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Short Takes

‘Brigham Young’; ‘The Universal Sense’; ‘The Orchardist’

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By John G. Turner

Harvard University, 500 pp., $35

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Interest in Mormonism seems to be at an all-time high — Mitt Romney’s nomination as the first Mormon presidential candidate surely accounts for some of it, but a spate of books and television programs about the faith’s racier fringe elements hasn’t hurt. In his richly researched new biography of Brigham Young, John G. Turner not only profiles the man who brought the church to Utah, but also satisfies both high-minded and lowbrow curiosity about this most American of religions. Growing up in western New York State in the early 19th century, a hotbed of spiritual enterprise, Young flirted with several religions before settling upon Mormonism and its charismatic prophet, Joseph Smith, whom he served with “stubborn loyalty.” After Smith’s 1844 murder by an anti-Mormon mob, Young assumed leadership of the church, ultimately shepherding the majority of his flock to its new home.

This new Zion they named Deseret (a colony originally envisioned to encompass “most of present-day Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Oregon, California, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico”), and for the rest of Brigham Young’s life he ruled there, ultimately as Governor of Utah Territory, but often in an uneasy relationship with the federal government over the issue of polygamy. Antebellum critics compared polygamy to slavery — both arrangements raised political issues of local control and sovereignty as well as equal rights — but the reality was more complex. Turner quotes from a trove of letters and diaries to present the voices of polygamy in Young’s own household (this is one of the book’s unstated yet pervasive themes: Mormons kept everything). Along with wives who resented their station (including one who divorced Young and went on the lecture circuit with a tell-all autobiography titled “Wife No. 19”), there were others who found companionship among their fellow wives, deep satisfaction in nurturing one another’s children, and comfort in grief (“O how precious is a sisters kindness,” one wrote). A religious historian, Turner deftly sketches the doctrinal ins and outs, clarifying why some Christians do not consider Mormons their coreligionists. But he’s equally sensitive to the political and personal elements of Young’s story. Smart but rough-hewn, Young used refreshingly rough language to castigate professional politicians, whom he loathed; he was also a “romantic” and “devoted husband” to many of his wives.

The Orchardist

By Amanda Coplin

Harper, 448 pp., $26.99

As a young child, William Talmadge was brought to Washington State by his widowed mother, a woman seeking “a place that would absorb and annihilate her.” When she dies, Talmadge looks after his younger sister and takes over running the apple orchard they had established. After his sister disappears, his own life narrows to a solitude that feels either sacred or somewhat mad. In Amanda Coplin’s beautiful, powerful novel, loneliness and regret become a kind of mantle Talmadge can barely bring himself to take off.

Although the book’s central character is a man, Coplin peoples her Western landscape with women — many of whom would not be out of place in a book by Willa Cather. There is his old friend, a midwife and herbalist, and the two teenage runaways who show up in his orchard, hungry and terrified. Set around the turn of the 20th century, “The Orchardist” has the sweep and scope of a big historical novel — her townspeople see the arrival of the railroad and the photography studio — yet Coplin is exquisitely attuned to small, interior revolutions as well. Its language as rooted and plain as the apple trees Talmadge nurtures, this is a gorgeous first book.

The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind

By Seth S. Horowitz

Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $25

What is sound? What is music? Are there truly sounds that can make you sick? Could Joshua’s army truly have blown down the walls of Jericho with nothing but their voices and horns? These are among the questions posed — and quite entertainingly answered — by Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist who studies sound and hearing. A music nerd married to an audio artist, he’s well placed to guide readers through the world of sound, from good vibrations (such as the exquisite drumming of deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie) to very, very bad (including the legendary “brown sound” that “was supposed to make you lose bowel control” – thankfully, just a legend).

The book’s best parts look at how sounds can subtly adjust what goes on inside our minds, evoking pleasure or pain, desire or warning. These effects are not completely trivial, Horowitz points out; businesses use sound to invite in certain customers and drive others away (think of the noise level at the local Abercrombie & Fitch), and medical providers can use sound to promote better health. We can even do it ourselves, he argues: “we need to be quiet once in a while when we are in a new place, and just listen.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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