It’s good to see the Association for Mormon Letters working to get caught up with publication of its literary journal Irreantum. I always find it a bit puzzling and sad when a new issue is published and is not mentioned in the Bloggernacle, on the AML-List, etc. So I’m going to take a stab at a quick, subjective review of Volume 9, Number 1 (which I guess would be the spring 2007 issue).
I admit it. The major reason I keep my AML membership (and I did let it lapse for a while because I was unhappy about the delays with Irreantum and the lack of AML Annuals — which are very important to me because I’m not able to attend the yearly conference) is because I want access to short stories written for the Mormon market. I would be very happy if every issue, regardless of theme/focus, published 5-7 short stories.
This issue features four — the winners of the 2006 Irreantum Fiction Contest* (there was a tie for third place). I enjoyed them. I wish that there wasn’t such a bias towards your standard American literary realism short story. But I can’t really complain — two out of the four stories knocked my socks off, and I think that’s a pretty good ratio (the other two were just okay).
“Light of the New Day” by Darin Cozzens is the first place winner. It’s easy to see why. About a middle-age unmarried man who lives with his ancient, irascible, well-meaning-but-controlling mother on a farm, it is a polished, complete story with a couple of amazing images and all those small details and moments that literary readers enjoy. It’s a very good story that has some interesting things to say about the Mormon experience. Very anthology worthy. But it doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of Mormon literature — or rather it doesn’t do anything with form or content that really surprised me. And yet, I really like it.
“Fish Hut” by Pawl Rawlins was awarded second place. It’s about an older, engaged Mormon woman who lives in the Wasatch Front who isn’t sure she wants to marry her solid but boring Mormon fiancÃ© and her encounter with a busboy named Ramon. It’s a small story, lacking the completeness and polish of “Light of the New Day.” It relies on a sorta extreme event for it’s full effect. And yet it left me rather lukewarm. I learned very little about the Mormon experience from it.
“Deviations” by Laura McCune-Poplin tied for third place. I liked it better than “Fish Hut.” It’s about two sister missionaries who visit a cathedral in France. I like that the two sisters and two elders that we encounter in the story are funky and interesting and that the story isn’t about companionships falling apart or proselyting, but rather is about how these missionaries feel about their mission and their place in Mormon culture and doctrine. At one point while thinking about meeting a nun at the cathedral, the point of view character Soeur Lucy Stanley asks one of the elders if he could be a missionary for his entire mortal existence. That’s the kind of question missionaries do think and talk about, in my experience, and you answer that question can be quite revealing. On the other hand, I thought the title of the story overreached as did the brief section where Lucy thinks about the ways that she deviates. Perhaps it’s just that I’m out of touch with Intermountain West Mormon culture, but I found Lucy to be much more conventional than she, or even perhaps the author, thinks she is. I needed either a bit more exploration of why she thought that way and the implications she thought that had for her or for that to happen in a way that showed deeper irony.
“Scattered” by Katherine Woodbury is the other third place winner. It is my favorite story of the four (and, in my opinion, the clear second place winner). The story continues Kate’s fascinating attempts to explore Old Testament characters through fiction. This time it is Elijah, Jezebel and Ahab — the three alive and playing out their stormy relationships in modern-day America. I suppose it’s speculative fiction. But Kate meshes everything perfectly. Elijah is a homeless guy with a backpack full of books. Jezebel is a fiery would-be radical activist. Ahab is a lawyer, of course. On the one hand, there are echoes of Angel/Buffy the Vampire Slayer — crazed relationships with too much sexual tension that have built throughout history. On the other hand, the non-realism of the story doesn’t go beyond Old Testament details and the concept never wears thin or stretches too far. It’s a very good story, and very well-written (although it lacks the extra patina of literariness that Cozzens brings to his story — a lack that I don’t feel, but that I can understand others feeling).
I don’t do well with poetry — mainly because of a lack of patience on my part. But I did like “Coming to Birth” by Susan Elizabeth Howe. It’s a concrete image filled look at spirits and bodies and birth: “They wrap themselves in flimsy,/ see-through bodies… want to push, jostle into existence.”
The other poem that stood out for me is “The World’s Lap” by Lance Larsen. But really, when taken as a whole it’s one of the better sets of poems that Irreantum has published (other poets represented are Javen Tanner, Stacy Moisant and Carolyn Howard-Johnson) because the poems are approachable and trenchant and all rather Mormon.
A strong batch of essays in this issue. There are four of them and all of them very much worth reading. But it still would have been nice to have had a couple more reviews.
“Learning to Write” by Henry Miles is a painful but fascinating relating of the author’s efforts to complete a personal essay about his father’s suicide. He bounces from BYU professor to BYU professor and each one points out a deficiency and suggests a new direction to try. The experience is painful and a bit annoying and exhausting, but Miles shows us how through it he learns more about writing and about how he feels about his father and mother. I only wish that the essay he was working on was also included (although it sounds like it may be expanded into a book).
“Magnified Callings” by Rodello Hunter is pulled from her 1972 memoir A Daughter of Zion and is about her work with a Mia Maids class. It’s both funny and touching and has some interesting details about church life in the mid-twentieth century.
Randy Astle continues his fine work on Mormon film with a historical survey of LDS children’s media. As one might guess, there was and is a lot more going on than I was aware. Astle’s goal is to briefly cover a lot of ground — which he does well. I look forward to further studies in this area.
The final essay is by AMV’s own Eric Thompson — “Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged and the Intrusion of Mormonism in Mormon Cinema.” Anyone who has read Eric’s AMV work knows that he brings a rigorous approach to his film criticism, and that he backs his criticism up with specific examples. This essay (which is a slightly modified version of this AMV post) is no exception. And what I really like about it is that Eric is not afraid to really interrogate the Mormon-ness of the film.
*Note: This post originally said that the winners were of the 2007 contest. It was actually the 2006 contest (see Angela Hallstrom’s comment below).