Monday, May 12, 2008

Mormon Literature Roundup

In my effort to read one a book a week this year I've been using the Inter-Library Loan desk a lot. I cannot say enough good things about the ILL program. If you people don't know how to use or aren't using it, you are missing out! It has been especially handy lately as I've been on a Mormon book binge. Here's the roundup of my latest reads:

Book #17--The Backslider by Levi Peterson. This is single-handedly the most male (or should I say phallic?) book I have ever read. It was all about brawls, hunting, drinking, the male sex drive, and, oh yeah, the Church. It covered every touchy Church subject from polygamy to inter-faith marriage to birth control to 'jack' mormons (does anyone know the polite term for that?; I hate using 'jack', but the concept is different than a "less-active" or "inactive" member. . .). I believe it was published in the 80's and maybe part of the author's goal was to break down some barriers and talk about things LDS church members don't usually discuss, which I appreciated. (For reviews read here.) I'm not sure, though if I would recommend this book. I know a lot of my LDS friends would be offended/shocked by it. And, because the main character spends most of the book misunderstanding our theology and relationship with God, I would hesitate to recommend it to any non-LDS readers. That said, I think I liked it. There were so many golden moments in the prose; I just had to stop and read them over and over. The characters were strange (especially Alice--who is a man who castrates himself on a hunting trip), but real. The vision at the end of the book about the Cowboy Jesus was tantalizing (the fact that the vision occurred in a urinal, I'm not so sure about. . .) I don't know. Maybe Peterson is sort of the Dostoevski of LDS lit. The book is dark and full of guilt and sadness, but the redemption is nice and, perhaps, justifies the journey.
If any of you readers have some insight about this book, please comment on it! I wish I read this in school so I could talk about it with people.

Book #18--The Pictograph Murders by Patricia Karamesines (who would be my mentor if only I lived close enough to really pester her. As is, I just have to wait breathlessly for her to post on AMV or Times and Seasons or BCC). I LOVED this book. I wasn't sure about it at first because the main character did not seem very likable. I don't know what it was about Alex that bothered me, but I just didn't get her vibe. Of course, as I read more I think that was intentional. Alex's character unfolds and reveals itself not only to the reader but also to Alex. This, in the end, made her a relatable character. The novel is a murder mystery, but really it's more. The reader has no doubt about the "whodunnit" question. It's the why's and the what if's of the book that really get you. My favorite aspect of the novel, the thing that won me over, was how Karamesines interwove Native American coyote myths with the story. It gave the book a Madeleine L'Engle feel (who would also be my mentor, if she wasn't dead. As is, I just have to reread her books and published memoirs all the time). This is a book I would recommend. In fact, I'm doing so now: Read it, people! Read it!

Book #19--Hooligan by Douglas Thayer. Um, this was another male book (although not so phallic). I really didn't get it. I read Thayer's Under the Cottonwoods and other stories a few years back and appreciated it. But his memoirs, not so much. Maybe it's because I'm the mommy of little baby boy, but I found a lot of the stories horrifying. I can't believe Thayer and his friends would trick other boys into climbing into underground tunnels and then try to collapse the tunnel on top of them. I can't believe they killed SO MANY birds, rabbits, and other small animals all the time. I can't believe those boys gathered piles and piles of cardboard to build cities out of and then set them on fire for fun. However, the most horrifying story to me was that if they were mad at someone they would tie the boy to the tree, light a fire at his feet, and then pee on it so the tied-up one would have to smell the horrible fumes and get splattered by hot urine. ICK! Where were their mothers?!? (At home ironing and washing dishes and scrubbing floors and working to make ends meet during the Depression . . . all right, fine, I won't blame it on their mothers.) All I can say is, if these are a boy's natural inclinations I can see why the Boy Scout Program is a must.

Book #20--Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell. This might actually be my favorite Mormon book to date. Barry Monroe, the protagonist, had such a distinct narrative voice and the way he interacted with LDS theology was so on track with how I experience it that I felt like I had (sort of, since Barry is a guy and a missionary) found myself. Funny thing about it: it turns into a romance novel at the end. Normally I hate romance, but it caught me so off guard I found myself rooting for the characters and really hoping they'd end up together. If a book can make me do that, it must be doing something right! I'd recommend you all go out and buy it right now except that it's out of print! So, hey, go ILL it!

Book #21--Salvador by Margaret Blair Young. I wasn't such a fan of this one, but then I read this review and came to appreciate it a little more. I guess I'm just not sure of the why behind this book. The book revolves around a young woman, named Julie, who is waiting for her divorce to be finalized and ends up traveling to El Salvador with her parents. In that idyllic setting Julie discovers which parts of her faith are misplaced and which parts are not. Maybe my problem with it is that it never got to the heart of our religion (and by extension, our culture), which is our relationship with our Savior. Plenty of the characters claimed revelation and witnesses from the Holy Ghost, but it seemed like they were all doing it as spiritual manipulation for their own gain. And Julie never had a spiritual "aha moment." She had an intellectual and emotional one, but she never reconciles herself to God. Which I'm actually okay with. I know that life and our spirituality aren't an after-school special with clear endings. Spirituality is a messy journey. I just needed the author to comment on the mess of it all. To paraphrase Simon from American Idol (forgive me, but he used an apt metaphor) this book was like ordering a hamburger and only getting the bun and condiments.

So, if you are still reading this incredibly long post, please comment and let me know what LDS books you like and what you think of any of the ones I've mentioned!


Kelly said...

Having only read Hooligan, let me say it is like sitting aroung a family reuinion with my dad, uncles, and his cousins now that they are in their 60s and almost 70s listening to them reminisce about their childhoods. There is no rhyme or reason to the stories or the order in which they are told. It's simply what pops into their heads at the time or strikes them as a funny story that needs to be told. And yes they roamed the neighborhood and tested their manhood by throwing rocks at a greenhouse a block away, shot bullets at the brick wall on the side of their house using nothing but a hammer to strike the bullet, built a levitation machine using nothing but a board balanced on a rock (let some unsuspecting younger boy find out why it's called a levitation machine), etc. Lots of what my father-in-law calls memorababblia, not so much of a moral or purpose to the story.

Heathie said...

I haven't read any of those books, but they sound pretty good. I'm going to be reading a book called "The Peacegiver" by James L. Ferrell; it's not so much a story book, more like an inspirational book. I've been meaning to read it for a while, and I think today seems like a good day to start!

Laura said...

Kelly--I love the memorababblia! That is too funny!

Heather--I really enjoyed the peacegiver and I hope you do get the chance to read it soon. I didn't like it so much as a book, but I liked the ideas in it. I especially enjoyed the author's thoughts on Jonah. I've always had questions about that story and the Peacegiver shed some interesting light on it.

Anonymous said...

How did I miss this post? I'm going to link to it right now from AMV.

Real quick:

I'm still avoiding the Backslider.

I still need to read Patricia's novel.

I liked Hooligan, but then again, I'm a boy who spent his childhood in a small Mormon town. I do wish that it was a little more cohesive and reflective.

I totally agree about Angel of the Danube. It is one of my favorites. I've made my peace with the ending. Or so I have claimed.

And I also agree that Salvador seems to have something missing.

Th. said...


I just read Mary Clyde's Survival Rates which was good, if only mildly Mormon.

I also just read Elder Maxwell's Enoch Letters, which I recommend more as an applied-doctrine exercise than fiction, but still good.

(Note: everything I mention will have been read this year.)

I definitely recommend Coke Newell's On the Road to Heaven.

Long After Dark by Todd Robert Petersen is one of the best short story collections I've ever read.

I want to read The Backslider, but I'll never get it at a library around here and I don't know about buying it. Someday, I'm sure I'll read it, but when exactly I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Theric, I'm quite sure that The Backslider is available at numerous libraries in the Bay Area. And the Cal library has quite a few Mormon titles (although gaining access to them might be difficult).

I miss having access to an academic library -- it was one of my favorite (and most used) benefits while an employee of SF State.

Laura said...

William--I'm glad you found this post! How nice! I know you guys have an RSS at AMV but I haven't gotten around to figuring it out. Thanks for the linkage :)

Th.--I can't say this enough: interlibrary loan (which I can't figure out how to spell) is like magic! You request a book and it shows up, like a birthday present, a week later. Worth it.

Oh and about the Enoch Letters. I was a little let down. Because DB billed it as fiction I thought it would be fiction, but it wasn't. My Enrichment book group thoroughly enjoyed it though, so I guess it met some reader's needs. Just not mine :)

William--I actually read another by Margaret Blair Young, _Heresies of Nature_, and it was better. (I think I briefly reviewed it somewhere around here.) Devastating but good. There's something about Young and falliable priesthood holders as archetypes. I'm not sure what to think.

p.s. Why are you avoiding the Backslider?

Anonymous said...

The Backslider is a fun read if you like irreverence. It is based on the author's Mormon upbringing in southern Utah, so he's not making up the questionable religious opinions various characters come up with.

Too bad Levi Peterson's first book, The Canyons of Grace, isn't better known. It's a beautiful series of stories, still somewhat irreverent, but also very touching in its exploration of Mormon culture. I recommend that book without reservation, even for those who might avoid The Backslider.

Seth R. said...

I remember really, really liking the Storm Testament" when I was in fifth grade.

I want to read it again. But I'm kind of afraid to. Worried I'll read it now and realize that it's a literary pile of manure.

Kind of like watching old GI Joe cartoons now - they're never as good as you remember them being.

Laura said...

No-man-- I've actually heard a bit about Canyons of Grace. I'll have to add it to my ILL list.

Seth R.--I read some Storm Testament novels in 6th grade. Even then I was rolling my eyes. If I were you I'd leave them as a memory so that you can still enjoy them :)

Th. said...


Somehow doing ILL at a public library instead of a university seems like cheating. Which is a really strange attitude I need to do something about.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read The Backslider because it is a work that I absolutely should read, and I tend to rather adolescently rebel against such things.

I have read Canyons of Grace, though. It is quite good. I do remember some moments where I thought that it seemed a little too, ummm, like selling out to the expectations of literary realism, but it's been awhile since I read it.

Seth R. said...

Oh well. Maybe it would make a good movie adaptation and sell some popcorn...