Strangite Mormonism gets Due Attention

“God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons by Vickie Cleverley Speek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early on in my reading of Vickie Cleverly Speek’s book about Strangite Mormonism, I found myself dismayed to the point of almost tossing the book out. Given its highlights and summary structuring, the book initially came off to me as a tawdry sequel to Nauvoo Mormonism. All the rumor, scandal, esoteric rituals, and political machinating virtually designed to end in assassination—all combined to make me groan at how quickly history repeats itself.

Make no mistake, Ms. Speek’s writing led me to this disenchanting early impression. In “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons, Speek treats the Strangite movement as the protagonist. The movement’s head, James Strang, while central is not the book’s focus. We see the entire movement born, grow, and then fall apart.

When James Strang is mortally wounded by assassins later in the book, it felt matter-of-fact to me. As if, of course that was going to happen. Nothing especially insightful, just a rehearsal of the same story we saw with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in the early 1840s. As I said, it read like a tawdry sequel.

Fortunately for me, I kept reading. In the chapters following Strang’s death, as his kingdom on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan quickly falls apart, Speek does something very compelling. She spends several chapters detailing the fate of each of Strang’s polygamous widows. The book takes on an increasingly personal feel, with a clear picture of individual human cost. Yet at the same time, through these women’s eyes, and through the perspective of Strang’s children, this splinter sect of Mormonism comes into focus.

Speek presents us with a movement made up of zealots, opportunists, and a great many sincere followers who do all the heavy lifting for the first two groups. She also makes a strong case for polygamy being at best a secondary reason for Strang’s downfall and his movement’s failure. The communal approach, known to the devout as consecration, may have been the fatal civic ingredient. The grievances and atrocities perpetrated against Strangite Mormons receive due attention as well.

For Mormon history enthusiasts wanting to get inside the mind of James Strang, this book may be the wrong choice. Rather than a biography of the man, this is a study of his kingdom overall. Honestly, I don’t feel I know James Strang much better than before I read the book. The Strangite movement, however, has become a moving human affair for me, rather than a footnote to the Brighamite Mormonism I was raised in. Likely the book’s greatest contribution, that is a good reason for reading to the last page.

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An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

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“The Force Awakens” Readers

The Force Awakens (Star Wars: Novelizations #7)The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A long time ago, in a childhood far away, I swear I remember movie novelizations being a deeper, richer experience than this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by accomplished novelist Alan Dean Foster feels almost as lean and hurried as the movie (which I quite liked). It’s not a bad read. It made me want to watch the film again. Most importantly, it heightened my anticipation for the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (I intentionally held off reading this book until the month before the next installment comes out.)

Of those I read as a kid, novelizations were at their best providing silent reflections of characters, which film can only accomplish with heavy handed voiceover. I also enjoyed their inclusion of material left out of the film. On this score, Foster’s novelization includes a full scene with X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron. The dialogue pops as no-nonsense Poe negotiates with a suspicious alien. Very entertaining. If only the book had more of this material.

Still, most of what should be the novel’s meat amounts to explanatory paragraphs whose unmistakable purpose is to justify plot points in the movie. It’s almost as if we’re reading a script with the movie producers’ notes pasted in between the dialogue. Interesting in a special features sort of way, but not an especially deep or rich journey through the story.

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