As it happened, I wound up sneaking one more category in under the deadline. Here’s my (somewhat belated) writeup.
First, although I know this book is aimed at a young audience (say, 12 to 14?), the cover image by Galen Dara makes this hard to believe. It’s a more explicitly terrifying cover than anything I can remember seeing on any other book aimed at the audience—or for many adult audiences, either. Dara’s work manages to show horror while implying an even deeper terror. Which is not easy. Usually, revealing horror dissipates terror, especially in visual art. And outside of Richard Upton Pickman, Dara may be the best I know.
Her work also appears inside the novel—most of which images are substantially more subtle than this one. And while they illustrate moments, rather than the novel as a whole, from a purely marketing standpoint, I have to wonder if they mightn’t be more appropriate for the cover. I have a hard time imagining an elementary-school librarian ordering this for their shelves.
Though I certainly hope they do. more
And I’m trying it again! This year I’m starting with this year’s brand new category: middle grades.
Two warnings and an acknowledgment before we start. First, be prepared for spoilers, since I can’t talk about books without talking about story and theme. Second, these are only my own thoughts as a private and opinionated reader. I encourage everyone to share their thoughts, whether in agreement with mine or not. And my acknowledgment that in many cases (though only one of the books in this category, interestingly), books were provided in PDF format by the publishers, for review by Whitney Academy members — a courtesy for which I’m most grateful.
This past Saturday, my review copy of Susan Elizabeth Howe‘s new book, Salt, arrived. I’ll be reviewing it for AMV and expect to have my essay completed and posted sometime in the next month or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post my initial response to the collection.
While I haven’t yet read beyond the first poem, I’m anxious to sit down and keep company with Susan’s words, in part because of the first poem. As all stories arguably do, Salt‘s narrative begins with Adam and Eve—or at least with a revision thereof: his name is “Bob,” while she remains nameless. In the collection opener, “Python Killed to Save Woman,” Eve (I’ll call her) wrestles with a snake: “Lucy, / short for Lucifer,” the couple’s “pet python,” which they let “slither about [their] bedroom.” Probably not the smartest idea, as you can imagine, something Eve realizes the night she wakes because Lucy has “wrapped around [her]” like the snake would live meat. Which, of course, the woman is—at least to a hungry snake. Sensing the struggle beside him, Bob wakes and grabs his “Swiss army knife” to take care of the snake, but instead he gets “enmeshed” in the wrestling match, though not so much that he can’t grab the phone and call for help.
And that’s where this allegory of a poem leaves the pair: struggling for life in Lucifer’s tightening squeeze, Eve wondering “whose death” will come first, although the poem’s title is a clue as to who wins. Little matter, though, because in the end, of this poem as of life, death gets the last word (until Christ speaks up, that is).
Death: the heritage of a world fallen away from Paradise, the proper end of that system’s decomposition. By beginning Salt with Eden’s end, Susan reminds readers of their mortality, which was made possible by the Fall, and opens the way to explore the impact of death on life and language. Salt‘s opening poem, then, is a memento mori in a poetry collection that positions itself as a preservative—salt is, after all, essential to animal life. As such, it’s pretty valuable thing to have around. Hence Christ to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth—your presence here should preserve and thus extend the principles of Life. Hence Paul to early Christians: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt—let your language tend toward preservation of the principles of life. Hence the implication of Susan’s title: here are some words dear to me as salt. May they preserve you as they have preserved me.
Note: My talented wife, Anne Marie Ogden Stewart, previously wrote an insightful review about The Book of Mormon Girl. This piece is meant to be a companion piece to that one, so I recommend you read Anne’s post as well.
Whether it was the “Pantspocalypse,” the bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives/ Exponent ,or faithful Mormon feminist Judy Dushku’s pointed critique of Mitt Romney, Mormon Feminists have been very prominent as of late. Call it a revival, call it a resurgence, call it what you will, but the advent of the internet and the increasing dialogue about the roles of women in American and world society has brought Mormon feminists out of their hiding places and rhetorical bomb shelters. Mormon Feminists have searched for each other and banded together. They have clamored for an equal voice in a society that has often tried to silence them and they have implored to their fellow Latter-day Saints to see them as fellow-pilgrims and not as antagonists of the faith. At the forefront of this effort has been the courageous Joanna Brooks, a professor of Comparative Literature at San Diego State University; a prominent blogger at Ask Mormon Girl and Religion Dispatches; a high profile resource about Mormonism for CNN, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and NBC Rock Center; as well as the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of American Faith.
Having loved Brooks’ blog posts, watched/read many of the interviews she was involved in, and learned to appreciate her compassionate and thoughtful approach to Mormonism, I bought a copy of The Book of Mormon Girl for my wife Anne for Christmas. Anne and I consider ourselves devout Mormons. We connect deeply with and believe in Mormon scripture and theology; we love the heritage of having Mormon pioneer ancestors; I love to study the intimate details of Mormon history (which I often write plays and screenplays about), while Anne has a deep passion for Old Testament studies; as lovers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, we’re passionate believers in Jesus Christ, and gratefully claim him as our Redeemer and Savior; we believe in the core tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to find a place in our faith community. Despite that heartfelt and abiding faith, however, there have been times when we have felt like we were foreigners in our own religion.
This occasional alienation we have felt may have been a cultural quality that we thought had been overemphasized, a Pharisee-like pattern we find in certain elements and sub-groups of the membership, or a coldness we have received (or we have seen others receive) because of this or that circumstance. These, of course, are exceptions rather than the rule. I personally have found that Mormonism makes people better, if it is lived in the way it has been outlined by the scriptures and the tenets of the faith. And, of course, it is so much better to concern oneself with the beam in one’s own eye, than the mote that is in our neighbor’s eye.
Yet there are still those moments of alienation, of loneliness, of feeling like we don’t quite fit in, despite our best efforts (which are often still insufficient) to keep peace and show love. Discipleship will always have its strains, and standing up for what you believe in, whether it is to the secular world, or even to those who share many points of common faith, is designed to be a lonesome ordeal. If there is a “mold” for the “typical” Mormons, there have been times where we felt like we didn’t fit it.
It is here that works like Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl have given me and my wife hope. more
Note: Both my wife Anne Stewart and I read Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl over the holidays and were deeply affected by it. I asked her to write a guest post on her response to it here, and I will write my own thoughts on the book at a later date. –Mahonri Stewart
A number of years ago, while I was working at a book store in Springville, Utah, called the Red Leaf, I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I can’t remember the moment I picked it up or why I decided to read it (other than the obvious: women and the Old Testament). In the fictionalized world Diamant creates, Dinah (daughter of Israel) is surrounded, not by twelve brothers, but by women. While I was ever aware that these were fabricated tales, I was struck by the way she fully structured the story around the Biblical women. While I’d read many fictionalized accounts from the point of view of Biblical women, this was the first that felt so singularly focused on the woman’s journey. Here were women, strong women. These were not women whose rituals and practices were a shadow to the men in their lives; these were women with rich, powerful stories who led lives of their own. The Red Tent filled in the absence that is present in so many religious narratives: the women’s story.
Like other religious narratives, the Mormon story is starved for female narrative. In the Book of Mormon there are six named women, the Doctrine and Covenants only two, and even our female deity remains mostly veiled to us. In The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, Joanna Brook’s narrative connects to generations of Mormon women and makes a place for women who are less orthodox. more
This series has been on hiatus for a while, so, for those who do not recall, Signature Books has made this seminal collection of stories available free online. I have been reading the stories and posting about them. Together we share our thoughts and opinions.
Today’s tale was also collected in Mortensen’s Back Before the World Turned Nasty which I read is at is best in describing place. This particular tale is quite short (enough to be included on Everyday Mormon Writer).
Go read it then return.
The story is exactly what it claims in the title—a woman talking to a cow. About the problems in her life, each of which is desperately symbolic. The fork she uses to serve hay is missing a tine. Which makes the hay fall through but also makes it loaded in other ways as well. Then her husband enacts Christ (and she draws our attention to it), her children destroy symbols of comfort and heritage, the sheep are black and steadily decrease in number while jumping up and down in perceived value, and finally we learn they must decide to feed the sheep (possibly at the expense of all else) or treat their little ones not so well. All while the narrator is revealing herself an absolute Martha (however unfair the Martha/Mary dichotomy may be). more