Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mitt Romney's Full Mormon Lit Blitz Entry Revealed...

Photo Source: Associated Press
This weekend's South Carolina primaries were not good to Mitt Romney, who was came in a distant second to 1990s superstar Newt Gingrich. (You may or may not remember him from his masterful performance in 1999's Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace.) 

After the results came in Saturday night, a crestfallen Romney told reporters that he didn't know what disappointed him more: losing in South Carolina or not seeing his short story show up as one of the Mormon Lit Blitz semifinalists

Here at the Low-Tech World, we feel sorry for Romney and don't want him to get too downhearted--especially with the party nomination just within his grasp. In fact, as a gesture of goodwill, we've decided to publish his complete Mormon Lit Blitz entry, even though it didn't make the cut.


The Iron Rod Returns

     Darkness falls on the icy streets of Detroit. Atop of the towering Penobscot Building, the Iron Rod, alter ego of billionaire Mormon playboy Witt Stromney, looks down upon a makeshift tent city--the teeming headquarters of INHABIT DETROIT, the sinister brainwashed acolytes of his archenemy, THE SOCIALIST HOPE!!! Sharp Canadian winds from Lake St. Clair carry the sound of hippy music and late twentieth-century Marxist theory to his ears, reminding him of his days crusading in Massachusetts. His skin crawls beneath his spandex and Kevlar body armor.
     Footsteps! He spins around and crouches for the attack.
     “Easy partner,” a familiar voice croons from the shadows.
     “It’s the Liahona, friend. At least while we’re on duty.”
     “I thought you quit.”
     “Been thinking about it. Maybe in a few weeks.”
     “I don’t want to disappoint my kids.”
     The Iron Rod nods his approval. He has thought many times about hanging up the cape, calling it quits. Back in ’08, after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Maverick, he had spent months sitting around the Tree of Life* in his underwear, eating green Jello, wondering how he had lost touch with the American People.
     But that was before the Socialist Hope released his vile Hope Dope into the nation’s water supply. Before things got really bad.
     “Just listen to them!” he says, hardly curbing the edge in his voice. “Thousands infected and no antidote.”
     “I know, bro,” the Liahona says, joining him at the parapet. He has had a supersuit change since their last meeting. He had sported a green and gold spandex unitard then, but now he wears a black and gold get-up. It makes him look tougher, more like one of the New York City superheroes. His trademark arrow motif still remains, though. As does the ridiculous helmet shaped like something out of a Frieberg painting.
     “Nice duds,” he says.
     “I had them specially made during my stint in China,” says the Liahona.
     “That’s right,” says the Iron Rod. “I forgot you had tasted the water.”
     The Liahona’s muscles tense. His teeth grind to a sneer.
     “What’s that supposed to mean, friend?”
     “Nothing,” says the Iron Rod. “A cheap shot, maybe. I’m having a rough night.”
     “Every night’s a rough night, pal.”
     “I didn’t mean anything by it. You know how it is.”
     “I know.”
     “It’s just...” The Iron Rod feels a catch in his throat, almost as if he is bearing his testimony on Fast Sunday. The Liahona places a hand on his shoulder and gives the joint a brotherly squeeze.
     “Go ahead, Strom. Let it out.”
     “It’s Super PAC, Jon,” the Iron Rod say, choking on his own words. “How could he turn on me like that? On us?”
     “To be fair, you went after him first...”
     The Iron Rod laughs bitterly. “That’s what he wants you to think. You don’t know the whole story. The lies. The threats.”
     “Are you suggesting...some kind of conspiracy?”
     “Heck yes I am!”
     The Liahona stands there and listens to the night, the distant sirens and fog horns. “Things aren’t like they used to be, are they,” he says. Sadness hangs on his voice like a pair of sagging super-tights.
     “He’s forced my hand. I have no choice but to play dirty.”
     “You always have a choice, Strom. ‘Men are free to choose according to the flesh.’”
     “And then this thing about me being a...”
     “Vulture capitalist?”
     “You know I’m not like that.”
     “Sure, Strom, sure.”
     “You can’t blame me for being successful.”
     “That was always my dad’s philosophy.”
     “And I can’t seem to shake that goofy name the papers gave me...”
     “Plastic Man...”
     “ if I was some two-bit superhero from Dayton, Ohio.”
     “At least people can still google your codename without something dirty popping up.”
     Somewhere, probably in the tent city below, someone has turned a few buckets and a plastic barrel into a drum set. The beat is strong, powerful. “Like Father,” the Iron Rod says quietly.
     “My father,” the Iron Rod says. “He never had to hide behind a mask.”
     The Liahona says nothing.
     “People knew him. The real him...”
     “...and respected him...”
     “ can’t...”
     “If he were here today, he’d be”
     The Liahona waits for him to finish his sentence, but the Iron Rod only groans and gestures absently into the night. He looks weighed down, as if his cape were made of lead instead of a boron-infused cotton-Nylon blend. At last, the Liahona says, “You ever hear of the Primal Father?”
     “He works out of Houston, right?”
     “No,” says the Liahona, “it’s something Freud came up with.”
     “I don’t need your psycho-babble...”
     “Hear me out,” says the Liahona. “Freud tells this story about a horde of cavemen brothers who get so jealous of their father that they kill him, eat him, and steal all his wives.”
The Iron Rod flinches at the mention of “wives.”
     “Anyway,” the Liahona continues, “after all is said and done, the sons begin to feel guilty about what they did, and worry that their sons might do the same to them, so they start making rules against stuff like cannibalism and murder. And then...”
     “I don’t see what any of this has to do with me.”
     “Let me finish!” says the Liahona. “As soon as the rules are in place, the sons start talking up their old man, telling everyone what a great guy he was. You know, to make themselves feel better. Pretty soon, everyone’s worshipping the dead father. His shadow’s everywhere.”
     “I still can’t...”
     “For Freud, this story explains everything. Government. Religion. Civilization itself! We have 'em because a bunch of sons couldn’t get out from under daddy’s shadow.”
     “Freud places a lot of blame on these boys. Thinks they set a bad precedent.”
     The Iron Rod looks out across the Detroit cityscape, a vanishing afterimage of what it had been in his father’s day.      
     “People knew him, Jon. Gosh! How they knew him!”

* His secret lair! See ish # 235!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teaching Dispensation: Finding Teachable Stories

My class “American Religious Landscapes” begins in less than two months, so I am in the process of re-reading Dispensation and selecting “teachable” stories. As I mentioned in aprevious post, I’m only going to spend a week (or three fifty-minute classes) in the anthology, so I’ll only be able to assign six or seven stories. I haven’t narrowed my selection down yet, but Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” Larry Menlove’s “Who Brought Forth This Christmas Demon,” Darrell Spencer’s “Blood Work,” Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving,” and Douglas Thayer’s “Wolves” will probably make the cut. I had originally planned to include Orson Scott Card’s “Christmas at Helaman’s House,” but then I read the story, felt it went on thirteen pages longer than it needed to, and decided against it.[1]

I’ve selected these stories, and not others, for a few reasons. First, I think they reflect the interaction between religion and landscape, or religion and geography, that is the focus of my class. I like, for example, how the avenues in Salt Lake City are featured so prominently in “Blood Work,” how they evoke the sense of order that Mormonism tries to wrestle out of the chaotic natural world. I also like how “Wolves” is, in many ways, a story about leaving an insular religious landscape and facing the dangers lurking beyond its borders.

Second, I think the stories mentioned above are more teachable than other stories in the collection. Stephen Tuttle’s “The Weather Here” and Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election,” for instance, may be excellent stories, but I get a headache thinking how I would even begin to teach them to students coming from largely Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Both stories, it seems to me, rely so heavily on prior knowledge of Mormon theology that I worry students will either not “get” them or simply misread them. Of course, that sort of thing happens all the time in literature classes, and I know misreading often reveals great new insights, but I’d rather give students stories about concrete Mormon experiences they can grasp. Besides, who’s really up to the task of leading a classroom discussion of “Calling and Election” with thirty or so non-Mormon freshman?

I’m certainly not.

Then there’s a story like Lisa Torcasso Downing’s “Clothing Esther,” which is probably one of the best stories about Mormon women I have ever read.[2] On the surface, it’s a story that is fairly grounded in a common, concrete Mormon experience: the final dressing of a dead Mormon woman in her temple clothing. Beyond that, the story also touches on human relationships, particularly that between the mother and daughter-in-law, and some common Mormon themes: eternal marriage, family, sin, repentance, community, and mortality. Because other religions and belief systems have sacred clothing and share similar interests in things like marriage and sin, I don’t think “Clothing Esther” is an unteachable story. Spend thirty minutes on it with a group of non-Mormon freshmen who have just spent a week studying Mormon literature and I doubt you’ll lose anyone. Except maybe the kid who spends the entire class texting.

Still, as concrete as the story is, it’s also deeply embedded in the Mormon temple experience, which is concrete enough for temple-going Mormons, but something of a mystery to everybody else. Temple scenes, of course, are not unheard of in Mormon fiction. In the nineteenth century, for example, they were an essential (and deliberately terrifying) part of any anti-Mormon novel. But the temple rarely gets its due in Mormon fiction, either because it’s presented exposé-style, as we see in Brian Evenson’s The Torn Curtain or David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, or because it’s presented so abstractly or vaguely that we end up feeling the same way we do when a returned missionary enthusiastically describes an exotic food: we know it must be really, really, really good, but having never tasted it ourselves, we don’t know why.

“Clothing Esther” breaks from this tradition, in some ways, to offer readers some insight into the Mormon temple experience and its meaning to the women who participate in them. For Mary, the main character of the story, the temple experience seems to center on the Initiatory portion of the Endowment ceremony, possibly the only Mormon ordinance in which the genders are wholly segregated. Because Downing is aware that not all of her readers know the temple experience, and possibly to make the story more teachable, she provides this paragraph:

Inside each Mormon temple is a place which is like no other—a quiet veiled-in space where initiate blessings are granted, woman to woman; a place where two sisters in faith, two strangers, stand before one another, look one another in the eye and touch one soul against the other, fingertip to flesh, and repeat the words of a blessing and an anointing, the undefiled intimacy of which reflects the very depths of God’s eternal love for woman, and through her, for all his children. And Mary has been there. (268)

While this paragraph is admittedly abstract and vague in terms of describing the actual ordinance, it is quite explicit about the significance and meaning of the experience for those involved in it, especially Mary. Moreover, against the larger context of the story, it also makes the Initiatory ordinance a metaphor for powerful female relationships within Mormonism, especially between women like Mary and Esther, her mother-in-law.[3] The story, after all, is primarily about the way Mormon women stand in relation to each other, rather than to men, which is often the case in feminist Mormon literature. Esther stands before Mary rather than beside her.

Significantly, before suggests a face to face positioning, as we see in Downing’s description of the Initiatory, as well as a leader/follower positioning, which accurately characterizes Mary’s relationship with her mother-in-law. Throughout her life, Mary notes, Esther was the one who guided her path, “who taught her how,” often in a hands-on/hearts-on way. It is fitting, therefore, that Downing concludes her story with Mary choosing to think about the Initiatory ordinance, as well as the relationship between mother and child, rather than experience the “nightmare” of watching “her friends jointly push, pull, and shove the woman she loves into position amenable to dressing a corpse” (273, 274). For Mary, the Initiatory and motherhood are moments of “undefiled intimacy” where women can be before each other in every sense of the word. In many ways, they are the antithesis of the reverential and respectful—but undeniably coercive—defiled intimacy being played out over the corpse of her mother-in-law.

Think I can convey that to a class of non-Mormon college Freshmen?

Hence my dilemma: “Judging Esther” is one of my favorite stories in Dispensation, but I’m not planning on including it on my syllabus in the spring. Yes, I think the story is teachable, but I worry that teaching it would ultimately prove unsatisfactory. As a teacher, I want to take my students as far into a text as they can go, and since “Judging Esther” is grounded in the concrete and Downing takes the time to teach the reader about the temple and its meaning within Mormon society, I don’t think students would struggle as much with the story as they would with, say, “Calling and Election.”

But, lacking experience with Mormonism and the temple, would they be able to delve deep enough into the story to make it worth their while? Would they be able to grasp the significance of the Initiatory ordinance enough for the story to resonate with them? Or would they only kind of get it the way I, a white Mormon suburbanite in the twenty-first century, only kind of get a novel like Invisible Man--or, for that matter, most of the other stories and novels we'll be reading in the class?[4]  


[1] Someday I need to write a post about my love/hate relationship with Orson Scott Card and his writing style. 

[2] If not the best.

[3] With this in mind, it’s not altogether surprising that Downing named her characters Mary and Esther after prominent and powerful women in the Bible. 

[4] And let me complicate matters further: to what extent do I, as a Mormon man, hit my own wall of understanding as I read "Clothing Esther"?  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Reading List

I'd like to write a more profound post right now, but I'm facing three fellowship application deadlines that are occupying most of my time right now. Plus, I'm still slogging away at my Ph.D. exams reading lists, which are severely limiting my intake of Mormon literature right now.

Thanks to my parents and Christmas cheer, however, I am now the proud owner of a Kindle Touch. E-readers, I have discovered, are cooler than books. I'm looking forward to the death of non-essential paper in 2022. 

Since activating my Kindle, I have downloaded several inexpensive e-copies of Mormon literary works. Someday, I hope to read them all. 

Here they are:
Monsters & Mormons, Wm Morris and Theric Jepson
Entwined, Heather Dixon
What of the Night?, Stephen Carter
People of Paradox, Terryl L. Givens
Kindred Spirits, Christopher Kimball Bigelow
Heroes of the Fallen, David J. West

Recently, I've also purchased paper copies of:
Fire in the Pasture, ed. Tyler Chadwick
Dancing Naked, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner

And received copies of:
In the Mirror, Ann Carbine Best 
Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella, Douglas Thayer
In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Conquest of Death, Samuel Morris Brown
Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Reid Neilson

These books should keep me busy for a while. My dilemma now is finding time to read them. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mitt Romney's Mormon Lit Blitz Hook Revealed...

Mitt Romney recently scored a narrow victory in Iowa--just barely--against his fellow GOP front-runner, Pennsylvania magician and escape-artist the Great Santorini. While many were pleased with this victory, including Romney's four wives, others lamented that Romney failed to beat out his opponents by a greater margin of victory.  

When asked about why he didn't do better, Romney responded, "I could have done better in Iowa, really, but I was too busy working on my submission for the Mormon Lit Blitz."

Well, folks, there you have it: even Mitt Romney has entered the Mormon Lit Blitz. And with only ten days left to go until the deadline, maybe you should too.  

Also, in case any of you are doubting the legitimacy of this post,* and to give Wm Morris something to fear, here's the hook to Romney's Mormon superhero fiction entry:

The Iron Rod Returns

     Darkness falls on the icy streets of Detroit. Atop of the towering Penobscot Building, the Iron Rod, alter ego of billionaire Mormon playboy Witt Stromney, looks down upon a makeshift tent city--the teeming headquarters of INHABIT DETROIT, the sinister brainwashed acolytes of his archenemy, THE SOCIALIST HOPE!!! Sharp Canadian winds from Lake St. Clair carry the sound of hippy music and late twentieth-century Marxist theory to his ears, reminding him of his days crusading in Massachusetts. His skin crawls beneath his spandex and Kevlar body armor.
     Footsteps! He spins around and crouches for the attack.
     “Easy partner,” a familiar voice croons from the shadows.
     “It’s the Liahona, friend. At least while we’re on duty.”
     “I thought you quit.” [MORE]

*It probably goes without saying that this is not a real entry. Mitt Romney has not entered the Mormon Lit Blitz. Nor does he have four wives, a suit of spandex, or Kevlar body armor.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best and Worst Reads of 2011

It's now 2012, which means it's time for me to evaluate my reading experiences of 2011. For the most part, 2011 was a good reading year. I read 79 books, which is 25 more than I read last year. I attribute the significant increase to all the reading I've been doing for my Ph.D. qualifying exams. My goal for 2012 is to read more than 100 books. We'll see if that happens.

This year's lists are a bit difficult to draw up since I liked most of what I read. My selections for favorites, therefore, are based not necessarily on any sort of technical criteria, but on the pleasure I gained from reading them. The worsts list is comprised of clear losers all.

At any rate, here are my lists:

Five Best Fiction Books:
1. The Known World, Edward P. Jones
2. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
3. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
4. Bound on Earth, Angela Hallstrom
5. The Waterworks, E. L. Doctorow

Five Best Non-Fiction Books:
1. The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
2. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860, Jane Tompkins
3. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
4. Beneath the American Renaissance, David S. Reynolds
5. Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

Five Worst Books
1. My Year of Meats, Ruth L. Ozeki
2. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Jane Smiley
3. The Open Curtain, Brian Evenson
4. The Curse of Caste, or The Slave Bride, Julia C. Collins
5. Beloved, Toni Morrison

I might catch flak for #5 on the worst list. I admire Toni Morrison and her writing a lot, but I've never liked her magnum opus. Great premise, terrible execution. Sorry.

So many great books did not make the best lists. Here's a list of ten honorable mentions:

The Tree House, Douglas Thayer
The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall
Rift, Todd Robert Petersen
The Coming of Elijah, Arianne Cope
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The Bondwoman's Narrative, Hannah Crafts
The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe
Kindred, Octavia E. Butler
Nightwoods, Charles Frazier
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser