The Bishop’s Wife has a lot to say about male/female relations (and a lot about marriage in particular) and about the different roles of men and women in this particular Mormon community (from which we are free to extrapolate). I’m not ready to draw many conclusions regarding just what the novel is saying—that will be done better as more people read and begin debating motwaaw—meaning being, of course, ultimately, a very personal thing—but I want to provide some out-of-context quotations for your preliminary consideration.
Brethren, please check your privilege before proceeding.
Note: As I said last time, I will correct obvious errors, marking them with [molaq] and mark likely errors I can’t correct with [sic]. I will note location with chapter numbers and, if necessary for purposes of this post or to prevent spoilers, disguise characters and events via substitutions enclosed in brackets or through the omission of quotation marks. Sometimes I add comments in italics after the chapter number. more
Before we get started, we have a bit of business this morning.
The back of my review copy reads “DO NOT QUOTE FROM THIS GALLEY” (allcaps in original) which I will be disregarding. How do you expect me to do a decent review if I can’t quote? That said, I will correct obvious errors (which I will mark [molaq]) and mark seeming errors I don’t know how to correct with [sic] (but without its usual snide connotation). I will note the location of these quotations with chapter numbers since my page numbers are unlikely to match anything you pick up.
These rules will apply to all posts in this series going forward.
Now, on with the show. more
One of the great challenges with writing a Mormon book for a national audience is deciding how much to explain. And it’s something I, for some reason, have particularly strong feelings regarding how it should be done. So let’s talk about Mette Ivie Harrison’s worldbuilding* in The Bishop’s Wife.
In the first forty or sixty or so pages, the titular narrator, Linda Wallheim, just spends too much darn time explaining the Mormon world of Draper, Utah. And it’s not just the quantity but the nature of the explanation that grates on me. For instance:
The church taught that everyone who was in the celestial kingdom had to be in a marriage—marriage was the highest law of the gospel—but that didn’t mean she had to be married to Tobias. In the old days, people would say worthy single women were lucky because they’d be married to Joseph Smith or Brigham Young in the afterlife. But people didn’t say that much anymore since polygamy had been carefully scripted out of the mainstream Mormon church.
This is pretty great because it throws a lot of my complaints into a single paragraph. more
So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so). So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).
FAVORITE MORMON PLAY: MELISSA LEILANI LARSON’S MARTYRS’ CROSSING
So, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing for Saints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Melissa Leilani Larson’s Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”
FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE
Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief, but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. more
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:
AMVer S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City has already been reviewed here by Th. Jepson. The novel can be purchased from Zarahemla Books. The Kindle version is only $2.99 (other ebook formats to come) and the trade paperback is $15.95.
I provided a blurb for it. Partly because Shawn and I have been alpha/beta readers of each other’s work for several years now, but mostly because I really like what he did with Millstone City and how it fits into the field of Mormon literature.
Here is my full blurb for the novel:
In Millstone City, the LDS mission novel and the thriller collide to create something new: an intense, gritty story that is nevertheless shot through with resilience, honesty, optimism and, yes, that certain willful naïveté that missionaries possess. Call it Mormon neo-noir. Or full-throttle faithful realism. Whatever you dub this hybrid, clearly, S.P. Bailey is well versed in both of the literary streams he’s working with, and I’m very pleased to see him cross them to such good effect.
And here is another thought:
Part of why I think this counts as missionary fiction rather than just being a thriller is that it all starts with a minor infraction of mission rules. In other LDS mission novels, such a minor infraction may be played as comedy, or lead to some tension between characters, or simply try to capture the up-and-downs of a mission. Here it has major repercussions.
In addition, the resources the Elders call upon to help them with their situation — members, relatives of members, the mission president — are true to life. Also true to life is the fact that their efforts aren’t always 100% effective. This is not to say that this wholly a work of realism. But rather that because it draws enough on the tropes and traditions of Mormon faithful realism, it has a bit more heft and dimension to it than I had expected, especially considering that it’s, essentially, a thriller/suspense novel.
Zarahemla Books hits the sweet spot again with its latest book offering, Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited. The supernatural thriller/YA dark fantasy is a worthy addition to Zarahemla’s quality library of Mormon literature, and continues to showcase the diversity Zarahemla displays on its shelf. Zarahemla is as much of a home for genre fiction, as it is high brow literary novels, as it is for personal essays, as it is for short stories, as it is now for Mormon drama (full disclosure: Zarahemla Books will be publishing a book of two of my plays in the next few weeks, as well as an anthology of Mormon Drama which I helped pull together later this Summer… but I was a big fan of ZB’s approach long before those projects). Dispirited continues Zarahemla’s big tent tradition with its blend of dark, magical realism and young adult sensibility (with a dash of the bizarre just to throw you off kilter).
Dispirited jumps right into the conflict in its first chapter when a young boy named Blake is grieving for his dead mother and so stumbles upon the ability to separate his spirit from his body (astral projection). Thus he travels to the astral plane in search for his mother. However, Blake is in for a rude awakening (or unawakening) when he tries to get back into his body, as he discovers that it has been possessed by a powerful evil spirit who has no intention of giving the poor child his body back. In the next chapter we are introduced to Cathy, years after the inciting incident. Cathy is the step sister of “Blake,” and becomes our main protagonist. The real Blake, now an exiled spirit out of his body, enlists Cathy in the battle over the possession and right to his body. And then we’re off to the races, plot wise.
I found the initial premise fascinating, partly because I felt it was plausible. I have known people (including a personal friend of mine, as well as a Wiccan who I baptized on my mission) who had claimed to have accomplished this feat of “astral planing,” where they could separate themselves from their bodies, travel in a different plane of existence, and then return to their body (although my friend from my mission claimed that she had difficulty getting back into her body, so she never attempted the experience again). As a believer in this kind of supernatural possibility, having had a few difficult to explain supernatural scenarios in my own life, Perkins had me at the get go with this initial conflict. The central premise seemed real and organic, especially from a Mormon worldview. Sometimes magical realism, from the perspective of a Mormon, simply becomes realism. more