AMERICAN CRUCIFIXION: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church
By Alex Beam
PublicAffairs, 334 pp., illustrated, $26.99
Part history, part mythology, the story of Mormon migration through the young American republic covers a lot of territory, spanning its origins in upstate New York to settlements in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before the great trek that brought pioneers to present-day Utah. The faith’s doctrinal journey has been equally dramatic. Alex Beam’s lively narrative history, “American Crucifixion,’’ begins as the group starts building its earthly kingdom in Nauvoo, Ill., nestled along a curve of the mighty Mississippi. Just four years later, amid political tension with anti-Mormon neighbors and internecine battles within the church over prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation proclaiming polygamy, the church faced its greatest challenge: A mob killed Smith while the leader awaited trial in nearby Carthage, Ill. — A CRIME THAT WOULD LEAD TO THE GROUP’S MIGRATION TO PRESENT-DAY Utah.
Beam, a longtime Globe columnist, writes of the years leading up to Smith’s murder with the skeptical wit of a veteran newspaperman. “God works in mysterious ways, sometimes aided by human hands,” he observes at one point, and the book smartly focuses on the human stories at hand. Smith, the prophet and martyr at the book’s center, emerges as “gregarious, articulate,” and also afraid of how his wife will react to his newly adopted ideas about taking additional wives (badly, it turned out). Avoiding theological debate, Beam notes Smith’s hypocrisy and evasions, as well as his occasional megalomania — a penchant for full military regalia, an absurd candidacy for president — but refuses to mock Smith or his followers. Despite whatever anyone may think of their theology, Beam notes, the Mormons “endured unimaginable hardships and thrived wherever they put down roots.”
THERE GOES GRAVITY: A Life in Rock and Roll
By Lisa Robinson
Riverhead, 368 pp., $27.95
Except for alcohol, cigarettes, and the occasional foray into wilder drugs (including a bad mescaline trip), Lisa Robinson eschewed the drugs so freely available in her workplace. As a music reporter from the late 1960s until the present day, Robinson passed on more than her share of free cocaine, the better to do her job, which was looking at, listening to, and hanging out with rock stars: “abstinence often allowed me to remain invisible while present. I could observe.” Robinson collects those observations, gleaned from more than four decades writing about the music business for New Musical Express, the New York Post, Vanity Fair, and others, in “There Goes Gravity.”
Despite its author’s relative sobriety, it’s an intoxicating read. Gossipy, witty, and occasionally profound, Robinson writes about music from a very intimate perspective — whether on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1975 or eating pasta cooked by Lady Gaga in 2011, Robinson has an uncanny ability to get close to musicians. She waxes enthusiastic about the music she loves — five of the six albums by the Clash, for instance — and is clear-eyed about the stuff she doesn’t love (even when, as in the case of U2, she admires the musicians). From Led Zeppelin to David Bowie to Patti Smith to Michael Jackson to Kanye West, Robinson seems to have interviewed everyone, often while hanging out at legendary nightclubs whose passing she chronicles with unsentimental affection.
SIX AMENDMENTS: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution
By John Paul Stevens
Little, Brown, 192 pp., $23
When it mentions creating a “more perfect” union in its preamble, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens writes, our Constitution implies a kind of dynamism increasingly resisted by those on the ideological right. From the start, he argues, the Constitution itself suggested it would need occasional updating to fix imperfections and adapt to changing times (which we’ve seen, from the amendments banning slavery, granting women’s suffrage, and so forth). Now, Stevens contends, would be a good time to continue perfecting our union by changing the Constitution.
Stevens proposes six small but powerful changes to our governmental blueprint. While some of the prose is dense with legal precedent, chapters on ending the death penalty, modifying the Second Amendment to restore its connection to militias (not individual gun owners), and detaching campaign finance law from First Amendment defenses offer clear, accessible arguments. Stevens joined the court as a Gerald Ford appointee and that these positions are now considered liberal suggests how much the court has shifted to the right.
YOU FEEL SO MORTAL: Essays on the Body
By Peggy Shinner
University of Chicago, 224 pp., $22
“History has weighed in on my body,” Peggy Shinner writes in her collection’s first essay, which considers the foot — or, to be more accurate, her feet: flat, adorned with bunions, turning out like a duck when she walks, just like her father’s. Nothing is meaningless to an essayist. For Shinner, it’s in her feet, nose, hair, breasts, spine that she can divine clues to her own history, both intimate and public. Not for nothing have so many of these body parts figured in malevolent classifications of race, ethnicity, and gender (a discourse of which Shinner, as a Jewish lesbian, is acutely aware).
These essays, even when the topics are ugly, shimmer with Shinner’s intelligence, honesty, and humor. She’s an observer of her body and the world it moves through, but more than that, she’s an affectionate fan: “I feel loyal to my body. It is, for better and for worse, for all its betrayals and my abuses, mine.”