A cursive state of affairs

Three nights ago my son asked me to translate (his word) a letter he received from a customer communicating something related to my son’s home business. Was the letter in German, for which I have some crude (very crude) translating skills? French? Sometimes he does receive notes in those languages.  This time, not so. The letter was in English but composed in cursive handwriting, and my son was at something of a loss to decipher it.

I saw this day coming. When he was a child, I tried to teach him to write in cursive but he found it burdensome. The abundance of keyboards in our household eventually shouted me down. So that mysterious letter when it arrived might as well have been written in a foreign or archaic language–maybe even an argot as arcane and encrypted as the language of the birds. Continue reading “A cursive state of affairs”

Review: Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_ is a Lonely, Lovely Journey

I had planned on reading Stephen Carter’s What of the Night? on the side, as I worked to plow through other books I wanted to get through. It was a book of personal essays, so it would be easy I thought to read one or two a day, while focusing on the full length fiction on my new pile of books I wanted to read and review. About a day and a half after starting the first essay I had read the entire book in two sittings. Granted, the book is a slim one (168 pages), but the book had caught me off guard with how entrancing and poignant it truly was.

Carter’s voice is intimate–exposed. He speaks of faith and doubt and spirit and family and struggle with the disarming honesty that causes you to lay your judgmental attitudes aside and simply listen to his complex thoughts and simple heart. His tales include his time with Eugene England before he died, the disappointments and triumphs of a Mormon mission, a tutorial through clippings with his grandmother, bright Alaskan lights and dark Alaskan doubts, a black sheep brother who showed him the way, the weight of priesthood, and the liberation of the Spirit. Each essay was carefully crafted like a sonnet or a piece of excellent cinema. Ponderous, vulnerable, honest, loving, good, afraid. Many of the things we carefully sidestep, Carter plunged into and felt his way through it, even when it became painful. It’s a brave, beautiful piece of work. Personal essays aren’t my typical reading, but this particular collection had me enraptured and made me want to pick up some more of Eugene England just to get some more of that style of intimacy and quietly spoken lives.

Now I do have a beef with one of the essays, “The Departed.” I started writing it about in this review, but then realized how disproportionate my discussion about that one essay was becoming in regards to the context of the whole book. So if you’re interested in reading my comments about Richard Dutcher and Eugene England in context of What of the Night? go to this other post here.

As it is, though, I wanted this short review to highlight how truly moved I was by Carter’s work. I recommend it enthusiastically without hesitation. Those who read it will be blessed by an insightful mind, a compassionate soul, and a troubled heart.

Eugene England and Richard Dutcher in Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_

One of my favorite personal essays in Stephen Carter’s book What of the Night? is “A Brief Tour of England: My Year With Gene.” It told Carter’s perspective of that mistreated hero of Mormon literature, Eugene England, and his last days on earth. Carter was England’s assistant at UVSC (now UVU) and in the essay he paints a picture of a tireless, slightly eccentric, and loving man who pushed the cause of Mormon Letters (and Mormonism itself) with his entire will and force of character. After running into problems at BYU and being chastised by certain General Authorities, you could feel England’s broken heart when Carter recorded his words, “You don’t know what it is like to hear what I heard from men I believe have authority from God” (p. 18). Knowing England’s background and how he was forced out of BYU, it was all the more powerful then, after that experience, England stated firmly his continued commitment to the Gospel, “Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I have spent my entire life being an apologist for the Gospel, because I know it’s true”(p. 23).

However, I couldn’t help juxtaposing that beautiful essay about Eugene England with the one Carter wrote about Richard Dutcher, “The Departed.” I still really like Dutcher, and think his Mormon films are some of the best in the genre. He’s a man who I have met briefly and still very much admire. So I’m going to try hard not to judge Dutcher too harshly in my following comments, as I believe he still has a valuable voice and I believe, even after he left the Church, his legacy for Mormon Cinema and the Mormon Arts is an extremely positive one. But I have to say my peace about Carter’s approach to Dutcher’s moment in the sun in the history of Mormon Letters. Continue reading “Eugene England and Richard Dutcher in Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_”

Bright Angels & Familiars: “Born of the Water” by Wayne Jorgensen

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In his introduction to this book, Eugene England describes Joregensen’s fiction as “meticulously-crafted.” This seems like  a good spot to begin discussing “Born of the Water.”

The story is loaded. It would take us months to tap it of all its symbolic potential. It’s structure is surprisingly complicated without ever seeming at all disjointed or forced or confused. The way it connects generations and deaths and baptisms and resurrections is frankly stunning, but—as I realize I’ve just scheduled this post to go live on my father’s birthday—I think I’ll focus on the father-son relationships.

Continue reading “Bright Angels & Familiars: “Born of the Water” by Wayne Jorgensen”

Bright Angels & Familiars: “Hit the Frolicking, Rippling Brooks” by Karen Rosenbaum

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I must admit I would find it difficult to talk badly about this story if it deserved it (it doesn’t) as Karen is a friend of mine and, arguably, a large part of the reason life has resulted in me doing story-by-story reviews of a two-decade-old Mormon-short-story collection.

After graduating from BYU I joined the AML-List and took a menial job. With my brain untaxed at work, I aimed my thinking at the AML-List. Which ignored me. Sometimes the email I rewrote three times couldn’t get past the moderators because the day’s volume had already been capped off with a pair of three-sentence witticisms from Richard Dutcher; but I kept trying to get attention, jumping and waving my arms from the back of the room.

Anyway, fastforward a couple years and Karen Rosenbaum, then fiction editor at Dialogue, picked up my short story “The Widower,” and edited it to a new level of excellence. This was an important learning experience for me; plus, it let me feel that maybe the world of Mormon letters had a place for me after all.

Continue reading “Bright Angels & Familiars: “Hit the Frolicking, Rippling Brooks” by Karen Rosenbaum”

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”

Bright Angels & Familiars

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I recently was given a copy of Bright Angels & Familiars, a short-fiction collection edited by Eugene England (Signature Books, 1992). I rather wish someone had given me this book in high school. Who knows? Maybe I would have read it and who knows where I would be now!

Fascinatingly, this volume was published seven (seven!) years before his famous essay “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!” which decried two recent books of short fiction, one from Signature (1998), one from Deseret Book (1994), that, in his opinion, were more about spreading (im)piety than being good, ethetical and esthetical fiction. Oh, how disappointed he was in this turn in our letters.

For me, as the publisher of collections that, in my opinion, are of high ethical and esthetical value (The Fob Bible, Out of the Mount, Fire in the Pasture, Monsters & Mormons), I’m reading England’s collection with the desire to learn from our history —  a history I am, alas, much too ignorant of. I’ve enjoyed England’s introduction and have read the first story (by none other than Virginia Sorensen). This post serves as an announcement that I will be blogging my reading of Bright Angels & Familiars here at AMV, one story at a time. The posts will be short and I have decided to avoid requiring myself to discuss any particular aspect of the tales (eg, their Mormonness, their ethics, what they teach about the history of MoLit, etc); instead I wish to respond honestly and see where this reading takes me.

Expect my first post, on Sorensen’s story, soon. Then they will appear irregularly as I fit stories into my rather hectic reading schedule.

See you soon.

ps: follow along at home — Signature has kindly made this volume available online