Book Review Roundup

Book reviews are hard. They’re hard to write, and (for the authors) hard to read. People don’t comment on book review posts, normally. This is because there is little to say, unless you vehemently disagree; if you are the sort who vehemently disagrees with a book review, friend, I embrace you. My approach is to be short and to the point, to gear my reviews towards the casual reader (because such is what I am). So: four books for your consideration this week.

Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats, by Steven L. Peck. Roundfire Books, 2017. Let’s get this out of the way: Gilda is a weird book. It is, as the author warns us, “An Academic Work Disguised as a Novel Disguised as an Academic Work.” There are books within books within theses within books here. Steven Peck is no stranger to complex stories, as his prior works like The Scholar of Moab showed us. Gilda is a little different. It is the poignant, powerful story of a really weird and oddly brilliant forgotten Mormon literary genius. The adventures of Gilda travel the globe and tax the intellect and the credulity of the reader, but the view is worth the climb. A dizzying, baffling book that is both fun and heartbreaking, Gilda is the sort of book that establishes Peck as a writer after the order of Umberto Eco: a man capable of fascinating science and amazing fiction.

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah, by Brent M. Rogers. University of Nebraska Press, 2017. What are the limits of self-determination within the American federal framework? The answer today points to sizeable central control with strong state’s rights, but in the 1850s the American landscape was quite different, with semi-autonomous regimes throughout the West, including in the Territories of Kansas and Utah. The Civil War was the final declaration of victory of national government over local rights, but that struggle began far earlier. Rogers, a documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers, takes an interesting look at the Utah War as a pivotal moment where American government irreversibly shifts from popular (and local) sovereignty to national control. Polygamy and the threat of theocracy within the Republic proved too much for the Democratic leader James Buchanan, who sent the Army. Brigham Young, of course, saw his government as the truest form of republicanism; but whether or not Young was right, the American government feared the Mormons and viewed them as unloyal, even traitorous. Thus the Democrats found the limits of their belief in local decision-making. Rogers lays the framework of these battling views of sovereignty and shows the importance of the Utah War in shaping the fundamental dynamics of the nation. An interesting take for historians of the American West.

Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, by Terryl L. Givens. Oxford University Press, 2017. I came to this book after reading Givens’ first work in this series, Wrestling the Angel (which dealt largely with the theological underpinnings of Mormonism), and after having read The Viper on the Hearth, The God Who Weeps, and The Crucible of Doubt. This volume deals with the nuts-and-bolts of Mormonism as a lived religion, from sacraments and rites to how we worship, read scriptures and extent (or contract) the stakes of Zion. I don’t believe that Givens is capable of writing a bad book, but I will say that I found this volume both harder to follow and harder to agree with than some of his other work. The organization is a bit of a mess, perhaps reflecting the state of praxis within Mormonism itself but still: eleven chapters with no discernible progression or relation from concept to concept. Further, Givens might [1] view his role here as that of simple scribe, describing how Mormons believe and act, but that seems a bit disingenuous to me: he is describing the Mormonism he wants to have, and therefore Givens is engaging (however unintentionally, and rarely) in the act of religion-shaping and perhaps history-shaping as well [2]. Since I am a dilettante and this is a one-paragraph review, I’m not going to get into a lot of details here, but one example: Givens’ statement that the Great Apostasy “is not about supposedly wicked priests whom God punished by removing their priesthood” cuts directly against a conventional narrative propagated by the Church itself for decades. I don’t disagree with Givens, but I do think that when you’re writing a scholarly treatise on Mormonism it’s time to set aside apologetic approaches and wishful thinking about who we are. [3]

The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History, Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith, editors. BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017. For decades, the Council of Fifty minutes were viewed as the magic hidden treasure in the Church archives, the secret proceedings of a secret government established by Joseph Smith in his last days. What were those secret plans? Did Joseph Smith have the Death Star plans?? Speculation led to myths and rumors about this remarkable council. The truth is, in this case, not really stranger than fiction but still pretty strange: Joseph was trying to set up a governing body for the eventual kingdom of God on earth. This slim volume collects thoughts about the C50 minutes from scholars within the Joseph Smith Papers group but other luminaries as well, including Richard Bushman, W. Paul Reeve, Patrick Mason and Ben Park. The essays are short and their topics are varied, but a few predominant themes emerge:

  • The records are great (for historians) but perhaps not as surprising as some would hope;
  • The records are a great exploration of early Mormon thought around democracy, theocracy, the Constitution;
  • The Kingdom of God and the Church are two different things; and
  • The council loved Joseph Smith.

In all, this volume is an accessible and interesting first approach to the Council of Fifty. It would not replace a systematic book about the council, or replace reading the minutes themselves, but it’s a recommended addition for a layman’s LDS history library.

————–
[1] it’s extremely unlikely that he’d describe his role this way. I’ll leave it to him to describe. But in a series of books marketed by a secular university press as “the foundations of Mormon thought”, I’d expect a more detached analysis.

[2] One could argue this is the inevitable result of writing about any religion as young as ours with such an interesting history.

[3] Sometimes you write a paragraph and you just know you’re gonna get owned online. This is one of those paragraphs.

Comments

  1. Re footnote 3. Someone’s gotta say it, might as well be you.

    Gilda is a masterpiece. My oldest is savoring it right now (I told her to read it slow, let it sink in or it’s going to get jumbled) and keeps thanking me for showing it to her.

  2. Yeah, Gilda really is terrific. My only regret is that we don’t have an exclusivity agreement with Steve for BCC Press.

  3. You’ve perfectly described my qualms with Givens here: “…he is describing the Mormonism he wants to have, and therefore Givens is engaging (however unintentionally, and rarely) in the act of religion-shaping and perhaps history-shaping as well.”

  4. Thanks, Steve. Regarding the Council of 50 book: Are there one or two essays that really stood out for you?

  5. My blurb on the back of the scholar of Moab says: it’s satire of the best sort: biting what it loves, snuggling up to what it hates. Steve is a remarkable satirist … Situated in the heart of a culture that will benefit, that could benefit, from satire of the kind he writes. I am looking forward to reading the new novel. Thank you for your thoughtful reviews

  6. Brent Rogers’s book is a fine addition to the literature on pre-civil war struggles over what US territories were supposed to be: teaching institutions, or majority rule. The broader arguments were population based: the North simply outgrew the South. But the role of Utah was still pivotal. Rogers reveals a story which the academic literature up to now has largely passed by. It’s well written and well reasoned. There’s still room there, however. I look forward to more deep dives on the period, especially on how public polygamy (1852) affected the political discourse and how it played into the Mormon strategy for statehood. Highly recommended.

  7. Bill, yes – I think we should do a Q&A with him here on those topics.

  8. Steve – Love these short reviews. Totally agree about Givens romanticized Mormonism.
    Gary – Really enjoyed Ben Park’s essay in the Council of Fifty book. Clever and insightful.

  9. Thanks, Laura!

  10. Thanks, Steve, for the roundup. I always appreciate these.

    And thanks, Laura, for reading the essay!

  11. Ben, I really liked your piece. We need to talk about it sometime.

  12. FWIW, I’ve always seen the “religion-shaping” aspect of Givens’ work as very much intentional.

  13. JKC, perhaps so, but I see that sort of engagement with Mormonism as more appropriate when you’re not publishing with an academic press for a non-mormon audience.

  14. I think that’s absolutely fair. And my observation was not at all to take away from your critique, which I agree with.

  15. Thanks for the reviews. They may not spur a long comment section, but they are much appreciated. In this case two of the four I know something about and agree with the comments made, and two I knew nothing about.

  16. Thanks for the review, Steve. Would you please update the Council of Fifty publisher info to have Religious Studies Center first, followed by Deseret Book. The RSC creates the book, and Deseret Book distributes it.

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