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review 2018-09-07 11:17
The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Bill Miles and Walter Dean Myers
The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage - Bill Miles,Walter Dean Myers

This short, shallow look at the African-American US Army unit that fought in the trenches of France in WWI wasn't enough. First, the writing was pure US Army - that is, written at a 6th grade level (and that is not a dig at soldiers - all military writing is written at 6th-8th grade reading level to ensure everyone can/should understand). There was a lot more history of African-Americans serving in the military since the days of French and Indian wars through the Spanish-American war. Yet there were hardly any profiles done on the men who made up the Hellfighters; I learned more about the white officers in charge than the men who actually fought. There was very little detail, but a lot of fluff about how courageous they were and vague mentions of valor. I needed more than what was offered and felt the enlisted men of the unit deserved better writing on their achievements.

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review 2018-09-05 08:37
Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith - Jon Krakauer

This extraordinary work of investigative journalism takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities, where some 40,000 people still practice polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God. At the core of Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill a blameless woman and her baby girl. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this appalling double murder, Krakauer constructs a multi-layered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Along the way he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Under the Banner of Heaven investigates a true crime story that unfolded during the summer of 1984 within the Mormon Fundamentalist community. Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered a woman and her baby daughter, later claiming that they were ordered by God to do it. 

 

Krakauer uses this crime case as a basis for writing a behind-the-curtain look at Mormon Fundamentalist culture -- the history, the general belief system, even the "underbelly", if you will, where one will find a growing population of people struggling with various stages of mental illness. Severe depression is on the rise in this community and suicide attempts are no longer uncommon. Also to be found are increased reports of incest, molestation, and sexual assaults. It's believed that this particular problem is because the topic of sex / sex education is so strongly repressed within the community, especially among the female population. Even married couples seem to dance around the topic when it comes to trying to openly talk about it. Krakauer even manages to incorporate the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, looking at the creepy, tragic details of the crime and how her abductors (Mormons who turned Fundamentalist) were able to brainwash her into submission (In interviews in recent years, Smart has since come out and implied that her brainwashing was merely an act she put on to captors as a means to stay alive).

 

"We have the greatest and smoothest liars in the world."

~ Brigham Young

 

When Krakauer focuses on the Lafferty murder case, we learn that the Lafferty brothers grew up with a violent disciplinarian father, forced to watch him carry out violent acts on their mother or other children, at one point even beating the family dog to death. The father was also a believer in healing serious illness with fervent prayers rather than modern medicine. Or so Krakauer's research showed... but when Dan Lafferty himself was interviewed, he claimed he had a very happy, loving childhood. But even there, Krakauer later turns up evidence that Lafferty brought violence into his own marriage after reading a book on polygamy that claimed that women were to be looked at as "a subservient ox". It turns out Dan originally intended to take his oldest stepdaughter as his first plural wife, but later decided on a young Romanian immigrant who was working at Robert Redford's horse ranch nearby who claimed she was "open to new experiences". (Not the kind of thing people typically mean when they say that, but okay).

 

Brenda, the murder victim, was the sister-in-law of Ron and Dan, married to their brother Allen. She was also the only one of the Lafferty wives who was college educated. She was known in the community to be book smart with an independent spirit, not afraid to debate theology, and she would also encourage other wives in the community to stick up for themselves. Ron blamed Brenda for his own wife, Dianna, leaving him, taking their kids with her. A God-decreed murder, my foot! 

 

In addition to the true crime investigation, readers also get a look into the general history of Mormonism, all the way back to Joseph Smith & Brigham Young days, some of which might be new or forgotten info to today's readers -- such as the fact that Joseph Smith actually ran for President of the United States in 1844, but obviously lost to James Polk.

 

An earnest, good-natured kid with a low boredom threshold, Joseph Junior had no intention of becoming a debt-plagued farmer like his father, toiling in the dirt year in and year out. His talents called for a much grander arena. Although he received no more than a few years of formal schooling as a boy, by all accounts he possessed a nimble mind and an astonishingly fecund imagination... Gregarious, athletic, and good-looking, he was a regular raconteur whom both men and women found immensely charming. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could sell a muzzle to a dog...

 

In the beginning, Joseph Smith had emphasized the importance of personal revelation for everyone... he instructed Mormons to seek direct "impressions from the Lord," which should guide them in every aspect of their lives. Quickly, however, Joseph saw a major drawback to such a policy: if God spoke directly to all Mormons, who was to say that the truths he revealed to Joseph had greater validity than contradictory truths He might reveal to somebody else? With everyone receiving revelations, the prophet stood to lose control of his followers. Joseph acted fast to resolve this dilemma by announcing in 1830 -- the same year the Mormon Church was incorporated -- that God had belatedly given him another revelation: "No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant, Joseph Smith, Jr." But the genie was already out of the bottle... People liked talking to God directly, one-on-one, without intermediaries... Thus, even after Joseph told his followers that henceforth they were forbidden to receive divine commandments concerning church doctrine, many of these Saints quietly ignored the edict and continued to heed the voice of God, whether he was talking to them about matters of theology or personal issues.

 

 

 

We also get more examples of Joseph Smith's raging hormones and Emma Smith's long, losing battle with trying to keep her husband monogamous. William Law, Emma's friend as well as one of Joseph's counselors, urged Joseph to cool it down a bit with the ladies, but to no avail. Their friendship was later broken when Joseph kept making passes at William's wife.

 

Neither Emma's tears nor her rage were enough to make Joseph monogamous...neither were the prevailing mores of the day. He kept falling rapturously in love with women not his wife. And because that rapture was so wholly consuming and felt so good, it struck him as impossible that God might possibly frown on such a thing. Joseph wasn't by nature reflective of deliberative. He conducted his life impulsively, acting according to instinct and emotion. The Lord, it seemed to him, must surely have intended man to know the love of more than one woman or He wouldn't have made the prospect so enticing.

 

Between 1840 and 1844 God instructed the prophet to marry some forty women. Most were shocked and revolted when Joseph revealed what the Lord had in mind for them. Several were still prepubescent girls, such as fourteen year old Helen Mar Kimball. Although she acquiesced when the prophet explained that God had commanded her to become his plural wife -- and that she would be permitted twenty-four hours to comply -- Helen later confided to a friend, "I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it."

 

Joseph married Helen Mar Kimball in Nauvoo in May 1843, Earlier that same month, young Lucy Walker was also wed to the prophet after being similarly coerced...When the horrified girl balked at his proposal, Joseph explained to Lucy that if she refused she would face eternal damnation. "I have no flattering words to offer," he said. "It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you."

 

Throughout this period of frenzied coupling, Joseph adamantly denied that he endorsed plural marriage, let alone engaged in the practice himself. "When the facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last," he asserted in a speech given to the people of Nauvoo in May 1844. "What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can find only one. I am the same man, innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers."

 

William decided to try his hand at making his own branch of Mormonism, the Reformed Mormon Church. He even printed pamphlets denouncing Joseph, claiming him a fraud. William's printing press was destroyed by Joseph's brother, Hyrum and an angry mob was rounded up to drive William out of town. Joseph and Hyrum had charges brought against them for their roles in the destruction of William's property. While they sat in jail, a different angry mob burst in and killed them both in a hail of gunfire. Specifically, Joseph himself was shot, sent out a window, shot again and then bayonetted, dying at a mere 38 years of age. 

Sidenote: There's also a discussion in this book about the Mountain Meadow Massacre. John D. Lee was ultimately executed for his role in the murders but just prior to death was quoted as saying that if he was innocent, Brigham Young would be dead in six months. As it turns out, Young was dead five months and six days after Lee's execution, but the cause of death is presumed to be from a probable burst appendix.

 

 

So in a nutshell, I guess Under The Banner Of Heaven is, in a way, a collective look at the history of violence that's gone down over the years within the Mormon Fundamentalist community, though largely kept quiet and swept under the "God's Work" rug. I didn't find the book completely entralling start to finish, there were some dry bits for me, but then again it definitely had plenty of jaw dropping moments in there as well. Recommended if you're at all interested in either true crime cases or reading about the more taboo side of the Mormon faith. 

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review 2018-09-04 09:17
Falling In Love With Joseph Smith by Jane Barnes
Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of Places - Jane Barnes

When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series The Mormons, she was surprised to find herself passionately drawn to Joseph Smith. The product of an Episcopalian, “WASPy” family, she couldn’t remember ever having met a Mormon before her work on the series—much less having dallied with the idea of converting to a religion shrouded in controversy. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who claimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat. In this brilliantly written book, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she moved from secular curiosity to the brink of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique he was—and how widely divergent his wild yet profound visions of God were from the Church of Latter-day Saints as we know it today. Her fascination deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her eighth cousin Anna Barnes converted to Mormonism in 1833. Through Anna, Barnes follows her family’s close involvement with Smith and the crises caused by his controversial practice of polygamy. Barnes’ unlikely path helps her gain a newfound respect for the innovative American spirit that lies at the heart of Mormonism—and for a religion that is, in many ways, still coming into its own. An intimate portrait of the man behind one of America’s fastest growing religions, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith offers a surprising and provocative window into the Mormon experience.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, I've been friends with a handful of people who believe in / practice Mormonism. Whenever we've gotten into talks of their religion, I find myself fascinated with their belief system and the unique culture that develops around this particular line of faith. I think my interest mainly came from a simple place of curiosity, since for so long I knew virtually nothing about the history of Mormonism beyond some dude a long time ago in the woods being sly with some golden tablets... something along those lines. And, of course, who can escape all the polygamy documentaries out there these days. Figuring there was a whole lot more to the story, when I came across this book in a bargain bin one day, I figured what the heck, let's see what we learn.

 

Quite a bit, as it turns out! Joseph Smith, Sr. (the father of the famous one), according to this book, was something of a drinker and a get-rich-quick-schemer. It seems Junior didn't fall too far from the tree, at least in the early years. He took a similar route to dad, having, by the age of 15, already picked up smoking, drinking and dabbling in the occult. At the age of 17 is when he claims to first start seeing angels in the woods who tell him of the whereabouts of sacred golden plates. These angels tell Joseph Smith (the one this book focuses on) that every September he is to visit the spot where they claim the plates are buried... but he won't FIND the plates until he is deemed worthy. It seems said seraphim gave him the stamp of approval around the age of 21. 

 

From there, Smith brings in friend Martin Harris to transcribe the messages on the plates. Harris' wife grows increasingly upset (jealous?) over her mister's obsession with the project, insisting he show her what he's been working so hard on. And then... a scandal is born! On the day that Emma, Joseph Smith's 1st wife, is giving birth to their first son (who sadly died the same day), Smith gets news that the 116 pages of transcribed text he and Harris had compiled so far ... had gone missing! Suspicion falls on Martin's wife. The friendship between Martin and Joseph takes a hit, Emma helps with some of the continuing transcription work until the new scribe, Oliver Cowdery, is brought in to take over.

 

I had thrown myself into the Book of Mormon many times, and it had thrown me right back out. First off, there was the problem of its style. Impatient outsiders always complain about it. But the style was a real  problem. There were a number of phrases that Smith repeated and repeated, though as Mark Twain observed, " 'It came to pass' was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet." ~~ Jane Barnes

 

It was funny to read of how Emma Smith sometimes had doubt over her husband's prophet gifts, as she knew him to be pretty much illiterate.

 

 

As Emma once said, "He could not pronounce the word Sariah," the name of a central Book of Mormon's patriarch's wife. Joseph was unsure of biblical history, yet wrote in detail of things and places he had never been. He once stopped the middle of translating to ask if Jerusalem had walls around it. When Emma, the better scholar, confirmed that had been the case, he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd already written the walls into the text. Could he have "been deceived"? Not according to his wife, who said, "Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon... It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible."

 

 

She also sometimes questioned the actual existence of the plates, since Smith was SUPER secretive over who he allowed to see them. Whoever was doing the transcribing work for him would listen to his words through a curtained area and just write down whatever he said. According to Barnes' research, eleven people signed testimony swearing that they HAD seen the plates for themselves, but oddly, these statement were retracted, then followed by them denying ever making the retracted statements... whaaa? Just weird behavior all around.

 

The part of all this that made me really feel for Emma Smith was the description of Joseph first bringing up polygamy to her. He stood before her and claimed that an angel had appeared to him multiple times between the years 1834-1842, holding a sword to Joseph, threatening death upon him if Joseph did not take up polygamy. The modern wife in me reading this immediately felt a BS induced eyeroll coming on ... but it was a different time for Emma. Perhaps it was more difficult for her to speak up. But let it be said here, Emma was not a fan. And whatever Joseph did or did not see, he definitely took advantage of the situation -- three marriages by 1841, eleven by 1842, SEVENTEEN by 1843!!

 

Emma's reluctance... and later, resistance... to the practice caused definite tensions between her and her husband. Emma would notice that Joseph would send men out on missions for the church... okay, business as usual... but then in certain circumstances, he would keep the men away so he could snatch up the wives and marry them to himself! Come sermon time, Joseph would preach to men to discuss the topic of polygamy with their first wives before engaging in any more, but he was never upfront with his own wife about his. The first few of his wives he already had on the books before he ever made mention of it to Emma! He'd just try to explain them off as "long term house guests" until it just got too hard to dismiss what was really going on. Still, in this book we see Emma really trying to stay true  and dedicated to her husband through it all, even though her heart must have been breaking.

 

One scene of defiance that had me cheering though --- Barnes describes a moment where Emma and Joseph are arguing again about her resistance to obey his polygamy wishes. Joseph writes on a piece of paper that a decree has come straight from God that she IS to obey. Emma picks up the piece of paper with a pair of fireplace tongs and swiftly drops the paper into the glowing fireplace. Yes, girl! Maybe that's as close as she ever got to a middle finger response, but at some point EVERY woman has her limits!

 

By no means did this book strike me as an objective look at the history of Mormonism. Oh no, there is most definitely a bias to the writing, but for someone who doesn't practice this faith myself and had virtually no knowledge of the history going in, at the very least it was an interesting --- and if I'm being 100 here, sometimes laughable -- depiction of the origins of Mormonism. I'm not here to knock anyone's belief system, it's just that some of the stuff Joseph Smith seemed to get away with... I can't help be feel like REAALLY? NO ONE called this guy out, AND he's still considered a prophet?! It's just hard for me to wrap my sense of logic around.

 

Through researching the history of this book, author Jane Barnes comes to discover her own genetic ties to Anna Barnes, the wife of Joseph Smith's bodyguard as well as Harriet Barney, Brigham Young's 49th wife. 49TH. Y'ALL.

 

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review 2018-07-28 16:39
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War - Matt Faulkner

Gaijin is the fictionalized story of Faulkner's great aunt's and cousin's stories about being in the Japanese internment camps during WWII. I really enjoyed this book because it is the story seldom brought up in history classes and seen through such a unique perspective - that of 13 year old biracial boy (Koji Miyamoto) and his white mom (his Japanese father is back in Japan caring for his parents) living in San Francisco when Pearl Harbor occurs. Koji never really felt like a gaijin, or outsider, until then and it is worse in the camps. Koji is forced to go to the camps but not his white mother - she decided to go with him because she didn't want to be separated from her boy. Luckily, they have her husband's employers in the camp to help her help her son through this difficult time (being a teen and time of war). 

 

The artwork is stunning and impactful. I highly recommend reading this to kids as a starting off point as there isn't any graphic violence but some aspects of Koji's life can be applied to their lives as well (bullying, separated families for examples).

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text 2018-05-13 19:59
This Is Going To Take Awhile
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 - Christopher Clark

This book is going to be my Ypres, as it will take quite the battle (maybe three battles) to get through this dense writing - a judgement I am making solely on reading just the introduction alone. Holy academic writing Batman! There doesn't seem to be much narrative storytelling, just a lot of who, what, and where - I hope I am wrong on this point. 

 

This is not the book to start your discovery of WWI with - you need to get your feet wet and have a working background knowledge base before getting to this book. I am really glad I read Hochschild's book before taking this one on.

 

Also I am not sold on how the author sets up the book based on the table of contents; I am a linear reader, so an author has to build from the foundation up for me to follow and truly understand. This author decided to pay special attention to the Balkan/Serbia area first, then the 30+ years of European history prior to the war, then back to the Balkans/Serbia area for the July 1914 Crisis. I am thinking of reading the 30+ years part first, then the backstory of the Balkan region and then the July 1914 part so that it flows better in my head. I do admit that I am looking forward to having a special section devoted to the Balkans/Serbia area and its' backstory - that is one thing I haven't gotten any perspective on in the books I have read so far.

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