Friday, December 22, 2006

Even More Favorite Things

Even More of My Favorite Things . . .

First of all, thank you to everyone who reads this blog and comments, either here or in private e-mails to me. I appreciate knowing that you care about me. It's been an extremely difficult couple of months and I have felt blessed by your support.

And now, another exciting episode of "My Favorite Things."

I've put this one off because it is so darn difficult—nay, impossible—to get a booklover to narrow down her favorite reads to something manageable. So I've decided to divide up my list of books worth mentioning. Today's category is "Entertaining LDS Books."

CAUTION: because I mention a book here as being one of my all-time most entertaining reads does NOT mean that it will be entertaining for YOU. I find that people are especially sensitive and opinionated when it comes to reading something by or about Mormons. My listing a book here does NOT mean that I recommend it to you. Some of these books could be very disturbing to some people for one reason or another. We all have different tastes. (I myself was very uncomfortable with "The Work and the Glory," for example—not because of anything inherently bad about it but because of my tastes and background as a reader. And yet there are people I highly recommend it to. You see what I mean.)

I apologize for having to give this caution, but among the people who read this blog and care about me is a wide variety of reading taste and experience. I don't want to offend anyone. If any of these titles catches your interest, ask me and I'll tell you whether I think you in particular would like it.

I've thought a lot about the word "entertaining." Notice that I make no claims that these are the BEST LDS books in my opinion. Just that they are the most entertaining to me. But I find that I require certain things from a book in order to consider it entertaining to me, and the same criteria very probably might be used when I judge its value. That is, I am not entertained by a book which has simply a great plot--at least, I am not AS entertained by it as I am when the book seems to have something more to it, including fascinating characters and a certain resonating truth. So what entertains one person depends a lot on her reading expertise and background. My point is that I am not entertained by books that simply distract me.

So here we go . . . Darlene's most entertaining LDS reads:

1. Neal Chandler's collection of short stories, Benediction. My all-time favorite. I wish I had written most of these stories. Absolutely bowls me over. Favorites: "The Last Nephite" and "Benediction." A hilarious, touching, sometimes satirical look at Mormon culture. Some difficult elements.

2. The other one I wish I had written: a play by Josh Brady called Great Gardens. You can find it in an issue of BYU Studies. I adore this play about a family who goes out to eat at a restaurant called Great Gardens. Included in this family are an overly-controlling mother, a recently returned sister missionary who has gained a few pounds, and several other fantastic characters.

3. Well, if we're going to mention plays, I can't neglect how much I enjoy just about anything by Eric Samuelson, a playwright and professor at BYU. Also, I think Scott Bronson's play Stones is groundbreaking in the genre of LDS theater, besides being breathtaking.

4. Can't leave out The Backslider by Levi Peterson. Again, this one comes with a strong caution. It's a highly religious book, but also disturbing to less-experienced or highly-sensitive readers.

5. I loved Virginia Sorensen's The Evening and the Morning. Also Maureen Whipple's The Giant Joshua. Both are long, slow reads, highly character-driven.

6. Getting away from fiction for a second, Orson Scott Card's essay collection, A Storyteller in Zion is incredibly thought-provoking, and Louise Plummer's Thoughts of a Grasshopper is hilarious and moving. Also, any essay collection by Eugene England. My favorite essay of his is "Why the church is as true as the gospel." I also enjoy any essay I can find by Tessa Meier Santiago, but she hasn't published a collection (yet!) and so her essays are tricky to find.

7. Don Marshall's The Rummage Sale is worth reading because it was ground-breaking. (It's also very entertaining.) John Bennion's Breeding Leah and other Stories blew my mind—I was only just barely old enough to read it, I think. Disturbing and moving.

8. A more mild read, one that I can recommend to everyone, is Donald Smurthwaite's Fine Old High Priests. A very sweet, gentle book told with love for the church and its culture. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this book didn't make a bigger splash. It seems perfect for the market that I believe is being underserved by Deseret Book and Covenant--readers who demand more filling reads than most of what these publishers produce, but who want to be able to trust that the book will be optimistic and faithful. I spoke to a DB editor a few months ago and she was also as depressed and perplexed as I was at how poorly this book did.

9. I loved Douglas Thayer's Under the Cottonwoods, also a short story collection.

10. Orson Scott Card's Alvin books are very Mormon without ever being outwardly religious. The first one is Seventh Son. I remember my joy when I first read Seventh Son. I had not known a person could write about religion like this. Amazing.

A few non-Mormon books that I think are important for people who are interested in writing from a religious standpoint (and all are very enjoyable):

1. Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. Beautiful.
2. Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman. A must-read for people interested in writing from within a religious worldview about real people in that culture who happen to have problems.
3. The Ladies' Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis. Ditto the above, only this one is even better. I wish I had written this. It could totally take place within an LDS ward relief society.
4. My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Potok is often pointed to by Mormons who want to write about Mormonism for the general market, but I think he is a problematic example since his characters are often on the edge of their communities instead of solidly inside it. (We have enough "edgy" Mormon stuff. I'd like to see more high-quality "inside" stuff.)
5. Lying Awake by Mark Saltzman. This book spoke to me deeply about faith and my own testimony.
6. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson. Definitely on my re-read list because one reading won't do it.
7. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.

By the way, it's odd to me that I can recommend any of the preceding 7 non-Mormon books to any reader without reservation. Some of them might move a little slow if you usually read Tom Clancy, for example, but none of them will be disturbing to you. Weird that I have to give greater caution about the LDS ones. I think we're all just a little more defensive and sensitive when we know the writer or subject is LDS.

So, tell me what you think. Do you have any favorite LDS-ish books you'd like to mention? Comments on mine?


Justine said...

I tend to avoid Mormon literature. I think I've been burned by some bad writing published only under the pretense that "It's by a Mormon, it must be uplifting/interesting/true/etc."

I have read, and did enjoy "A little Lower than the Angels" by Virginia Sorenson. It was so complex and unresolved.

I also read "A Mormon Mother" by Annie Clark Tanner. Tough read. Tough topic. But interesting and well written.

That's pretty much the extent of writings I would recommend from Mormon writers. I'll have to check out some of your recommendations to restore my faith in the genre.

scott bronson said...

Quite liked Levi Peterson's "Backslider" though I enjoyed "Aspen Marooney" more. Tried reading straight through his "Night Soil" collection and found a disturbing theme through the stories that I didn't like--a sense of an inherent elitism in the characters that made them people I ceased to care about. I also enjoyed John Bennion's "Breading Leah and Other Stories" until I got part way into the last story; I abandoned it there. David Gagon's "Honorable Release" I found to be quite fine--I've read it twice--and think it interesting that I've never heard it mentioned on any Mormon Lit site. Read Rachel Nunes's first "Ariana" book and was fairly interested in the story until Ariana became a Mormon at which point she became some kind of Spiritual Midas--everyone she spoke to became Mormon too. I found it ... not credible at that point. I've enjoyed the books that Scott Card has written for Deseret Book though I did not align myself with the relationship between Abraham and Isaac in "Rebekah." I've done my own treatment of that relationship and I imagined it with much less antagonism than Scott did. All these, and many others as well, I believe, have important roles to play in the development of LDS Fiction as a genre--I remember being quite jazzed by Weyland's "Charley" (and then hating the sequel), and "Windwalker" and "Charlie's Monument" by a Yorgason or two. I also thrilled a few times to performances of "Saturday's Warrior," back when I was sixteen and seventeen. I will refrain, however, from making any comments on your choices in plays because my favorite wasn't listed. ;-)

Marj said...

ummm, I liked The Work and the Glory series...a lot. So, knowing that, you may email me privately your recommendations.

p.s. Did you survive Christmas?

c jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
c jane said...

Oh how I love the Backslider. In my opinion, it's the best ever.

Darlene said...

Hey, thanks for your comments, everyone. Justine, I'll have to check out "A Mormon Mother." I think you'd like "The Evening and the Morning." Scott, I'll look for "Honorable Release." Marj, I think you would like Dean Hughes's "Children of the Promise" series. Have you read it? Courtney, I'm glad you liked it. I'm really careful about who I recommend it too--it puts hair on your chest, you know? Kathy asked me a while ago why I don't own it if I think it is so important. Now that she's read it she knows why. Wouldn't want the kids to pick it up sometime . . .