A Monitor guide to religion bestsellers

1. Crisis of Islam

by Bernard Lewis

Modern Library, $19.95

The renowned but controversial historian of the Middle East sheds valuable light on distinctive Muslim views of history, identity, and community. He also dispels some misperceptions. But this book, while full of learning, provides more generalization and argument than in-depth analysis of Islam's crisis. Though Lewis says various movements vie for Muslims' allegiance, including some that the West could effectively deal with, he fails to acquaint us with any but the familiar terrorist camps. (144 pp.) By Jane Lampman

2. Nine Parts of Desire

by Geraldine Brooks

Anchor, $14

As a female journalist, not always welcomed into Middle Eastern power circles, Brooks made a chador her camouflage and passport to the hidden world of Muslim women. She observes both powerful and ordinary women. With quotes and anecdotes, Brooks argues that oppression of women is rooted in culture rather than the Koran, a culture that still fosters "honor killings," physical abuse, and restricted education. Some may find spiritual depth lacking in these portraits, but the complexity and inner strength of those living veiled and walled-in lives shine through. (255 pp.) By Warren Bolon

3. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

by Ross King

Walker & Co, $28

Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling is almost as legendary as the masterpiece itself. The difficulties of painting a huge vaulted ceiling in fresco would have been drama enough. Taken with the fiery personalities of the artist and his exalted client, Pope Julius II, they make a story of grand proportions. This highly enjoyable book clarifies the nature and magnitude of the painter's undertaking, while helping us freshly appreciate his achievement. (373 pp.) (Full review January 16) By Merle Rubin

4. Abraham

by Bruce Feiler

William Morrow, $23.95

When he began his study of Abraham - the one man to whom Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all trace their roots - Feiler was hoping to find a character of the sacred texts who could serve as a bridge for all the faithful. Instead, he encountered a multitude of Abrahams as the interpretative works of each religion over four millennia reshaped and often made more exclusive the story of this remarkable figure. His wonderfully readable book inspires, and its realistic understanding provides a basis for genuine communication. (224 pp.) (Full review Oct. 17) By Jane Lampman

5. When Things Fall Apart

by Pema Chodron

Shambhala, $12.95

In place of seeking escape from hard times, Chodron compels readers to accept fear and loneliness as inevitable and healthy components of human existence. The only lasting solution to the problem of suffering, she maintains, is to find comfort in uncertainty. Writing of this struggle with the familiarity of an old friend, she offers candid examples from her own experience, as well as exercises designed to foster stillness. Readers familiar with Buddhist concepts will have an advantage, but Chodron offers enough background for novices, too. (224 pp.) By Darren Abrecht

6. The Witches' Almanac

by Elizabeth Pepper

Witches Almanac, $8.95

Inspired by the Old Farmer's Almanac, "The Witches' Almanac" offers "the complete guide to lunar harmony." The almanac does indeed offer a lunar calendar, but omits accurate transit times and other astrological data found in ephemerides. A brief mediation accompanies each month, ranging from recipes and discussions of herbs and Tarot cards to quotations from Aesop and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The last portion is devoted to astrological predictions for the year to come and short articles that touch on mythology and history. (114 pp.) By J. Johnson

7. The Purpose-Driven Life

by Rick Warren

Zondervan, $19.99

Pastor Warren thinks there is one thing wrong with self-help books: too much focus on the self. He's designed his book to put the focus back on God, a chapter a day, for 40 days. It's refreshing to put aside personal goals for a service- and community-based purpose, but Warren hangs a lot on his claim that God is using our time on earth to put us through a series of tests. The suggestion that God might take off for awhile because all relationships need "space" is also disturbing. His God sounds surprisingly human and manipulative. (336 pp.) By Kendra Nordin

8. Golf for Enlightenment

by Deepak Chopra

Harmony, $21

Most duffers find golf far more frustrating than life. Any book that leads to mastery of the game, must inevitably lead to some form of enlightenment. But as a golf book, Chopra's latest is a rudimentary guide to his Eastern philosophy. Golfers working on the mental aspects of their game are likely to find some nuggets to quiet the yips. Spiritual seekers may find it less engaging. Each chapter includes tales of a middle-aged male golfer who discovers enlightenment with the help of a mystical female coach/guru. (208 pp.) By Dave Scott

9. The Places That Scare You

by Pema Chodron

Shambhala, $12.95

Chodron has written a concise introduction to Buddhist spiritual practice, not a self-help book about fear. She writes that what we are scared of is letting go of our emotions and attachments to the world. The solution is not to try to change ourselves, but to get in touch with the "soft spot" inside us, bodhichitta . That's one of only a few Sanskrit words that Chodron, an American Buddhist monk, uses. She offers training plans to nurture compassion, loving-kindness, joy, and equanimity both on the meditation mat and in daily life. (144 pp.) By Joel Abrams

10. Destructive Emotions

by Daniel Goleman

Bantam, $26.95

Buddhist scholars have studied the mind for thousands of years. Scientists now have tools that track brain activity. Let the dialog begin. Goleman, author of the bestseller "Emotional Intelligence," narrates a five-day meeting of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholars with Western philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists. Their goal: an understanding of destructive emotions. Goleman summarizes the discussions helpfully. The Dalai Lama's keen interest in science, dialectic skill, and humor guide the investigation. Very readable. (384 pp.) By Tim Rauschenberger

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