You know you have slightly strange tastes in nonfiction when you see a book about saints' relics and you think, "Ooh, goody!" And you further know you've probably read too much nonfiction when you think, "I wonder if it will be as good as the other relic book I read?"*
I was very, very excited to find Peter Manseau's book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead in my library catalog. Not only because I find the idea of saints' relics (purported remnants of saints' bodies and other holy items--like pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on--that are honored and venerated within various religions, including Catholicism and Buddhism) fascinating, but also because I love, love, LOVE Peter Manseau. (His memoir Vows, about his parents, a former nun and priest, and his childhood spent trying to understand their and his relationship with the Catholic Church, was hands-down one of the best memoirs I've ever read.)
This book finds Manseau traveling around to various holy sites, including Jerusalem and Goa, a city in India where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier are kept, and investigating such relics as the foreskin of Jesus (you heard me) and the burnt bones of Saint Joan. He strikes just exactly the right tone throughout; he is respectful without being obsequious, skeptical without being rude. He is, above all, fascinated by and thoughtful about his topic. This is what he has to say about Francis Xavier, who was an unenthusiastic missionary (at best) to India, although that is where his remains are today: "In death Francis Xavier had joined the lives of a people and a place where he had never wanted to remain. These children, born in the country he scorned, educated in a school that bears his name, have lived their lives in his shadow, but now they run in front of his church, casting their own." (p. 52.)
When I really love nonfiction I fall into very distinct feelings when reading it. Some nonfiction is exciting; some is inspiring, some makes me very angry; but my very favorite titles make me feel settled and thoughtful and peaceful. You know what I mean, about different feelings that books give you? This book makes me feel settled and peaceful, and it's wonderful. Right on, Peter Manseau.
*The other relic book was Anneli Rufus's Magnificent Corpses: Searching through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Relics from the Saints, which was also excellent. More personal in some ways, sharper in some ways, less historical and even-toned in others, but still brilliant.