Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mormon Lit Reading List: Become a MoLit Nerd for Just $17

A lot of people have one good experience with Mormon Literature and then come ask me where to find more. It's no easy task. Mormon Lit is so niche it tends to go under the radar when published and can be hard to find afterwards. Also: there's lots of Mormon Lit that's very bad. Some is just sloppily written. Some is annoying in its cheesiness, preachiness, or cynicism. Finding something you like can be tough.

And so, today, I'm going to offer a list of recommendations, limiting myself to one title per genre. These are works I have really enjoyed and that I think exemplify what Mormon Literature can achieve. Do yourself a favor: give one or more a shot. Make it through the whole list (requires $17 with shipping for used copies plus access to a Netflix account) and you're an official initiate into the world of Mormon Literature.

Novel: Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom (New from $7.70, Used from $0.01.)
Lots of fictional heroes are sort of loners, with small or absent families and a small circle of close friends. This is because it is hard to write large numbers of characters and relationships in a short space. Unfortunately, it means that many fictional depictions of Mormons--who tends to have large numbers of significant relationships--fall flat.
Bound on Earth does an impressive job of giving us real-feeling Mormon characters with lots of relationships. The book switches perspectives each chapter to get us into the heads of three generations of members of one family and see how they relate to each other and to the wards around them. Seeing what they go through over a period of decades is moving and often surprising and one of the Mormonest experiences I've had reading fiction. I highly recommend this book.

YA Novel: Slumming by Kristen D. Randle (New from $9.93, Used from $0.01)
The three protagonists in Slumming are the three Mormons their age in the school, and as someone who grew up in Ohio, the book gets points with me for its non-Utah setting. The characters' families feel real, not idealized or melodramatic, and their school world had the right mix of mundane problems and serious depth.
At its heart, this is a book about trying to be a disciple and help others and what can happen along the way. Are you actually condescending while trying to be helpful? Who needs help, and who is equipped to give it? What do you do when service brings you face to face with difficult moral dilemmas?
Some adults I've talked to struggled to get into the book because of the strong YA voice in the opening. I'd advise you to hold out anyway and follow the story through. Strong narrative, compelling themes, great depiction of Mormon characters dealing with typically Mormon problems.

Short Story: Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card (New from $7.50, Used from $2.00, Kindle $7.99)
What's not to love about post-apocalyptic Mormonism?
The premise of Folk of the Fringe is that a nuclear war has taken place, destroying the old social order and leaving people to carve out new ways of living in an altered environment. We see Mormons in North Carolina and the West picking up the pieces and building a new society, and we get a good sense of the isolation and division that exists in it.
The collection gets points for striking, poetic images inside compelling stories and for using scripture as well as history evocatively in creating the future. I love what Card does with the submerged Salt Lake Temple and with Book of Mormon prophecy. I was hooked from the opening story and only thought "Pageant Wagon" could have used another draft.

Play: Little Happy Secrets by Melissa Leilani Larson (Free audio version at link)
I directed an early audio production and helped out with the original stage production, so I got to see this a lot and it remains one of my favorites. The protagonists, Claire is a recently returned missionary who moves back in with her close friend and pre-mission roommate and then realizes she has feelings for her.
The play gets points for running high on humanity and low on agenda. It's lovely just to watch Claire work through her experiences and make sense of things in her own way. Andthe best prayers I've ever seen onstage come in some of her monologues, as she walks around town and talks through her feelings with God.

Poetry: Let Me Drown With Moses by James Goldberg (Kindle book: $2.99. Can be read on PC with free app download.)
OK, so I'm cheating and recommending my own work, but none of my favorite Mormon poets--Merrijane Rice, Darlene Young, and Jonathon Penny--has a collection out. And most of the poetry collections I've read by Mormons are poetry first and only incidentally about Mormonism every few poems.
Let Me Drown With Moses makes my list because it's unabashedly Mormon, dealing with history and scripture, with questions of devotion and community and discipleship. It has some real staying power with people: one reviewers said that some of the poems "get stuck in your teeth" and leave you thinking for a while. I've had people tell me they shared poems in Church meetings, or that a certain line describes something they've been trying to explain for a while.
So yes, it's mine, and I'm hardly the greatest poet among living Mormons, but more than any other collection I know, this one tries to figure out what Mormon poetry might do for the community.

Graphic Narrative: The Garden of Enid by Scott Hales (Free tumblr account; scroll all the way down to begin)
There have been several Book of Mormon comics published in the past few years, and I'm currently partway through Dendo, a really promising missionary memoir. For graphic narrative, though, my recommendation goes to the year-long online comic The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl. It's at times quirky, snarky, and funny, at times thought-provoking, and then dramatic and moving in the next set. Also: no one in Mormon comics is as visually innovative as Scott, who plays with things like frame space in ways that make clear he's studied Scott McCloud and been reflective about his craft.
I watched Enid's story unfold over twelve months and I'd been interested to here what it's like for people who scroll back to the beginning and read from there.

Film: The Saratov Approach (Steams of Netflix, $13.98 new, $8.94 used)
All it takes for a written work to succeed artistically is a single writer with a solid command of craft and a strong sense of audience. Film is much more difficult: the core story needs to be supported with the right visuals, performances, pacing, music, etc., so you need a good director, cinematographer, composer, actors, and so on in addition to a good screenwriter.
I chose The Saratov Approach as my film recommendation because all the elements come together so well. I've watched Mormon movies I'm supposed to like but found slow or strained: this one is just a pleasure to watch. I particularly enjoy the combination of intensity and lightness. Saratov Approach does a good job of showing how the little details of how people relate to each other matter in a time of crisis. Interesting, enjoyable work.

So...there's the list. Those of you have read these works: would you also recommend them? Would you put another urgent recommendation ahead on someone's list?
Those of you who try one--how'd it work out for you? I know I like these books, but I'm interested in knowing whether they're also good recommendations for others. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

This week's sacrament

The nurse ducked her head into my hospital room this morning to ask if I wanted the sacrament. I said yes, she closed the door, and then I got really emotional. You don't realize how much religious ritual means to you, I suppose, until you need it.

From the outside, it's just a piece of bread and tiny cup of water. In the hospital, of course, it's also a short visit from kind strangers, but a swallow of bread and a sip of water seem like odd gifts to bring a cancer patient.

For those who know, though, this is what my visitors will bring:

It's Jesus, who--after wearing himself thin walking the length of Galilee and Judea teaching, healing, warning, and loving--now lies flat on his face in Gethsemane suffering with me. It's his promise that whenever two or three gather,  remembering, he'll be.

It's the years I've spent trying to be one who remembers. The feeling of pew, folding chair, or foyer wall against my back as this act became a central part of my life's rhythm. The weeks I spend as a father wondering whether my three-year-old will touch one and only one piece of bread and whether my five-year-old will throw away the plastic cup after he drinks the water. The weeks I spent as fifteen-year-old hiding from the chapel before I worked up the courage to pass the tray on untouched, learning how to face myself so I could face God.

It's the people who carry faith and memory with me. The autistic deacon who sometimes wore pajamas under his dress clothes when he brought us the sacrament tray. The elderly sister whose house I used to bless the bread or water in--who once told me about the necklace she'd been given by her own grandmother, a pioneer from England who had crossed the plains. The grandfather and grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins and second-cousins who have sat shoulder to shoulder in each other's chapels as we've gathered to welcome babies into the world or send missionaries out to it.

It's the hope that, though bodies are so easy to break and blood so easy to shed, healing and peace win out in the end. That there's a place beyond the grasp of death where we can eat and drink together, where the relationships we treasure deepen through the eternities and the hard experiences we endure are refined like gold into divine wisdom.

It's all that, and so much more. A symphony of meaning in every unassuming piece of bread, every silent cup of water.


My visitors come, thankfully, after I have had time to be helped to the bathroom to have my urine charted and been reminded by the five-foot walk that yes, I need my anti-nausea medication this morning. They come after I've had time to think a lot and write a little and even work up the resolve to start eating.

There are two brothers and two sisters, all with grey hair, conservative clothes, and kind eyes. Following the formal protocol for a patient of my  white blood cell count, the brothers don breathing masks as they walk into the room. The sisters wait at the doorway. One of the brothers explains that they live near the hospital, so today I'm part of their stake. It's their calling to bring me the sacrament and a short thought, he says.

He seems taken aback when my only response is to begin weeping openly.

"Hard day?" he asks.

"No," I say, "I just really appreciate you coming." It is enough for me today that this feeling is profound, even if I sound crazy.

After a moment, he blesses the bread. I let the familiar words sink into me and take it when the prayer is finished. The next brother blesses the water. I think of all the souls who will drink today as he gives me the cup.

When I'm done, they open the door so one of the sisters can give the spiritual thought from a mask-free distance. The Lord doesn't always take away our challenges, she says simply, but he does help us through them.

And as they go on to the next room, as I wipe the tears away from all the places where my beard used to be, I know--using the term in the Mormon sense to describe truths you anchor yourself in even beyond the constraints of language--that it's true.


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