Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Matthew Bowman's "The Mormon People": A Book I Slightly Side-Eye

Matthew Bowman's The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith is good. He tries to be unbiased, which is REALLY HARD when you're writing about a religion, since most people's religions sound bananapants to everyone else, and he does a pretty good job.


Ok, so you've got Joseph Smith in New York, he has this vision, writes down stuff the angel Moroni tells him or God tells him through the angel or  that God tells him directly (one of those options), Joseph Smith says HEY it's the 1830s, i.e. when everyone in America decided they had they key to the new revolutionary way to do things, and therefore, said Joseph Smith, let's all do this new religion thing that is the way God actually wants us to live.

AND PEOPLE JUST SAID OK SURE because that is what people always do.

PBS made this great map that clearly shows the Mormon path across the United States. They had to keep moving, because every time they landed somewhere, other Americans said "NOPE" and they had to keep moving.

And I get it, Americans of the 1830s and '40s. You probably hadn't even really seen this kind of thing before, and so here was this big group of people all bein' weird and moving en masse together into a new town and then voting other members of the group into political positions and yeah, I'd be suspicious of that too. Especially since they were saying the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, and dude, I just....I cannot.


So Joseph Smith started the whole polygamy thing in Illinois or Missouri, which is explained in the book as being a way to take care of the poor and widowed and all the single ladies. Except he also married other people's wives and the way it's presented is kind of like Joseph Smith was like "FAMILY I LOVE FAMILY everyone will be part of my family and I'll always have family forever because that is how heaven works."

But for serious, he married other guys' wives and wtf Joseph Smith. I understand some of the arguments for polygamy, but there were cases where the guys were like "um....ok, but I really don't want you to marry my wife" and Joseph Smith was like "hm, sounds like SOMEONE needs to examine God's will a little more."

SO ANYWAY, then a mob broke into the jail where Joseph Smith was held in Nauvoo, Illinois, and shot him and a couple other Mormons because people don't like what they don't understand in fact it scares them and this prophet is mysterious at least. But one thing Mormons were and are for sure good at doing is organizing, so the Church already had a pretty good structure laid out, and Brigham Young was like "WELP, looks like we're gonna go West where the government can't interfere."

Except they headed West in 1848, which was not only the year Everything Happened (for reals, look it up, it's crazy), but also three full years after the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined, and one year before the Gold Rush, so they were basically fucked regarding non-government interference.

Brigham Young and most of the other Mormons settled in what is now Utah, obviously, and set up a really well-developed set of checkpoints along the trail back to the Midwest to help people get out there (which included a huge number of immigrants from England, because Mormonism super caught on there). 

Americans got really pissed about polygamy until they peer pressured the Mormons to stop it (officially – unofficially took longer), and then came this long history of them acclimating to American culture until they were mainly seen as people who were really nice with some weird beliefs no one's quite clear on.

The Mormon People does do a good job of giving an overview of the history of Mormonism. Once it gets to the 1940s-2011 point, I didn't care at all, except when Bowman devotes literally one page to the Prop 8 controversy, which was where the Mormon Church organized and spent $22 million to ban marriage equality in California, except they funneled that money through other organizations because they knew Protestant America would think it was shady af, but then the documentary The Mormon Proposition detailing it all came out and I am STILL MAD, MORMON CHURCH.

I don't want to detract from Bowman's scholarship, and if you're interested in the history of Mormonism, check out this book, but since I'm speaking from the perspective of a lesbian woman, "booooooooooooo" because he not only spends just one page on this shitty thing that happened, but he also describes the protestors' response to the Church's role in Prop 8 as a "vicious backlash," seemingly because they protested and because one activist burned a Book of Mormon outside a temple in Denver. The First Presidency said "These are not actions that are worthy of the democratic ideals of our nation." Maybe your denial of equal rights also isn't, sir? Wtf. STILL MAD ABOUT IT.

Bowman does give space to the suicide by gay Mormon Stuart Matis on the steps of his chapel. Some more space is given to the Church's exclusion of all black people from the priesthood (they went with slavery's "one drop" rule for determining race). Bowman traces this exclusion from a disagreement Brigham Young had with a new black member of the Church, which of course resulted in the leadership deciding that all black people were forever barred from the priesthood (their priesthood is all laymen, so this basically meant they could have no involvement in church leadership at all on any level) because God wanted it that way. As of this book's publication in 2011, the Mormon Church has still not said that decision was a mistake. They just said in 1978 that black people could now officially take part in Mormonism. 

This isn't to say that everyone's religion doesn't have a history of being shitty. But like....damn, guys.

The Relief Society, aka the women's organization, is super cool. The quote that Americans are "protective of individual liberty and suspicious of secrets" is accurate to the nth. The Mountain Meadows Massacre sucked. Mormon women were the first women in an American territory to cast a ballot in an election, and that's pretty cool too. I still don't understand the holy underwear thing, and I don't understand the food storage thing, which Bowman doesn't really talk about, but I'm PRETTY sure I didn't make up.

Basically, I am an American and I am suspicious of secrets. But this book made Mormonism seem a little less secretive.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lives in Ruins: A Book Review Tempered by the New World Order

lives in ruins book cover by marilyn johnson

A book about archaeologists! ("why does this matter," she said, curled in a ball in the corner) Bop around the world with Marilyn Johnson! ("nothing matters now") See what being an archaeologist in the 21st century is REALLY all about! ("aagghhhhhhhhhh")

Take your everyday-life escapisms where you can get them, my friends. This is our new reality. And it sucks donkeyballs. But here we are. And I read a book I rated 3/5 stars on Goodreads! Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble is by Marilyn Johnson, author of that book you probably saw at the bookstore a few years ago where she talked about how librarians would save the world. WELL WHERE ARE YOU NOW, LIBRARIANS.


Johnson's thing seems to be deciding to find out more about an interesting job and then going around and interviewing people who do that job in a variety of ways. Here she picked archaeology, which is GREAT, because archaeology is the shit.

While she's sometimes a little bit too much like your mom's best friend Sue, you have to admit that even though Sue can be a little braggy sometimes, she can also be super-fun, and no you DIDN'T know that thing about how an archaeologist at Fort Drum was inventing a card game to teach soldiers how to identify historically important sites and avoid them ("her funding will probably all be cut now"). ANYWAY. 

I'll be over here walking somberly into the wind for the next 4 years

Archaeology is humans + history, and both those things are awesome, which is why I wanted to read this in the first place. Johnson covers a bunch of sites I knew nothing about that seem super-cool ("he'll probably destroy them himself while laughing at you") including the Fishkill Supply Depot, which apparently nobody knows about because during the Revolutionary War it was SUPER SECRET, only then after the war, nobody was like "hey, this was important so maybe we should tell people about it" so no one knew and then they found a bunch of buried soldiers there in the 20th century. Revolutionary War soldiers! Can you imagine. But now it's like, an empty field next to a gas station. 

She also interviews a man who helped uncover the oldest known (...I think) African burial ground in the U.S., which is in MANHATTAN. I think I've visited NYC the most of any place, and I've looked up so many of its damn historical places, and no one told me there was an African burial ground in lower Manhattan that has a beautiful memorial to the hundreds of free and enslaved people that have been buried there since the 17th century. So, thanks, guys.

(oh I just read that "the African Burial Ground Museum is easy to miss because it's in the middle of this building on Broadway and gaining entry is like getting into an airport," so I guess everyone's off the hook, nevermind)

look at that tho'

She tries something about archaeologists who study people today, and I'm like "haha, no dice, Johnson. Dig old things up from the ground or scrape the moss off them or IT DOESN'T COUNT." 

OR DOES IT. (it doesn't, but go with me) One of the best quotes in the book is about what archaeology really is, which is about "trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there." Because we as humans want to feel connected to each other and learn from each other. EVEN WHEN IT SEEMS LIKE WE DON'T. 

And everything is terrible but let's still read books and learn things about each other and also maybe participate in some giant hugs a couple times a week.

it's all we've got now

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fight On Like Our Foremothers and Forefathers

women's march chicago

The Women's March was a tremendous day of protest and solidarity, and a worldwide announcement that we will not quietly accede to this unprecedented situation. But it's over. And I'm left with this feeling. You're probably left with this feeling. We're all left with this feeling, and it is just so scary and it makes me want to lie down and not get up.

I've been thinking about what to do and how to make this a livable situation, and the answer I've found is, as always, in the past.

Do you know why movies aren't made about the 19th century women's movement? Or the anti-slavery efforts in 18th century America? There's no triumphant ending. Elizabeth Cady Stanton never voted. Neither did Susan B. Anthony. Or Sojourner Truth. Most abolitionists who labored from 1785 through the early 1800s only saw increased division and rancor in their lifetime concerning the topic dearest to them, something as huge as the recognition of an entire race's humanity (sound familiar?).

all lives matter is some bullshit

Was these people's work in vain? Was it hopeless? Should they have stopped when they were jeered at? Mocked? When those in power refused to listen to them? When they realized that their goals would probably not be witnessed in their own lifetimes? It must have been so hard. We know it must have been so hard, because we're feeling some of what they must have felt.

No matter if we see tangible results, the work we do is important. Keeping up a voice of dissent in the face of wrong is important. It IS very scary now and it is hard, but what you can see when reading about social justice heroes of the past is that while they might have been noticed because they were the leaders, they would not have been able to accomplish what they did without people fighting with them. Hundreds of thousands of people, having jobs, having families, having other commitments, but who also worked for causes they believed in and who fought against the voices in power that said it would never happen and they were wasting their time.


These people toppled the monarchy in France, ended slavery, transformed women's rights, and were behind every major social change in history because those with power do not surrender it voluntarily. As Ralph Waldo Emerson points out, the state of the world is all created out of a series of thoughts. Someone had a thought to march on Washington, and there were people and signs and banners and buses and over 700 solidarity marches worldwide with millions of people, all because of one thought.

To quote another's thought: if we carry on with the little bits of work we can do, writing, calling, marching, and talking, this nation "shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Fight on.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2017: Everything feels weird and I'm exhausted

How...did previous generations cope with rage fatigue and a constant sense of impending doom? Oh, I know — they just died at like age 35. In the Middle Ages, at least. People in the '60s just did drugs. IT'S ALL MAKING SENSE NOW.

Like...I get it now, guys

I'm fighting a constant ostrich-like urge to bury my head in the sand and continue going about my normal life, while social media tells me on a non-stop loop that nothing is okay and you have to act now NOW.

We do have to act. But it helps no one if we're all CONSTANTLY feeling bad about not acting all the time. So. I am going to go to the March in Chicago on Saturday, and I'm going to read some news articles and try to be informed on what's really going on, and I'm going to try and stop myself from collapsing into a puddle of despair.

On that note! What have I been reading this month:

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman. Someone at my church lent this to me appx 2-3 years ago and I've never read it. Turns out it's only like 200 pages long and super-easy to read. I could also skim the beginning because a lot of it's stuff I got in four years of Bible class at my high school. Yeah, that's right. Bible five days a week for four years. Only not so much for me because it was first period and I slept in frequently. To the point that I got a notice that said if I missed one more Bible class, I couldn't graduate. BUT ANYWAY. This is pretty good and essentially says "we can't say we know exactly what the Bible says because we don't have any of the original versions of the books in it."

Bart Ehrman can be kind of a poopyhead sometimes

The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith by Matthew Bowman. This is for my church book group, because we're trying to read about other religions. It seems to be the most unbiased of the Mormon books, and it's really interesting and covers their beginnings in New York to being basically persecuted to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois (shout out!), to Utah. Also there's obvs a lot about the polygamy thing, because how can you not.

Mary Astor's Purple Diary by Edward Sorel. Already reviewed it here. but basically, the drawings are great, the writing's fine, and man, does 80-something-year-old Edward Sorel want to bang Mary Astor.

They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery. I want to review this but I'm also scared to review it. Meaning I'm worried I'll somehow say something wrong. Which is weird because I liked it and thought it was really helpful, but that also seems to be our climate now. ANYWAY, I didn't have a background really on the history of BLM or a lot of the events that have led up to our current situation re race issues in America, and this was a really good primer for that.

I also read some comic book volumes and middle grade fiction that wasn't good enough to review. I'm not too into Black Science, but the art's really pretty. I also started Alison Weir's The Lost Tudor Princess about Lady Margaret Douglas, and that's pretty good, although she seems to have gotten very excited about finding 16th c. laundry lists somewhere, because she details people's exact wardrobes multiple times in the first 50 pages.

I leave you with this great tweet:

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mary Astor's Purple Diary by Edward Sorel: So this is how obsessions look to other people, huh.

I have a lot of thoughts about Mary Astor's Purple Diary, most of which can be summed up in the notes I made on my voice recorder while walking in downtown Chicago, which begins with "You know how you write that story about meeting the person you're obsessed with? And you don't show it to other people? Well, Edward Sorel decided to...like...publish it. And illustrate it."

For those of you who didn't have a lot of alone time with Turner Classic Movies in high school, Mary Astor was a movie star during the Golden Age of Hollywood, more specifically in the 1930s. By the mid-1940s she was playing mom roles, but in the '30s and early '40s she had kickass parts like the wealthy eccentric sister in Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story, and that main lady character whose name I don't remember in The Maltese Falcon.

Edward Sorel is apparently "one of America's foremost political satirists." He also happens to have been obsessed with Mary Astor for about half a century, and he decided to write and illustrate a short but very pretty book that talks about her life and, more specifically, her diary where she talked about how much she liked banging George S. Kaufman (famous playwright of the mid-20th century).

this fun guy

So. I love Old Hollywood. In 7th grade, my friend and I exclusively called each other by names of characters that Katharine Hepburn had played. I have a deep and abiding love for the screen pairing that is Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. I had a Barbara Stanwyck keychain on my backpack senior year of high school. Old Hollywood is the shit.

I did not know anything about Mary Astor, aside from having seen her in a few movies. What I appreciate about this book is that Edward Sorel, like a true obsessive, saw one article about Mary Astor and immediately got obsessed.

What's kind of weird about this book is how very focused on her sex life he is. I mean, yeah, the whole scandal with the diary was that she was talking about her sex life, but like...she had other stuff going on in life. I'm sure he respects her as a person and an actress, etc, but there's also this undercurrent of "Man, she must've been really great in the sack," which is like...dude. 

I kept reminding myself throughout that Edward Sorel's 87 now and it's pretty cool he got to write and illustrate a book about a lady he's obsessed with. And his illustrations are great.

look at that.

I enjoyed the second half more than the first, which covers the end of the trial she was involved in (a custody battle for her daughter) and talks about her being in meetings with Louis B. Mayer and hanging out with Norma Shearer, which is really what I wanted the whole book to be about. The first half involves, in part, an imagined conversation between him and her that's just like "omg who okayed this you are not supposed to let other people see this sort of thing." 

In the end though, Sorel wanted to write a little biography of his favorite lady, and he did that, so I'm proud of him.

And it legit is so pretty.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016: The Year Everything Was a Garbage Fire, Including My Reading Stats


Getting a real job that requires, y'know, time and energy and attention, has played havoc with my Goodreads stats, let me tell you. Said job, plus a girlfriend who, while being extremely supportive of my book obsession, also would like me to talk to her sometimes, mean I had an appx 30 book drop in my reading this year, for a grand total of 46 books read.

I will be over here in this box

What themes did we find for this year's reading though! Of this 46, 22 were by women, which is...not quite half. Of my entire reading for the year. I know. Me. My reading. Over half of it by men.

I am not worthy to be in your presence, Leslie

You're probably thinking "hey, wha happened" and I get it. I...get it. Well, Neil Gaiman happened. And Ron Chernow. And David Sedaris and Norman Cantor and John Lewis and Edward Carey and just a LOT of dudes writing books I wanted to read. Because y'know what, it's going to happen, because the publishing world favors them. "That's why you should make an extra effort to read women and POC, Alice." I KNOW THAT. My extreme interest in ladies usually self-corrects this problem, but this year, nope.

"How many books did you read by people of color this year, Alice?" That would be six. Which is 13%. It really wasn't a great year for intentional reading. I did, however, read Lindy West's Shrill, Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh's Muslim Girl, Lucy Bland's Modern Women on Trial, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, Pamela Toler's The Heroines of Mercy Street, Carol Faulkner's Lucretia Mott's Heresy, and Jane Rule's Lesbian Images.

I mean...these were all pretty good.

Do I have 2017 reading goals? Well....yeah, but they're primarily "read social justice books." Because the world right now is TERRIFYING. And yeah, sure, it's always been terrifying, but now it is terrifying in a specific-to-our-times and in a very overt way, because we are being led by a reality TV star and omg we're living in Idiocracy IT CAME TOO SOON WE WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE MORE TIME.

MULTIPLE people had already made this

May God have mercy on us all. #2017

Friday, December 30, 2016

When Pennsylvania Hall Burned: The Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and the Mob

Lucretia Mott was not the only one fighting for abolition in Philadelphia. There was also:

I love this picture because underneath their severe hairstyles this looks like
any social justice group photo

I know what you're thinking: "Wait...is their acronym...PASS?" And YES. Yes it IS. As in "How about some slavery?" "Mm, PASS. Get it? Like the society name and also I don't want any because it's terrible."

Mott and her husband James were co-founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833 (AASS -- no, the acronym is not as good, and yes, there were a lot of anti-slavery societies), and Mott helped craft this line of theirs, also mentioned in the previous post about her life:

The building in this picture is Pennsylvania Hall. Pennsylvania Hall was built by the badass SJWs in the first photo, aka the members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, as a place to hold meetings, preach, teach, whatever was needed in the work of abolishing slavery. They spent $40,000 in 1838 money to build it, which is about a million dollars today.

It stood for three days.

If people think about the North in general and Philadelphia specifically in the 19th century, they tend to assume it was a safe haven for people of color. Nope. Black Philadelphians not only dealt with day-to-day violence, but also endured race riots in their city in 1834, 1835, and 1837. When Pennsylvania revised its constitution in 1838, "the state simultaneously disenfranchised African American men."

Robert Purvis and other free blacks argued that the new constitution 'laid our rights a sacrifice on the altar of slavery,' in order to win favor from southern states. This loss of their citizenship further endangered the uneasy freedom of the state's African American population, now lacking the political power to resist further attacks on their civil rights.

Robert Purvis, who despite being able
to "pass," chose to identify with the
black community and fight for abolition
his entire life 

Mott and other Pennsylvania women founded the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was shocking because 1) women were speaking publicly, and 2) black and white women were members of the same group and were sitting together. 

At the time that Pennsylvania Hall was built, women were pissed the hell off. Not every woman, obviously, because people are products of the times in which they live, but it seemed like a larger number than before was furious, and a large amount of that fury was directed at a recent move made by Congress. In the 1830s, the country was in a very peculiar mood. All sorts of religious cults were springing up, the Utopian movement was strong, Jacksonian democracy had taken root (this emphasized actual democracy as a value, and it had resulted in an extension of voting rights for white men). Women were taking part in this spirit of optimism and individualism by deciding they could really do something, despite their extremely limited political power.

The only political recourse women had at the time was to petition Congress. So they sent anti-slavery petitions, temperance petitions, etc, in droves to ensure they had some kind of voice in their country.

Then Congress passed a series of gag rules, and from 1836-1844, they tabled all anti-slavery petitions. "Women in particular watched as their sole political right evaporated."


So we come to 1838. Pennsylvania Hall has been built in Philadelphia. They hold their inaugural meeting with 3000 people attending. Black women, white women, black men, white men, all in attendance and sitting together (in the audience, but not on the stage, which the ever-fantastic William Lloyd Garrison complained about). This was a racially integrated meeting in 1838. Think about the attempts to racially integrate in 1960 at the Woolworth's lunch counter, and what it must have been like to be these 1838 people. In a city that had experienced riots surrounding race almost every year for the past four years. Imagine being a black woman at that meeting.

Rumors went around the city about the meeting. Somehow it was said that an interracial marriage was taking place. Crowds started to gather and surround Pennsylvania Hall. People began throwing rocks and bricks through the windows. Men ominously inspected the gas pipes on the outside of the building. Staunch abolitionist and South Carolinian Angelina Grimke was speaking onstage, and over the din from the outside, said "Hear it--hear it. Those voices tell us the spirit of slavery is here, and has been roused to wrath by our abolition speeches and conventions."

The meeting ended and the participants were able to exit without much harassment. The following day, however, the women held a much smaller meeting. The crowds came again, and again threatened the attendees: "During the meeting, the women remained calm, despite being surrounded by a mob filling the doors and threatening to enter the room."

After it was over, Lucretia Mott and all the attendees, black and white women, all who had returned despite the terror of the previous night, had to pass out through the crowd, now numbering in the thousands. Angelina Grimke, again being a 100% badass of a human being, "proposed that they link arms with the African American women present in order to protect them, and so they did." Angelina Grimke knew that while society was f'ed up enough to not punish people for terrorizing any class of black women, there would be hell to pay if they did it to middle class white women. In essence, she used her white privilege as a weapon against the very people who were struggling to uphold it.

The women left the building, and the mob burned it down.

Ten years later, white citizens sat in a crowd and listened to black speakers on the stage talk to them about black rights. Mott said:

At that meeting 10 years later, in 1848 (the same year as the groundbreaking Seneca Falls Convention), Mott stood in front of this group of tired social justice advocates. She tried to inspire them by looking to the past, not knowing that even then they were still 17 years and untold struggles away from the abolition of slavery. With a frank assessment of the situation, she said to them:

Even though the slaves are increasing in numbers, even though their territory is being enlarged at every circle, yet, when we look abroad and see what is now being done in other lands, when we see human freedom engaging the attention of the nations of the earth, we may take courage.

The future looked bleak. But there were signs, both in front of them at that meeting, and when they broadened their vision to the greater world, that all was not lost.

We today have much to fear about where our nation is heading. But when I see the progresses made in our lifetimes, I see three steps forward and two steps back. It is slow and it is painful and it is frustrating, but it is still an ever-trudging advance. Let us look not only immediately in front of us, but also at the broader world, and take courage.