Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. Continue reading “Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene”

Review: With a Title Like _Monsters & Mormons_, How Could You Not Have Fun?, Part One

It’s taking me a while to get through  Monsters & Mormons, not because it’s not super enjoyable (because it is!), but because it’s a pretty long book (which, to me, is no flaw. The upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology For Mormon Drama which I edited for Zarahemla Books is a behemoth as well). Also when I finish a short story, I feel a temporary sense of completeness, so the book doesn’t always draw me back like a novel does because I’m not left “hanging” so to speak. So I’ve decided to break up my review of Monsters and Mormons over a few different reviews so I can write while the stories are still somewhat fresh in my mind. It will also allow me to address the short stories more individually instead of as a blurred whole.

First, my overall impression of Monsters & Mormons: it’s a winner. A big winner. As some one who has lived in imaginative waters since he was a child and hasn’t been afraid to invite his religion to play in those waters with him, I totally dig projects like this. Now, I’ve never been much of a horror fan, especially when it leads to copious amounts of blood and gore. I mean, like, yuck. Not my thing. However, I do love ghost stories and supernatural monsters (I keep wanting to read some H.P. Lovecraft), and, if it doesn’t lead to too much gruesomeness, I can definitely enjoy stories like this. This is definitely not something I would suggest to some of my less adventurous or conservative thinking family and friends, but it’s something I would suggest to the imaginative Mormon who doesn’t mind mixing fantasy and religion (and I know a number of non-Mormons who would get a kick out of it!) . So let’s get to the individual stories in the first part of the collection:

Continue reading “Review: With a Title Like _Monsters & Mormons_, How Could You Not Have Fun?, Part One”

The Year of the Boar by Anneke Majors (a review)

51CdUcbb1eL._SL500_AA266_PIkin3,BottomRight,-16,34_AA300_SH20_OU01_ “My lifetime is shorter than my literary ambitions” writes Anneke Majors in the forward* to her new book, The Year of the Boar. She continues, “Many of the stories came to me in a much more barebones form than you see here. . . But I stand by these stories as true stories because the characters are true. Everything that actually matter is real.”

And so begins The Year of the Boar, a lovely and comforting offering in the genre-blending “autobiographical novel” style of Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven.

Primarily a missionary tale that follows the author’s own mission in Japan, this novel-in-stories swirls in and out of time–even jumping to the future in a final section– but finds its anchor in the Chinese Zodiac and the soulful Sister Majors, who seems to be the very embodiment of the traits of the zodiac Boar. She is diligent (when it comes to persevering through bad weather she beats the US Postal service) and compassionate (when stuck with a negative companion she tries to love that companion by always finding positives and doing the emotional lifting). She is extremely likable and everything a sister missionary should be.

However, the story seems to shine most in the small moments of transitory characters. My personal favorite was Tetsuo, a man who survived World War II in Japan, helped translate the democratic constitution and later serves a public servant. Tetsuo’s defining moment comes when he finds a crucifix (“the European god nailed to the character for ten like they always depicted him”) in a bombed out Christian church. Majors writes,

“[Tetsuo] thought for a moment about taking it home, showing it to his mother, keeping it as a curio. But as he went to slip it into his sack, he felt a pang of guilt. It wasn’t his to keep, and it should be with someone who would know how to take better care of their god than he. The statue’s face was pitiful, contorted with pain. For so long he had resented this big European church up on the hill, staring down at them all like it deserved to be above them. He had had no regard for the Europeans or their little god, but now, holding it in his hands that way, it looked so frail. He hesitated, wanting to make the right choice. But was leaving it on the ground in the rubble the right choice either? He decided to hold onto it, but only for safekeeping. He would come back when there was someone back to rebuild or take care of the church in some way, and he would return their god to his house, hopefully a house that would be strong and beautiful again.”

Moments like this one, small moments where the characters must negotiate between the ever-shifting political and spiritual forces around them, are what give this book its heart.

Occasionally, the book stumbles. Some characters appear and are lost too quickly in the revolutions of the zodiac calendar, making their backstories hard to hold on to (although a family tree would have been helpful in alleviating some of that). Other times bits of Mormon phraseology creep in where they shouldn’t (at one point a Baptist minister offers to pray over a man’s dying wife and asks, “would you like me to be the voice” in a way that seems a bit too home-teachery). Sisters Majors tends to think in run-on sentences that often take up paragraphs at a time and give the book a rushed feeling. There are even odd moments of over-explaining, like when a fictional Chinese stake is being formed in 2013 and the author stops to explain what a stake means to Mormons.

But overall the book is ambitious and heartfelt. Sister Majors’ love for Asian cultures and peoples, her love for the gospel, and her own personal optimism make The Year of the Boar an enjoyable read. Full of interesting historical tidbits about Japan and China, and small period vignettes in Texas and France and even Algeria, this is an ideal book for book clubs and summer reading. It is, as the author insists, very real. And very good.

*This is the first book review I have written after reading the work on my Kindle. Since there are no page numbers and the “high-light location” numbers are not reliable I have zero idea how to cite quotations. The best source I could find for how to cite a Kindle ebook was this website which said to reference sections. I’m still figuring out how to figure out what section things are in. So for more details about the quotations and references above you’ll just have to read the book yourself!

James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three

Photo bt Vilo Elisabeth Westwood
Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

Unlike many, I do not believe a text can truly be divorced from its author. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but the more I find out about an author, the more I am fascinated and enlightened by the text. So it’s difficult for me to address a work, when I have met the author, not to bring my experiences with, or knowledge of, the author to the text. So, first, I’ll talk about the author James Goldberg, as well as his relation to New Play Project. Then I’ll address his beautiful, award-winning play, “Prodigal Son.”

JAMES GOLDBERG AND THE COMMUNAL NARRATIVE

Now I wouldn’t call James Goldberg my best friend, although we are friends, and I certainly would love to be even friendlier. Yet there seems to have even been awkward tension during a few moments. We’ve seriously disagreed a couple of occasions. And I could tell that I annoyed him on at least a dozen occurrences..

However, I do think the world of him. And I think he is one of the best and unique writers Mormonism has. We should value him and the wealth of multiculturalism he brings to his Mormon faith and writing.  It’s interesting, the more and more I find truth in other religions, the more and more I believe in Mormonism. Comparing religions and cultures highlights the Gospel tinged truths whispered into the ears of every culture. And I get the sense from James that he believes the same thing.

James Goldberg comes from Jewish and Sikh heritages, while also happening to be a card carrying Mormon. When you talk to him, he isn’t shy about his diverse background and proudly celebrates his cultural past and freely intermingles it with his cultural present, not really distinguishing them. Because he shouldn’t distinguish them. Because Mormonism embraces all truth.  That is, if we should trust Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be adequate spokesmen for Mormonism.

This idea of intermingling one’s diverse cultural and even religious identities is wonderfully evident in a good deal of Goldberg’s work, perhaps no where I have it seen so clearly so as in his fascinating and moving “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenburgh.” In Mormon Artist’s first Contest Issue Goldberg mentions in an interview about the story , something that struck me:

Because the stories I was writing were so short, I didn’t have time to explain all the culture in them: the Jewish holidays that were thematically connected, the immigrant groups in each story. I figured in the age of Google, smart people could look up the stuff they didn’t get and discover the extra layers in the story, like mining for gems. Understandably, many of my class members didn’t take the time to look stuff up. What surprised me, though, was that the same people who hadn’t invested their time in the story were telling me to simplify it, to explain it more in terms they could understand. Some said they felt like I wasn’t including them because I wasn’t writing in their culture and explaining anything that came from anywhere else. And I thought, these stories wouldn’t be as beautiful if I explained them. And the best readers would get less out of them.

I also thought, I have unique stories to tell because of my own life heritage. Why should I only tell stories you can already fully understand? Isn’t one purpose of fiction to expand the reader? Continue reading “James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three”

Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience

Note: This started as an entry for my personal/book blog, which focuses primarily (so far) on No Going Back and its reception. However, I quickly realized that what I was writing was taking a far more theoretical/literary direction. So I decided to cross-post it here, with apologies if needed, on the theory that I’d love to get some response to the question I’m trying to ask about how to write Mormon literature for non-Mormon audiences. So have at it!

It’s always interesting seeing what non-Mormon readers of No Going Back have to say about the book. For one thing, it includes an awful lot of Mormon detail. Since I never imagined that it might have a large non-Mormon audience, I didn’t go to any trouble to explain that detail. No real accommodations for any readers who don’t happen to be Mormon.

Continue reading “Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience”

Interview with Shannon Hale: The Actor and the Housewife, Pt. Two

Part One may be found here.

Both Austenland and A & H tackle romantic fantasies and the nature of romantic comedies, their “grotesque mimicry of actual love (A & H 304).”  And when Becky tries to decide whether or not she could actually love Felix romantically, she writes a screenplay with a movie ending.  But the novel’s conclusion isn’t a “Hollywood ending.”  Did you feel that writing it the way you did was risky?

Oh sure. I knew some readers would be angry, and I was sorry for that, because I knew absolutely that the ending was the right one for this story. I think it goes back to genre–those who expected a certain ending might not be willing to go with me where I wanted to take the story. And this story just might not be a good fit for their sensibilities. That’s okay. I knew (was told) that the book would sell better if I made the Hollywood ending work, but for me that would have made the story pointless and been sheer betrayal of the characters. I try to do right by the characters. Continue reading “Interview with Shannon Hale: The Actor and the Housewife, Pt. Two”

The Last 20 Years in Mormon Lit: Major Developments

What are some of the major developments in Mormon literature over the past 20 years? Being under the painfully pleasant necessity of writing a short article (500-1000 words) during the next week on Mormon literature for a forthcoming reference work, this is something I’ve had occasion to ponder. I have an excellent source for up to about 1990 with the articles that were written for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, but there’s an awful lot that has happened since then.