Book Reviews on the Internet: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Recently, a discussion cropped up in the comments section on a book review posted on another blog. The commenter noted that both the person reviewing the book, along with the other commenters, were generally heaping praise on the book while doing little to review its faults. This commenter disagreed with the reviewer’s take on the book, but felt pressure to not say anything because the tenor of the discussion had been mostly positive. This commenter also noted feeling like there was pressure within the Mormon literature community for authors to be soft on each other and to avoid giving fully critical reviews. Although this question of the validity and purpose of critique within the relatively small and somewhat insular world of Mormon letters is as a good one, the discussion cycled back to the question of book reviews: why do we write them and who do we write them for? Continue Reading →

Teaching Mormon Literature to Non-Mormon Students

As I type I am sitting in the Salt Lake Airport waiting for a flight that will take me first to Denver and then to Dayton, where my decade-old Honda is waiting to take me home. It’s Sunday, but there will be no church for me today. My total travel time is something like twelve hours, although with all the time changes its seems much longer on paper. At any rate, I probably won’t pull into my driveway until 1:30 in the morning,* three hours and ten minutes before I’ll need to get up to teach my 5:30 Early Morning Seminary class and my 9:00 literature class. Considering the amount of sleep I’ll be getting, I don’t expect the lesson for either class to be fantastic. I’m a morning person, but even I have my limits.**

I’ve been in Utah for the annual AML conference. It was my first experience with the conference, and I enjoyed presenting and meeting and talking with people who before had only been names on a computer screen to me. I also enjoyed being able to speak the language of Mormonism at a professional conference without having to act as a Urim and Thummim for my audience, which is what I usually end up doing at conferences when I present on Mormon literature. So, it was nice—even liberating—not having to explain everything.

But now I’m heading back to Ohio, a place where the language of Mormonism is not well understood—let alone spoken—by anyone outside the Church. There we don’t have Missionary Malls with giant missionary-shaped balloons gyrating over them. We don’t have Deseret Bookstores or Pioneer Day or billboards advertising LDSAgents.com. Heck, we don’t even have that many meetinghouses in the area to alert the average Joe or Jane to our presence. Mormonism and its culture just aren’t a big part of the Ohio landscape—even with the Kirtland Temple tucked away somewhere near Cleveland.

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History as Fiction, Fiction as History

A few weeks ago, A Motley Vision provided a quote from an 1897 publication by Junius Wells in which he discusses the idea of books as ‘companions’ and urges his readers to reconsider the type of company they keep when they read. Wells makes a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and privileges scriptural and factual based writing over ‘lighter fare’, noting that ‘the staff of intellectual life is fact.’ While it is easy to dismiss the words of Wells as old-fashioned and to assume that we have advanced culturally beyond our fear of fiction, I have sometimes run into a subset of Mormon readers who still fear fiction. They prefer to read nonfiction, preferably the devotional type written by a proven authority figure and published by an official press, but they may occasionally indulge in some inspirational fiction or perhaps some historical fiction that retells familiar events in a way that allows them to learn something and still ring ‘true’. Continue Reading →

Nickel Basins and the Mormon Experience

One of my majors as an undergraduate (yes, it was one that I actually completed and got a diploma in) was Spanish Translation. I thought it would be a great way to find a practical use for the second language I picked up on mission, but it turns out that I enjoyed the theoretical aspects of language much more than the skills I would need to actually make money as a translator and I went to grad school instead of doing anything useful with my degree. I still remember a paradigm-shifting moment in one class when my professor gave an example to illustrate the difference between denotation and connotation. He pointed out that if you were to have an American draw a picture of ‘bread’ on the chalkboard, he would most likely draw the sort of rectangular loaf with a rounded top that is so ubiquitous in American kitchens. If you were to ask a Spaniard to draw bread, or pan on the board, they would most likely draw a long, tapered loaf of the sort of crusty bread that you pick up at the panadería on your way home for lunch each day. Despite the fact that the sentences “I went to the store and bought bread” and “Fui al mercado y compré pan” are functionally equivalent, you could argue that they still create completely different meanings for their readers. Thus we have what Jose Ortega y Gasset famously called “The misery and the splendor of translation.”

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Bound on Earth and Other Gateway Drugs

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon that was being held in conjunction with a literary symposium. The luncheon was offered as a chance to get to meet a visiting author, so even though I did not know the people I was sharing a table with, I did know that they were serious bibliophiles because they had paid a fair amount of money for soup, salad, and a brief chat with a literary superstar (lunch was quite delicious and even our brief chat was absolutely delightful). Naturally the conversation turned to books, and at some point I saw one of my tablemates wrinkle her nose and exclaim “Oh no, I never read Mormon books.” Someone else concurred, laughing, “yeah, we have two rules for our book group: no one can get offended and no Mormon books.” I’ve seen the wrinkled nose and heard those sentiments before and I’m usually quick to jump into the conversation in order to offer suggestions and disabuse people of their prejudices. I know a large number of people (primarily women) who are serious readers, and yet who would not touch a book by a Mormon author with a ten-foot pole. Why is this? Continue Reading →

Eli and the Morning Monster

This is Eli. Do not be fooled by his clean-cut appearance. He is five years old. He is my nephew. His favorite toy is his mouth and he runs with it nearly non-stop. Unless, of course, it is 7 am and time to get up for kindergarten. Then his jaw cannot move, nor his legs, nor his arms, and certainly not his eyelids. He is comatose. Continue Reading →

Signs

In college, there was a patch of lawn on campus surrounded by signs insisting the students keep off the grass. While walking to class one day with a friend of mine (majoring in accounting), he veered to the left, obeying the sign’s declaration of dominion. I went straight–through the grass. He stopped in a moment of uncertainty. We were late for class. The grass would cut out several minutes of walking time. And I showed not the slightest inclination of choosing his direction over mine.

With a grumbling sort of growl, he gave into peer pressure Continue Reading →

Now That I’m Going to Teach Creative Writing….

In June, I wrote a post called “If I ever teach creative writing…

Through a strange and fortunate twist of fate, I find myself in exactly that position this fall. So now I’m in the process of trying to use my syllabus as a sort of Dreamcatcher that transforms my deep, semi-conscious feelings about writing into actual lesson plans. With you permission (which you will grant by clicking the “Continue reading” link), I’d like to bounce my current ideas off you and get feedback. If you write, does this sound like a class you’d want to take? If you’ve taught before, does this sound like a class I can pull off? Continue Reading →

In Tents # 4 The S(k)in of Blackness

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.
–Isaiah 54:2

On one of Bob Newhart’s albums (The Button Down Mind Strikes Back?) Bob has a routine where he’s talking on the phone, repeating back what the person on the other end says. “Oh, Reform Jews aren’t real Jews?”

I thought about this recently when I came across a Salon article called, “Meet the Man Who Changed Glenn Beck’s Life,” which mentioned the Reform Mormon movement.

Reading further I thought, “Reform Mormons aren’t real Mormons,” and looking at The Book of Michael, I kept thinking, “this really doesn’t match up with even the least revelation in The Book of Commandments” (See D&C 67:6-7).

Thus my arrogance gave me an unsettling glimpse of how other Christians view Mormons, how Jews and Samaritans viewed each other, how Nephites viewed Lamanites, and how the Lamanites viewed themselves and the Nephites.
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The Writer’s Desk: What if I Don’t Like it?

Last month my latest play, Brothers, ran for three weeks at the Brinton Black Box Theater in the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Utah. It went pretty well–only one sell-out crowd of twelve performances (which isn’t really as impressive as it sounds since the theater sells out at sixty)–but most importantly to me was that the show was an artistic success. At least, as far as I’m concerned, it was. Elwon and Dave worked hard to grasp the subtleties in the roles. Along with them and Paige–my itinerant stage manager–staff at the Covey Center helped me create just the right atmosphere for the play’s premier production.

The brothers in question here are Lucifer and Jehovah, though, nowhere in the script do those names appear. Like its predecessor, Stones, the identity of the characters is pretty obvious from the dialogue, or becomes pretty obvious as the situations unfold. There were two reasons for leaving the names out.  One: The names carry weight. Pretty much anyone who hears those names has preconceived notions about the people who wear them and how they should be worn. Continue Reading →

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