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Archive for the ‘Religion & Society’ Category

I know I haven’t posted for a long while and that I last promised to share the list of tips on dialogue from Karen Joy Fowler, but I have to share a brief review of a terrific book I read about a week ago.
Eight Months on Ghazzah StreetEight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent look into the life of an expatriate British woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia as she stumbles across a mystery but lacks the freedom and means to really explore for answers. Answers come in any case, gradually unfolding as the pages turn. Mantel is excellent, once again, at drawing her characters in unique ways, displaying all their various (and sometimes contradictory) facets like a diamond held up to the light.

View all my reviews

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I never really gave western fiction a chance, except on the big and small screens. Even there, with the exception of The Man From Snowy River and 3:10 to Yuma, I had observed that it tended to be too formulaic for my taste. Big, tough cowboy meets a sweet, but strong pioneer type girl and falls in love, then has to fight off some big, bad hombre to save her and the town…you get the picture.

But Marsha Ward has opened my eyes to the historical nature of the Western. If I hadn’t gotten an iPhone and been able to download her first novel, The Man From Shenandoah, for next to nothing, I might never have been tempted (except for the fact that I had already bought a paperback copy of her most recent volume in the Owen Family Saga, Trail of Storms…more as a sign of respect for her writing ability than an indication of my true interest). But now I’m hooked.

They spoke differently back then, and I don’t know if Marsha time travels in her sleep, but she sure has a feel for their language and ways. That must come from either a past life or significant reading and research. Since I don’t believe in reincarnation, I’ll assume it’s the latter and take my hat off to her (figuratively speaking).

In any case, once you’re three or four pages into her book, you can’t help but feel you’ve been transported 150+ years back in time to a day when America was still being discovered and tamed…and when gentlemen and ladies had very defined roles and ways of behaving around each other. It was also a time when marriages were often arranged; practicality and a man’s word held sway over such feelings as romance and love.

She captures all of that and more in this saga of a Virginia family nearly wiped out by the Union soldiers and struggling to find and make a new life for themselves in the Colorado territory after the Civil War.

I encourage you to watch her new book trailer for The Man From Shenandoah and then check out her website and blog for more information on all her books. As for me, I need to quickly order her sequel, Ride to Raton, so that I have time to read it before tackling Trail of Storms.

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I recently read the somewhat controversial memoir by Elna Baker, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. While it was truthful (sometimes painfully so) and quite a humorous take on what it’s like to be a young single adult in the LDS Church (and I could identify with many of the issues she raised, since I didn’t get married until age 31), it left me with more than a taste of disillusionment–about her and about the Church singles scene. I’ve heard similar stories of disappointment from my divorced sister and a divorced friend. Is there no reason to hope?

Of ONE HEART: Being Single in the LDS World

Cover for Valerie Steimle's New Book

Fortunately, Valerie Steimle has recently published a more uplifting book. While I have not yet read Of One Heart: Being Single in the LDS World (ISBN #978-1449537821), I understand that it frankly discusses the challenges faced by so many singles in a Church so focused on the family…but it does it in a hopeful way. Granted, it’s geared more to older singles because that is the prism through which the author looked at the issue. She lost her husband after 25 years of marriage and was suddenly faced with the loneliness so many in our church know all too well. But her approach to dealing with this challenge can be a lesson in faith, endurance, and good will.

I encourage you to check out her book on Amazon, and see if it can provide you with some solace or encouragement. You might also want to visit her website here to learn more about how she came to write it.

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Ever since I returned from the LDStorymakers Conference and Whitney Awards, I’ve been going back and forth in my mind about my goals in writing. I know I have a gift with the written word, but how should I best use it?

I began with poetry back in high school, then moved on to writing lyrics and songs (but that was years ago and I hope I haven’t neglected that aspect so long that I’ve lost it)… many of which were gospel or Christ-centered. Given my love for drama and theater, I thought I would attempt a play and began one in college focused on Oliver Cowdery. But I never finished it. In the meantime, I graduated from college, worked, married, and had two children. I used all my writing skills during that long period on behalf of my church and family… sketches, monologues, songs, one-act plays, etc.

But what did I want to write? Just for myself? I found I wanted to write something, first, that would draw on my childhood and, once I began typing away at the computer, The Reckoning resulted.

Part of me loved it and part of me felt uncomfortable with it. The part that loved it was the writer in me, for I knew I had created a layered, truthful story with interesting characters and some compelling themes. But the Mormon part of me felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure it would add to the building up of the kingdom of God. And, after all, isn’t that what we, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are supposed to use all our time and talents for?

I was thinking about all of this when I went to my Gospel Doctrine class yesterday. I sat down next to one of my favorite people, a spry, 86-year-old, and she asked how the Whitney Awards went. When I told her that I hadn’t won but had a good time anyway, she said, “Well, I liked your book, Tanya. You’re a very good writer, but I just wish it had ended happier. Is your next book going to be happy?” I assured her my next book was certainly going to be a good deal more peaceful, but I wondered inside: Do I need to be writing “happy” books to lift everyone up?

Life, for me, is always a mixture of happy and sad. That’s what makes it real. We’re taught that there needs to be opposition in all things, so certainly there needs to be opposition in a good book. Can a book not have a happy ending and still uplift? I recently finished H.B. Moore’s Abinadi and believe it proves my point. (Of course, Mormon readers know, going in, that the ending will be tragic because of their familiarity with his story in the scriptures. Can they not handle a tragic ending unless they’re prepared for it?)

Anyway, I put my thoughts aside as the lesson got started. But guess what the first words out of our teacher’s mouth were: “What is the difference between a talent, an ability, a spiritual gift, and a spiritual experience?” The lesson was on spiritual gifts and learning to recognize them and use them properly. Naturally, that lesson only got me second guessing myself all over again.

I put it to you, then: What should be the purpose of an LDS writer?

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Much as I enjoyed my first LDStorytellers Writing Conference (too much of which I missed, due to family circumstances) and the Whitney Awards Gala Banquet (made all the more enjoyable by such fine table company as Stephanie Fowers, Crystal Liechty, and fellow finalist, Shannon Guymon), I came away with more questions than answers about Mormon Literature, in general, and my own writing, in particular:

1) Can there be a “Mormon Literature” which is recognized by the national and international market?

I know Mormon Lit has been discussed ad infinitum on blogs and in chat rooms all over the internet but, putting aside for now the appropriate definition, can it be embraced by the big publishing guys in NY the way Jewish Lit is, given its current distribution? And should it be?

Taking into account the 3-fold mission of the Church, I believe it should be. But the way it is currently being published and distributed (for the most part), I don’t see it having a real chance. LDS writers are encouraged to go with LDS publishers (many of the biggest of whom are owned by Deseret Book) and, thus, their work is marketed mostly to LDS bookstores (also, to a large extent, controlled by DB). Only the youth, science fiction, and speculative genres have made any inroads nationally. Those of us who write historical, romance, and general fiction must be content with the insular LDS market. And that market seems to have very little taste for literary fiction, if you judge by what gets placed on the shelves in LDS bookstores (though Angela Hallstrom’s “Bound on Earth” may be making some room there).

Of course, I know better. There are many, many men and women in the Church who, like me, enjoy “literary” fiction… we simply don’t buy it at LDS bookstores. But, if LDS bookstores won’t stock Mormon literary fiction (and they won’t as long as Deseret Book-owned LDS publishers don’t publish it), then does it have a shot at the national market? I’m talking about a good literary novel that throws a truthful, positive light on the Church. I’m not sure, but I’m hoping it does have a chance.

2) What is Mormon Literature?

Is ML made up of stories about Mormons? Or is it stories by Mormons, reflecting their world view as seen through the prism of the Church? Or does true ML deal solely with the restoration of the Church and its legacy? I have no clear answer here.

If it is the first–stories about Mormons, then does it have to be about Utah Mormons? What if it’s a story about a Mormon who grew up far away from Utah, who has little in common with the Utah Mormon experience? Does that make it less marketable in Utah, where most of the LDS bookstores are?

If a Mormon writer is living in “faithful adherence to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” (as Elder M. Russell Ballard put it in “Filling the World with Goodness and Truth,” Ensign, July 1996, p. 10), then I believe his/her faith cannot help but be reflected in his/her work. But does that make it “Mormon Literature?”

Must Mormon Literature deal solely with the Restoration of the Church and its Legacy (as implied by Elder Boyd K. Packer in “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, August 1976, p. 60), or are there other ways to help advance the Kingdom of God (such as inspiring a reader to repent and better perfect him/herself)?

3) What exactly is the purpose of LDS publishing companies? Should there be any changes?

If you read all of the mission statements of those companies owned by Deseret Book (Deseret Book, Covenant Communications, Bookcraft, and Shadow Mountain), there is very little difference with regard to their interests in fiction. They are looking for good, clean, marketable fiction that uplifts and inspires. Parables Publishing seems to be open to work that is a bit more discomfiting (though still inspiring) and Zarahemla Publishing makes no bones about being different and wanting edgier work.

So there does appear to be a range, but that range is deceptive on closer examination. The huge majority of LDS titles published belongs to the imprint of DB or one of its affiliates. And I’ve been given to understand that LDS bookstores won’t stock anything from Zarahemla. I imagine they will stock “Bound on Earth” (published by Parables), as it won a Whitney for Best Novel by a New Author. But Parables only has a handful of other titles.

So long as one company essentially has a monopoly on the kind of Mormon literature published for the LDS market, writers aiming for that market are hobbled in their creativity. I believe it would be better to have a variety of independent publishers geared to the LDS market.

4) Is the LDS market driving LDS publishers, or are they driving the market?

This question is important because, like it or not, since Deseret Book is Church-owned, members of the Church tend to see any of their products as Church-approved… and any books not published by them or their affiliates as “iffy,” at best. Some members might even assume that if a writer’s book wasn’t published by a DB imprint, then it must not have been “moral enough.”

And how do we judge the morality of a book? Again, as I pointed out in a comment on Emily’s blog, Orson Scott Card made a very thoughtful argument for the place of evil in literature. As long as it is depicted for what it is, and not advocated or enacted, then it is necessary and useful for the sake of truthfully reflecting on life.

Brigham Young said, “Upon the stage of theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it…” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church–Brigham Young, Chapter 26, p. 188) I would imagine his reflections on the theater would extend to literature, in general.

I believe the only way to judge is by the Spirit. And the closer we heed the Spirit, the more refined our tastes will become. I’ll have to admit, it was not easy to research and write The Reckoning. In fact, during the research phase, there were some days in which I felt such darkness. By the time I finished, I felt as if I had lived through that kind of imprisonment and torture. Perhaps I overdid it. I’m not sure. I do know that it was truthful and it showed evil for what it is. I can’t imagine I will ever write another book with that level or kind of violence again. Indeed, it is interesting that my very next novel has absolutely no violence. It was almost as if I needed to flee to a more peaceful place.

5) Why are LDS publishing personnel and Whitney Finalists allowed to vote in the final phase of the Whitney Awards?

They should be recused, as should finalists, since they are hardly objective. They will naturally vote for their own work, so what good is their vote? I have a sincere appreciation for the Whitney Awards and all the work that has gone into developing them. But I feel it would be much more conducive to rewarding the best work among LDS writers (thereby inspiring even more excellence) if a panel of non-partial (perhaps even non-LDS) expert judges were to select the winners from among the finalists. In this way, if these expert judges are chosen carefully, the national market may begin to get wind of the terrific writing by so many in our Church.

6) Why are self-published books allowed in the Whitney competition when they have no access to the LDS market and, thus, no real shot at winning?

The Whitney Academy should either go all in (i.e., let self-published books take part and make sure they, along with other traditionally published books, are read by the final judges), or deny them access to the competition. Of course, I would prefer the former option, particularly since self-published works are increasing in both number and quality.

And in conclusion:

7) What did I learn most from this conference and the Whitney Awards?

I learned that the LDS writing community is welcoming, but insular, and if I want to market my work to the LDS community I will need to play by the rules of LDS publishers. I learned that self-publishing is no longer the way to go for me. It would be better to find a small publisher, even if I continue to aim for the national market. And, most importantly, I learned that there are some terrific LDS writers with real talent. Despite all my questions, my hopes for Mormon Literature (however you want to define it) are greatly encouraged!

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Saturday night I went with my family to see a local production of the musical, Children of Eden. As described in the program, it is “a musical about family and relationships inspired by the Book of Genesis,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who also did Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked).

The book (meaning the lines and story of the musical), however, was written by John Caird, based on a concept by Charles Lisanby. And I have to say that I found their take on Genesis rather intriguing, though not surprising when you consider how a writer might interpret the beginning of the best known book in the world. After all, writers are always looking for themes and cycles, as well as symbolism, and Genesis is chock full of all of that.

As presented in this musical, the development and eventual breaking up of families is all a part of life. It began in Eden, when Adam and Eve grew up to the point where they disobeyed authority, and had to leave their Father. They began their own family and tried to control the lives of their own sons, until one disobeyed, killed the other, and had to leave. The cycle looks as if it’s going to repeat yet again, with Noah and his son Japheth… until, with the flood all around, Noah forgives Japheth’s disobedience and the family remains united.

While the show’s interpretation doesn’t entirely square with my own understanding of Genesis, it did cause me to think about the Garden of Eden story as emblematic of how we are entrusted with our children only until they have lost their innocence. At some point, our children must go out on their own. They can call us from time to time (just as Adam and Eve prayed to God), but they are free to act for themselves and we have to learn to face that fact. Our love for them never ceases; only our control over them.

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