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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Foundation and Closed Priesthood

foundation-asimov-bible

There are books that itch inside your mind and say, “It’s time! Read me again.” For me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of them. So I recently gave it a second read. I’m in awe of its depth of thought and its continued, if not increased, relevance today. I highly recommend this book.

I do not suggest Foundation as a light and fun read. You must show up. You must give it your full attention. You will be rewarded.

Perhaps the ingredient in Foundation which I find most interesting is the notion of science as a closed priesthood. Quite literally, scientists as a group who derive power and authority from their vocation, but who remain highly exclusive, mysterious, and suspect to non-scientists. Their work takes on the air of magic–attractive to some and fearful to others–by virtue of being well-guarded, specialized, and difficult for laymen to comprehend.

In his book Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Carl Sagan has these cautionary words to say about closed priesthood:

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”

I’ll leave you to think about this issue. But I suggest the topic is both fascinating and critically deserving of our consideration. One of the best ways to consider science as a closed priesthood, for good and ill, is to read Asimov’s masterwork.

To read an earlier review I wrote of Foundation, visit Goodreads.

Launch into “A Christmas Carol”

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“Marley’s ghost appearing to Scrooge” by S. J. Woolf, from the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection.

This holiday season I am geeking out to film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Actually quite a cosmic tale, and I do recommend reading the original. I invite you to stop over to my other blog and read the stanzas I’m composing for each version I watch.

“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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Dan Brown’s “Origin” Takes a Seat

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Somewhere deep in Dan Brown’s latest made-to-order bestseller, Origin, I suddenly felt like I was rereading Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s novel is a long-winded and extremely haughty work. I primarily read it so I could say I had. In contrast, Brown’s novels are sleek, fast-paced thrillers. I consume them for the main course of spectacle with a side order of thought-provocation. Yet, more than once, usually in the lecture-driven chapters, I felt like Brown was serving up something pretentious in the style of Rand.

The premise of Origin involves a super-rich futurist who declares he has discovered the answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions:

Where do we come from? And, where are we going?

From Brown’s pen, these questions result in scandal, murder, and intrigue at the highest levels of Spanish society. Why Spain? Why not? Spain has religious landmarks galore, along with royalty, upper-echelon clergy, and elite security forces. Origin also features a museum director who becomes the novel’s gorgeous sidekick. On the upside, she proves essential to the plot and comes off as daring and compelling as any other character. Let us also acknowledge the novel’s thoroughly likable protagonist: Harvard professor Robert Langdon.

Regarding the two great questions above, readers are consigned to spend most of the novel wildly speculating. The answers may involve anything from disproving God to proving extraterrestrial involvement. The only thing the novel makes clear early on is the religious leaders who get a sneak peek at the answer are left utterly spooked. And here is what makes Origin so irresistible a yarn. The novel’s prophetic thought-leader opens the story by declaring he has the answers to life’s greatest mysteries. By implication, does that mean author Dan Brown has them?

Take a breath. It’s a novel. But, as I hoped, maybe Brown will at least offer some dramatic rendering of these questions that leaves us spellbound. Great novels can do that.

For all its revelatory promise, Origin primarily sermonizes. Readers, you will be preached to. You will be TED Talked at. Your brain will be YouTubed hard and fast. Origin is the transcript of a multimedia presentation wrapped inside a dust jacket. Moreover, Origin necessarily spends oodles of time showcasing internet communication. This becomes a narrative challenge for Brown, who must alternate between action-packed chases and characters plopping down in chairs to stream video.

What I say next will probably sound snobbish. I spend a good share of time following both science and religion. As such, Origin failed to reward me with any dramatically new ideas or theories about the origin or fate of life on Earth. If you read Origin, and it arrives in your mind as astounding new revelation, please don’t mistake the novel for being groundbreaking. It just means you’re not particularly well-read, at least in scientific thought.

With Robert Langdon as the lead, Brown has really penned only one novel: Angels and Demons (still his best in my opinion). The four subsequent Langdon novels simply retrofit new characters, settings and conspiracies to the same basic formula. Why does a disenchanted reader like me keep buying Brown’s books? No secret there. I’m addicted to them.

Odd that I am essentially rejecting Origin, even though I feel Dan Brown and I are likeminded on its underlying issues and themes. We’re both incredulous in the face of creationism. We’re both enthusiastic about science. And we both feel humankind, notwithstanding its rich history and wonderous potential, must wrestle with the prospect of a dark future—a future in which our species must fundamentally change or die.

So, if you’re in the market for a sci-fi homily, then plop down on the couch with Robert Langdon et al. and enjoy Origin. But if like me you came to the book for the mystery and the spectacle, perhaps it’s time to reread Angels and Demons.

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Re-rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some people go to bars on Friday nights. Married couples often go on dates to keep their courtship alive. These days, I spend most Friday nights in my living room watching Star Trek reruns with perhaps the only group of Twitter users I can still tolerate. Then, on typical Saturday mornings like this one, I sit in a coffeeshop nursing my junk-food hangover with iced coffee. Today I reflect on a beautiful experience which I relished last week. Not the 2017 Solar Eclipse. The other beautiful experience I had last week.

“All his professional career he had looked upon the universe as an arena for the titanic impersonal forces of gravitation, magnetism, radiation; he had never believed that life played an important role in the scheme of things…”

The copyright page indicates I bought the above Del Rey paperback edition of Rendezvous with Rama in or after 1988. Four years earlier, I’d been converted to Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction by Peter Hymans’ movie 2010, itself a sequel to Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I read Rendezvous with Rama and loved it. Yet like so many books and flicks I consumed in those pre-internet days, Rama remained a solitary experience, largely unshared with family and friends.

“The real New York, like all of man’s habitations, had never been finished; still less had it been designed. This place, however, had an over-all symmetry and pattern, though one so complex that it eluded the mind. It had been conceived and planned by some controlling intelligence…”

I read Rendezvous with Rama again in 2008, admiring Clarke’s efficient storytelling. The novel’s plot effects an elegant marriage between grandly impersonal architectural themes and a thoroughly romantic awareness of humanity’s puny footprint in the cosmos. In this universe, could it be that intelligences exist so advanced as to be indistinguishable from gods? Might they be utterly disinterested in humans, so disinterested as to leave their ship’s door unlocked?

Might superior intelligence only threaten us inadvertently, as an ant is threatened by the shoe of an otherwise peaceful human failing to notice the insect in its path, and so crushing the smaller being unawares? Might there be something fundamentally healthy about considering the possibility humans are only a supporting character in creation? Yes, life may only be a precious accident.

“He believed that the universe operated according to strict laws, which not even God could disobey…”

Last week, for the third time in my life, I read Rendezvous with Rama. I found its door still unlocked. I crept inside while it slept. I witnessed as its gigantic interior awakened, punctuating its general quiescence with storms of electricity, wind, and metallic tsunamis. Then, as it prepared to sleep again, I fled back outside and watched it eclipse our sun.

Ours?

My third encounter with Rama felt intensely familiar, as did the second and first. Rama—a vast cylindrical alien ship on an intergalactic journey—seemed familiar as a childhood backyard, deep and vivid in the memory. Rama, you remain a place where I feel less alone. And I know that I love you, because even though you make me feel smaller and more fleeting, I feel blessed to have been altered by your appearance in my life.