Books by Peter Manseau


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Rag and Bone
A Journey Among The World's Holy Dead

A fascinating, intelligent, and sometimes funny tour of the human relics at the root of the world’s major religions

By examining relics—the bits and pieces of long-dead saints at the heart of nearly all religious traditions—Peter Manseau delivers a book about life, and about faith and how it is sustained. The result of wide travel and the author’s own deep curiosity, filled with true tales of the living and dubious legends of the dead, Rag and Bone tells of a California seeker who ended up in a Jerusalem convent because of a nun’s disembodied hand; a French forensics expert who travels on the metro with the rib of a saint; two young brothers who collect tickets at a Syrian mosque, studying English beside a hair from the Prophet Muhammad’s beard; and many other stories, myths, and peculiar histories.

With these, and an array of other digits, limbs, and bones, Manseau provides a respectful, witty, informed, inquisitive, thoughtful, and fascinating look into the "primordial strangeness that is at the heart of belief," and the place where the abstractions of faith meet the realities of physical objects, of rags and bones.


“Manseau … lavishly scatters gems … as he travels the world in search of the bones, teeth, hair and other scraps from the religiously renowned…. A lively lope among fragments from famous faith figures.”—Publishers Weekly

“Adroit, worldly … Transports readers around the globe to check out places accessible and remote where fabric, wood, sinew and other materials are venerated…. An amusing romp.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A thoughtful invitation to explore locations, myths, legends, and truths of relics…. In Rag and Bone, Manseau brings bare bones to life, and he has composed an intriguing … travelogue that takes the reader around the world, exploring truth and legend, but more importantly on a journey of understanding why they matter.”—Beliefnet

“Dry bones dance in Rag and Bone, as Peter Manseau brings death to life through his fascinating exploration of religious relics: the skull fragments, detached digits, and ashes of the holy. This is a book that might have been written in the 15th century just as easily as now, but we're lucky to have here the unique 21st century voice of Manseau--a Yiddish-speaking, Buddha-curious son of a Catholic priest and a nun--and one of the most peculiar and most entertaining travelogues in years.”—Jeff Sharlet, New York Times bestselling author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

“Peter Manseau’s Rag and Bone reads like a novel, entertains like a television docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of a 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may very well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”—Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters

“A text for the devoted and devoutly lapsed, Rag and Bone is part religious study and part travelogue. Peter Manseau proves a reliable guide, getting both the concepts and the corpses right: the idea of the thing, and the thing itself. And how far afield his curiosities take us – fellow pilgrims one and all – for whom the dead may be more than the sum of parts.”—Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

“The dead may tell no tales, but the relics they leave behind do, if only we will listen to what they have to say. Happily, one of America’s best young writers has his ear to the ground at reliquaries from San Francisco to Sri Lanka. The result is an intriguing tour of the world’s most holy hairs, hearts, and hands that refuses to lapse into the sort of confessional cant that deadens much writing on religion today. Rag and Bone is alive with both humorous and heartbreaking observations about the chicanery and mystery of things seen and unseen.”—Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University and author of the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy

“A dead saint’s bones, an ancient prophet’s whisker, the Buddha's tooth: As Peter Manseau traces the trail of religious relics, he merges the holy and the human with keen insight. The language shines and the humor delights, but even more, we come away having learned something profound about the making of religious meaning.”—Barbara J. King, author of Evolving God

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Songs For The Butcher's Daughter
A Novel

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction
and the Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature.
Shortlisted for the Mercantile Library First Novel Prize.
One of ABC Australia's Best International Books of the Year.

In a book warehouse in western Massachusetts a man at the beginning of his adult life -- and the end of his career rope -- becomes involved with a woman, a language, and a great lie that will define his future. Most auspiciously of all, he runs across Itsik Malpesh, a ninetysomething Russian immigrant who claims to be the last Yiddish poet in America. When a set of accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs surfaces -- twenty-two volumes brimming with adventure, drama, deception, passion, and wit -- the young man is compelled to translate them, telling Malpesh's story as his own life unfolds, and bringing together two paths that coincide in shocking and unexpected ways.

Moving from revolutionary Russia to New York's Depression-era Lower East Side to millennium's-end Baltimore with drama, adventure, and boisterous, feisty charm to spare, the unpeeling of this friendship is a story of the entire twentieth century. For fans of Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Richard Powers, Amy Bloom, and Lore Segal, this book will amaze at every turn: narrated by two poets (one who doesn't know he is and one who doesn't know he isn't), it is a wise and warm look at the constant surprises and ineluctable ravages of time. It's a book about religion, love, and typesetting -- how one passion can be used to goad and thwart the other -- and most of all, about how faith in the power of words can survive even the death of a language.

A novel of faith lost and hope found in translation, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is at once an immigrant's epic saga, a love story for the ages, a Yiddish-inflected laughing-through-tears tour of world history for Jews and Gentiles alike, and a testament to Manseau's ambitious genius.


"An extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh is one of literature's most stunning achievements."—Junot Díaz

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a completely original and exciting novel that, from its first few lines, holds the reader mesmerised. We are in the hands of a supreme storyteller, an author of wit and charm, one who has a breathtaking flair for language. This is a seriously impressive and accomplished work for a debut novel, identifying Manseau as a writer of great and exciting potential, one able to see the world vividly, even through other people's eyes."—Weekend Australian

"In his debut novel, [Manseau] reaches across cultures to compose a living, breathing portrait of a bad-tempered but charmingly eloquent poet and the young man chosen to bring his words forward in time...The translator's inexperience puts [poet] Malpesh's cynical voice into perspective, as the young man's clumsy first experiences with modern-day romance stand in stark, sometimes poignant contrast to Malpesh...who remembers his 90-something years with equal parts impish humor and profound melancholy...A terrific book with a believable protagonist who's given ample room to tell his tale."—Kirkus Reviews

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a book about writing, a warm, funny, and fascinating testament to the power of words, a power that outlives a dying language and transcends love."—Jewish Book World

"Seductive and playful, the novel, with many unforgettable scenes, is also a serious meditation on language, love, loyalty and memory."—New York Jewish Week

"Ranging from pogroms to poetry, from the purity of sex to the impurity of translation, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side to Eretz Yisroael, [and] written with utmost integrity as well as dramatic momentum, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a delicious read."—Melvin Jules Bukiet, author of Sign and Wonders

"One of the most original and gripping novels I've read in a long time. From the very first page, I knew I was in the hands of a mesmerizing storyteller and born writer. Blessed with a biting wit, a huge heart, and a dazzling flair for language -- how we use it and how it defines us -- Manseau is the real thing. This is a gorgeous debut novel."—Ellen Feldman, author of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank

"Huge in scope and soul, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a sweeping, lyrical, utterly consuming epic. Peter Manseau is a writer with the heart of a mystic, and his novel is an extraordinary gift."—Elisa Albert, author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter explores with profound insight the treacherous territory of language: its elusive, inconstant and enigmatic character and its fundamental role in how we define ourselves as human beings."—Linda Olsson, author of Astrid and Veronika

"Peter Manseau has created a rich tapestry of European and American Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. This beautifully written novel of love and tragedy is a magic-realist tale filled with wonderful detail. We join Mr. Manseau on a hundred-year journey that weaves together the Old and New Worlds."—Martin Lemelman, author of Mendel's Daughter

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The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son

Vows is a compelling story of one family's unshakable faith that to be called is to serve, however high the cost may be. Peter Manseau's riveting evocation of his parents' parallel childhoods, their similar callings, their experiences in the seminary and convent, and how they met while tending to the homeless of Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the riot-prone 1960s is a page-turning meditation on the effect that love can have on profound faith.


"This is a strange and marvelous story, told with unerring grace. In the Manseau family, the call to religious service is like the call of the ancient Sirens. And yet they survive. Peter Manseau's writing is keen-eyed, lyrical, muscular, and more, and while Vows is a story about big ideas -- religion, devotion, sacrifice -- it is above all a love letter to his own family."—Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics and author of Turbulent Souls

"[Vows] forms a history of how the priesthood evolved -- and how people navigate the boundaries between religious tradition and modern life. In the process, Manseau paints a picture of liberal -- and devoutly religious -- Catholics facing up to the church's authority."—Terry Gross, Fresh Air

"With the grace of a gifted storyteller and a son's love for his parents, Peter Manseau tells a story that's not been previously told....Vows...isn't sensational or hostile, but rather a revelatory and nuanced exploration of his parents and their relationship with the Catholic Church, which has both blessed them and wounded them."—Paula Voell, The Buffalo News

"There are moments in Vows...when the prose is so achingly beautiful that the reader must stop for a moment.... If you've ever graced a pew or wondered about the people who do, Vows goes a long way toward explaining faith."—Hartford Courant

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Killing The Buddha
A Heretic's Bible

Now in paperback -- the book that caused a religious and critically acclaimed stir. Publishers Weekly called it "the most original and insightful spiritual writing to come out of America since Jack Kerouac first hit the road." The Buffalo News hailed it as "one of the most eccentric and fascinating books of the year." O, The Oprah Magazine said "This collection proves that fear and trembling are human, but a sense of humor is divine."

Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet have created a work of calling that is as odd, moving, and inspiring as the people and the scriptures they encountered. Whether it is Manseau and Sharlet telling their "psalms" from outposts as unexpected as a strip club or a cattle-auction barn, Peter Trachtenberg unraveling the Gordian logic of Job via the Borscht Belt, Rick Moody finding a modern-day Jonah in Queens, or Haven Kimmel shocking and thrilling us with her Revelation, what emerges is not an attack on religion, but a quizzical, fascinating look at it from the inside. Killing the Buddha is a positively riveting look at the facets of true belief.


"Like a Michelin guide to the American soul, Killing the Buddha is written by a prophecy dream team."—Thomas Frank, author of One Market Under God

"This collection proves that fear and trembling are only human, but a sense of humor is divine."—O Magazine, January 2004