Baring Imperfect Human Truths
Holly Welker, ed. Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 296 pp. Paperback: $19.95.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ostler. Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
We all know the Sunday School answers, but life rarely, if ever, plays out like a seminary video. So what do love, sex, and marriage look like in the lived experience of Mormon women?
Journalist, poet, and “spinster who thinks and writes a great deal about marriage” (1) Holly Welker has compiled a collection of essays that unapologetically reveals the intersection of Mormon theology, culture, individuality, and relational living in her latest book, Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage.
Attempts to Be Whole
Scott Abbott. Immortal for Quite Some Time. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016. 257 pp. Paperback: $24.95.
Reviewed by Scott Russell Morris, Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
In Immortal for Quite Some Time, Scott Abbott meditates on his brother’s death. That Abbott comes from a devoted Mormon family and that his brother was gay and died of AIDS is the tagline that seems to sell the book—and this review, too, apparently, as I am writing that first despite my best intentions—but really, this book is not about his brother John or about the homophobic culture of the LDS Church and many of its adherents, despite both of those being common motifs. It is about Scott Abbott. And, as all good personal non fiction is, it isn’t really about Scott Abbott either, but rather about what it means to grow up in a culture that is so overwhelmingly shaping that it “informs even your sentence structure” (89) and then to find that you no longer want to have a place in it. In the last few weeks as I’ve contemplated what I might say about Abbott’s book and as I’ve discussed it with others (one of whom saw it on my couch and asked, based on the title, if it was a vampire novel), I’ve described it in a few ways: It is about a BYU professor who was in the thick of the academic freedom concerns at BYU in the ’90s. Or, it is about a brother going through his dead brother’s things and thinking about what that might mean about the two of them, both nonconformists. For those more interested in writing and less about the story, I’ve told them about the most interesting feature of the book: It is written mostly as a series of journal entries, but there are a lot of other voices; for example, a female critic consistently questions the stories and rhetoric in Abbott’s entries, which he responds to in a separate editorial voice. There are also his brother’s words, at first taken from found texts like notebooks, letters, and book annotations, but then, toward the end, John actually speaks from the dead, directly to the narrator, though mostly to underscore the fact that he no longer has a voice, deflecting questions by responding, “You can probably answer that yourself,” and “I don’t really get to answer that, do I?” (207, 202).
The Garden of Enid: By a Mormon and For Mormons
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl, Part One. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 168 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl, Part Two. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2017. 169 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Reviewed by Brittany Long Olsen, Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
At its core, Scott Hales’s two-volume graphic novel The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl is a coming-of-age-story through a Mormon lens. Self-proclaimed weird Mormon girl Enid is a misfit who feels equally misunderstood in her church community and at home with her single mother, a former alcoholic struggling with illness and depression. Some self-introspection and life-altering experiences lead Enid to care about other people and appreciate how much they care about her.
Laughter, Depth, and Insight: Enid Rocks Them All
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl. Parts One and Two. Kofford Books. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 169 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Reviewed by Steven L. Peck. Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
When I was growing up, comic strips provided part of the ontology of my world. I devoured regular comic books, graphic novels, and other bubble-voiced media, but comic strips played a different and more important role than these other closely related forms. It was in the four-paneled strip that I was rst introduced to philosophical thought, political commentary, satire, and the exploration of questions rather than the explication of information toward an answer. Plus they made me laugh. There was a point being made. About life. And often about my place in it. Comic strips were my first introduction into a weird form of deep psychology that let me explore what it meant to be me. The sign on Lucy’s famous wooden stand in Peanuts, offering, instead of lemonade, “Psychiatric Help: 5¢: The Doctor is IN” does not seem an inappropriate way to express one of the functions these comic strips played in my life. I suppose given my age it is not surprising that it was Charles Schultz’s famous comic that proved the gateway drug to my infatuation with the medium.
States of Deseret. William Morris, editor. Peculiar Press, 2017. Alternative history short story anthology. 109 pages, $3.00.
Reviewed by Barrett Burgin
Last year I presented this scenario to my classmates: what if the Civil War had never ended and Deseret had become its own nation? This idea of an alternate Mormon history really took hold on a classroom of BYU Media Arts students. Later, I found myself similarly fascinated while reading the new alternative history story collection States of Deseret. There is, perhaps, something inherently interesting to Mormons about reimagining our own brief history. Whether it’s a Zionistic yearning for our unfinished theocracy or a regretful wish to rewrite past wrongs, States of Deseret taps into our cultural dance with history and uses it as a platform to entertain, educate, and inquire.
Lapsing into Daredevilry
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols
It’s a hard truth: you have to be damn smart to be a writer of good fiction. If you’re dumb, forget it. You have to hear words in your head—and who doesn’t? But you also have to know how to put them together in a sentence that’s not only grammatical but original in its context, truer than any other sentence could possibly be. Then you have to do that with paragraphs and chapters in the service of a whole whose shape knocks readers right out of unconsciousness, makes them alive, blasts their eyes open so they see the world new.
Shawn Vestal is smart. He’s so smart he could write Daredevils, which is about three daredevil kids on the run, two of the daredevil bad guys they’re on the run from, and Evel Knievel, who was the quintessential iconic daredevil of the United States in the 1970s. He figures just enough in this story to be real. Or almost.
The Fruit of Knowledge
Thomas F. Rogers. Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2016. 349 pp.
Reviewed by Mahonri Stewart
As a book of short, religious, and academic non-fiction, Thomas F. Rogers’s Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand is extremely valuable to the Mormon intellectual community; but as a reflection of a devoted disciple and a soulful artist, it goes beyond even that to be authentically moving. In a modern world where spirituality and religious belief is a place of tension and contention, Rogers has written from his place of the faithful agitator—pushing our culture’s boundaries where needed and then turning around to help the Mormon community reach inward and pull the wagons around shared principles.
Asking the Questions
Reviewed by Emily Shelton Poole
In her full-length debut, Pigs When They Straddle the Air: A Novel in Seven Stories, Julie J. Nichols presents the interconnected lives of various women living in Salt Lake City over a span of thirty years, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s. Each of the seven stories focuses on a different main character until their lives become so entangled that the narratives converge in tragedy, heartache, and eventual healing. Some of these stories appeared previously in other publications, including Dialogue.
Nichols wrote the stories as part of her dissertation for a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Two of the stories were controversial enough that Nichols lost her position as a creative writing instructor at Brigham Young University. I speculated, briefly, about which stories could have brought about Nichols’s dismissal from BYU—was it the lesbian teaching Primary or the woman calling on Heavenly Mother to bless a nearly-drowned child? The reference to abortifacient herbs? Or the faith healing without the official exercise of the priesthood? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Each one touches, to some degree, on the fringy edges of Mormonism, and while the stories are ction and easy to dismiss in an academic way, the existence of actual people on those fringes is a far different matter to consider. In their first iterations, she says, they were unrelated, but many explored “the difficulties of being an educated, unorthodox woman in Utah Mormon culture.”
Exploring the Unfamiliar Realm of Religion in Young Adult Literature
Julie Berry. The Passion of Dolssa. New York: Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016. 496 pp.
Jeff Zentner. The Serpent King. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 384 pp.
Reviewed by Jon Ostenson
Modern young adult literature traces its roots to 1967, when S. E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders was published and subsequently devoured by young readers who were desperate for literature that spoke to them and reflected the realities they saw daily. In the ensuing years, young adult literature has bravely explored controversial topics like class struggle, mental illnesses, drug abuse, and sexuality, all in the name of allowing teen readers a chance to explore the “real” world. One element of teens’ lives, however, that has often been overlooked in the literature is religion and spirituality. Despite the results of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion showing that nearly forty percent of teens report actively participating in organized religion, religious characters and explorations of spirituality are rarely treated in young adult literature.
The two titles I review here, The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry and The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, counter this trend, presenting characters who wrestle with issues of faith and belief as they navigate the challenges of their world.
Faith, Family, and Art
Jack Harrell. Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism. Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 156 pp. Paperback: $18.95. ISBN: 978-1-58958-754-0.
Reviewed by Jennifer Quist
The back cover of Jack Harrell’s new collection Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism describes the book as a continuation of “a conversation as old as Mormonism itself.” It’s a fraught phrase, bringing to mind the image of an academic, artistic, and social in-group that has been conversing among themselves for a very long time. It isn’t the in-group’s fault that the conversation happens in the absence of non-members and newcomers to the Church, neither is it their fault that it goes on without writers, readers, and scholars unconnected to the American Mormon heartland. None of this is the in-group’s fault, but perhaps all of it is their problem. Many in the in-group strive to, in Harrell’s words,“giv[e] the church and its religion a human and literary face” (99). However, we can’t understand what our own faces look like without relying on the re ections and perceptions of people and objects outside ourselves. Perhaps Jack Harrell, as a previous outsider to not just the Mormon literary world but the Mormon world altogether, is especially well-suited to put himself forward to articulate what Mormon letters are and what they ought to be and become.