Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

May 3, 2014 

American Crucifixion



American Crucifixion

Alex Beam, PublicAffairs, 336 pages

In 1844, when Illinois was the wild, wild West, an armed mob stormed a jailhouse and assassinated an American religious leader. And got away with it.

The story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s death 170 years ago receives a fascinating retelling in Alex Beam’s “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”

This is no simple subject. Few Americans were more controversial than the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but Beam takes a historical tone that is both skeptical and fair-minded.

Smith’s self-promotional, manipulative and even messianic style of leadership can shock the modern reader, as it once shocked mainstream American Christians. But the author also makes clear that Smith’s opponents were driven by their own extreme impulses and that, in essence, a nation that had guaranteed religious liberty allowed the Mormon leader to be murdered for his beliefs.

Those beliefs get a clear and concise examination, especially the introduction of polygamy and how the church practiced it in secrecy, deliberately misleading some of its own members. The book also explains the “doctrine of eternal progression,” based on Smith’s assertion that “God was once one of us” and that humans can perfect themselves to reach the status of gods. Such radical views created deep and lasting rifts in Smith’s flock.

Beam’s book is full of lessons but never feels like schoolwork. In fact, “American Crucifixion” paints a brilliant picture of religious experimentation, public intolerance and the making of a martyr.

Chicago Tribune

A Man Called Destruction

Holly George Warren, Viking, 384 pages

Most musicians would trade their soul for a No. 1 record and go on to carry that success like a trophy. So it’s a measure of the late Alex Chilton’s craft and personality that he’s less defined by “The Letter,” the 1967 guitar-pop gem by his band the Box Tops that hit when he was 16, than by the commercial failures that came after.

Rather, he’s best known as the co-founder of the Memphis band Big Star, whose classic three records have grown into some of the most acclaimed of the 1970s. Remembered for songs such as “September Gurls,” “Holocaust” and “In the Street,” Chilton is a stubborn, oft-infuriating charmer in Holly George Warren’s “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man.”

Warren’s deep research examines the arc of Chilton’s life, uncovers periods of intense focus in famed Memphis studios, including disturbing scenes of a lover’s blood on the mixing board and others of Chilton’s own blood in bathtubs during suicide attempts. The writer documents failed tours and promotional campaigns, revealing the curious fate and dashed expectations of an almost-was band and its irascible lead singer.

Los Angeles Times

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