A Series Of Astrological Disasters

A mother and daughter seek various forms of spiritual guidance and stability.

"The waitress came over and her mother ordered a coffee, plenty of cream and sugar, and Melissa ordered a pop with everything—Coke, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper but no root beer. The psychic ordered a side of bacon and an iced tea with three slices of lemon. He touched her mother gently on the hand and said, Shelley, you are a Gemini. Pollux, one of Gemini’s stars, is the nearest giant star to Earth. Her mother ooohed and went glass-eyed, and Melissa wished she could take her mother home, where the two of them could wait on the porch for dark, and when it came, Melissa would point and say, There, Mother. There’s Gemini. Right there. But Melissa didn’t know where Gemini was."

Uncle Skillet Rides Again

A grifter uncle visits his fundamentalist family.

"Uncle Skillet had stayed the same as he was in the stories my dad told. He had become a nomad, somebody my parents argued about in loud hisses, thinking they were whispering while they thought I was asleep. The idea of Uncle Skillet thrilled me. He was one of the bad guys from the Bible, a nomad on a permanent adventure, no agenda. Wild, dangerous, sinning all over the world, a life like the underside of the lawnmower."

The Agony Of Intimacy

Jeanette Winterson (author of a new memoir) contemplates the pleasures and the dangers of sex with the gods.

"He was close. She fell. He was on her. She pulled away. He grabbed her. He kissed her. She, in the time it takes to remember, in the time it takes to forget, kissed him. There was a second of surprise. Something happened. Anything might have happened because a world of gas and bubbles and heat was washing between their mouths. Then the known killed the unknown, and he was a god and she was a girl."

Our Lady Of Guaza

Following their mother's death, two Colombian half-sisters visit a cathedral built within an old salt mine.

"She had imagined the church where the funeral was held, but pillared with white salt instead of gold and marble. A sort of whimsical confection. Only upon arriving at the mountain in Zipaquirá does she realize what this sight-seeing really entails: she and Valentina must descend with hundreds of people 600 feet into the earth. It’s a disturbingly morbid activity to undertake so soon after her mother’s death. But it is also something to do, so she buys their tickets and joins Valentina in the long line near a tall cement cross that marks the entrance to the mountain."

River Of Smoke [Excerpt]

An elderly woman and her extended family make their traditional pilgrimage to a cave shrine.

"Much depended on the weather, for a trek up the wind-swept mountain could not be undertaken except on a fine day. When the conditions seemed propitious, the bandobast would start the night before. The feast that followed the puja was always the most eagerly awaited part of the pilgrimage, and the preparations for it occasioned much excitement and anticipation: the tin-roofed bungalow would ring to the sound of choppers and chakkis, mortars and rolling-pins, as masalas were ground, chutneys tempered, and heaps of vegetables transformed into stuffings for parathas and daal-puris. "

Hitler Is Dead

All violence is not like all other violence. Every Jewish death is not like every other Jewish death. To believe otherwise is to revive the old typological thinking about Jewish history, according to which every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war.

How First Baptist's Robert Jeffress Ordained Himself to Lead America

Before I met Robert Jeffress, I wanted to hate him. Jeffress is the conservative preacher who made national headlines in October, when he called Mormonism a cult. He’s the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, the oldest megachurch in America, and I am certainly not a Baptist. He endorsed Rick Perry for president, and I’m definitely no fan of Perry’s. As a matter of fact, Robert Jeffress and I probably disagree on every major political and religious issue. And yet, I really, really like him.

Escape From the Holy Shtetl

A young woman’s attempt to flee from the most religiously conservative community in America, and to take her daughter with her:

The critical battleground in the War Between the Grunwalds would prove to be niddah, or “separation,” i.e., when the menstruating female is considered “impure” and kept apart from her husband. “It isn’t just your period,” Gitty says. After a woman stops bleeding, she has to wear white underwear for seven days, checking constantly to see if there’s any discharge. Should spotting occur, the woman takes her underwear to a special rabbi who examines the color, shape, and density of the stain. It is he who divines when it is safe for the woman to immerse herself in the mikvah (ritual bath) and be reunited with her husband.

My Aunt Gold Teeth

An Indian woman is torn between Hinduism and Christianity.

"We were all somewhat worried by this, but Gold Teeth's religious nature was well known to us, her husband was a learned pundit and when all was said and done this was an emergency, a matter of life and death. So we could do nothing but look on. Incense and camphor and ghee burned now before the likenesses of Krishna and Shiva as well as Mary and Jesus. Gold Teeth revealed an appetite for prayer that equalled her husband's for food, and we marvelled at both, if only because neither prayer nor food seemed to be of any use to Ramprasad."

Poof!

A man's memories of his troubled childhood lead to extravagant personal imagery of heaven and hell.

"Is heaven full of surprises? Our minister made it sound static. Happy, happy, happy, and no sleep, just blissed up like an addict, people bowing whenever Jesus walks by. Or the Father. Or the Holy Spirit sent a breeze-puff near where you stood by a window with a golden sill. Did the Holy Spirit get tired of being invisible? Maybe in heaven all is visible, even the Spirit."

The Submission

The identity of the designer of a proposed 9/11 memorial competition inflames the emotions and the prejudices of an observer.

"The Rally to Protect Sacred Ground kicked off on a balmy Saturday morning in a plaza opposite the site. The members of both the Memorial Defense Committee and Save America From Islam were there, gathered in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage. Behind them stretched thousands: women holding signs that said NO TOLERANCE FOR THE INTOLERANT or KHAN IS A CON; fathers hoisting small children on their shoulders; men in camouflage who may or may not have been veterans. "

Customs

A young Jewish man makes a comical attempt to smuggle items into Canada.

"When I sit back in my seat I feel dampness on my ass. My jeans came in contact with some mystery liquid on the lavatory floor. I finish filling out the declaration card. I'd stopped in the middle after reading that I'd have to declare any meat products I'm bringing into Canada."

From Silver Lake to Suicide: One Family's Secret History of the Jonestown Massacre

How the People’s Temple tore one family apart, told in part via letters:

We have at long last opened our hearts to you, expressing the sorrow and agony which we have restrained over six long years. Any time you express the wish to resume normal relations and exchange with us, the past will be forgotten. For after all we do love you and the children more than any other persons. We shall continue to cherish you to our last day on earth. The peerless joy of raising you from childhood to youth is a unique life experience, indeed. Your father and mother

Inside Scientology

A journey into the controversial religion:

In the next hour or so, Laurie asks me a number of questions: Am I married? Am I happy? What are my goals? Do I feel that I’m living up to my potential? A failure to live up to potential is one of the things known in Scientology as one’s "ruin." In trying to get at mine, Laurie is warm and nonaggressive. And, to my amazement, I begin to open up to her. While we chat, she delivers a soft sell for Scientology’s "introductory package": a four-hour seminar and twelve hours of Dianetics auditing, which is done without the E-meter. The cost: just fifty dollars. "You don’t have to do it," Laurie says. "It’s just something I get the feeling might help you." She pats my arm, squeezes it warmly.

Call Of Cthulhu

Lovecraft's classic story. Terrifying cosmic revelations await you herein.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Peerless

Fabulist fiction, about a shoeshine boy with a secret.

"Dr. Fessenden takes an interest, both medical and fatherlike. He wears black leather brogues at least twenty years old, the kind they don't make anymore. He prods my back with his doctorly fingers and makes considering sounds. "

Our Israelitish Brethren

On Jews:

The Jews are happy in the United States. There are now two hundred congregations of them here, half of whom have arrived within the last twelve years. They are good citizens, firmly attached to those liberal principles to which they owe their deliverance from degrading and oppressive laws, and are rising in the esteem of the people among whom they dwell. Their attachment to the system of universal education is hereditary; it dates back three thousand years; and though their religious feelings are wounded by the opening exercises of many public schools, they would not for that reason destroy them.