Monday, July 24, 2006

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I didn't like this at all. I hate novels that make me feel stupid and I don't think it clever to withold the identity of major characters. It felt like Atwood was being cheap, lazy, and acting like a circus barker. Ack.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

This started out as an amazingly strong read and then got a little flabby what with all the diplomacy. But that may be me--I've never been much for diplomacy. Slightly recommended.

Candy Freak by Steve Almond

I listened to the audio of this book on the Texas-Utah trip. It was perfect car audio: light, humorous, and made me wanna snack. I imagine that if I had actually read it, however, it would have felt like empty calories.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Reviews: Juvenile Non-Fiction

If you are an adult, inevitability comes in the form of death and taxes. If you are a child, it comes as the middle school research project.

This means that there is an entire genre of books geared to children of that reading and maturity level on the entire spectrum of possible paper topics. And this, in turn, means a handful of titles about the Church. I want to review some of these books since they will be, for perhaps thousands of children, their first exposure to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Book Cover

Mormonism by Corinne J. Naden and Rose Blue

The first thing we have to grapple with here is the cover, which is a scene from the Hill Cumorah pageant. I wish they had chosen something else since this shot conveys the impression that Mormons spend their time wearing klan robes and blowing on really long trumpets. The same picture is reproduced inside the book, where a caption noting that “Mormons believe that humans are potential gods” only makes it weirder. The idea of human deification is mentioned at least a half dozen times in this book; by contrast, there are virtually no references to Jesus Christ.

Of course, members, sympathizers, and antis will have different opinions as to what constitutes an appropriate emphasis for a book on the Church. But errors of fact are quite a different matter and this book is riddled with them. Here are some things that children will find in this book:

–Church members use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in talks.
–The church forbids interracial dating marriage.
–”The church itself is governed exclusively by Americans.”
–The infamous (and retracted) statement that “when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.”
–The church threatens to excommunicate those who don’t pay their tithing.
–”The family home evening is an example of how the Mormon Church controls most private aspects of life.”
–”Members [of the Relief Society] often serve as home-visiting teachers.”
–Women are discouraged but not forbidden to serve as Sunday School presidents.
–The Book of Mormon is a history of people “who had lived in Central America thousands of years before the time of Jesus.”
–”At the temple baptism ceremony, the person standing for the dead is ritually washed, anointed with oil, and dressed in white temple garments.”
–A picture showing an LDS couple with their food storage is tagged “Mormons take practical steps to prepare for the millenium.”
–Seminary consists of “after-school study classes.” (Don’t they wish!)
–An endowment is performed “once in a lifetime.”
–”Finally, they go to the celestial room, where presumably the actual [endowment] ceremony is performed.”
–A reference in the section on MoTab to “the temple’s magnificent organ.”
–References to “celestial heaven” and “Relief Society of Women.”
–The chapter on Mormon doctrine has virtually no mention of Christ, but subsections titled “Polygamy,” “The Millenium,” and “A Clannish People,” where we learn that “the general belief is that if a non-Mormon family moves next door to a Mormon family, the newcomers will be treated kindly, but they will never be more than casual neighbors.”

The structure of the book is also frustrating, as it shuttles between a historical narrative and sections on people and doctrine. This means that some topics are mentioned repeatedly, such as–of course–polygamy. And while Joseph Smith and Brigham Young get a few chapters, one gets the sense that the Mormons haven’t done anything in the 20th or 21st centuries. In other words, this book is not so much about “Mormonism” as it is “19th Century Mormon History.”

GRADE: D+ I did not think they were hostile so much as they were misinformed. Each of the authors is credited with dozens of children’s books; neither is an expert on the Church. It seems a pity that they couldn’t have asked one real member to review the book; so many little mistakes and, perhaps, big problems of emphasis could have been fixed.

Book Cover

Mormon Faith in America by Maxine Hanks and Jean Kinney Williams

One would have thought that with an actual (albiet former: Hanks was one of the ‘September 6′) Mormon as the author, there would be fewer errors in this book than in Mormonism. Surprisingly, this is not the case; here are some things that your neighborhood middle school student will learn from this book:

–The Nauvoo temple was “the first temple built by early members of the church.” (Later on, a picture of the Kirtland Temple is labelled the first temple.)
–Lesbian and gay members are “excommunicated when they reveal their sexual orientation.”
–A patriarchal blessing is given by “a patriarch or elder.”
–The dedication of graves is one of the temple ceremonies.
–CES has offered elementary and secondary education in underserved areas since 1977 (actually since the late 19th century) and “it now operates about 10,000 elementary or secondary schools.”
–Missionaries serve in “over 200 countires” ( lists 141 countries; while it is debatable, most sources list the total number of countries in the world as about 193). Similarly, there are LDS congregations in “more than 200 countries.”
–From a timeline under the year 1852: “a revelation that polygamy is no longer to be practiced is announced publicly.”
–”Missionaries are discouraged from watching television.” (You can just see it, can’t you: “But President–it’s only discouraged!”)
–RMs get a tuition discount at BYU.
–Pioneer Day is “like Christmas and the Fourth of July in one.”
–Family Home Evening means “shar[ing] a meal and perhaps scripture readings together.”
–President Hinckley has a “program” to “further integrate the LDS Church into the mainstream and has called upon members and observers alike to stop referring to the Church as Mormons or even Latter-day Saints, but simply as the Church of Jesus Christ.”
–Mormons never practiced polyandry.

There are also numerous typographical errors: “Jeredites,” “nearly 112 million members worldwide,” “Thurim and Umim,” and “the national tragedy [on] September 11, 2002.”

You can see the hand of not only a Mormon but a Mormon intellectual in this book. When she introduces the Book of Mormon, she describes it thus: “The book was said to have been inspired by God, with the gold plates being used as a sort of code-breaker that enabled Smith to decipher the word of God, as given to him by the angel.” That’s a definition only a liberal Mormon could love! Similarly, the subsection “Women and the Mormon Priesthood” is precisely the same size as “Mormon Priesthood,” which is an allocation of attention that only a liberal could love. Hanks writes that “women share in the priesthood with their husbands, and they perform women’s priesthood rites in the temples. Mormon women in the 19th century participated more in priesthood functions–such as blessings and healings–were ordained to offices, and presided over the women’s Relief Society.” Later, the book notes that “blessings are also given for those who are ill or in need, or by a father or mother.” On a timeline with less than 20 dates, we learn that in 1930 “women’s blessings and ordinances are forbidden.” (The perceptive reader will note that this contradicts the previous data points.)

GRADE: D+ Like Mormonism, this text becomes terribly confusing and redundant as it alternates between historical and theological topics. This title does do a better job (but only slightly) on 20th century church history. The definitions for LDS terms in the sidebar are also helpful. But the errors and misrepresentations are disturbing, especially coming from an author who should know better.

Book Cover

The Mormons by Jean Kinney Williams

Interestingly, Jean Kinney Williams is listed as the second author on the Hanks book. But this book is an entirely different beast. What is most notable is that the prose is substantially better: it reads like a story, not a textbook. That alone is enough to recommend it. There are very few questionable lines (the worst I could find was: “Joseph said that The Book of Mormon, with its story of the ancient band of Israelites who fled to the New World, contained all the information necessary about how the church was to be structured in modern times.”) and no obvious errors. The book feels even-handed. It doesn’t sound like it came out of correlation, but neither does it read as if the author is only shallowly acquainted with the Saints or has a deeper need to ax-grind. While it is limited, as the other books are, to black and white illustrations and photos, the pictures are sharp and interesting. And the book doesn’t alternate between doctrine and history like the other titles do: it proceeds strictly chronologically and therefore flows much more smoothly. But this means that there is very little in the book about current church practice; “A History of the Mormons” would have been a better title. But the summary of “Mormon life” that she squeezes into a few brief pages at the end is not only error-free and surprisingly successful at capturing the feel of the church, but also interesting. Instead of simply giving a laundry list of Church programs, she explains them through the lens of the life of one LDS family. This is an excellent book.

GRADE: A Even-handed and accurate.

Book Cover

I Am a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) by Gayla Wise

To be fair: this book is an entirely different genre from the last three; it is aimed at emergent readers, perhaps a first-grader learning about individual differences. Our family has read several titles from this series (I Am a Hindu, I Am Jewish, I Am Muslim) and they are charming. Since they are written from the point of view of a child who is an adherent, they have a sweetness about them that is unparalleled: “My favorite part of the Book of Mormon is when Jesus visits the people of the Americas right after his death and resurrection.” I was very pleased to see that, after a brief introduction, the very next page was a statement about Jesus Christ. This book is nearly perfect in every way: it covers basic doctrine and lifestyle, it is fair, and the emphasis is right. I think all Saints would recognize their church in this book and feel that they had been fairly treated. This would be a good title to read to LDS children, to share with a nonmember neighbor, or to donate to your elementary school’s library.

GRADE: A+ I can’t really think of any way to improve on this book.

A final note:

All three of the books geared to middle school students addressed polygamy at length, as well as other elements of Church history that don’t make it through correlation. I’m working through in my mind the ramifications of a good little Mormon kid who decides to do a research report on the Church (”It’ll be a missionary opportunity when I do my class presentation!”) and finds on page 20 that Joseph Smith married a sixteen-year-old girl who lived in his home in Kirtland and then lied publicly about his marriages. Even more cringe-inducing is the thought of a Primary-age child reading the descriptions (some accurate, some not) of the temple ceremony in the Naden and Hanks books. This is more food for thought in the ongoing discussion of the best way to approach the more complicated issues in Church history.

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter

This was an excellent book: it worked on so many levels. It was a great thriller, well written, with trenchant tidbits of commentary on everything from race, class, academic politics, and the arrogance of (some) childhood development gurus worked in. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

So on the one hand I enjoyed reading this but on the other, I felt cheated somehow when it finished--as if I were waiting for something to happen that never did. Tyler has a reputation for writing about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. I suppose if that is what you are in the market for, this would be a fine choice. But as an ordinary person living an ordinary life, I want my fiction to be something else, and this wasn't.

A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography by Levi Peterson

Peterson writes: “I don’t recall weighing whether ther might be an audience for my life’s story. I simply wanted to write it.” And thus the problem: there are strands of interesting material here for several different books (a generic autobiography, a psychobiography, an intellectual biography, a writer’s history, a wilderness journal) that aren’t integrated. Readers interested in the background to his fiction will be at least as irritated by irrelevant material as they are thrilled by his lengthy reflections on his work, while readers looking for insights into his “vexed and vexing relationship with Mormonism” may tear their hair out over passages like this one:

I felt sharply the deep duplicity of my life–my possession of distinctly different personas in conservative and liberal environments, and wondered again how I could bridge the two worlds without being insane, and feeling again it is precisely because I do bridge them that I’m not insane.

And then, after nothing more than a paragraph break, this:

In May 1994 I bought a new electric-blue Ford Ranger pickup with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a five-speed conventional transmission. As it turned out, I would own this vehicle for ten years to the day. The vinyl cover on the bench seat cracked early . . .

I doubt that I’m the only reader who wishes that the statement about conflicting personas had gotten a little more development even at the cost of slighting the next segment of Peterson’s automotive history. His curious relationship with the institutional church (he was devastated at the thought of excommunication but likes coffee “mostly because it is a convenient sin. It is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church.”) is something that I kept patiently waiting for him to explore in some detail, but he never did. He does make several snide-sounding comments about the Church. On the sacrament prayers: “Apparently, God will not sanctify the tokens of redemption unless you get the words just right.” On eternity with his non-LDS wife: “God will not be so petty and mean-spirited as to deny those who have loved each other in mortality to continue their love in immortality. It is love that sanctifies and seals a relationship, not a ritual conducted before an altar made by human beings.” While these sentiments deserve comment on quite a few levels, I’ll restrict myself to the irony: for someone who sees himself as a ‘loyal dissenter’ ministering to the marginalia of Mormonism, he must realize how grossly unsatisfactory two sentences are for dismissing the capstone of Mormon theology. Some readers will also be put off by the depth of his exploration of his sexual history, although he does offer an interesting apologia for this near the end of the book. Nonetheless, Peterson is a fabulous storyteller who made me actually care about his mother’s tumultuous first marriage and his ancestral connection to Mormon history. For the reader who can tolerate unexplored caves (”a fierce, proud grief lies at the core of the Mormon identity, cemented there by the hardships, smothered aspirations, and truncated lives of our pioneer ancestors”), this will be an interesting book. But for those who want more fleshing out, this will be a frustrating read.

An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells by Carol Cornwall Madsen

I’ve written before on the need for more biographies of LDS women, so I was predisposed to like this book. But I couldn’t even finish it; I admit, guiltily. The main problem was this: Cornwall Madsen’s approach is to bifurcate the “public” and “private” lives of Wells. (One gets the impression that another biography–covering her private life–is forthcoming.) But as every feminist knows, the personal is political: how could it not be when the main issue of the protagonist’s life is polygamy? Without the backdrop of Well’s private life, I couldn’t peg the events in her public life. Cornwall Madsen seems to inadvertently make the case for combining Wells’ stories when she writes:

As for her contributions to the Exponent, the decade of the 1870s that brought her periods of disillusionment and unhappiness also produced some of her sharpest feminist critiques and opened a broad new avenue of experience for her. The private despair of her middle years gave way to heightened pleasures in her public life. Out of the depths of her own private battles, she created the feminist manifesto that initiated a lifelong commitment to the advancement of women.

With statements like these, it seems hard to rationalize the separation of Wells’ public and private personas. And I don’t wish to be overly critical, but a second major problem was that the prose just didn’t hold my attention. Because I have read everything that I’ve ever written, I have a pretty strong stomach for colorless writing, but I still found this book dull. I’m not sure why Cornwall Madsen uses such odd phraseology as “the woman movement” or “woman suffrage” instead of the more common and felicitous alternatives, but they don’t help the lackluster prose. I don’t need my historians to be wordsmiths, but I need more than this to hold my attention.

Wells’ story is important; her defense of polygamy provides an interesting warp to the weft of modern feminism: “polygamy advanced woman’s status by making her less subordinate and more independent than monogamy, with more opportunity for personal development and a share in the world’s work.” Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t do justice to Well’s legacy.

Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America by Claudia Bushman

I believe this book is meant to be read in an Intro to American Religions class or used for research at the undergraduate level. Bushman has done an admirable job by eschewing the dry prose that one expects from a ‘textbook’ in favor of a storyteller’s approach. This doesn’t mean her approach is flawless, however. Bushman makes several statements that might be good debate material for Mormon intellectuals, but don’t stand on their own as unsubstantianted, unnuanced statements in a work intended for nonspecialists. For example, she constrasts “the basic split between the mystical religion of magic and folklore” with “the rational world of college-educated members.” Similarly, she notes that “speakers in local wards have great freedom, [while] those who speak or write to wider audiences are carefully scrutinized.” (I wouldn’t claim that either statement is necessarily false,but rather that they are a lot more complicated than that.) I also question her choice of material: Do Orrin Hatch’s mezuzah and David Brian Mitchell really belong at the beginning of a chapter on the church’s basic beliefs?

More serious than her own choices, however, are those made by her editor and publisher. I think they let her down. Here’s the first quote from the back cover:

“A welcome alternative to the Mormon blogs that only praise or only condemn this fascinating church, Contemporary Mormonism is friendly, objective, probing and very, very informative. Claudia Bushman has done us all a great service.” –Carol Lynn Pearson

Well, since you are reading a Mormon blog, you know how jaw-droppingly incorrect that statement is, so I won’t belabour the point. Unfortunately, several similar slips mar the text. The book is obviously written for nonmembers, but terms including correlation and family home evening are mentioned but not defined. Page 4 features a restatement of statistics that had already been mentioned in the text. Perhaps most surprising was the frequency with which typographical errors appeared in the few chapters that I read.

There is a real need for works sympathetic to the Church to be available to students of all ages, but this text is problematic on several fronts. A better alternative is The Latter-day Saint Experience in America.

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