Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best and Worst Reads of 2012

Now that 2012 is nearly at an end, it's time for my annual Best and Worst Reads post. This year I read 67 books, which is twelve fewer than last year. I blame my dissertation and a faulty car CD player for the lower number. Since finishing my exams in July, I have been reading more essays and chapters than full-length books--and the crappy CD player has made it so I haven't been able to listen to books on tape. So, I'll have to step up my efforts for 2013 and maybe figure out a cheap way to fix that CD player. (I'm open to suggestions.)

At any rate, here are my lists. As usual, the books I list are those that I read this year. Most of them were not published in 2012, although a few of them were. Excluded from the Best and Worst lists are book I've read at least once before.

Five Best Fiction Books:
1. Paradise--Toni Morrison
2. A Short Stay in Hell--Steven L. Peck
3. Lolita--Vladimir Nabokov
4. The Blithedale Romance--Nathaniel Hawthorne
5. Piney Ridge Cottage--Nephi Anderson

Five Best Non-Fiction Books:
1. The Viper on the Hearth--Terryl L. Givens
2. The Mormon People--Matthew Bowman
3. Desire and Duty at Oneida--Terzah Miller
4. The Incorporation of America--Alan Trachtenberg
5. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers--Nina Byam

Five Worst Books:
1. American Pastoral--Philip Roth
2. John St. John--Nephi Anderson
3. The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass--Marilyn Brown
4. The Golden Apples--Eudora Welty
5. Charly--Jack Weyland

Of course, I've never comfortable with the idea of ranking favorites and least favorites. I enjoyed all of the books in my favorite fiction list for different reasons, and I can't say that I enjoyed one less than another. Placing Paradise at the top of the list, therefore, is kind of arbitrary, and I could place any of the other four in that spot as well and still feel satisfied. The only reason A Short Stay in Hell isn't in the top spot, for example, is because I just finished it today and I don't want my post-read enthusiasm for it to get the best of me. Lolita, perhaps, should be in the top spot, but it's the obvious choice.

American Pastoral, however, is hands down the worst book I read this year. Maybe it won a Pulitzer back in '97, but I can't see why. But I've also never been a fan of Philip Roth--except maybe for a few of his short stories.

John St. John is also another clear loser. By far Anderson's worst novel.

My reasons for having The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass on there are more complex. I plan on developing them into a dissertation chapter.

The Golden Apples bored me to death. Which seems to be the effect most of what Welty wrote has on me.   

Charly seemed a little underdeveloped to me. So it goes.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Fifty Shades of (Mormon) Gray: A Review of Moriah Jovan's "Magdalene"

MagdaleneMy experience is limited when it comes to romance novels. I remember as a kid always seeing them on the shelves at grocery stores. Their covers were fairly standard: massive pectorals, cleavage, and yards of lush fabric and flowing hair. But they always seemed sketchy to me, like the kind of thing you weren’t supposed to read if you wanted to remain a good boy or girl. Later, I found out that there were “clean” alternatives for the Mormon market, but I never read those either. Their covers were nothing like the romance novels in the grocery store. They showed modestly dressed couples (puffy sweaters, permed hair, denim shirts, tapered jeans) who smiled and looked lovingly into the eternity of the other person’s eyes. I knew I wasn’t supposed to judge books by their covers, but those practically screamed lame.
Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene (B10 Mediaworx, 2011) is a Mormon romance novel, but you can’t tell by its cover. Stark and vaguely suggestive, it shows a massive cauldron pouring a fiery stream of liquid metal onto a flaming rose. On the one hand, the image is a nod to Hollander Steelworks, one of the corporations at the center of the novel’s intricate plot. On the other, it’s symbolic of the red-hot passion between the novel’s main characters, Cassandra St. James, an ex-prostitute turned corporate restructuring advisor, and Mitch Hollander, a benevolent working-man-turned-steel-magnate who also happens to be a recently-widowed Mormon bishop.  They are an unlikely pair. Cassandra is fiercely independent, crude, and ruthless when it comes to those who have wronged her. Mitch, however, is self-controlled, patient, and deeply committed to serving God. Reduced to these basics, their relationship sounds like little more than a sensational novelist gimmick—a ploy to snag dopey readers who fall for far-fetched pairings of grossly stereotyped characters. But Magdalene is much smarter than that.
Much smarter.
As Mormon novels go, Magdalene is in a class of its own. More complex and layered than most, it takes readers through a web of corporate and ecclesiastical power, history, and interpersonal relationships. Wisely, Jovan includes two diagrams at the beginning of the book that help sort most of this out, but even with these diagrams it’s still easy for readers to get lost in the details of Magdalene. While some might see this as a weakness in the novel—something that needs to be simplified or dumbed down in order to accomodate—I see it as one of its strengths. If nothing else, Magdalene forces readers to work, to make connections, to follow leads. It also asks them to draw upon their reserve knowledge of the New Testament and Mormon theology to identify parallels that enrich and give meaning to the narrative. As its title suggests, the novel has its Magdalene, but it also has its Christ- and Judas-figures. At times, Jovan can be heavy-handed with these connections—Bishop Hollander presides over the Bethlehem Ward of the Nazareth Stake, for example—but only to reminder readers to keep an eye out for more subtle intertextual connections.
Of course, because Magdalene is a romance novel, readers will probably pay more attention to the its sexuality than its intertextuality. Magdalene, after all, doesn’t pull any punches in that respect, and readers who prefer “clean” sweater-and-denim style Mormon romances will probably be turned off by the novel’s eroticism. Again, my experience with the romance genre is limited, so I can’t say if Magdalene is typical or not in this respect. Its epigraph comes from 1 Corinthians 7:9 (“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn”), and there’s a lot of chaste burning throughout the first half of the novel, which Jovan allows to build (and build) (and build) to a breaking point midway through the novel. Then things get a
Maybe even Fifty Shades of Gray sexy, but I haven't read those books.
But Magdalene is sexy intermixed with a high-powered endgame between Mitch and Cassie, the two protagonists, and Greg Sitkaris, the novel’s unambiguous bad guy. Greg is the ex-Young Men president of Mitch’s ward, the Stake President’s best friend, and possibly the sleaziest character in all of Mormon fiction. A chronic philanderer and hypocrite, Greg vies for Mitch’s calling and schemes his way into the hearts of all but the savviest of ward members, making him a constant thorn in Mitch’s side. Thankfully, I’ve never met a Mormon like Greg, but he’s nevertheless convincing as a deeply corrupt Mormon character. He’s the kind of villain you love to hate, the perfect foil to the irreproachable Mitch, and Jovan takes great pleasure in giving readers more reasons loathe him. When he finally gets his due, they'll cheer.
Aside from the cat-and-mouse games between Mitch, Cassandra, and Greg, the novel also surprises with keen insight into Mormon life and culture. Cassandra is a total stranger to Mormonism, and through her character Jovan explores Mormonism from the outside in. Her guides on this crash course are several Mormon characters—some devout, some fringe, some in-between—who explain the nooks and crannies of the faith without sounding like missionaries or a chapter out of Mormonism for Dummies. I think the crash course works in Magdalene because Jovan never simply throws around facts like a lifeless pamphlet or Wikipedia article. The threads of Mormonism are crucial to the fabric of the novel, and every detail, every tidbit of cultural insight, works to support its themes or develops its characters in important ways.
As I indicate above, Magdalene isn’t your typical Mormon novel. Aside from the significant sexual content, it also contains coarse language that would make even The Backslider’s Frank Windham blush. Maybe this is one of the downsides of Magdalene, but I think Jovan uses it as a tool to flesh out her characters better and set the Mormon world apart from the rest of the world. So much of the novel zeroes in on how power works, after all, that without something else to set Mormonism apart, the Church would seem like any other corporate entity. Mitch’s commitment to the gospel and its standards shows how the essence of the Mormon way of life strives to rise above the pettiness of power plays and corporate machinations. Magdalene, to be sure, shows the systems has its flaws, but it also bears a strong testimony (if I can use that phrase) in the discerning element of the Spirit that is the Church’s greatest defense against corruption.
Magdalene isn’t for every reader, but it deserves the praise it has received. What I like best about the novel, and where I think it shines, is its willingness to push past the rote answers we sometimes give in gospel discussions and explore the notorious gray areas of Mormon teaching and culture. This is particular true in its treatment of morality, for while this novel is mostly about power—power is like crack for these characters—it’s more specifically about the shady intersections of power and morality. To fully grasp what Magdalene has to say about this intersection, readers have to train themselves to think like Mitch, the Mormon bishop:
“I can’t afford to think in black and white [….] Part of my job is to judge people worthy or not worthy and you know, there’s a whole world of mitigating circumstances in every person’s life to make the idea of worth, well, worthless [….] We’re here to do the best we can with what we’re given, to learn. Hopefully we learn some compassion and service. I try to weigh a person’s circumstance with their progress because there is no such thing as perfect. But there’s a time you turn the other cheek and there’s a time when you have to pick up a bullwhip and clean the moneychangers out of the temple. The hard part is knowing when to do which.” (Kindle Locations 6924-6930).
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi learns that some situations compel us to act according to different moral paradigms. Joseph Smith himself taught as much when he wrote that “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another.” For the Prophet, this unconventional approach to morality was nevertheless “the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted” as it requires those who wish to make righteous judgments use “revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed” in order to make the right call.  Magdalene, in many ways, offers exercises in this kind of thinking—case studies that ask readers to think about a “whole world of mitigating circumstances” before they reach for the stone of judgment. Reading Magdalene may therefore be as much a revelatory experience as it is an intellectual or aesthetic one. It not only offers readers insight into Mormon faith, but it also provides them ample opportunity to discern their way through the murky gray areas of mortal life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

From the Vaults: Alma 24

Aside from being a sacred text, The Book of Mormon is the first and most important work of Mormon literature. Alma 24 has long been one of my favorite chapters--and one I think we tend to overlook or relegate to metaphor without considering its deeper social commentary.

The Book of Mormon gives no single answer for how to deal with violence. In some instances, it argues that violence is necessary to save an entire nation; in other instances, it argues that non-violence is necessary to save souls. In all cases, violence is a terrible thing--and the escalation of violence and the nurturing of a violent culture lead to mass tragedy and annihilation. I think it is no small matter that Moroni pleads with us to consider the imperfections of Nephite society and "learn to be more wise than [they] have been" (Mormon 9:31). 

Following yesterday's shooting, I couldn't focus on my dissertation, so I turned to Alma 24. On social media, I had read calls for more people to arm themselves as a way to deter gun-toting fanatics. Immediately, my mind went to the account in Ether where the Jaredites had become so enmeshed in their violent culture that they slept with their weapons. I knew I didn't want to live in that kind of society. I'd rather take the route of the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.

I think Alma 24 offers an important alternative. It involves the hard truth that sometimes a stance of non-violence involves heartbreak and loss. But it also shows that responding to violence with peace can turn powerful results. More weapons or easier access to weapons isn't always a solution or a deterrent. Sometimes, acknowledging your errors and burying your weapons is the right path to take.    

1 And it came to pass that the Amalekites and the Amulonites and the Lamanites who were in the land of Amulon, and also in the land of Helam, and who were in the land of Jerusalem, and in fine, in all the land round about, who had not been converted and had not taken upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, were stirred up by the Amalekites and by the Amulonites to anger against their brethren.
 2 And their hatred became exceedingly sore against them, even insomuch that they began to rebel against their king, insomuch that they would not that he should be their king; therefore, they took up arms against the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
 3 Now the king conferred the kingdom upon his son, and he called his name Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
 4 And the king died in that selfsame year that the Lamanites began to make preparations for war against the people of God.
 5 Now when Ammon and his brethren and all those who had come up with him saw the preparations of the Lamanites to destroy their brethren, they came forth to the land of Midian, and there Ammon met all his brethren; and from thence they came to the land of Ishmael that they might hold a council with Lamoni and also with his brother Anti-Nephi-Lehi, what they should do to defend themselves against the Lamanites.
 6 Now there was not one soul among all the people who had been converted unto the Lord that would take up arms against their brethren; nay, they would not even make any preparations for war; yea, and also their king commanded them that they should not.
 7 Now, these are the words which he said unto the people concerning the matter: I thank my God, my beloved people, that our great God has in goodness sent these our brethren, the Nephites, unto us to preach unto us, and to convince us of the traditions of our wicked fathers.
 8 And behold, I thank my great God that he has given us a portion of his Spirit to soften our hearts, that we have opened a correspondence with these brethren, the Nephites.
 9 And behold, I also thank my God, that by opening this correspondence we have been convinced of our sins, and of the many murders which we have committed.
 10 And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.
 11 And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—
 12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
 13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.
 14 And the great God has had mercy on us, and made these things known unto us that we might not perish; yea, and he has made these things known unto us beforehand, because he loveth our souls as well as he loveth our children; therefore, in his mercy he doth visit us by his angels, that the plan of salvation might be made known unto us as well as unto future generations.
 15 Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
 16 And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.
 17 And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.
 18 And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands.
 19 And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.
 20 And it came to pass that their brethren, the Lamanites, made preparations for war, and came up to the land of Nephi for the purpose of destroying the king, and to place another in his stead, and also of destroying the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi out of the land.
 21 Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.
 22 And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.
 23 Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword—
 24 Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done.
 25 And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.
 26 And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.
 27 And there was not a wicked man slain among them; but there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth; thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.
 28 Now the greatest number of those of the Lamanites who slew so many of their brethren were Amalekites and Amulonites, the greatest number of whom were after the order of the Nehors.
 29 Now, among those who joined the people of the Lord, there were none who were Amalekites or Amulonites, or who were of the order of Nehor, but they were actual descendants of Laman and Lemuel.
 30 And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

From the Vaults: Nephi Anderson and Henrik Ibsen

As a missionary in Norway, Nephi Anderson occasionally visited art galleries and attended the theater. Below is his account of an 1892 performance of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a relatively new play at the time. 

I'm not as familiar with Ibsen as I ought to be. Based on my reading of the play's Wikipedia article, though, it seems Anderson's summary of it barely scratches the surface of its complexity. 

Interestingly, Anderson mentions Ibsen in both of his Norway novels, The Castle Builder and A Daughter of the North. His commentary on Ibsen in The Castle Builder may give us a clue to how he felt about A Doll's House:

On the return trip, he occupied himself with his books. He read Ibsen again, feeling more keenly than ever this writer's cynicism, irony, and resentment against the social orders of the day. Ibsen's vindictive thrusts found an echo in Harald's heart. (141)

The journal entry itself reveals little about Anderson's initial response to the play:

Mch. 26. 1892
            Last Sunday heard Pastor
Mortensen give a short
lecture of Utah with
views. the views were
good but his comments
were the usual trash.
            Last night went to the
Christiana Theater for first
time. The piece was Ibsen’s
Dukke Hjem” A Doll’s
House. There is no scenic
effect, the interest lying
in the acting and the

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peculiar action of the
play. The two leading parts
were well taken.—The play
is—A home with an inex-
perienced impulsive wom-
an as wife and mother. She
thinks that money and pleas-
sure is the chief aim of life,
and incidentaly becomes a
forger. By a complication
of events the family get
out of the trouble, but
during the trials the wom-
ans eyes are opened, as
it were and she sees that
she and her husband take
a selfish view of life etc.
She finds out that she does
not love him and that

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it is her duty to part from
him. The Curtain goes down
on the last act with the wife
leaving the home of her hus-
band and children.
            The days are getting long,
and the weather is fine.