You’re looking for a book

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Two Sundays ago, a member of my ward engaged me on the old question of the Great Mormon Novel. We were interrupted before we could finish our conversation so I wrote him an email. (You’ll note references to that conversation in the first couple books mentioned.) But hey—why not send it to you all as well?

The main difference between the email and this post is that I’ve added Amazon links since I’ve already promised to lend my copies to someone else.

Looking for those links, Amazon suggested some other books I might have liked to add to this list. Yup, Amazon. You’re right. I missed a few.  You should all feel free to fill in the gaps down below.

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Hello, J*****. Here are some books I can lend you.

My criteria were: Written by a Mormon. About Mormons. Very good. That was it.

First, Magdalene by Moriah Jovan. This is the sex book that takes its shape from the Atonement story. It’s part of a series of novels about a Mormon family that date back to the 1700s up to the present day. You don’t have to read one to understand another, but they do share nice resonances when read together. This is my favorite. And, if memory serves, it’s the only novel here with the bishopric meetings and disciplinary counsels you were asking for. (when I’ve written more about a book, I’ll link to that writing in case you decide you care to read more, like so: more)

The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple. This is the 1942 novel we talked about that had Mormon up in arms. The novel has the sort of nuance we talked about, but it was about polygamy at a time we really really did not want to talk about polygamy. Any talk about polygamy was too much talk about polygamy and needed to be shut down. Any book that can be this hated deserves a second look. (more)

Dorian by Nephi Anderson. This one’s even older than Whipple’s. Anderson was working hard to make Mormon art good art, but then he died. It’s almost that simple. Anyway, Dorian is his final novel and although I no longer consider it his best, it’s good. The first time I read it I had an experience similar to the first time I read Jane Austen. Bonus: I can give you a copy of this one, since I have like thirty copies (not an exaggeration.). In short, it’s about a Mormon kid from a small town who’s intellectually ambitious. The only educated man in town is theologically minded and has a plan to combine science and religion into one great whole. Meanwhile, there are two girls and a boy’s got to choose. (more)

The Backslider by Levi Peterson. This is the first novel I thought of when I was trying to come up with Great Mormon Novels that Jordan Might Like. In part, because Peterson is clearly following in the path of people from the Faulkner/Hemingway era and I seem to remember you being a fan of that era of American lit. This is the story of a cowboy with good moral intentions and plenty of moral failures. His groin does a bit too much of the decision-making here, but even more controversial is the theophany at the end of the novel. Which for my money is one of the most beautiful passages in Mormon lit. (more)

Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. I love this book so much. One of the best books of any stripe I’ve read the last five years. I do think the final pages are a misstep, but they’re the only part of the novel Lynsey liked, so take that as you will. (I handed it to her saying she had to read it that this was a novel about us and—it didn’t take.) Anyway, if you read the title carefully, you’ll catch on to the novels central conceit way quicker than I did. This is the only novel listed here that’s about Mormons but in a way that only Mormons will be able to tell it’s about Mormons. But it’s unquestionably a portrait of a Mormon marriage and one that I find heartachingly beautiful. (moremoremore)

The Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark. This poor book has the worst cover of the bunch, but it’s a terrific read. Its protagonist is a deacon in Arizona coming of age just as his senile grandmother moves in with the family to die. It’s funny and it’s potent. (more)

City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus. This is the only missionary story I’m including. mostly because I’ve kind of avoided it as a genre and kind of because the few others I’ve read aren’t that great. But I haven’t read the ones that are supposed to be best so … who knows. Anyway, this one is a missionary / mystery / noir / gangster / magical realism novel. Plus it takes some digs at multi-level marketing, but you’ll be spending most of your time in Brazilian slums, so bring soap. (more)

Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom. This I put last because it might not be a novel. It’s a short-story collection about a single family and they tie in well enough for me to consider it a novel, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Incidentally, the author also put together the most important / most broad recent collection of Mormon short fiction. (moremore)

Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Wives by Karen Rosenbaum. This is another collection that might be a novel but it’s a little further away from noveldom than the last one. But of course you should read it because you know Karen and because she is an amazing writer. I can give you a copy of this one too because I bought a copy and then she gave me one. I haven’t finished it yet, so it’s not officially on this list, but hey. Karen.

Byuck by Theric Jepson. I can give you a copy of this too. I have loads. (more, but not by me)

“An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life”

When I don’t have other things occupying my mind (and often when I do), I think a lot about language and kinship, about the potential of words to forge new relationships among people and between people and things and thereby to shape new neural, emotional, physical, and social worlds. Because I believe that language has this cosmoplastic capacity, I’m convinced that it has the potential—more than violence and threats of violence—to lead us to better, more sustainable versions of ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species.

In light of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I needed to remind myself of my convictions, which inform my writing and my teaching; so, egoist that I am, I turned to an essay I had published on the topic in Sunstone last year: “‘An Open Palm and a Consecrated Life’: Three Meditations on Being-with Others.” The essay explores the implications of a question Adam Miller asks in Letters to a Young Mormon: “The question is, will we greet [the] passing [of everything and everyone we know] with a closed fist or with an open palm and a consecrated life” (75)? My response to Miller grapples with the ethics of state-sponsored violence, lyrics from Emma Lou Thayne, and Enoch’s vision of a God who weeps over human violence.

Here it is. Take my words however you will.

https://app.box.com/embed/s/oewmdtv49p7lmm24h9yv3kv2e8c3e2kd

On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)

I had the pleasure of reading Sheldon Lawrence’s book Hearts of the Fathers a couple of weeks ago. Dr. Lawrence is a professor at BYU-Idaho, and when I requested to review an advance copy, he had it delivered to my husband, who also works at BYU-Idaho. When my husband picked it up and read a page on his way to delivering it to me, he stated that it read like “a book written by a BYU professor.” This worried me. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I’ve had some bad experiences with fiction written by BYU professors.

Then I began to read it, and to my pleasure, I was immediately drawn in. Continue reading “On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)”

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

My review essay on Jack Harrell’s recently released book, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism, went live on the AML website yesterday. Since Harrell seems to position the book as a conversation starter (but really, isn’t that what all books are for?), I used my response to converse with the way he explicitly and implicitly addresses what in the review I call “a Mormon theology of the Word” and to consider possible ways of elaborating that theology into something more robust that can inform discussions of what Mormonism has to offer theories of language use. My notes on the book participate in my perpetual explorations of that topic. I’m posting the first section of my review here and linking to the full text in hopes of opening a channel for continuing the conversation that Harrell carries on in Writing Ourselves and that I pick up in my essay.

So, if something strikes you, even if you haven’t yet read the book, please comment below.

Here’s my opening section:

Notes Toward a Mormon Theology of the Word: A Working Response to Jack Harrell’s Writing Ourselves

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“The universe,” writer Jack Harrell claims, “is fundamentally absurd.” By nature, he argues, it’s out of tune and tends toward chaos. Enter God, an eternal personage who, by virtue of habits of being developed during an aeons-long process of development, seeks to call chaos to order, to resolve the discordant system. By Harrell’s estimation this makes God the ultimate Sense-Maker, the Source of meaning in a place that doesn’t of itself make sense. Addressing Mormonism’s “Creator-God” in an essay titled “Making Meaning as a Mormon Writer,” which is included in Harrell’s recent essay collection, Writing Ourselves, Harrell asserts that “God enters that corner” of the universe where “perilous chaos” reigns “and creates something from the raw materials there. This is what God does; this is who he is.” Then Harrell distills his claims about God-as-Creative-Being to a five word statement: “God is literally logos, meaning.” Drawn from the figure of God presented in the Johannine Gospel—”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” where Word translates the Greek term Logos—Harrell’s portrayal casts deity as the Supreme Rational Being whose creative power emerges from the significance inscribed on his being. Which is to say that meaning is in his eternal DNA. By this line of reasoning, which undergirds the main ideas Harrell pursues in Writing Ourselves, without meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated, God is naught and existence is absurd.

If God is meaning-embodied, to emulate God—as Mormons believe we’re made to do—is to privilege (above all things) meaning and the processes by which meaning is made and propagated. Harrell suggests that Mormon writers should take this work seriously, as a matter of devotion to craft and to Christ, who as the Logos is, in Harrell’s words, “language and reason itself, making communication and meaning possible.” His parallel clauses suggest that, for Harrell, language is the province of communication and reason the province of meaning. It follows from my latter statement that to make meaning as a Mormon writer I must reason as God reasons. I must look “at unorganized matter,” at the absurdity and chaos of existence, and envision ways of bringing such foolishness to order, of shaping something logical from things illogical. We do this work every time we tell stories. Whether we compose them in writing or aloud, whether we’re working writers or relating events to a friend, we have a tendency to seek meaning in and to impose meaning on the happenings, the flow, and the structure of our lives. We may take this tendency as a given aspect of our being, as a characteristic developed during premortal aeons spent in God’s presence then carried into mortality. But must this be the case? What if we aren’t born predisposed to seek or to make meaning but we grow into the tendency? What if in terms of being as such—especially on the scale of eternal existence—meaning-making and reason are corollaries to more vital work? What if making meaning isn’t God’s—and by extension our—only or even highest purpose?

Read the full review on the flipside of this link.

Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist

Amber Gilchrist is an independent writer of fiction that is unapologetically LDS and aimed at a general audience. When I set into reading her newest novel, The Librarian Shoots a Gun, it was with the intent of studying how she grounds her general readers in LDS culture–what she feels a need to explain, and how she does it without interrupting the flow of her story. Continue reading “Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist”

On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:

Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?

“Live, rather, like the lilies.”

Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.

You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.

(Cross-posted here.)

Revisiting The Reluctant Blogger

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Reluctant-Blogger-The_2x3Those of you with excellent memories or a fetish for reluctant bloggers may recall that two years ago today I posted, simultaneously here at AMV and over at MMM and at the AML blog, three takes on Ryan Rapier’s then recent novel. In writing this post, I’m intentionally not reviewing those reviews, but I suspect if you added them up and divided by three you would get a moderately negative take. And if I were to reread them now, I would probably remember all the things I complained about and I might lose my way in this remembrance of the novel.

See, for all its flaws of structure and point of view, I still think about the characters of The Reluctant Blogger all these years later. I think mostly of the protag’s father’s second marriage and of the pain the protag causes his love interest. These things—or, rather, these people are still with me. I think of them regularly.

And, in my opinion, the most important aspect of good fiction is characters who live on in the mind. It’s why Jane Eyre might be my favorite novel. Because I still think about Jane. I love Jane. She’s, like, my very good friend.

And The Reluctant Blogger also provided me with new friends.

So with that in mind, regardless of whatever I’ve said in the past, I recommend it.