Elizabeth C. Garcia’s Stunt Double: A Review

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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Mormon Sons and Mothers: A Review of Douglas Thayer’s Will Wonders Never Cease

Loyal readers of Douglas Thayer’s fiction will not be surprised—at least initially—by his latest novel, Will Wonders Never Cease: A Hopeful Novel for Mormon Mothers and Their Teenage Sons (Zarahemla Books, 2014). For the last half-century, Thayer has been writing stories about young Mormon men, still naïve in the faith, whose battles with wilderness and human nature leave them emotionally and physically scarred, yet also hopeful and spiritually more mature. His protagonists are not the guilt-drenched youths of Levi Peterson’s fiction, whose forbidden experiments with sin and sex leave them feeling acutely the classic division between body and spirit. Instead, they are sensitive, righteous young men who take beating after beating from a world where God observes more than he intervenes. Thayer’s protagonists are acquainted with death, cruelty, and injustice. If anything redeems them, makes them willing to hope, it is their awakening to grace and the strong influence of their mothers.

Of course, it is easy to overlook the influence of mothers in Thayer’s fiction. Thayer, like Cormac McCarthy or Ernest Hemingway, is not known for writing strong female characters—not because his work doesn’t have them, but because the testosterone level in his stories has a tendency to overwhelm the narrative to the point of muffling (though never silencing) female voices. This is certainly true in the three novels that precede Will Wonders Never Cease—Summer Fire (1983), The Conversion of Jeff Williams (2003), and The Tree House (2009)—each of which has a significant female character who occupies the role usually given to a sage old man in most storytelling traditions. These female characters are uniformly motherly and wise to the ways and wiles of the world. They are frank and intelligent, always ready with advice and counsel, and deeply caring. Moreover, so much of what they do is to compensate for the adult men in the novels, whose physical ailments, spiritually immaturity, and emotional stuntedness make them little more than cautionary tales for the young protagonists. Still, despite the overwhelming influence these female characters have, as well as the crucial role they play in each narrative, they never seem to take center stage in the reader’s mind.

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In Search of Complexity: A Review of Ryan McIlvain’s Elders

Ryan McIlvain’s Mormon missionary novel Elders (Hogarth, 2013) is set in the Brazil Belo Horizonte West Mission in early 2003. I served in the Brazil Belo Horizonte East Mission between 1999 and 2001. Like McIlvain’s missionaries, I spent many long days “hitting doors” and climbing hills to teach people whose interest in our message rarely matched our determination to share it—even when our determination was perceptibly lacking. Also, for more than half of that time, I found myself in situations much like what we find in the novel: a companionship comprised of one American missionary, one Brazilian missionary, and a trunkful of cross-cultural baggage.

I don’t know if any of this makes me an ideal reviewer for Elders. At times, reading the novel felt like time traveling. Once again, I was on the steep streets of Minas Gerais, nursing a grudge against a companion who was himself nursing a grudge against me. The palpable silence. The terse deliberations. The resentful longing for a new companion. McIlvain, a returned missionary himself, captures these realities of missionary life with an accuracy of which only the initiated are capable. His missionaries, Elder McLeod and Elder Passos, are a mismatched pair. McLeod, the junior companion, is the brash, fortunate son of a Boston bishop (think: Mitt Romney in the ’80s). Passos, the senior, is an ambitious convert from the favelas. Both have their admirable qualities: McLeod is earnest, if not successful, in his desire to seek Truth and acquire belief, while Passos works hard and cares deeply about his family. Still, they can’t seem to get along. McLeod’s doubt and immaturity grate on Passos, and Passos penchant for self-righteous posturing and mission politicking annoys McLeod. I don’t necessarily identify with either McLeod or Passos, but I can certainly relate to the tension. I know few returned missionaries who cannot.

Still, the dynamic between McLeod and Passos is well-trod territory in missionary fiction, which seems to depend—addict-like—on the tensions of incompatibility. Most recently, we’ve seen in in novels like S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City (2012), Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” (2007), and in films like The Best Two Years (2003) and God’s Army (2000). The incompatibilities often stem from differences in commitments to missionary labor or belief in God, Jesus Christ, or Mormonism in general—and these differences alone often characterize the missionaries, making them seem more like types than real human beings. This is certainly the case in Elders, I think, although McIlvain tries hard to draw readers into the inner lives of his characters. Both McLeod and Passos deviate enough from the usual types to claim some complexity, but neither character truly surprises. Readers who are familiar with the tropes of Mormon missionary fiction—and the kinds of Mormon novels national publishers love—will be able to guess how this novel ends soon after it starts. (Those who saw Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace will no doubt see parallels between the two.)

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Review: With a Title Like _Monsters & Mormons_, How Could You Not Have Fun?, Part One

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:

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Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books

Title: I Am Not a Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010 [My copy of the book has a copyright date of 2010, with a listing of “First Edition: April 2010.” Yet I know this book was actually published originally in 2009, and it won a 2009 Whitney Award for best first novel by an LDS author. I think what happened is that it was released in the UK in 2009, but was not released in the U.S. until 2010.]
Number of Pages: 271
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2782-6
Price: $9.99

Title: Mr. Monster
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 287
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2790-1
Price: $11.99

Title: I Don’t Want to Kill You
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 320
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2844-1
Price: $11.99

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Includes spoilers for Book 3 in a very general sense, but no specifics.

John Wayne Cleaver, the main character of I Am Not a Serial Killer, is kind of a weird kid. 15 years old. Helps out in his family mortuary. Obsessed with serial killers.

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In the Company of Angels: the love song of David Farland

Orson Scott Card said that his historical novel, Saints, was a “love song to my people.” Full of fiery characters debating quintessential Mormon dilemmas against the backdrop of a historically-charged time period, it was a ballad that delighted and disturbed both mainstream Mormon readers and OSC’s readers who subscribed to other faiths. David Farland’s In the Company of Angels (which I received a complimentary review copy of), is an effort in a similar vein–exhaustively researched, unfailingly plot driven, surprisingly modern in its attitudes, full of an apologist’s love–and will probably give readers similar moments of delight and disturbance. Continue reading “In the Company of Angels: the love song of David Farland”

Losing Reviews–the demise of LDSReview.net

I was surprised the other morning to see that LDSReview.net was closing up shop. I can’t claim to have been a regular or detailed reader of the service–to be honest, they didn’t review the kind of books I read. But I thought that they served an important role.

Historically, reviewers have served an important role in book publishing, both to let the public know about books and to serve as a check on quality. But it is also clear that the role of reviewers is changing radically.

As a result, I wonder whether or not we should mourn the loss of LDSReview.net.

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What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?

Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera.

Last week on the NPR radio program On The Media, in a segment titled “Vanishing Reviews,” I heard a great story from Steve Wasserman, a past editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It seems that Wasserman had been told by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that his ignorance of an early Mexican writer and Saint, Sor Juana de la Cruz, would be, in the Spanish-speaking world, “as if you said the word Shakespeare and got a blank stare.”

So, when Penguin Classics came out with an English translation of the works of Sor Juana de la Cruz, Wasserman decided to feature the author on the front page of the Book Review. But his American-educated superiors at the Times objected saying “Sor Juana who?” Wasserman then carried the mockup of the issue into the executive lunchroom and sat it on the table while he ordered lunch. There, a Mexican-born waiter noticed it, and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” Wasserman asked, “You know who this is?” “Yes,” the waiter replied, “every school child in Mexico knows Sor Juana de la Cruz.”

Wasserman won the day and the issue was published and gained a flood of reader response. It seems one third of the Times’ audience speaks Spanish as their native language. The responses acclaimed the Times for finally recognizing their culture.

Now, I have a couple of questions about this:

  • First, could you substitute a Mormon writer who is as important to Mormons culturally as Sor Juana de la Cruz is to Mexicans? Is there a writer that fits this bill? Or is it just that you don’t know enough about Mormon literature to know if there is one? *(see my note on this at the end of this post)
  • Second, If there were such a writer featured in a major book-related publication, would most Mormons even know who the writer is?

Continue reading “What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?”