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)

Theric interviews Courtney part two: know when to say when, etc.

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In part one, we discussed the women of Courtney Miller Santo’s new novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree. Today we talk a bit more about writing. One thing we will not talk about is the symbolic weight of the olive tree in her fiction. I’m not sure we should let authorial intention muddy the waters on that one. Instead, just go get the novel and write your own essay on the subject. For now thought, let’s get back to the interview.

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Theric: One thing I find surprising about the less-enamored reviews of your novel is that they seem to be mostly griping that your story is too much like real life in that sometimes the sequence of events is not clear, sometimes events that seem important to an outsider don’t seem important to the characters, sometimes—most times?—threads don’t get tied off by the final page. Did you anticipate these complaints? What sort of discussions did you have with your readers and editors about the reality problem leading up to publication?

Courtney:  The question I get asked most often at book clubs and other events is “What happened in Australia?” Which, for those of you who haven’t read the book, has to do with a trip the women in the book take. I don’t go into that trip. When I was writing, it didn’t feel like a central part of the story. Everytime I tried to write it, it seemed to me like I was writing an episode of The Brady Bunch where they all go to Hawaii.

Theric: When you introduced an upcoming trip to Australia I almost dropped the book. I looked confusedly at the sliver of pages left and asked aloud how the heck you hoped to fit that in there.

Courtney: The women in this book belonged in Kidron and although the book flashes forward in the epilogue, it was truly supposed to be about the one year in these women’s lives that changed their relationships in an unalterable way. For me, the closure came in that every woman in the book got what she most wanted, even if didn’t work out. Now, I wish I had thought more about the unanswered questions because I feel that in many ways those are interesting questions and valid ones. This book went through many readers before it made it to my editor and none of them had a problem with the perceived importance of the events or the unanswered questions, however, I wish that they had brought it up. My editor, who is amazing, did at one point ask whether there should be an Australia chapter, but I convinced her otherwise.

So, the long answer is that I didn’t anticipate those objections and I wished I had. I heard Michael Chabon speak a few years ago and he said that all of his book are about the same topic—that is, they are all about what they failed to become. I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment. Every book is a failure because the process of writing is one of translation and it is imperfect. My hope is to get better at it, and those questions have made me more conscious of plot and loose ends in the second book.

I will say, however, that Roots is supposed to be true to life and I’ll never end a book where everyone gets what they want and everyone is happy. I think most great stories leave at least one character pissed (can I say pissed?) and that’s satisfying to me.

Theric: I teach mostly argumentative writing, but the point remains: unlike, say, an equation which can be solved, writing we just make as better as we can until we’re done with it. Then it’s on to the next project. Moving on is as important as perfecting.

Courtney: I agree. It is an imperfect medium and the best we can do is put the truth as we see it clearly on the page. Of course in teaching writing to my students, many of them think it comes out perfect the first time. I spend much of our classroom time convincing them that revision can be as beautiful as putting that first word on a blank page.

Theric: That drives me bananas about students. I don’t know if I’m comforted or horrified to hear MFA candidates behave the same way.

When Mormon circles were talking about the release of your book, the novel you were most compared to was Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. Not hard to see why: you’re on record liking her book, she’s on record liking your book, you both write about generations of women. But I want to talk about another similarity.

Angela’s book is a novel-in-stories; yours could easily be described as a novel-in-novellas. Each of the five generations of women gets a turn being p-o-v. This building of story from stories is on my mind as I’ve just finished drafting a novella-in-stories, so I want to get into how you made your decisions—who goes first, for instance. Anna you put first—which I think was necessary as her existence is what makes the family remarkable—but I found her so compelling that Erin (whom I eventually liked quite a bit) was hard to get into at first. How did you work at balancing each character, to give her a compelling voice and story and raison d’être and the ability to compete with the four other women for my affections. I mean—my gosh!—way to make things harder on yourself!

Courtney: I believe deeply that the structure is as important to a novel as the content. In a truly great book, the structure echoes the content and amplifies it for the reader.

This is not to say Roots is a great book, but I did give much consideration to the structure. The first draft of the book had each of the women in order, but my teacher and mentor, Tom Russell, pointed out that I was unnecessarily restricting myself by adhering to genealogical order and chronological order. Once I started to move the sections around, I began to feel the women talking to each other in a way they hadn’t before. Because my goal was to try to reflect my own personal experience of finally connecting with my own mother once I heard my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s stories about her childhood and adolescence, I always wanted to tell this particular story from each woman’s point of view.

At the time I was reading Jonathan Ferris’s Then We Came To The End, which is written in collective first person and what I tried to do was use the various points of view of each woman to give the sense that they were individuals, but also they were a group.

Can I give a shout out to Angela? I read Bound on Earth my first year in the MFA program at Memphis and I felt like I’d been struck by lightning when I finished it. The book is exactly what I’d always hoped Mormon fiction could produce. It remains one of my favorites.

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Everyone loves Angela. How can we help ourselves! Tomorrow we’ll delve into family secrets and the growing science of immortality.

The link for part three will be live tomorrow.

On being unsure what to say

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Note for those wondering when my next Bright Angels & Familiars post will be: not until the Mormon Lit Blitz has ended. Let’s all head over now and get caught up!

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For Christmas, I gave my mother a copy of Bound on Earth and my father a copy of On the Road to Heaven (the links are to my personal reviews of those books as written when I first read them). I had intended to write inside them why I was giving them these books (I matched them carefully, book to parent), but I never got around to it, so they were simply wrapped and handed over at my brother’s house and we never even spoke about them.

Then, at the bottom of a Valentine’s Day package of keychain dogs that say I ruff you woof woof! when you squeeze them, was the still pristine copy of On the Road to Heaven with a Post-it in my mother’s handwriting telling me this book was not for them and I could have it back thanks all the same. Continue reading “On being unsure what to say”

Bright Angels & Familiars: “They Did Go Forth” by Maureen Whipple

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Like Virginia Sorensen, Maureen Whipple is one who, as Eugene England says in this volume’s dedication to them, “taught us how.” And, like Virginia Sorensen, I’ve never read her. I know her reputation—or, more accurately, I know the towering reputation of The Joshua Tree, a book many people whose taste I respect admire greatly. Of course, there was also the Mormon backlash against this nationally published novel. In the words of Emma Ray McKay, “I am so disgusted with the author of ‘The Giant Joshua’ that I can scarcely contain myself.”

With Sister McKay’s words often the first thing I think of when I think of Maureen Whipple (or Virginia Sorensen for that matter, since I often conflate them), I was expecting “They Did Go Forth” to be a fairly edgy work, pushing the boundaries. And it was through that lens that I interpreted Tildy Elizabeth’s early actions in the story. She’s trying to read the Book of Mormon while sitting with her sick—practically comatose—child. Couple that with the flashbacks of the hardships she and her faithful husband had been though at the seeming whims of Brigham Young and I found myself reading a story about how Tildy had lost her faith after feeling rejected of God; she was now and had long been oppressed by men in the faith including Brigham Young, her husband and the best available quack. Continue reading “Bright Angels & Familiars: “They Did Go Forth” by Maureen Whipple”

Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

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Angela Hallstrom just won a Whitney for the best novel by a new writer. The novel that received the award, Bound on Earth, has been the focus of much praise from many sources (here and one and two that popped up quickly on Google, here are 165-and-counting on Goodreads, here is the review from the person who lent me the book, here is my own brief review). So enough with the praise. Let’s dig a little deeper and see what this book is built from.

Bound on Earth is a novel-in-stories featuring over half a dozen points of view, ranging from pioneer times to the very present.

Several of these stories were published as standalones, and, Hallstrom tells me, several more will be.

The novel then is representative of other work its author is engaged in. Angela Hallstrom edits every other issue of Irreantum and is currently wrapping up work on a long-overdo collection of Mormon short fiction that I expect to hold in my hands sometime this fall. So arranging short stories is very much the Art of Hallstrom in 2008/2009.

Continue reading “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement”

“To Know the Names of All the Vital Things”


As I mentioned a little while ago
, my wife and I were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting yesterday. At Theric’s request (and because I decided to approach the topic of Latter-day Saints and language and discuss Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth), I’m posting a slightly revised version of my talk here.

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“To Know the Names of All the Vital Things”: On the Virtue of Words and the Word of God

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just–yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them–therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

On June 16, 1844 at a meeting assembled in the grove just east of the Nauvoo Temple, the Prophet Joseph Smith stood to deliver one of his final sermons. Wet with rain, surrounded by apostates, many of whom wanted him dead, and sustained by the saints, he spoke plainly and courageously of the Christian Godhead and “the plurality of Gods,” truths that would in part lead to his martyrdom almost two weeks later.

Yet, his message was no different than anything he’d previously taught: “I wish to declare,” he said, that “in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods.”1 Using ancient and modern scripture to support his reasoning, he took the assembly back to the beginning, showing them the unbroken chain of exalted Beings that extends, Parent to child, across the thresholds of eternity. Pointing to the relationship between Christ and Elohim as his example, he asked, “Where was there ever a son without a father? and where was there ever a father without first being a son? [“¦] [I]f Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He [Christ’s Father] had a Father also?”2 Continue reading ““To Know the Names of All the Vital Things””

Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part II: Mormon Market Books 2008

Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters.  AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008. Today — a look at the Mormon market for books. Read the other entries in the series.

Andrew Hall’s Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part II: Mormon market books

Click here to view data on the number of books published per publisher from 2000-2008.

There was a slight drop in the number of fiction books published by Mormon publishing houses in 2008, from 94 in 2007 to 86 in 2008. The dip was due largely to a decrease in the number of books published by independent publishers, such as Cedar Fort, the third largest publisher. Covenant and Deseret Book, which are now both owned by the Church, published slightly more novels in 2008 than they did in 2007. As a result, the Covenant/Deseret Book combination published 65% of the novels in the Mormon market in 2008. That is up from 56% in 2007, and around 50% in the five years before that.  I have heard from some independent publishers that Deseret Book’s bookstore division makes it difficult for them to get even standard Mormon-themed novels onto their shelves. That is a very disconcerting trend.  In any case, it is a good bet that the total number of Mormon fiction titles will go down again in 2009, because of the dip in the economic outlook. Continue reading “Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part II: Mormon Market Books 2008”