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Best of SA 2013: 4/24/2013
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Holiday books explore holy lands and the devil

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It's officially winter next week. So the days are darker and the nights are longer, and some of us who might otherwise crave warmth and light might just have to settle for those dark nights of the soul, as well. Here are three spirit-centered titles to prod you towards proper Yuletide consolation.

JERUSALEM:The Biography / Simon Sebag Montefiore / Alfred A. Knopf / $35, 650 pages
The heart of the land that sprouted the hydra-headed Abrahamic monotheism that most Americans consider religion, Jerusalem, as detailed in Simon Sebag Montefiore's copious biography, reads like an absolute and unforgiving tale of pandemonium. There are three thousand years of faith and fanaticism revisited in this impossibly fast paced history of superstition, murder, and finally super-structure. The curious reader will, in this generous tome, encounter tribes reining in revenge, caliphs and kings settling for what they can get, and fascinating tidbits of desert trivia such as the news that Jews and Gentiles alike once took to wearing the nails of the crucified in a way that prefigures Christian charms. Montefiore, whose previous books focus on Stalin and Prince Potemkin, exposes the truly miraculous staying power of the "universal city." Reading all this holy land history is inevitability entertaining, but a bit like watching HBO's Dead Wood as reconfigured by Ed Wood, and every bloody thing in this book is as real as Israel.

Christian Contemplation / Thomas Merton, edited by Paul Pearson / New Directions / $13.95, 96 pages
Thomas Merton has — since the early '50s at least — been the hipster's guide to heaven on earth, to non-judgment, patience in praxis, and the groovy integration of Eastern mediation with Western metaphysics. His work inspired people to sit-in as well as to stand up. And his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain led the way to Eldridge Cleaver's prison library pontifications as well as a secular embrace of religious studies. But he was never one of these apologists that let you off easily. "Every moment and every event in every man's life on Earth plants something in his soul," wrote the Trappist Monk. Think of that next time you are trying to decide between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Me and the Devil / Nick Tosches / Little, Brown, and Company / $26.99, 400 pages
With biographies on Jerry Lee Lewis and Arnold Rothstein as well as TV collaborations with Anthony Bourdain, Nick Tosches has spent many a decade dealing with inglorious bastards. And now it seems he has turned his considerable talent for slick repulsion onto himself. In his latest novel Me and the Devil an aging alcoholic writer named Nick has no trouble getting it up, but sees little reason to anymore. He is plagued by the homeless and haunted by mental images of dead monkeys, and all the while happy that some girls don't shave down there. Nick, who finds himself becoming a kind of vampire, is that kind of burnt-out bohemian that knows he is too old to die young and is just now learning that the consequence of his depravity just might be that he gets to live forever. If the devil, as so many contract lawyers and janitors with OCD like to say, is in the details, than you'll find no problem encountering him here in this novel that pits dentures against Bela Lugosi's favorite recipe for Hungarian bread.

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