I first read this many years ago. This is a story--not really novel-length, but more like a novella--of an Inuit boy living in an artificial satelliteI first read this many years ago. This is a story--not really novel-length, but more like a novella--of an Inuit boy living in an artificial satellite that has been created as a place where his culture can preserve their traditional lifestyle. It follows the story of the 12-year-old's mandatory education, when he learns the truth about his world--and uncomfortable other truths, such as the fact that scientists back on Earth have recently demonstrated the sentience of the whales his people still hunts by communicating with them. When he returns to his village to take place in his first whale hunt, he feels deeply conflicted.
Okay. That makes the story sound like a bad Saturday-afternoon ecological TV program from the 70s. The truth, though, is that this is a finely crafted and thoughtful tale, not really a YA story (though not inappropriate for YA readers), gentle yet tough in the questions is raises. No one here is the bad guy. It's a story about traditions, it's a story about growing up, and it's a fine science fiction story, not because it takes place in an artificial satellite but because it confronts the profoundly sf question of how we as individuals and societies must adjust when scientific understanding changes our view of the world around us. It's a story that's well worth your read if you can get your hands on it. ...more
**spoiler alert** Note: I received a free electronic copy of this book from the author, in trade for a free electronic copy of my book, No Going Back.**spoiler alert** Note: I received a free electronic copy of this book from the author, in trade for a free electronic copy of my book, No Going Back. This is a shortened version of a review that was posted at A Motley Vision: Mormon Arts and Culture blog.
Road shows are a familiar icon of Mormon life. The following passage from Braden Bell’s debut novel provides a horrible — and hilarious — illustration of the depths to which they can descend:
“Our last road show was a Sister Cartwright extravaganza about the Word of Wisdom. The big climax took place in the refrigerator — a showdown between the oranges and the junk food. Singing produce, dancing whole grains. I think I was a sentient Twinkie or something — one of the bad guys. We sang a song about fat and cholesterol to the tune of ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ from The Sound of Music. ‘Deep in the fridge were some evil Twinkies, la-hay-den with lo-hots of cholesterol!’” (p. 55)
All too often, the production of an LDS road show becomes a drama in its own right, featuring elements of ambition, embarrassment, idiocy, stress — together (when it works right) with good humor, growth, and genuine bonding. My point here is that road shows are (a) distinctly Mormon, and (b) ripe for literary treatment in a Mormon setting.
Bell’s novel telegraphs its direction from its short prologue, where five LDS characters are briefly presented, each suffering from some form of spiritual malaise: the adult male pornography addict, the depressed young mother, the ambitious father and businessman who feels spiritually sterile despite his apparent success, the lonely old woman with fibromyalgia, the alienated quasi-hippy who doesn’t feel that he fits in at church. Each scene ends with the character’s internal plea for help from God. And then we see an email message from a stake activities chairman, talking about the year’s road shows. The expectation is clear: all five characters will see their lives change and their prayers answered through involvement with the road show project.
It’s a promising beginning: straightforward, engaging, and providing a clear signal both that the story will deal with some tough themes and that the answers will come through application of the gospel of Jesus Christ and opportunities for service in the kingdom. And by and large, that’s what the book delivers.
The characters’ dramatic situations are well thought out, marred by an occasional tendency toward heavy-handedness. For example, the despair of a young graduate student about to be expelled from his theater program (the pornography addict) is well drawn, but the LDS department chair’s comments about him seeming to have regressed in knowledge and skill during the past year read less like realistic character development and more like an intended scriptural illustration.
For the most part, the book follows through well on its initial promise. The resolutions are modest, believable, and appropriate to the situations of the individual characters. The exhausted young mother, for example, is rejuvenated by her participation in the road show — but also by going to the doctor and getting appropriate medication for post-partum depression, and also by realizing that she need to make an effort to reconnect to her husband and family. The pornography addict, as part of the most fully realized plot thread, both confesses to the bishop and exercises his will to resist temptation — and to avoid tempting situations before they begin. His success as director of the road show also plausibly (if somewhat predictably) paves the way for being given a second chance in his program. The lonely old woman experiences fellowship through her participation in the road show — and a physical healing on-stage in a scene I’m not quite sure works for me as a reader, though it’s as well done as it probably could have been given the premise. There’s no area where reader reactions tend to be more personal and individual than in response to literary/artistic depictions of spiritual manifestations and miracles. I give points to Bell for taking the risk.
--END SPOILER ALERT--
I found the style clear, easy to read, and engaging. There’s a good sense of character voice. I also felt the author did a good job of communicating many concrete specifics of LDS life, though that’s a bit marred by the fact that each point-of-view character is shown at a point of quiet crisis. This focus means we aren’t directly shown what the gospel and Church involvement mean during regular times. That won’t be a limitation for the main intended audience, who as active members of the Church should be able to supply this for themselves; however, it makes the book less likely to satisfy non-LDS readers by providing a realistic and fully-sketched view of Mormon life. Interactions within the ward are nicely drawn, avoiding the kind of obsessively over-the-top, exaggerated behavior that some LDS writers rely on to add humor.
In short, I found The Road Show enjoyable, well-written, and likely to appeal to many LDS readers. However, I can’t really say that it’s a groundbreaking, memorable, or powerfully affecting example of Mormon fiction.
Part of the reason lies in the clear didactic purpose of the novel and the way that the story was structured to deliver that message. There’s never really any doubt about where the story is going or what the message will be when it gets there.
On a stylistic level, I feel that the book often relied on preexisting expectations of the audience to evoke desired reactions, rather than earn those reactions through carefully selected original words and images. Good and bad influences and effects were telegraphed not only by the typographic conventions mentioned above, but also by echoing well-known scriptures and relying on details with a well-established iconic value (such as a mother not liking it when her children sing).
Part of the problem is the shortness of the novel. In 120 pages of text, it’s simply impossible — in my view — to do justice to all the stories Bell is juggling. Instead, he gives us the literary equivalent of three snapshots for each character (though spread out over more than three scenes): initial situation, worsening problem, and change point. The complexity and complications of real life are largely missing. A complete treatment of the characters’ varied situations could easily have taken three times the space of Bell’s novel. But then, a novel three times the size of The Road Show probably wouldn’t attract as many readers.
It’s easy to be confident in pointing out the flaws of poorly written fiction. It’s considerably harder to feel confident in pointing out ways that a well-written work falls short of what it could be, when I know that revising the story in the ways I’d like to see would probably reduce its appeal for its intended audience.
The simple fact is that a lengthier book with more character development, greater realism and detail in how its characters progress toward the resolutions of their problems, and more stylistic originality would probably not fare as well in the Mormon market. For that matter, I’m unsure whether the central story structure could have sustained a greater weight of text. And I’m quite sure Cedar Fort would have been less likely to publish it.
In sum, The Road Show won’t please those who look for innovation, original insights, or a high degree of gritty realism or literary polish in Mormon fiction. However, for readers who are open to a well-told, straightforward tale that delivers standard gospel answers while at the same time acknowledging real challenges that face modern members of the Church, there’s much here to like....more
The book starts with point of view character Gen — a boy apparently in his late teens — languishing in the prison of the king of Sounis, a victim of hThe book starts with point of view character Gen — a boy apparently in his late teens — languishing in the prison of the king of Sounis, a victim of his own competence (in stealing the king’s seal) and foolishness (in bragging about it). There he’s visited by the king’s magus (not a magician but a scholar), who recruits him to help steal an (initially unnamed) magical artifact which, as we discover over the course of the novel, will help the king to achieve supremacy over neighboring lands.
The first part of the story focuses on Gen’s journey with the magus and several other characters to where the artifact can be found. Little by little, we find out more about the object of the quest, its historical/mythical background, and the military and political situation that makes it so important. At the same time, we get to know Gen’s personality — an engaging mix of pride, cleverness, sincerity, immature defiance, and teenage sulkiness — and observe the interactions of the other characters in his party.
And then the characters reach the object of their quest, and the story takes a sharp turn toward the overtly magical and supernatural. Events gain a more external focus, as the party members find themselves struggling to escape pursuit — and we start to discover things about Gen that we hadn’t known before.
In the end, plot threads are resolved in a surprisingly satisfying way, with mythic tied to political tied to personal. The Thief delivers a main character with an engaging personal voice, an intriguing plot, complex development of even the minor characters, and a world that leaves us wanting to explore further. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy YA fantasy. ...more
A good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with a longtime friend. It’s not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it aboutA good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with a longtime friend. It’s not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it about polished literary style — though there is a style and a demanding literary craft to writing such essays well. The essence of that craft lies in the achievement of a clear, intimate, authentic voice, as if the author were indeed a close and trusted friend. The satisfaction we as readers take from the experience springs in large measure from that sense of connection.
The other key to a good personal essay is the quiet insights it provides into ordinary life. Personal essays are the genre of the quotidian, focused into insight and clarity (there’s that word again) through the lens of an author’s mental reflection and then offered up for the reader’s recognition and acknowledgment. The underlying ethos of every personal essay is our essential similarity as human beings. As Jane D. Brady (author of one of the essays published in this collection) puts it: “There’s not a chasm between normal, functioning human beings and the bums on the street with no job and no life. There’s one hair’s breadth. Disaster is one step off the sidewalk. It is one migraine away” (p. 198). Personal essays persuade us of this truth (just as applicable to miracles as disasters) through a combination of narrated occurrence and quiet observation. We ponder the writer’s insights, resonate with the writer’s experiences, and feel that we know ourselves better as a result.
Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies makes accessible 25 high-quality contributions to this genre, well suited to the tastes of orthodox Mormons who enjoy thoughtful reflection on what it means to be Mormon and what it means to be human. The essays — ranging from memories of World War II among the Latter-day Saints in an Australian branch to insights interwoven with recuperation from back surgery — are organized into the 4 categories of International Vistas, Family Views, Gospel Reflections, and Introspection. Truthfully, though, all of the essays strike me as being in some sense about family, self, and gospel, each set in its own specific geographical, cultural, and temporal frame.
Personal essays in venues such as Dialogue and Sunstone often explore what it’s like to be in the boundary areas of Mormon experience. The essays in Adventures of the Soul, in contrast, stay away from the edges but drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in a range of life circumstances. There’s no controversy, but plenty of fodder for reflection and sharing.
The presentation of these essays matches the quality of their content. The book is beautifully composed and typeset, featuring grayscale photographs of waterfalls that harmonize with the thoughtful and reflective tone of the content. Overall, it’s an ideal gift for the thoughtful, believing Mormon on your Christmas, birthday, or Mother’s/Father’s Day list who may not care for fiction but who likes to read and think about human experience. ...more
Analysis of Tolkien's sources and the uses he put to them is a stape of Tolkien criticism. However, it is seldom done terribly well. What Shippey hasAnalysis of Tolkien's sources and the uses he put to them is a stape of Tolkien criticism. However, it is seldom done terribly well. What Shippey has done that no one else has done anywhere near as well (so far as I'm aware) is look at Tolkien's use of those sources and use it to illuminate Tolkien's creative process. In so doing, Shippey brings together Tolkien's scholarly identity as a philologist and his authorial identity as a writer of fantasy, and shows that those two identities are one and the same.
Put simply, this is the best single book of Tolkien criticism that I have read. While much of the ground here is also covered in Shippey's later book, Tolkien: Author of the Century, this one (in my view) has more of the "meat" of his argument. ...more
While I found the style a bit uneven, the experience was well-told and resonated with mine. I was raised a Mormon in western Oregon, while the main chWhile I found the style a bit uneven, the experience was well-told and resonated with mine. I was raised a Mormon in western Oregon, while the main character in Newell's book was raised as a tree-hugging hippie in Colorado before becoming a Mormon, but still he did a better job of explaining part of what appeals to me about being a Mormon better, perhaps, than any other book I've yet read. ...more
Thoughtful and well-written. The series continues well, as we come to know where Cleaver comes from, his family and his intense desire to protect andThoughtful and well-written. The series continues well, as we come to know where Cleaver comes from, his family and his intense desire to protect and strike back against those who threaten what is precious to him. For my complete review of the series, go here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/dest......more
A devastating and brilliant conclusion to this series. Transcends the genre of teen horror. One of the best books I've read in a long time. For my comA devastating and brilliant conclusion to this series. Transcends the genre of teen horror. One of the best books I've read in a long time. For my complete review of the series, go here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/dest.......more
An interesting premise plus excellent characterization gets this series off to a good start. For my review of the complete series, go here: http://wwwAn interesting premise plus excellent characterization gets this series off to a good start. For my review of the complete series, go here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/dest......more
This is a truly excellent book that presents tough questions. A candidate for the great Mormon novel (if such a thing ever exists). For my full reviewThis is a truly excellent book that presents tough questions. A candidate for the great Mormon novel (if such a thing ever exists). For my full review, go to: http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/revi......more