Finding the Funny in Mormon Literature: Benediction by Neal Chandler

In Eugene Woodbury’s essay, , and in William’s last post they both talk about the importance of comedy.  I agree with what they are saying but I am also sometimes disheartened at the selection of comedy available.  There isn’t much out there, and what is isn’t actually comedy, it’s just silliness.  However, one book, Benediction by Neal Chandler is Mormon comedy at its best.

Benediction is a collection of loosely related short stories that poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of Mormon culture. Set in a ward that could be your own, the comedy is built on the incongruities of pyramid-scheme-selling Relief Society sisters, Rocky preaching Sunday school teachers, parents with so many small children they have to head out to the garage to get some intimate time, and hapless single adults who  find themselves feeling like the teenagers they so obviously aren’t.

Originally published in 1989, with many of the stories having previously appeared in Dialogue,  Benediction is still funny–and relevant–twenty years later. That this book is apparently out of print is a shame. (Don’t worry. You can ILL it or buy it used on Amazon.)  More than just slapstick and oneliners, which seem to be the purview of  so many Mormon comedic films,  Benediction is full of tightly knit witticisms that draw the reader closer and closer to the eccentric–and endearing–essence of Mormonism (which, of course, has nothing to do with the actual Church).  Even the cover art makes you want to giggle. While there were a few moments where I wondered if  the author was laughing at Mormons instead of with Mormons, I found myself wishing I was reading it aloud with others so we could all laugh together.

The Most Important Writing We Do

I always get a little more introspective around the New Year.  (I know it took me a few weeks to get this posted here, but,  hey, it’s still January.)  Lately I’ve been asking myself, “Laura” –yes, I do talk to myself and, sometimes, address myself–“Laura, what books have impacted you the most in your life? What books ended up being the most important?”

My answers surprised me.

Besides the Book of Mormon and other scriptures (which I’ve been imbibing my entire life), I would have to say the first books to really impact me were the ones I read when I was in middle school.  Someone introduced me to Madeleine L’Engle and I was hooked. I read everything she wrote.  Even her memoir about marriage (It was entitled Two Part Invention. I still think that is such a great metaphor.).  Even her journals–especially her journals.  On bad days I still pick up my worn copy of A Circle of Quiet, which I stole–really!– from my sister, and search for comforting passages. I’ve actually been known to sleep with it. As if it were my teddy bear. (We’ve already covered the fact that I’m a little strange, right?) Continue reading “The Most Important Writing We Do”

My 2008 Literature Wish List

January of 2008 found my writing in limbo. I was waiting to hear from an editor about a manuscript. Without my book to focus on my brain didn’t know how to occupy itself anymore. I found myself aimlessly surfing the internet for loooong periods of time. I was cranky and dissatisfied. What was I going to do (you know, besides the piles of laundry and dishes and taking care of my kids)?

Like any good product of the YWs Personal Progress program *wink*, I set a goal. To be specific, I set a goal to read one book a week for the entire year. It seemed like a lot to me at the time. (I got schooled by Th. who has read twice as many and I’ve heard authors/writers like Tristi Pinkston read hundreds of books a year.)  I was pretty jazzed about my goal but I quickly realized that my previous reading habits (which included lots of historical nonfiction, regular nonfiction, and “literary” novels) would kill it. Those books are too hard/engrossing for me to read in a single week. I tend to let books tell me how to read them and most of those kinds of books want to be read slowly. Continue reading “My 2008 Literature Wish List”

Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord

Sally DeFord is one of the most prolific modern LDS composers and arrangers. Her work has been featured in Church magazines seven times and she has received 33 Church music awards for her compositions and arrangements. Seriously, search for her name on–there are eighteen hits. Her song, “If the Savior Stood Beside Me“ was used in the 2008 Primary program and was performed in the General Young Women’s broadcast in 2007. Oh, and she also gives away her music for free. That’s right. You heard me. FREE. (That noise you’re hearing, that’s ward and stake choir directors everywhere cheering.) Read on to find out why.

Continue reading “Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord”

Why Mormon Arts Matter

Every once in a while I find myself succumbing to doubt. I find myself wondering, does it really matter? Does all this chatter about Mormons in books and Mormons writing books and Mormons in art and creating art really matter?

If any of you have the same question, well, the answer (besides being 42) is an enthusiastic yes. Here’s why:

My family of origin has always been big on impassioned discussions–especially my father.  Just after his mission he majored in Literature at the Y, got married, had a bunch of kids, and then went on to get his PhD in something that would support his family (business, computers, stuff I don’t understand).  But being an English major at heart meant he could never walk away from discussing ideas. It was a gift he has given to all of us kids. The election of 2008, combined with email, blogs, texting, RSS feeds, and hyperlinks, has taken our family passion to new heights. Issue of choice these days: Prop 8 and the question of bigotry in the Church.  This has been an especially intense discussion for my brother, all the more so since he has come across some disturbing things (ah! the wonders of the Internet!)–one of which happens to be the Journal of Discourses. For awhile he figured he couldn’t go to Church any more. What were we, his loving family members, to do?

Others turned to prayer, but I immediately *wink* turned to a recent issue of Irreantum–the one that has a play about a RM who is contemplating leaving the Church because of what he read in the Journal of Discourses.  For me, the things my brother came across in the Journal of Discourses were not spiritually dangerous or even too troubling. I could talk with him about it and try to see his point of view because I had already encountered this problem vicariously through literature. And, I think, because of my study of LDS literature I aided him in navigating his crisis.

A similar thing happened when my sister came across some lesser known facts about Joseph Smith and polygamy and Violet Kimball.  She was pretty upset, but I was not because I had already encountered and fended off  that beast through literature (both Virginia Sorenson’s more libidinous telling and OSC’s more faithful telling.)

So why does all this blogging and writing (and painting and sculpting and composing) matter?  Because it helps me understand my oh-so-Mormon-place in this not-so-Mormon-world and it gives me opportunities to grapple with the weightier matters of my faith when the risks are low. I get the chance to consider the issues without throwing out the testimonial baby with the quasi-intellectual bathwater.  A careful study of literature helps me cultivate sophisticated ways of thinking (and feeling) about living a life of faith and, ultimately,  strengthens my resolve to do so.

Of course all this begs the question, why do Mormon arts matter to you? How does a study of Mormon literature (and the rest) interact with your faith? Has it strengthened it or strained it?

If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?

Thanks to the recent mention of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the last conference I pulled out my old script. See, I got to play in Emily in our high school’s production and it was a transformative experience for me. When I first read the script I was blown away by Wilder’s wisdom, especially in those last moments between George and Emily in the graveyard. Being the dramatic teenager that I was, I read Emily’s last sentence over and over. After the other dead admonish George for his emotional display at Emily’s tombstone, Emily looks at George and says, “They don’t–understand–do they?” As I rolled the words around in my mind I thought about forever families and how George and Emily could eventually be together forever and I knew, I knew, that Wilder knew–or at least guessed– it too. Why else would he have Emily admonish the dead for the flippant way they treated George’s emotions?

It wasn’t until one particularly difficult rehearsal near the opening of the show that my director told me my interpretation was wrong. Emily was saying George didn’t understand. When you consider her earlier monologue with the line, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” her comment about “they” failing to understand was obviously geared at the humans. I privately decided my reading was better  and stuck to it, but I realized for the first time that I had “Mormon-ed” a book. Continue reading “If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?”

Kindred Spirits by Chris Bigelow– a review

Zarahemla Books is one of the most interesting publishing ventures LDS literature has seen in a long time. According to its website, Zarahemla Books seeks to “publish provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity.” That’s a lofty–and complicated–goal that has produced some pretty complicated books.

I’ve only read three of the seven titles released by Zarahemla books–I just started a fourth title–and I have been impressed by the variety of styles, voices, and genres. Each book is unique and has a lot of heart. I suspect this is due largely to Chris Bigelow and his passion for literary creativity. I plan on reading the rest of the titles offered by Zarahemla, but my most recent read, Bigelow’s own Kindred Spirits, was pretty troubling.

Kindred Spirits is ostensibly a love story between Eliza, a Utah Mormon “expatriate” living in Boston, and Eric, a nonmember with more marital baggage than any polygamist could imagine. However, for me, this book felt much more like a train wreck than a love story. Continue reading “Kindred Spirits by Chris Bigelow– a review”

Silver linings, hurricanes, and umbrellas–a question

In writing a recent book review on my other blog a question occurred to me that I wanted to bring up here. Why is it that so many LDS books seem to focus on the silver lining and gloss over the storm cloud?

I often feel that LDS books–especially memoirs and biographies–would benefit from a little more time in the rumblings of the rain cloud. It makes me wonder, what is it about us that makes us so intent on playing Pollyanna? It seems like we lose some of the truth of our experiences when we refuse to talk about problems in the present tense. When we only admit our foibles after we’ve overcome them and they are instructive to us, we lose the benefits of the process. Without the process what felt like Truth to the writer degrades into mere truisms for the reader.

Of course, there are a few LDS books that spend too much time in the muck of things–The Backslider, even though I appreciated it as an artistic piece, felt that way to me. It is as if as Latter-day Saints we can only write in binary oppositions. I don’t think “there must be opposition in all things” necessarily means only black and white.

So, my question to you all, what books have you found that live in that magical spot between lost in the hurricane and refusing to admit it’s raining even while holding the umbrella? I could use some recommendations!

Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?

Here’s how it all went down:

I had just graduated with a bachelor’s in English from USU and was pregnant with my first baby. I wasn’t going to be “one of those women” who just lets her education go for home and hearth (whatever that means! Thank you liberal/feminist education!) so I joined the ward book club and suggested a truly literary work, Virginia Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels. I had come across it on an online course reading list from BYU. It was a little risky since I hadn’t read it, but, hey, you can trust those BYU professors, right?

Continue reading “Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?”

The Mother and Writing: an interview with Angela Hallstrom and Darlene Young

Since the Spring of 2004 Segullah, a literary journal for LDS women, has been inspiring creativity and candid conversations in LDS circles. Kathryn Lynard Soper, the founder and heart and soul of Segullah, has successfully guided the journal through its beginning years and made it a major influence in the world of Mormon letters. She has found a number of talented writers to contribute–two of whom, Darlene Young and Angela Hallstrom, agreed to tell us more about Segullah’s new book, The Mother in Me, and about Segullah in general.

Darlene, tell me about the new book from Segullah. What was the inspiration for The Mother in Me? How does this book differ from other anthologies aimed at mothers?

DY: Young motherhood is hard–physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining like no other work can be. Priesthood leaders see our struggle and, with all good intention, try to help us by telling us stories about their own angel mothers and wives. “See?” they seem to be saying, “What you do does not go unnoticed! We honor you for it.” But, sometimes, the real effect that their stories have on us is to make us even more unhappy, because there is nothing like motherhood for revealing one’s weaknesses to oneself. Continue reading “The Mother and Writing: an interview with Angela Hallstrom and Darlene Young”