The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre by Hiller B. Zobel

publication date: 1970
pages (including back matter): 372
SBN: 393-05376-8

As we all learned in school, the subject of this book, the Boston Massacre, occurred when several British soldiers supposedly gunned down unsuspecting and unarmed citizens of Boston, adding another spark to the Revolutionary fire.

Zobel would disagree with that well-known, simplistic, and inaccurate telling. In The Boston Massacre, Zobel took an objective and research-based look at the years leading up to what we now call a “massacre,” the event itself, and the subsequent infamous trials against the British soldiers, who were defended by John Adams himself. Zobel’s motivation seemed to be simply illuminating the causes and effects of the Boston Massacre, both in America and abroad. Beyond that, any theme he attempted to convey revolved around the mythological significance the Boston Massacre has in our collective American history and, further, the dubiousness of that mythology considering the prolonged harassment of the British soldiers in the Colonies and the lack of solid facts surrounding what actually happened the night of the massacre. In Zobel’s own words:

[I]t seems fitting that an event so historically inevitable and yet so basically insignificant should have taken place on a moonlit night, before scores of people, without leaving any two witnesses able to give the same account of what happened.

Although I found the subject matter interesting and Zobel was clearly passionate about this aspect of American history, the book was dull. Especially tiresome was the first half, containing the years leading up to the Boston Massacre. Zobel included excessive detail, like this discussion of British troops first landing in Boston:

The sergeants, too, wore silver-laced hats and swords. Their sashes were crimson and buff or (for the Twenty-ninth) crimson and yellow; they carried long-shafted ornamental battle axes called halberds.

Do I really need all that information? Further confusing things, Zobel assumed knowledge about 1760s New England that I didn’t have. Nonetheless, I would much prefer Zobel’s zealous attention to fact and detail than read through a nonfiction book full of exaggerations, opinions, and invective. (Under the Banner of Heaven, as an example.)

This book was recommended to me as a particularly relevant historical account, considering all the gun violence on civilians recently in the news. As I was reading, I was struck by the slowness and hesitation people of that time seemed to have concerning discharging any gun, including the British soldiers who were taunted and harassed for months and then mobbed for hours the night of the massacre before firing a single shot. This is in contrast to media reports today, where George Zimmerman can legally fatally shoot a teenager without so much as a quarrel. However, was the past any different than today, considering the fact that the soldiers involved in the massacre, much like Zimmerman, were found not guilty of murder?

Whether The Boston Massacre has relevance to today, it is a useful historical account of a storied part of our history.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any lengthy reviews of this book online, but there are a few more summary reviews:

Amazon
goodreads

Bananas

Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman

publication date: 2007
pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-1-84195-881-1

For such a slim book, Bananas took me forever to finish. And even at that slow pace, I still skimmed some parts. Why, you ask? Because Bananas was so nonsensically and enigmatically written as to be boring.

Bananas was supposed to be a history of the United Fruit Company in Central America and the world. However, Chapman didn’t even mention the founding of United Fruit until page 168. Instead, he bounced around from the 1980s to the 1880s and back again in vaguely chronological order. His use of dates was very confusing and was rarely tethered to anything meaningful like historical context or cause and effect.

Not only was Chapman’s use of dates and chronology confusing and disjointed, but his introduction and discussion of the important people in the story was just as bewildering. Chapman would introduce someone in a passage with no mention of why they were important to United Fruit and then would ignore them for dozens of pages. An example is Chapman’s treatment of the Cabot family, who were introduced in a discussion of Andrew Preston:

Socially ambitious Preston preferred to stay at home. Boston’s ‘Brahmins’ were a tight-knit bunch that ruled the city . . . . [T]hey were mostly of English background, although one leading family, the Cabots, came in 1700 from Jersey in the Channel Islands . . . . The families married well and famously, and set up dynasties: the Jefferson Coolidges, the Cabot Lodges. As such they ran the political, economic and social life of a city known as ‘Beantown’ for one of its favourite foods and the ‘Hub’ from an assumed central position in the universe. As a local toast would have it: ‘And this is good old Boston, The land of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.’

The Cabots weren’t again mentioned until seventy pages later, and even then, I still don’t understand their importance. I hope that long quote displays Chapman’s confounding and erratic writing style, including odd uses of quotation marks and unnecessary interjections.

To further confuse things, Chapman would shift between narrators. Sometimes the book was scrawled in a textbook style, with facts being relayed with little interpretation. Other times, and with no explanation, Chapman would insert his own voice and discuss events in his own life. Another long passage illustrates the confusion:

[President Anastosio] Somoza’s story was familiar: a few bandits assailed him from distant mountain hideaways. Radical priests had joined in and were sadly deluded people who should not concern themselves with politics. What they failed to grasp, Somoza went on, was that he had pitched himself against the greedy rich on behalf of the poor. As for Jimmy Carter, the US’s present leader, Somoza found himself hard pushed to remain polite. Under Carter, the White House had taken leave of its senses and opened the way for Communism.

Actually, from what I understood, the guerrillas fighting Somoza were capable of seizing important towns just a couple of hours away north along the Pan-American Highway.

Perhaps you’re thinking that passage was confusing because you aren’t reading it in context. I can assure you that context does not help anything. Almost the entire book was written like this. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I learned nothing.

2/6: many problems

Here are other reviews of the book; the first two are positive. I really don’t understand how anyone who read the book could call it a “page-turner” or “breezy but insightful,” but here you go:

A.V. Club
New York Times
Yale Global

Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-679-44432-9

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,

In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.

This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:

The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.

Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.

For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:

In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.

I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.

Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
AARP
LA Times

Very Recent History

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha

publication date: 2013
pages: 240
ISBN: 978-0-06-191430-0

From the title of this book, I expected it to contain a journalistic report of living in New York City for a year during “the Great Recession.” I anticipated a kind of objective history text that discussed not history, but the near present.

Very Recent History started off that way. The first paragraph, for example, stated something factually true, but maybe not currently considered significant, about living in New York:

One cold night in winter a young man named John walked down a street in the City. It was free to walk on the streets, although to take a public conveyance, such as a subway or a bus, cost money.

Although the book began as I expected, by discussing life in “the City” in an objective and detached way, the bulk of it was inconsistent and jumbled. The book began by discussing several macro and micro aspects of living in the City, including following several “characters,” who were presumably real people. However, a main character, John, began to emerge. As Very Recent History accompanied John in his working and dating exploits, the book became much more about narrating John’s life and much less about overtly examining the time and place in which John lived. As soon as I got a handle on this new, narrative style of the book, Sicha unfortunately injected a third, separate manner of writing. This aspect of the book would discuss something that was happening in John’s life, and then include a paragraph or two about something completely unrelated, such as homelessness, that I guess was meant to elucidate something about modern living.

This aimlessness led to passages that were both confusing and boring. For example, in one passage, the book discussed that John went to a bar called Sugarland, wherein, “It got very flirty, for no good reason. He was drunk. Well, they were all drunk.” Just a few sentences later, Sicha completely changed gears, stating, “It was easier to not have a home in the summer than to not have a home in the winter, due almost entirely to the weather.” Then, only two sentences later, another seemingly random about face and Sicha was discussing the amount of John’s vacation time.

Very Recent History did not contain enough material to be a purely informative, detached, ironic account of “very recent history,” so I understand why Sicha included the narrative portions of the book. I think, however, it would have been more successful if the book had not been framed in the title as a quasi-history book. If, instead, the book had been presented as a narrative account interspersed with observations about modern living, maybe I would have been better able to handle the shifts in presentation.

Another, related problem with Very Recent History was the dissonant changes in tone. Sometimes passages would be written in a dry, almost cumbersome, style. This passage about sexual proclivities, for example:

Sometimes people refused to acknowledge their sexual selves, leading to later trouble with mates. They hadn’t been doing what they wanted, but they hadn’t known it. For instance, many people wanted to have sex with a number of people, but they, by habit or pressure, ended up in agreements that they would have sex with just one person only.

However, other passages were written in a jaunty, childlike tone:

Then it was that time already, winter was coming on, now all the trees were all dead again!

This book attempted to tell us something about the isolation and absurdity of modern living, but was bogged down in the inconsistent narrative.

3/6: more good than bad

The Atlantic
The New York Observer (sidenote: although never explicitly stated, the main character worked at The New York Observer)
Entertainment Weekly

Modern Art: The Groundbreaking Moments

Modern Art: The Groundbreaking Moments by Brad Finger

publication date: 2012
pages: 187
ISBN: 978-3-7913-4271-9

This book was a wonderful introduction to modern art. It described, in loosely chronological order, the most influential art pieces in the modern art world from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. I say “loosely” chronological because the art was not presented in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, Brad Finger would introduce a piece of art and, after a thorough discussion, describe several later works that were influenced by the subject art piece. This format made the book interesting and thought-provoking.

Additionally, the book was filled with lush and thrilling images. Nearly every page contained a crisp and perfectly-colored image. Further, the image captions were informative and helpful.

Although the images were probably the best part of the book, the discussion was almost as impressive. I don’t know much about art, and the sensible and interesting content made Modern Art an ideal primer. Because the structure was logical and enlightening, I was able to understand Finger’s analysis of the art pieces and I was able to make connections and conclusions about the artworks and modern art in general.

Finger also included anecdotes about artists. One of my favorites was this discussion of Marcel Duchamp, which showed how irreverent Duchamp could be:

For Duchamp, in fact, an over-reliance on manual craftmanship could produce shallow “retinal art,” or art made purely “to please the retina, to be judged for the retinal effect of the picture.”

Finger relayed these anecdotes in a dispassionate and neutral way, but that didn’t conceal the eccentricities inherent in some modern art. For example, I love this account of what artist Yves Klein did in his attempt to elevate the importance of empty space in an exhibition:

Klein [developed] a new kind of ritual performance. It involved a “commercial” transaction, where Klein “exchanged” a piece of immaterial space – what he called a “zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility” – for a predetermined amount of pure gold. When the “payment” was made, Klein gave the buyer a signed receipt from a specially-produced receipt book.

Finger tried to report this story with a straight face, but how ridiculous is it to imagine some rich guy buying nondescript empty air for a bar of gold?!

The only major flaw of the book was Finger’s decision to clog the space at the top of each page with a confusing and irrelevant time line. The time line was seemingly arbitrarily split into four sections and each section would repeat itself every few pages. At first I thought the time lines corresponded with each artist or artwork, but after several pages of incongruous dates running across the header, I just gave up and stopped reading it.

4/6: worth reading

The only other reviews of this book online that I could find were on goodreads.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor by David S. Landes

publication date: 1999
pages: 531 (not including back matter)
ISBN: 0-393-31888-5

This book existed on a spectrum of poor writing. At best, David S. Landes’s writing was imprecise; at worst, it was racist. At its most average, it was merely inaccurate. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes attempted to explain, through a historical lens, the current economic circumstances of different nations. In his mind, these nations could most easily be split into the “West” and the “Rest.”

The best thing I can say about this book is Landes clearly had a lot of knowledge rattling around in his head. He shared detailed facts ranging from the most plentiful agricultural products in 18th century England, to the ships and sailors that roamed the Indian Ocean before England established its dominance in that region. However, that’s about all the good I can say about the book. There were just so many problems.

A very basic issue was that Landes rarely provided numbers to support his assertions. Further, when he did provide numbers, he didn’t provide the sources or the sources were vaguely defined. As an example, here is a passage discussing the income gap between countries:

Is the gap still growing today? At the extremes, clearly yes. Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up.

What an unhelpful passage. What are these countries? Where did you get these ideas?

Next is an example of Landes’s writing that falls on the spectrum I was discussing above. His language was probably just imprecise, but it could be that Landes actually believed what he was writing, in which case he was obviously inaccurate. In this passage, Landes was discussing the health problems that exist in tropical regions. He concluded his discussion with this ridiculous sentence: “The very existence of a specialty known as tropical medicine tells the character of the problem.” Ah yes, much like the existence of gynecology shows how inhospitable and unhealthy vaginas are.

Here is a passage that exemplifies when Landes’s writing would fall somewhere in between inaccurate and racist. In this instance he was discussing how Europe contained diverse people throughout its history, in contrast to other regions in the world.

Europe, in contrast, did not have all its eggs in one basket. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol invaders from the Asian steppe made short work of the Slavic and Khazar kingdoms of what is now Russia and Ukraine, but they still had to cut their way through an array of central European states, including the new kingdoms of their predecessors in invasion – the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Hungarians, and Bulgars – before they could even begin to confront the successor states of the Roman empire.

The implication of his discussion was that other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, and Africa, did not have a diverse group of peoples. I’m no historian, but just a quick check of Wikipedia shows this discussion to be inaccurate. (Asia, South America, Africa)

I have so many more examples of poor and frustrating writing from this book. But I think I’ve made my point. So I will only add one more comment: about the glowing reviews on the book’s jacket. I don’t understand how anyone who read the full 532 rambling and sometimes incoherent pages of this book could enjoy it or find it helpful. The only thing I can think is the reviewers read only a synopsis and brief passage.

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book, which are somehow positive:

New York Times
University of California at Los Angeles
goodreads

Urbanism Without Effort

Urbanism Without Effort: Reconnecting with First Principles of the City by Charles R. Wolfe

publication date: 2013
pages: 90
ISBN: 978-1-61091-442-0

Charles R. Wolfe’s 2013 ebook Urbanism Without Effort: Reconnecting with First Principles of the City is interesting but ultimately empty.

Wolfe, a Seattle land-use attorney, wrote this book to further the goal of successful urban development. He therefore presents his ideas about how to best plan a city. As far as I can tell, Wolfe believes urban planning will be successful only when the urban planner, or other interested person, first observes the context of the city that needs changing and then only applies ideas that will magnify what is already happening in the city. If that sounds confusing, I’m with you. One of the problems with the book is that Wolfe’s sometimes-convoluted writing makes it difficult to discover exactly what his ideas about the best way to plan a city are. However, even if Wolfe’s writing was clear, his thesis might not be, because another problem is that his urban planning proposals are vague and almost entirely theoretical.

Further, one of Wolfe’s few practical ideas is that urban dwellers and planners should keep an “urban diary,” a record of what happens in your city, whether it be written, visual, videographic, or any other medium. This recommendation is cute, but completely unrealistic and, I think, unnecessary. I have lived in cities almost my entire life without an urban diary and have perceived and shared many experiences just fine.

Although Wolfe’s thesis is unclear and his main directive is unproductive, his book is still worth a read. First of all, it is a perfect length: only 90 pages, which could be read in an afternoon. Second, the book is full of pleasing and demonstrative photos. Also, Wolfe is passionate about city-living and his passion is charming and alluring. For example, he quotes Lewis Mumford in a passage that: “It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and co-operating personalities, events, and groups into more significant culminations.”

Wolfe also expresses several insights into city living and planning. I love this passage about what it is to live in a city:

For instance, in the quest to define human relationships with the surrounding city, it is helpful to consider typical, everyday journeys within an urban environment. We usually begin every trip on foot, starting from a private place, such as a house or apartment. In order to reach the next place, we often use at least one other mode of transit. Meanwhile, others simultaneously travel in similar ways. Our paths cross and transit modes further diversify. If we stop and look around, we see a system of mutually crossed paths that define the urban experience. The public realm exists amid and between these paths – streets, sidewalks, squares, and parks that are subject to regulation addressing appropriate conduct, health, safety, and land use.

Because of the book’s insights, and its short length, I would recommend it to those interested in urban planning or living. (Especially if you’re one of those people who think your city needs a streetcar.)

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Spacing
Eco-Libris
goodreads

The White Album

The White Album by Joan Didion

publication date: 1979
pages: 223
ISBN: 0-671-22685-1

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a collection of articles written by Didion for various publications from 1968 to 1978. The articles are divided topically into five parts: 1) introductory; 2) California, where Didion lived during this period; 3) women; 4) a part she titled “Sojourns” and I would describe as essays examining how we interact with ourselves and the space we inhabit; and 5) reflections on living through the 1960s. The collection presents the absurdity and tenuousness of American life. Although the articles were written over 30 years ago, they still pop with relevance and wit.

My favorite part of The White Album was probably the chance to get a contemporary account of the 1960s. I hear pronouncements about what the decade was and what it meant, but reading about it through the eyes of Didion felt more authentic than any modern-day remembering. Reading Didion’s perception, which is admittedly bleak and almost defeatist, I came away with the impression that the 1960s were a parody of themselves. People actually said “Dig it” back then; and not just any people: lawyers! And all the way back in 1975, Didion spoke of shopping malls as places that “recall words and phrases no longer quite current. Baby Boom. Consumer Explosion. Leisure Revolution. Do-It-Yourself Revolution. Backyard Revolution. Suburbia.” Musicians seemingly fell into this arrangement of self-satire. Didion, in discussing some musicians she met over the years, stated:

John and Michelle Phillips [of The Mamas and the Papas], on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.”

Didion also made several memorable and cheeky comments about her home state of California. For example, she describes Los Angeles as “a city dedicated to the illusion that all human endeavor tends mystically west, toward the Pacific.” Additionally, Didion blithely mentions California’s museum-goers and characterizes Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection as “quite inaccessible to generations trained in the conviction that a museum is meant to be fun, with Calder mobiles and Barcelona chairs.”

The White Album also amply discusses more weighty topics, such as the Black Panthers and the Vietnam War. Every topic examined by Didion, from dam engineering to student protests to ocean lifeguards, was handled with aplomb and astuteness, which makes The White Album a satisfying and meaningful read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

London Review of Books
Christa Lawler: Making sentences.  Putting them here.
Ned Stuckey-French

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

publication date: 2003
pages: 373
ISBN: 0-385-50951-0

Why? Why did I read Under the Banner of Heaven? More importantly, why did Jon Krakauer write it?

Under the Banner of Heaven explains, sometimes in inane detail, sometimes in maddeningly broad conclusions, the history of the Mormon faith. The book discusses the history of Mormonism, from its inception with Joseph Smith in New York, to its exodus to Missouri and Ohio, and to its final resting place in Utah under Brigham Young. It then describes the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter by Brenda’s brothers-in-law.

However, Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t a history text. Although I am not a history buff, I enjoy history and I enjoy reading about the events of the past. But this book is not a history book, as evidenced by Krakauer’s derision toward his subjects, and sometimes even toward his victims. One small example of this is when Krakauer is discussing Ervil LeBaron, a fundamentalist Mormon who murdered another fundamentalist leader. Krakauer describes LeBaron as “240 pounds, stood six feet four inches tall, and knew how to nurse a grudge. A dashing figure, he was found irresistibly attractive by many otherwise sensible women.” Shut up, Krakauer! Don’t even attempt to understand the “many” “sensible women” who dared find a man “irresistibly attractive.” Throughout the book, passages like this indicated to me that Krakauer has no respect for the people he is discussing; unfortunately, these weren’t characters, these are real people who deserve dignity.

Additionally, Krakauer seems to equate run-of-the-mill Mormonism with fundamental Mormonism, even though he admits that the Mormon church commonly renounces fundamental sects. As an example, Krakauer discusses the Mormon fundamentalist sect in Colorado City, Arizona, which the Mormon church has renounced, and then applies his fundamentalism research to Mormonism as a whole. This is a major logical and historical misstep. If the Mormon church has explicitly stated that “No, we don’t agree with what is happening down there in Colorado City, and, in fact, let us help you stop it,” then what lessons does Krakauer expect me to learn about Mormonism, its history, and its future?

So, if it’s not history then what is it? Is it persuasion? Is Krakauer trying to convince me that all Mormons are bad, that I should distrust all Mormons I meet on the street? Or should I believe that all religions are noxious? (In that vein, it’s probably no coincidence this book was published shortly after 9/11.) To be honest, I’m just not sure.

Krakauer also has an aggravating writing style. He rarely attached an exact number to a figure; instead, the things in question were “numerous” or “legion.” For example, Brian David Mitchell was one of “untold multitudes currently practicing polygamy throughout the western United States, Canada, and Mexico.” How many is a multitude? Fifty? Six thousand? Half a million? Does Krakauer even know? And why are they “untold?” Only because Krakauer didn’t actually tell? Krakauer’s prose also contained an inordinate amount of flourish. A child is a “pint-size tornado with a pertinacious blond cowlick.” A meadow that was the site of Mormon violence is a “bucolic sanctuary . . . now synonymous with one of the most chilling episodes in the history of the American West – an episode that exemplified the fanaticism and concomitant brutality of a culture that would be so enthusiastically idealized a century later by Dan Lafferty and his fundamentalist brethren.” What a mouthful!

The subject matter of Under the Banner of Heaven was undoubtedly interesting. However, you’d be better off just Wikipedia-ing Mormonism.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Entertainment Weekly