Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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A Year in Reading: David Haglund

I spent a lot of time this year learning about the religion in which I was raised. I wasn’t alone: the nomination of a certain presidential candidate guaranteed that many people would read up on Mormonism. What were they reading? Over the summer, a Mormon historian who has written a few pieces for me at Slate pointed out that the top-selling book in the Mormonism category at Amazon — after the Kindle edition of the Mormon scriptures, that is — has been, for pretty much eight years straight, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. This jibed with my experience: It’s typically the only book about the religion that my secular, left-leaning friends have read.

Which is unfortunate. Because however well it’s written — and I’m a fan of Krakauer’s writing, particularly Into the Wild — the book has a tendentious take on religion in general and Mormonism in particular. Imagine a book that presented itself as a history of Islam and was called Under the Banner of Jihad, with half of its chapters devoted to Mohammed and the early days of the faith and the other half devoted to Osama Bin Laden. And imagine its thesis was that religion tends to make people violent and that Islam does so more than most. Books like that exist, I’m sure — plenty, I imagine. But do you want to read them?

A couple other books I read this summer were just as gripping as Krakauer’s and yet addressed Mormonism in a more nuanced fashion than he manages. And they’re hardly apologetics: One got the author kicked out of the Mormon church and the other is a true-crime tale about the religion’s gravest scandal of the last 30 years. That one’s called Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders. It centers on Mark Hofmann, a world-class forger who, after growing up in the faith, faked several seemingly landmark Mormon documents that, if authentic, complicated the church’s history in uncomfortable ways. As his deceptions — and shady financial dealings — caught up with him, Hoffman took to making bombs, killing two people and wounding himself. Salamander tells the whole sorry story with careful research and not a shred of sensationalism.

But an even more stunning tale is told in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, by Fawn M. Brodie. While it’s no longer the definitive biography of Mormonism’s founding prophet — that would be Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Lyman Bushman — it’s a classic. And Brodie writes beautifully. “Carried along in the migration had come the flotsam of the godly,” she says of the nonconformists who fanned out west from New England in the early nineteenth century. “The body of the prophet lay for a time quite alone,” she writes near the end, describing the scene after Smith’s murder, “until Willard Richards ventured forth to carry it back into the jail and lay it beside the body of his brother.” Her comment in the preface that “Joseph Smith dared to found a religion in the age of printing” remains a key insight for students of the religion. Brodie — whose uncle David O. McKay would become the president of the LDS church, but who had long since ceased believing in the Mormon gospel herself — published the book in 1945. She was excommunicated the following year. If you’re interested in Mormonism — because of Mitt Romney or for any other reason — read her book.

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What people are reading

Looking at what people are reading while they ride to work on the train is an odd hobby, but I’ve been doing it for several months now and I can’t seem to stop myself. In fact, it’s become all the more fascinating now that I’ve noticed some patterns emerging. Here’s what I observed during my travels between the North Side and the Loop on Friday:Reading for school: This is the broad category that includes everyone from high schoolers reading Shakespeare to the upper echelons of post-graduate academia. Since school’s out, you mostly just see the post-grad end of the spectrum at this time of year. Friday’s sighting: Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 by Kevin Fox GothamConsumers of popular non-fiction: This may be the largest group of readers on the train. Perhaps fiction is too light (or too heavy) for the commute, and these nine-to-fivers require something concrete, yet engaging, to bookend their working day. Friday’s sighting: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Arc of Justice by Kevin BoyleReading for fun: These people, on the other hand, require a diversion on their way to and from work, something boldly written and fast-paced to inject a little excitement into the weekday. Spotted on Friday: The Broker by John Grisham; Harry Potter #4 and #6 (Potter – and not just #6 – is nothing short of ubiquitous on the train these days)The readers: These are the people I envy. I like to imagine that they’re not on their way to or from work but that they ride the rails, like modern day hobos, all day long, enjoying the gently swaying carriage with their noses buried in books. Spotted on Friday: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

take three

Now, Vintage asks: what will be the classics of the future? (via Maud)So, I don’t get it. Did Bob Woodward have this book waiting in a desk drawer until Deep Throat’s identity was revealed? Woodward is a good journalist, but he may be a better businessman. USA Today scored a copy a week early and reveals some Watergate-era tidbits here.I got a free trial download from Audible.com, the digital audiobook store. I selected Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. The downloading process was very quick and easy. I’ll let you know how the listening experience is once I find time to check it out.

The New New Journalists

Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.

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