illuminating exploration of various works - including the Gospel of Mary Magdalene - Pagels explicitly raises the question of how different Christianity might have been had these works not been banned in the early centuries of church history. In a period when so many call themselves "seekers" and others press for a return to orthodoxy, this remarkable book will stir and provoke thought. (May 15)

THIS FAR BY FAITH: STORIES FROM THE AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, by Juan Williams and Quinton Dixie, William Morrow, $29.95

"This Far by Faith" interweaves stories of individual spiritual journeys and accounts of church leaders and religious movements. Williams and Dixie cover a vast amount of information without burying the reader in excessive detail. They are masters at placing black worship in the context of US history. Though the authors acknowledge "glittering examples [around the world] of the power of religion to provoke and support social justice," they unabashedly argue that "God's power to transform society has no greater example than the US Civil Rights movement." As the title suggests, we've come this far, but there's still some distance to go. (March 6)

READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN: A MEMOIR IN BOOKS, by Azar Nafisi, Random House, $23.95

Rich with the author's memories of teaching English in Iran during the Islamic revolution that shook her country, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" provides a stirring testament to the power of Western literature. Talking about the callous villain in "Lolita" - or characters in other novels, such as the convention-defying heroines in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and James's "Washington Square" - enabled Nafisi's female students to challenge those in power. As they felt themselves slowly suffocating under the totalitarian regime, simply allowing their imaginations to roam freely became an act of political insubordination. Nafisi devotes sections of her book to different writers, reflecting the way her own life has intertwined with literature. Drawing from vivid anecdotes, she reveals how literature can offer readers a valuable way of understanding the world. She now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. (March 27)

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