Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I'm Not Dead; I've Just Been Reading

I got an e-mail today wondering if I'm okay because I haven't been posting much recently. I'm fine-----really.

I have been busy, though. I'm trying to wrap up my latest book, and there are only so many words in me during a day. After cranking out 2000 words for my book, I'm done and don't feel like blogging. The NCAA basketball tournament has been going on for the past two weeks, and that glues me to the TV screen. And I've been reading. I've been on a streak of three terrific books in a row that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I'm going to recommend them to anyone reading this.

The first is Under the Banner of Heaven by one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer. This is a look at the murder of a woman and her infant daughter by two brothers, both Mormon fundamentalists, who believed they were ordered to kill them by God. But the book is far more than a murder story; instead, it looks at the origins of Mormonism, its problematic tenets such as polygamy and "blood atonement" (the concept that some sins are so hideous that only the killing of the "sinners"----such as the murdered woman and her infant daughter----can allow their sins to be forgiven by God), and the uncomfortable relationship between today's Mormon faith and its history. Not surprisingly, this book produced an outraged response from the Mormon church, which accused Krakauer of being a bigot, etc. The one thing they didn't accuse him of, however, was being wrong.

I'm amazed at how many people today think Mormonism is just another Protestant denomination on par with the Baptists, Methodists, etc., when in fact it is a very weirdass theology; if Woody Allen had decided to establish a religion, he would've come up with something like Mormonism. Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith, a convicted con artist (he claimed he could find buried treasure with "magic crystals") who in 1828 said an angel named Moroni led him to a buried set of gold plates on which was written, in a language he called "reformed Egyptian," an account of how one of the lost tribes of Israel managed to make it to North America-----that's right; Native Americans were all a bunch of Jews!----and were visited by Jesus Christ after his resurrection. Moroni gave Joseph Smith a pair of "interpretive spectacles" to translate the gold plates, which Moroni took back to heaven (along with the spectacles) as soon as Smith finished the translation. End of story; start of new religion.

Krakauer points out that Smith apparently based a lot of Mormon concepts on Islam-----Smith even compared himself to Muhammed at times-----and, like Islam, Mormonism is a religion suffused with overtones of violence toward unbelievers and dire punishment for apostates. Mormonism adds a new wrinkle, however, in its belief that anyone can receive revelations direct from God. As a result, Mormonism has an amazing number of splinter sects and "sub-churches" based on such revelations, and those sects have become havens for disturbed people with violent tendencies, such as a pair of brothers who are convinced God wants them to kill a couple of people. Krakauer does something virtually unheard of today, namely ignoring the "everyone has the right to worship in their own way" pablum we're supposed to feel, and instead takes a hard, critical look at the Mormon faith. He reaches an unambiguous conclusion: those people are not just nuts, they're dangerous.

But sometimes religious fanaticism is secular, as illustrated by Robert Kurson's Shadow Divers. This is the story of two divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, who discovered an unknown sunken World War II German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey in 1991. Despite repeated dives to the U-boat, it was not until 1997 that they were finally able to identify it----via a small tag found on a spare parts box in the boat's electric motor room----as the U-869, a boat whose routing orders were mis-transmitted, sending it to the coast of New Jersey instead of Gibraltar. It was apparently sunk by an explosion from one of its own torpedoes. The determination of Chatterton and Kohler to identify the mystery U-boat is supposed to be an inspiring story, but they struck me as more obsessed and demented than heroic. Three of their fellow divers are killed while diving the U-boat; both of them had their marriages fail as a result of the time and energy they put into solving the mystery. Yes, they achieved their goal, but was the end result worth what it cost them and others? Kurson clearly thinks so, but Chatterton and Kohler seem to me as creepy rather than heroic, both having more a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder than determination. We're supposed to feel for both men after their wives leave them, but I felt like shouting at the book, well, what the hell did you expect them to do?!?!

I enjoyed Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed The World, and his latest, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, is another treat. As with his previous book, Winchester seamlessly blends history, science, and culture into a compelling narrative. He moves from a history of the Krakatoa eruption to how it happened (a beautiful, lucid explanation of plate tectonics) and to its impact (such as a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia) without missing a beat; his prose is a joy to read, rich and full and without a wasted adverb in sight. Winchester points out Krakatoa was the first "global tragedy," as the telegraph allowed the whole world to become aware of it within hours after it happened. The scope of the event is mind-boggling even today; the explosion was so loud it was heard almost 3000 miles away (the British and French colonial officials may have been brutal, but they were meticulous recordkeepers, especially if they thought they were hearing the guns of distant enemy warships). There are a few things I quibble with-----contrary to Winchester's claim, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 wasn't the impetus for the settlement of California!!-----but they are minor and don't detract from the book's overall excellence.

All three are the sort of books that are hard to put down once you start reading them.