I. V.H. Cassler Reviews

Reading is my hobby, and I indulge it as often as I can. There is always a pile of books next to my bed, and I nod off frequently with a book on my chest. As an academic, I usually read nonfiction books as two-fers; that is, I am both personally and professionally interested in what I am reading. As I get older, I have become very picky about the fiction books I read, and so my mini-book reviews in this issue are heavier on non-fiction. However, I’d like to start out with a short review of a fiction book I read this summer—and loved!

Miller, Madeline (2018) Circe, New York: Hachette

Circe is one of the best fiction books I have read in a long time. First off, it’s a nice, hefty size: 385 pages. Ofttimes good fiction books are like bon bons; one bite and they are gone. Of course, that may have to do with the fact that I am a very fast reader, so the average 200 page book is gone in less than three hours. Second, I found myself dog-earing and even underlining certain passages in Circe, which I never do in a fiction book. The book made me think, made me ponder, made me want to remember passages.

Yes, as you have guessed, the story is Miller’s retelling of the Circe myth. Most of us only know Circe from her run-in with Odysseus, where she is painted as (pretty much) a villainess, very much a secondary character. In Miller’s tale, Circe is the center of the story, and the slice of her life she shares with Odysseus is small. Daughter of Helios, a Titan, Circe does not appreciate the ways of the Titans, nor does she appreciate those of the Olympian gods. She has a very different view of what is good, and for it she is banished to an island where she lives, for the most part, alone. There she develops her female wisdom, which is deemed as witchery by outsiders.

While there are many familiar figures in the tale—Charybdis and Scylla, Daedalus, the Minotaur, Hermes, Odysseus, and others—the centerpiece is the evolution of Circe’s wisdom as a woman. She gains understanding of nature, of men, of motherhood, of her own self. It is a rich, full portrait of a woman’s life. I will give you only a taste from near the end, and urge you to read the book for yourself . . .

“I wake sometimes in the dark terrified by my life’s precariousness, its thread breath. Beside me, my husband’s pulse beats at his throat; in their beds, my children’s skin shows every faintest scratch. A breeze would blow them over, and the world is filled with more than breezes: diseases and disasters, monsters and pain in a thousand variations . . . My breath fights in my throat. How can I live on beneath such a burden of doom?

“I rise then and go to my herbs. I create something. I transform something . . . [He] comes from our bed to find me. He sits with me in the green-smelling darkness, holding my hand. Our faces are both lined now, marked with our years. “Circe, he says, it will be all right.

“It is not the saying of an oracle or prophet. They are words you might speak to a child. I have heard him say them to our daughters, when he rocked them back to sleep from a nightmare, when he dressed their small cuts, soothed whatever stung. His skin is familiar as my own beneath my fingers. I listen to his breath, warm upon the night air, and somehow I am comforted. He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.”

Denton, Sally (2022) The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land, New York: W.W. Norton.

Sally Denton is an award-winning author and has published a number of significant works, including one on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Though she is not a member of the Church, her ancestry is. In particular, her great-great grandmother was Jean Rio Griffiths, an early British convert to the Church, who traveled to Zion with her seven children (her husband was deceased)), and who came to feel betrayed by the Church. While certainly Denton has a chip on her shoulder where the Church is concerned, her latest book, The Colony, is nevertheless fascinating.

In November 2019, the world was shocked when three white “Mormon” mothers and several of their children were shot and burned in Mexico as they traveled in their cars between two “Mormon” colonies in that country. The killings themselves were shocking and horrific—one woman’s infant twins were burned to death in one of the cars, with relatives finding their little skulls on the floor of the car they were in. Some of the children left alive watched their mothers and siblings shot to death even as they pleaded with their killers that there were only women and children in the caravan of cars. One woman had so many bullets in her body, they stopped counting. The fury and brutality of the attack was purposefully over –the top. Three mothers and six children lost their lives that day.

But folks were also surprised to find there were substantial, wealthy colonies of predominantly anglo “Mormons” in Mexico, too. And also very surprised that they were openly practicing polygamy there. Enough surprises, then, to support a book about the whole situation, and Denton was the obvious choice. Despite all the shock, many members of the Church did recognize the name LeBaron being bandied about. They remembered the bloody rampage of the LeBaron clan in the 1980s and 90s, in which 20–30 people were murdered on the orders of Ervil LeBaron and some of his children.

Sorting all of this convoluted history and genealogy out takes the talents of a forensic historian, and Denton is up to the task. It begins with Benjamin Franklin Johnson, one of the earliest converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who eventually became Joseph Smith’s private secretary, bodyguard, brother-in-law (Smith married Johnson’s sisters), and legal representative who held Smith’s power of attorney. Johnson married Melissa LeBaron, with Johnson eventually marrying seven wives in total. He was also sealed to Smith as Smith’s “adopted” son. Johnson moved out to the Utah Territory with the Saints and became a prominent citizen there. When a daughter of Johnson’s seventh wife married a LeBaron nephew, the LeBaron surname was reintroduced in Alma Dayer LeBaron. Johnson prophesied this grandson was special, and would raise up the church in Mexico. And so LeBaron went to Mexico, where he eventually claimed to be the foretold “One Mighty and Strong” who would put the Church in order.

Though most of the Mexican “Mormons” fled back to the US during the Mexican Revolution, the LeBarons returned, with Alma Dayer LeBaron—claiming he received a direct revelation from God to do so—leading them. LeBaron also claimed God wanted the “Mormons” following LeBaron to practice polygamy, and they were immediately excommunicated from the Church for doing so in the 1920s. Eventually Colonia LeBaron was founded in Mexico in 1944. Of course, it was polygamy that led to the bloodshed among the LeBarons, as the seven sons of the first wife competed for leadership, not unlike the same polygamy-derived bloodshed seen in the Book of Ether. LeBaron’s ninth child and sixth son with his first wife was Ervil LeBaron, born in Mexico, who would one day kill several siblings in his quest for power over their “church.”

Eventually, Denton circles back to the 2019 murders, and investigates the various possible killers (certain warring cartels, non-“Mormon” neighbors opposed to the “Mormons” digging illegal wells, etc.). In 2022, an American judge ruled the Juarez cartel owed the victims’ families $4.6 billion.

These days the “Mormons” in Mexico are very well-armed, like a small army, to prevent further attacks. Even so, I leave you with what one of the LeBaron women told Denton, which suggests the real source of the colonies’ survival: “It is the strength of the women that keeps the colony together, not the men with their militias and posses and sabre rattling and protest marches.” This is a book well worth reading, if you overlook Denton’s antipathy towards the Church.

Mukwege, Denis (2021) The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing, New York: Flatiron Books

What a wonderful, wonderful book this is! If you do not know who Denis Mukwege is, he is a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and he is the man who stayed and repaired the bodies of the women brutally raped in the war over the DR Congo. Perhaps as importantly, he helped repair their souls, as well.

Denis Mukwege almost died after birth, but was saved because of the intervention of a woman. In a sense, his whole life has been recompense for that kindness. And he also would have become a salesman if not for the pestering of his mother, who had always known his childhood dreams of becoming a doctor were his real destiny. Mukwege is a man with a special calling—to really listen to and see women. And because he is capable of that, whereas most of his countrymen are not, he sees he must help women. Because such men are so very, very rare, it is impossible to read this book as a woman and not weep with gratitude that Mukwege exists. As he says, “I spent years grappling with the idea of being a man promoting women’s rights, suffering awkward silences or looks of incomprehension from both men and women when I talked about my work” (87). He credits his unusual upbringing—“a mother who insisted on equality between my sisters and me at home and a nonviolent father”—as the foundation of his calling in life.

The stories he tells of the horrendous rates of maternal mortality and rape in DR Congo are both horrifying and riveting. It is worth the price of the book to read those stories alone. The stories of butting up against the indifference of the Congo government, and the corruption of local officials are also important. His government tried to kill him on more than one occasion, because he was “shaming” them by speaking about what was really going on with women in the country. Since 2013, he has a team of UN peacekeepers protecting him around the clock at his hospital and his home. Before that, it was women’s collectives who guarded his life from the authorities.

He tells of trying to figure out how men could do the things he saw in the operating room to women. One rebel soldier rapist explained, “You know, you don’t ask yourself any questions when you slit a goat’s neck or a chicken’s. A woman is like that. We did what we wanted to them.” After decades of studying these things, I still do not understand that answer. How can a man not see the humanity of a woman, a woman like the one who gave him birth and doted on him in childhood?

Mukwege has a word for religious figures as well: “All religious leaders, the guardians of the customs and beliefs that shape the lives of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all our many faiths, have the capacity, and I believe the responsibility, to make our societies more accepting and welcoming places for women . . . We must acknowledge the role of religion in enforcing male dominance and female submissiveness. I say this as a Christian and the son of a pastor . . . Feminism and faith are compatible concepts.” (243-4) Amen, amen, amen!

De Becker, Gavin (2021 reprint) The Gift of Fear, New York: Little, Brown

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years (it was first published in 1997), and only just got around to it. The book is aimed at a female audience. Women are often seen as prey to unscrupulous men, and women are also socialized to make everyone else but themselves feel comfortable. This leads to women ignoring their survival instincts. De Becker, a world-famous security expert, asks women to start re-listening to their intuition and stop being so concerned about making other people comfortable in situations that have the potential for danger.

The opening true story left me shaking. I won’t recount it—you need to read the book—but let’s just say many of us could see ourselves in “Kelly,” who “didn’t want to be the kind of person who distrusts everybody.”

De Becker reminds us that the history of humanity has instilled in women an entirely appropriate sense of fear, which can be a powerful ally, for there is a “universal code of violence” down through the millennia—a code of male violence against women. Unfortunately, in our day and age, we women are socialized to ignore our greatest ally, fear:

“A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago—it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself: ‘I’m not going to live like that, I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.’ When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator. Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of? The inner voice is wise, and part of my purpose in writing this book is to give people permission to listen to it” (33).

De Becker has many important lessons for women in the book, but I’ll only mention a few in this review. One is to “never, ever relent on the issue of ‘no,’ because it sets the stage for more efforts to control. If you let someone talk you out of the word ‘no,’ you might as well wear a sign that reads, ‘You are in charge,’ . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence” (70).

Do you think someone is following you? “[T]urn around completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you. This not only gives you information, but it communicates to him that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting. You are an animal of nature, fully endowed with hearing, sight, intellect, and dangerous defenses. You are not easy prey, so don’t act like you are” (77).

De Becker also tackles domestic violence, which is a primary cause of death to women. He rightly notes that “the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim, and the second time she is a volunteer” (205). He is adamant that men must be held accountable or the violence will never stop: “[A]busers must be fully prosecuted for every offense” (217). Unfortunately, as he points out, some courses of action, such as restraining orders, actually may do more harm than good in some cases, and he has very pointed advice to women who find themselves stalked.

Gosh, I wish I had read this book as a young woman. He perceptively notes, “[M]en are nice when they pursue, and women are nice when they reject. Naturally this leads to confusion” (225). He urges women to be starkly honest and specific with men who unwantedly pursue them. If you don’t want him, says De Becker, do not negotiate and do not explain. “When a woman rejects someone . . . and she says, “It’s just that I don’t want to be in a relationship right now,” he hears only the words “right now” . . . The rejection should be “I don’t want to be in a relationship with you” (228). Of course, we all know why women try to be nice when they reject a man—they fear he may turn violent. But politely closing the door completely is what you must do. As De Becker puts it, “Men who cannot let go choose women who cannot say no” (232).

There is a lot in this book, and if you have daughters, I urge you to get it and read it with them.

Crawford, Matthew (2015) The World Beyond Your Head, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

This is a book that really made me think. Crawford asks whether our internet age has robbed us of human flourishing, and if so, how it has done that. Our minds, shaped by evolution, are highly distractible if you know what buttons to push—and large corporations that have surveilled you intimately on a daily basis know exactly what those buttons are in your specific case. In fact, one of the things we have lost is the right to not be addressed by these corporations. He calls for a new ethic of attention—for without the power of concentration we lose all self-regulation. While corporations tell us that to be free means to be free to satisfy our preferences, Crawford insists this is anything but freedom. In fact, it is nigh to slavery, for your preferences are not your own, but are manufactured by others who have a vested interest in your choices.

How have we become ever more enslaved over time? Yes, certainly, the distractions and addictions offered by the internet and other modern phenomena. But these things could not have succeeded had we held onto the “jigs” of real, material life. By “jigs” he is not talking about dances, but about “jigs” in the sense the term is used in woodworking: something that sets the limit or shape of things, enabling the woodworker to execute his own plans.

What are the jigs of life? Actual skills, for one. Knowing how to make something with one’s hands is one of the most joyous of earthly jigs. Working against the limits of the real world, not the virtual world, is key. “No limits!” may be the cry of the 21st century, but it is a chimera, and leads to slavery, not joy. As a member of the Church, I think there are other jigs, such as scripture study and religious ritual, that keep us in the real. Disciplined attention, Crawford says, à la Simone Weil, is a form of prayer.

Crawford urges us to “reclaim the real.” He says: “The central term of approbation in these pages is not freedom but agency. For it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self . . . External objects provide an attachment point for the mind; they pull us out of ourselves. It is in the encounter between the self and the brute alien otherness of the real that beautiful things become possible . . . Encountering the world as real can be a source of pleasure—indeed of quasi-religious feelings of wonder and gratitude—in light of which manufactured realities are revealed as pale counterfeits, and lose some of their grip on us.” (27) Other people, too, whom we interact with in reality, not virtuality, also pull us out of ourselves and provide the real companionship that is so far superior to virtual reality. By reclaiming the real, “we can choose our architect.” One key is the body. Crawford insists that “we think through the body.” We must stop being locked in our heads, for that condition makes us stupid. We must directly inhabit and sense the world to think clearly. We must gain skills in the real world, and not rely on the magic of our technology, which too often dissociates us from reality entirely. As Crawford puts it, “The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence” (77). And with impotence comes fragility: “the self that cannot tolerate conflict and frustration.”

Perceptively, Crawford notes that as we idealize autonomy, and view it as the satisfaction of our preferences, then we lose sight of what “the good life” could possibly mean apart from consumption. He says, “If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents. We are therefore unable to offer any rationale for regulation that would go beyond narrow economic considerations” (109). And thus we find ourselves in a condition Crawford calls “moral autism.” Reclaim the real, get outside your head and into your body, devote yourself to excellence and gain skill, and in all these things develop judgment, is the advice Crawford offers. This good life will naturally lead to self-regulation, for as Simone Weil puts it, “[E]very time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves” (170).

My favorite chapter of the book is called “The Organ Makers’ Shop,” which is a recounting of the time Crawford spends in the shop of Taylor and Boody, who restore old church organs to their original condition using the materials of the organ’s time and place. It is a joyful world, for “joy is the feeling of one’s powers increasing” (252). I’d recommend this book just for the one chapter, but the whole book is so worthwhile. It makes me want to quit my job and take up a work of the hands . . . Maybe I will do just that when the last of my children leave the nest.

Chesler, Phyllis (1978) About Men, New York: Simon and Schuster

Phyllis Chesler is a psychologist and a prominent second wave feminist who has lived a rich and full life, and is still going strong, and still writing. I decided I wanted to read works by some of the most acclaimed women of that generation, and picked up Chesler’s 1978 tome to that end. It is an interesting potpourri, with essays, autobiographical notes, reproductions of art with commentary, even several poems. Because of its nature, rather than writing a normal review, I’m just going to through a few tidbits your way. If they intrigue you, then by all means read the whole book.

“We do not routinely reflect upon the most familiar, the most taken-for-granted images or events in our daily or cultural life. Thus, Michelangelo’s Creation, which depicts a male God-head giving life (or birth) to the world’s first man, is not usually seen as an expression of the intense male longing to be able to create life and to be reunited with a loving paternal deity—which it clearly is” (xvi).

“The color of the sky over Hiroshima, over Nagasaki—a color I never saw, a color that has shaped my generation’s mood. The strange red of that sky. The red color of black children’s blood in Birmingham; the red-stained color of My Lai; and the bloodless color of Auschwitz smoke: gray, black, wordless; of Dachau smoke: gray, black, wordless, across the European sky. All, all these colors have been painted by fathers and sons, by ‘bonded’ and womb-less men” (xix).

“Listen, children, here are the facts: Your real Mother is me—your Father!” (41).

“Christian men insisted not on circumcision, but on crucifixion. If female blood is needed to create human life, then male blood is needed to divinely redeem that human life. And His side shall be pierced at uterus-level, and we will worship this male death—as Eternal Life” (47).

“Patriarchal civilization is, from one point of view, a male homosexual civilization. Women are valued only for their reproductive capacities. In all other areas, men prefer to remain separate from women, and in close contact with other men. A culture that covets such separatist all-male control of religious, military, economic, and political institutions is, psychologically speaking, a homosexual culture” (198).

“The difficult truce between sons and fathers proceeds from both recognizing the importance of what they have in common: a penis. This simple anatomical fact is what makes all men ‘like each other and all men different from women. Based on this fact, men come to share a belief that women are not really human beings. This belief is so crucial and so deep that it remains psychologically invisible to both men and women . . . The consequences of this belief are enormous. By recognizing that all men possess penises, and by declaring that this is the root-sign of both humanity and true divinity, men may wince at the pain or humiliation inflicted upon other men, but not at the pain or humiliation inflicted upon women. This . . . allows men to not experience female suffering as representative of human—and therefore male—suffering. Female suffering is thereby condoned as less pertinent, less significant, less threatening than the pain which befalls men” (212).

“It is a mistake to confuse being depended upon or being “needed” with having objective power over him who needs you. Most women, as industrial or agricultural workers, as domestics, and as sexual mates, are relatively interchangeable and therefore relatively expendable on an individual basis . . . I wonder to what degree male hostility toward female aspirations is related to a male fear of being abandoned by women—so that men would be left totally to themselves in an all-male society. Despite the male insistence on sex-separatism, most men need access to on-demand transfusions of emotional and physical relief or safety; to real or illusory—but on-demand and male-controlled—transfusions of intimacy, human warmth, and ‘maternality’: access to women, as fashioned by men. . . . When men and boys are confined together [in the all-male society of jail], with no access to women as displacement or absorption targets, their rage and shame are directed at other men” (244).

“Never have we needed a Hero more than now . . . A hero who is not put out to die at his Father’s command. A hero who does not abandon his Mother. A hero who does not become his own Father, or an impersonal or dictatorial “Father” to other men. A hero who is not killed by his brothers and then worshipped afterward. A hero such as we’ve never known: in whose name youth is not cannibalized and broken; a hero in whose name war is never declared, countries are never colonized, people are never enslaved, and women are never raped; a hero in whose time poverty, illiteracy, loneliness, and conformity are unheard-of . . . “ (251)

II. B. Kent Harrison Review

Bramwell, Mary Ellen (Kent Harrison’s daughter) (2014) The Apple of My Eye, Castroville, Texas: Black Rose Writing.

The Apple of My Eye is a work of fiction. It begins with a phone call in the middle of the night to the young woman Brea Cass. She says, “Phone calls in the middle of the night are either wrong numbers or calls that take your life in the wrong direction. How I wish this had been a wrong number.” The call tells her that her husband Paul is on the way to the hospital. When she arrives, she finds that he is dead, having been shot in a grocery store robbery. Paul was considered a hero by the press, having taken a bullet aimed at an old man.

In a fog, she wonders what to do with her life and that of her six-month-old son Noah.

Paul and Brea had had a whirlwind courtship, beginning in a computer science class. He presented her with gifts of apples and called her “the apple of my eye.” He was bright and funny. He told her that he was an only child and that his parents had been killed in an automobile accident, and so her friendship meant a lot to him.

Months went by, as Brea tried to decide what to do after Paul’s death. Fortunately, Paul had left her with enough money to support her. Her parents were very helpful. But it was hard being a young widow.

And then, as she and Noah played in the park, it dawned on her that there was something wrong with Paul’s death. What was he doing in a grocery store in the middle of the night? He should have been at the hotel where he worked!

At the hotel she was told that he wasn’t working there that night. He had taken a leave of absence a month and a half before he was killed. What was going on?

Brea retrieves Paul’s cellphone from the police and begins a search for answers. She is determined to find out what happened, despite cautions from the police to leave it in their hands. The surprising answers she finds lead her down unsuspected paths of danger and discovery.

Full Citation for this Article: V.H. Cassler and B. Kent Harrison (2022) "Plenty to Read: Mini Book Reviews," SquareTwo, Vol. 15 No. 2 (Summer 2022),, accessed <give access date>.

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