Category Archives: Reviews

A Personal and Rhetorical Review of The Crucible of Doubt

2.9.16 | | 3 comments

Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Question for Faith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014. 168 pages. $19.99 in hardback, $11.99 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Back in 2012, Ensign Peak (an imprint of Deseret Book), published The God Who Weeps, also by Terryl and Fiona Givens, which I described in an earlier review as both “explain[ing] to non-believing readers just why Mormonism might reasonably appeal to intelligent, thoughful people” and issuing to potentially doubting Mormons “an implicit invitation and challenge not to leave the LDS Church without spending some time thinking about what the Church teaches and the value those teachings may have.”

The current volume is clearly intended at least in part as a follow-up to that earlier book. And yet the two are quite different, in several important ways. Unlike The God Who Weeps, The Crucible of Doubt both is more overtly directed toward members of the LDS Church (hence, perhaps, its lack of the Ensign Peak imprint?) and more specifically addresses potential sources of doubt that may trouble such readers. As such, the style is more personal and direct, the tone less abstract, though still both conceptually broad and intellectually rewarding. To illustrate what I mean, compare the following two quotes, both chosen at random by flipping open the two books:

“Most human hearts, we find, are made of penetrable stuff. Several catalysts to change open to our possible futures” (The God Who Weeps, p. 85).

“If God can transform cosmic entropy and malice alike into fire that purifies rather than destroys, how much more can He do this with the actions of well-intentioned but less-than-perfect leaders” (The Crucible of Doubt, p. 79).

The God Who Weeps cites a broad combination of poets, novelists, theologians, and other noteworthy writers from across and even beyond the Christian tradition; The Crucible of Doubt is equally quote-laden, but with more of an emphasis on Mormon leaders. Where The God Who Weeps summarizes its argument in five clear propositions, each spelled out in the Introduction and expanded upon in a later chapter, The Crucible of Doubt refrains from self-summarization. The God Who Weeps uses a chatty, less formal endnote format to cite its sources; The Crucible of Doubt employs standard endnotes. more

A Worthwhile and Long-Awaited Story: The Agitated Heart, by Scott Bronson

1.29.16 | | 2 comments

Title: The Agitated Heart
Author: Scott Bronson
Publisher: ArcPoint Media, Orem, UT
Genre: Novella
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 201 (but only about 40,000 words)
ISBN13: 978-0-9743155-1-5
Price: $12.99 from Amazon.com
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. (Electronic review copy received from the publisher.)

This is a story that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read. Fifteen years at least, since I first started hearing about it under its original title “The Whipping Boy.” It’s good, people told me. The best unpublished story in Mormon literature. It’s a mystery why no publisher has ever picked it up.

Thanks to Scott Parkin’s ArcPoint Media and to Scott Bronson’s own persistence, that long wait is now over. And I have to say: the story pretty much lives up to its hype — with some quibbles that I’ll get to later.

(And now I have to stop and say that there will indeed be spoilers. Because I can’t possibly review this story the way I want to do without referencing the ending. Not that the ending is a particular surprise; it’s foreshadowed for essentially the entire story, and if hearing about the ending puts you off, you probably aren’t someone who should read this book. Just saying.)

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Newish stuff from Van Sciver and Hales

1.25.16 | | no comments

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Two interesting (and short) Mormon comics out in the last little while (or midsized while, if you consider their original appearances online). Scott’s book just dropped. Noah’s arrived last July. Noah’s is about a Mormon kid whose connection to that aspect of his identity has largely lost its definition. Scott’s is the ultimate in insider humor.

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MY HOT DATE by Noah Van Sciver

I was pretty much the perfect Mormon teen, I suppose. I didn’t swear, I showed up on time to Church, I went to seminary. Because I was a teenager, I imagined that was because I did these things myself. Of course, that’s nonsense. What if I had been thrust into young Noah’s circumstances? more

His Right Hand (the conflicted review)

12.29.15 | | 5 comments

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Not so many pages into my reading of Mette Ivie Harrison’s new sequel to The Bishop’s WifeHis Right Hand, I decided I was going to write two reviews of this novel: His Right Hand — The Positive Review and His Right Hand — The Negative Review. I wasn’t sure which I would publish first vs which I would let sit on top, but it seemed like a good method to praise what I like and discuss directly what I don’t.

But I can’t write those reviews. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I’d realized that the good and the bad of the Linda Wallheim mysteries are too interwoven to cleanly separate. My concern, however, is that by interweaving them I will be giving the negative more weight. We’ll see how it goes. Ready? more

Elizabeth C. Garcia’s Stunt Double: A Review

11.10.15 | | no comments

Elizabeth C. Garcia’s new chapbook Stunt Double (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is a strong contribution to the field of Mormon poetry. While not overtly Mormon in content, it addresses many of the themes and preoccupations—social and theological—that Mormons grapple with regularly. Specifically, Garcia’s poems display an obsession with the internal landscape of family dynamics, foregrounding intricate ties that bind parents to each other and their children. Often, Mormons speak of interest in these ties as the “Spirit of Elijah,” or the turning of generational hearts to each other. While this “spirit” is usually associated with genealogical work, Garcia’s poems show how the it can manifest itself as we seek to understand the nature of family, generations, and the lived, enduring consequences of human relationships.

We see this happen, always subtly, in most poems in the collection. In “Leaving California,” a poem Garcia dedicates to her mother, we see how something as simple as a cross-country move accentuates the cost of family life on the individual:

She bundled up her baby, all her mother things, her books,

till the blue wagon was full. Her husband drove the whole way,

 

so she watched the desert, how it stood still for minutes

at a time, only moved when she wasn’t looking, like her life,

 

plucked,             because he had a dream:

they would live in Georgia, where she knew no one,

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Once I Was a Beehive

8.18.15 | | 14 comments

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I left Utah just as the Mormon-movie craze was collapsing into a heap of half-baked, opportunistic, unfunny, quote-unquote comedies. No longer in Utah, Mormon movies became harder to see, and I haven’t often felt the effort was worth it.

I know, I know. Me of all people! I should know better than to be dismissive! But I’m still having my standoff with Netflix and they’re not in local theaters or my public library and I’m a little too cheap to spend twenty bucks on a movie I might not like. So I just haven’t seen many. Never mind that I am watching movies, I’m not watching many “Mormon” movies.

The only recent Mormon flicks (last five years?) I’ve seen are Freetown and Once I Was a Beehive.

The trailer for that latter film worried me immensely. An essay by one of the filmmakers made me much more hopeful. But hey—I’m in California. What’m I gonna do?

But I couldn’t just forget about it because I was particularly interested in this film. Not because I’d just been to Girls Camp myself for the first time (though maybe that) but because I find stories about girls between the ages of, say 15 and 25 to be particularly compelling right now, both to read and to write. So I wanted it to be good. I wanted to hear it was good and to feel obliged to see it. And then I wanted to like it. Which seemed like a lot of unlikely steps.

Happily, even before I read anything about it, Excel provided me with a password-protected link to let me watch the film online. And I’m relieved to report that notwithstanding its flaws (which I will not ignore), this movie is more

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

8.14.15 | | 3 comments

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.

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A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

7.2.15 | | 3 comments

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.