22 young Mormon writers


In 1974, Cracroft and Lambert put together perhaps the seminal anthology of Mormon literature, A Believing People. Covering Mormon lit from the beginning to the (then) present day, it was situated as evidence that a Mormon literature existed and here it is. Tada!

It's not a book I've ever ready through because . . . I'm just not likely to ever do it. But I'm glad it exists and it should be part of any serious Mo-lit collection.

But that's just intro to today's book, 22 Young Mormon Writers, which the same editors (but a different publisher) released a year later.

Three of the writers appear in both books: Ann Doty, Clifton Holt Jolley, Linda Sillitoe. And if you know any more about Ann Doty, please let me know. Other writers from 22 have names you'll recognize, but others have utterly vanished.

— UPDATE ON ANN DOTY : (it's not a happy one) —

The book is illustrated with photographs by Paul  Fletcher, Mike Nielson, and Mark A. Philbrick, with one additional photograph from the olden days.


"I Just Don't Think Anymore that It's Such a Big Deal: A story about ClayBoy and Jeanie" by Ann Doty

So many positive things to say about this story—it's voice is fresh and honest, the setting and characters are alive, the moments of epiphany are wise and simple and earned. But my favorite element is what I want to talk about and that is the story's unusual frame.

The first half of the story takes place when ClayBoy and Jeanie are twelve, the second half when they are high-school seniors. The story begins with them walking down the road then into some trees where an unknown second-person loses sight of them as they continue on to the lake. At the end, Jeanie comes out from those trees and that you catches sight of her once again.

Who is this you that sees two kids enter trees and does not notice them again until one exits those trees six years later? Who is the narrator talking to?

I have no idea. But it's a light touch and magical and beautiful wrapping paper for a story lovely and sad.

"The Provider" by Bonnie Howe

This pagelong poem is an ode to a father; a specific, beloved father. That it ends in death so plainly feels like a betrayal. But maybe that's the point.

"The Gift" by Don M. Sharp, Jr.

This concrete poem (shape of an apple) has terrific language but—and I read it more than once—seems to be a weird take on Eden, taking Mormon visuals and language and turning them back on Eve, who is "evilly / Beguiled." Dunno that I love making Satan more of a good guy than stupid old Eve.

Maybe a better reader should give this a shot.

"Nearly Blanched" by Giles H. Florence, Jr.

It's always fun to see progressive thinking at an earlier state. In this case, the speaker is trying to be empathetic to the "Red" man and doing an okay job at it. But I'm not sure it's making the cut to an anthology in 2022, you know?

"Sheep Crossing" by Jed A. Bryan

This is among the most thrilling five pages of (roughly) blank verse I've ever read. The story of a cattleman who, seeing the price of sheep, unloads his calves cheap to buy sheep. But then a herding mishaps leads to them getting stuck on the traintracks and—

I don't know how many times I said "Oh no!" as the inevitable approached.

And when it arrived, how horrifying.

The ending maybe doesn't fall as well as it could for a more urbanized audience, being more about the economic loss and the cattleman's feelings thereon than the sheep bits spread across the country side, but it does give the poem its proper form.

"Visiting Hours" by Bonnie Howe

I don't know if these are the same two characters as in the last poem, but this time the younger person visits the older person and, well, he ain't doing so good. She cries in her soup on the way home. Still a bit pedestrian.

"For Mary-Frances Who Daydreams in Physics" by Susan Chock

In this poem we are allowed to imagine that Columbus does sail off the edge of the world, embarrassing the queen but allowing her a beautiful repentance and redeeming the world's wonder as her adventurer is released from the mouth of the mapedge dragons.

"Fitzgerald, My Comfort" by Peggy Wiseman

This too is about a famous dead man though I'm less certain what to make of this novelist or how restrained he was or why he was "More bitter for what he withheld." It has a similar loveliness to the previous poem but is not as fully developed or at least makes less sense to me.

"Poems Too Short for Title" by Jan Lalli

Four poems in a two-by-two grid. Reading down then down, the first two are charming little dating poems from quite different (but still sadfaced) perspectives. Then one on pick-up sticks which can be read metaphorically as still being on topic but it's a bit of a stretch. Then another downer but now we've arrived at a place where, if the poems all share a speaker, she's not looking for love in a very healthy way. 

"The Lord" by Susan Chock

It's starts off seeming like it'll be a litany of via negativa—the Lord is not a cup of tea, for instance. Then it took a turn into the harsh I did not expect. And then it combined those two into a rather powerful closing statement. I can see using this in a talk.

"The Aardvark" by Jed A. Bryan

This poem is just a dumb joke that has fun with sound—sort of like if Ogden Nash wrote free verse.

"Untitled" by Cathy Gileadi

This poem about was pregnancy (the evidence of sex) looks like to outsiders, virgins and mothers both, is perhaps the most pagan work I've read passing (successfully) as Mormon.

"Released" by Susan H. Aylworth

"Released" makes interesting conversation with other bichops-getting-released stories (who knew there was an entire genre!); as in Brian Evenson's "The Care of the State," serving as a bishop becomes an unbearable burden, and as in William Morris's "Release," being bishop infiltrates every moment and sense until it is part of every thought and moment.

Happily, this is a much happier story than either of those; happier because it ends with some transcendence and a sense that not only is God pleased but that tomorrow will be better for our released bishop thanks to his having served. It's not an easy story, but it's a lovely story.

"By the Rivers of Zion" by M. D. Palmer

It's Isaiah! It's nuclear war! And a shame-on-you finger rub! Wait, it's not nuclear war—it's a metaphor! Hang on. No.... I'm not sure. Anyway, it definitely is Isaiah and was neon before things went down.

"Every Man's Prayer" by Kris Cassity

What marvelous fun this prayer is to read aloud. It's a mouthful of auditory pleasures in prayer form, starting with a spin on the Hail Mary and dancing across the language as if in tap shoes.

"Mamo" by Clifton Holt Jolley

A two-page poem, tribute to a grandmother, made of vignettes, some of which more successfully build to the conclusion and some of which seem included because they simply could not be left out.

Jolley wishes for a like death if he is "ever eighty-three"—five more years, pal! Five more years!

"Still-life Study of an Ancestor" by Linda Sillitoe

I'm not sure what the title means unless it's because this list of facts about a dead guy just kind of lie there on the page.

"A Psalm of Praise and Thanksgiving that the Universe Is Not a Magnificent Mechanism" by Stephen O. Taylor

Not sure about this one either. A triptych I guess about how there is meaning in stuff ever-changing and not necessarily for the better? I will mention that I think it's supposed to be "powdered" in the lines "The pale of evergreen contrasts too gently / With the powered white of earth." Snow comes up later so surely, right?

"Mission Bound"  by Jed A. Bryan

I didn't realize the significance of this title until I was into the second half. In short, part one of this poem is about how the house will not miss him when he goes on his mission; part two says his dog will—but she's busy chasing her puppies so it's not like she'll be moping.

It's an indirect and thoughtful look at a person on the edge of adulthood, about to set out on their life-altering quest, learning that their story is not equally huge when seen from another perspective.

"Of Age" by Peggy Wiseman

Because of that last poem, I assumed this secret this protagonist was hesitant to share was leaving on a mission. It was not that. Quite the opposite in fact.

This is a rather startling work of fiction. For something so, so quite and so absent of supernatural elements, it ends up providing profound commentary on faith and faith crisis, family, trauma, honor, loss, and more. It's a deeply complex work and one wonders, if we had Norton anthologies of Mormon literature, this mightn't be one we all read freshman year, part of our shared cultural vocabulary.

I don't really want to say more, but here you go: birthday, BYU student, inactive father, old photographs.

"To Compose a Poem" by Stephen O. Taylor

Kind of a basic ars poetica of the sort you've read before but with a deeply mormontheology undercurrent.

"Days of Winding Roads, Mum" by Michael B. Fillerup

This one feels like a kid playing with language. Why are last full names only capped in the first word? Because! Plus, it's fun to use dialect when it lets you say things like "jes jess." Fillerup, of course, is still with us and just came out with a new book, so I figure he can take the ribbing. Which is good because this is amateur work and there's not much else to say.

"The Mustard Seed" by Béla Petsco

I got mixed up reading this, swapping two families' identities in my mind, but that's on me. The story is classic midcentury-American excellence. And it's perfect for an Oscar-bait film, which got me thinking. Can you imagine BYUtv putting on an anthology series of classic MoLit stories? The end of each season (or perhaps the beginning) would be marked with a nice hardcover publication for folks to package with the dvd set and give to their grown children for Christmas. How awesome! I'll put together a list of stories, just ask me, starting with a couple from this book.

"The Way to a Man's Heart (is through his stomach?)" by Ann Decker

I love this one. Only seven lines. Mixes food and sex with a deep ambivalence. A winner.

"Together We'll Be" by Judd Turner

This paean to a full-bloooded all-encompassing childhood friendship ends with one of the most deflating final lines I've ever read. Is it sarcasm? Is it a punch in the gut? Is it despair? Is it resignation?

Yeah. Probably.

"Prodigal" by Ann Doty

This poem relies on a technique I find annoying (spend most of the poem talking about "it" without ever telling us what "it" is, but it's an appropriate part of what the poem is up to. The final two lines are excellent and the title hangs over the whole poem like a threat.

Like the previous poem, this one is about childhood and about what is lost when you leave it behind. It is about nostalgia. But there are a couple lines that allow for an alternate reading, that our narrator is a god recreating the world she was once human on. But even for a god, somethings cannot be recaptured. Once mortality is gone, it is gone forever.

"Schoolrooms" by Marla G. Smith

Two nostalgias—classrooms in 1955 and 1975. The things said about (complained about?) 1975 seem impossibly modern ("computer-programmed teaching methods"?). And suggesting elementary school is "Harvard in miniature" sounds like me wringing my hands about full-day kindergarten and kids being pushed to read before first grade.

I suppose this is universal experience too. Kids these days—they are not only spoiled, but, as we see here, they also have childhood torn from them too soon.

"Lula Joe Richardson" by Jill Carter

Okay. This two-page poem (three really, except they cheated on the page design) is, if I'm reading it correct, about Lula Jo who works as a stenographer but does not love it and would rather do something else.

But her options seem limited by her physique, which she finds unimpressive. But the hallway of her life is filled with doors, most of which contain other last names hers might change to, but also sad loneliness and a life as Sinner.

I had to read this more than once to figure out what was going on, but what emerged was a portrait of a woman trapped in liminal space without great tools to progress through life or even to see the full spectrum of life's possibilities. I came to really like Lula Jo. I don't think she is this poem's target at all. The target is the society limiting her perspectives.

 Now, before we get to the final story, let me share with you this, from the page before it begins:

This is cool, right? It's cool that they intended to make volumes like this one a regular occurence. And that's also what makes it sad, in the same way Best of Mormonism makes me sad, even though I loved it. Sustaining things like this is so difficult! Imagine if one of these had come out annually or even every two or three or five years. What a resource that would be!

I've been imagining that these writers were students of the editor or otherwise known to them, but now I wonder if there was a more traditional submission process or something else entirely. I don't know. Maybe there's some papers deep in the HBLL, but it's a mystery to me.

Anyway, on to the best!

"A Season and a Time" by Kent A. Farnsworth

Is this the best piece in the collection? Who knows. There's real competition going on. But this tale over maybe twelve hours wherein a couple missionaries visit a dying member of their branch is strong stuff. One elder is preternaturally beautiful and the other is obsessive about scriptures and how to wield them. In the course of the night, they meet their landlady, a vicar, a young conductress, and a sister who will become a widow before the night is o'er. It's an impressively compact work. We are inside one elders mind and this night will force him to address many concerns, from the petty to the existential. I'll need time to think about that final line but my experience with the story was such that when I closed the book I was moved, both happy and tremulous. Let's not forget, within Mormon letters, that "A Season and a Time" exists.

If I remember correctly, I found this book during a visit to Utah at the Provo DI. Though it may have been given to me by someone unloading their Mormon-books collection.

My copy was made out to "the Bryce Pyttings" (or possibly Lyttings or possibly Cyttings) "with love and admiration, and with best wishes for a joyous life together" in "December 1983, eight years after the book's release, by "Janice and Richard Cracroft." My guess is they had a box full of them in a closet or the garage and gave them away like Christmas cards that year. But who knows.

I suspect Brother Cracroft knew the husband first as my bookmark, a half-sheet of paper, may have originally accompanied another book. It says, "To my buddy Bryce, with genuine affection / Dick Cracroft / 1977."

I don't know the full story, but I do like knowing something of the history of my copy. This book is old now—and has been older than me my entire life—but didn't find it's home until I was seven. I have no idea if it had been read before I found it, or how many time, or how many hands it had passed through. Had Bryce and his wife downsized, prepping for a move to St. George? Had they passed it on to one of their children who could not be bothered? Perhaps they, like Dick himself, are dead. I don't know.

But books live on. And although some aspects of this book do feel like "young" writers flexing their wings, sometimes that's what makes this collection sing. Overall, it's a pretty great collection. I wish I knew the fates of more of these writers. Most of them I'd never heard of before and may never hear of again. But, for a time, they were young and believed in themselves, and had some measure of ambition. And, if nothing else, this book exists because they did.

May we all leave such fossils behind.


Paddle to the Sea and other things to do during the shortest month of the year


The list itself is short, but quality must count for something, yes?


library dvd
Paddle to the Sea (1966)

According to my self-set definitions, this film is two minutes two short to be included here, but I'm adding it anyway because it's a stonecold classic and I wanna.

I saw this movie as a child, perhaps more than once, who knows, and it has never left. Me. I guess I knew it was a movie, though when a screenplay I was working on included basically this film as its opening sequence, I did not know what I was referencing. And I think it's appearance in the first episode of Tales from the Loop snuck by my self-conscious. (But when we watched that episode again, I for sure saw it. But that takes place after the following paragraph.)

So when I was glancing at the kids dvds while my daughter was coloring in the library and picked this spine thanks to its intriguing title, I was so excited to check it out and bring it home. Then I renewed it. Then I renewed it again. And nine weeks to the day after bringing it home, I finally watched it with the 6yrold and—I really liked it.

It's pretty 1966 in just about every way, but there's something greater about it, something more, something mythic and heroic and timeless. Something metaphysical and honest and true.

And it's only 28 minutes, folks. Just go to YouTube (AND DO NOT SPEED IT UP) and just luxuriate.

Prime Video
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020)

I love this movie! It scratches so many of my limitation itches: ten-person cast, just a few connected sets, (apparent) one shot. And I have to tell you, as someone who, in fact, doesn't know that much about moviemaking, there were times I couldn't see how they did it other than the explanation the movie provides: that they have a pair of monitors that are separated in time by two minutes.

The movie is funny and trippy and startling and engages with big ideas (including time travel's raison d'etre: free will) without ever losing its sense of just being a grand lark.

THIS is pandemic filmmaking!

library dvd
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

I remember when this came out. Everyone was praising it as a masterpiece of kung-fu comedy, greater even than Stephen Chow's preceding Shaolin Soccer, which I found astonishing. We didn't get around to watching it until 2013 and I was underwhelmed. Perhaps because it wasn't what I was imagining. Perhaps because it wasn't the greatest movie I had ever seen. Perhaps because the cg was already quite aged. I dunno.

Anyway, I was on the library website and happened to notice a way to see the latest-purchased dvds and took a looksee. And what do you know, but Chow's Mermaid—his followup to Kung Fu Hustle that as far as I'd been able to ascertain never made it to America—was there on a doublefeature with Kung Fu Hustle. I put it on hold. There was no competition. It came right to me.

Lady Steed's out of town and so the boys and I watched it tonight. And I don't know if it was lower expectations or better watching-partners or the bigger screen or what, but I loved it.

I do think it's worth mentioning that the hokey cg has, in its lifetime, moved from not-quite cutting edge to cringily out of date to delightfully oldfashioned. But I also think I was in the mood tonight to accept Chow's unapologetic nonsense. He's taking tropes from kung fu and superheros and kaiju and things like Pirates of the Caribbean without any of that American neurosis that things need to "make sense" or "be realistic" which, the more you think about it, are stupid goals indeed.

It can't replace Shaolin Soccer in my lifestory, but it's just as much fun now, in 2023.

And seriously: props to Chow for finding the weirdest looking people in all of China. Especially in this nonsensical paeon to old Hollywood.

our dvd
Les enfants du paradis (1945)

One of the great films they say and they're probably right. So many excellent bits and plenty to talk about. But such ambiguity at the end. Feels like a movie that would reward multiple rewatchings and might demand that to feel you truly understand.

Really made me nostalgic for the great (and mostly lost) pantomime tradition. There really was no way to preserve such, was there, before the advent of cinema?

Of course, the stories of them making the film under Vichy noses are fun, but if you didn't know you would not be able to tell. The movie stands on its own merits and not just as a historical marvel.

LINK+ dvd
Zardoz (1974)

What a weird movie.

Based on the little I knew (basically, Sean Connery's costume+++), I figured this was an R-rated Star Wars knock off, but no. First of all, it came out three years earlier. Secondly, it's much more interested in being the next 2001. It's loaded with portent and philosophy and arthouse filmery and a bunch of nonsense. In short, it is dumb.

But I don't regret watching it! The opening was one surprise after another and although the film eventually threw out pacing and thinks it's much more intelligent than it is, it never stopped being a wild document of its era.

Who knows. Maybe in 20 years it'll be a classic. I doubt it, but you never can tell.

our dvd
Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It's been well over a decade since I first saw this and . . . I still don't like it. I don't know why. I love the cast; I'm pro-nonstopmayhem; it has dinosaurs.

I think it just bumps into a couple things that make it hard for me to suspend my believe. Little things. Like—that's not how dinosaur bones work (times two). Or wondering how the animals were treated on set. And while I'm all for screwball ladies getting their man, this one really pushes what's possible. And the film's neglect of Woman #1 really makes me wish Nora Ephron had taken a pass on the script.

So while I laughed at times, this just hits the unsweet spot for me between the further lunacy of the Marx Brothers and the more grounded nonsense of Preston Sturges.

I certainly hope your mileage will vary.

(Aside: We watched this because a friend told the 6yrold that when her daughter was six, this was her favorite movie and she would watch it over and over. But the 6yrold didn't laugh. And I realize she hasn't been trained on the classics as were her brothers. We'll need to remedy this.)

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

This is my first time watching one of Richard Linklater's rotoscoped movies, but it's not my first time watching one of his coming-of-age movies. I guess this would be my second favorite, after Almost Famous, but before Boyhood or Dazed and Confused. One thing that surprised me, given the early set-up and what the trailer promised, is that the first half of the movie is 100% nostalgia. Being a kid in the late Sixties was like this and it was like this and it was like this and it was like this. Oh, and it was like this too. And frankly, it's charming and fun and makes me too feel nostalgic for an era I never knew, but it doesn't seem to have a point. Isn't this whole thing about a kid who gets sent to the moon because they accidentally built the first lunar module too small? That's a great concept! WHY ARE WE STILL NOT GETTING TO THE POINT OF THIS WHOLE MOVIE, TO ITS ACTUAL STORY?

The movie does a lot of things well (beautifully observed moments, well realized relationships, capturing of a lost world) and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more had I known what it was going to be. I am glad I watched it on my own though. If I do watch it with my kids, I'll pitch it differently to them than it was to me (or how I had intended to pitch it to them).

In the end, kids may enjoy this movie but it is certainly aimed at adults. Adults whose daily requirement for nostalgia demands a whole lotta narration.

Enchanted (2007)

First time seeing this for me. And although I have a couple issue with the pacing and imagery, and a couple questions about its feminism, I found it delightful and funny and just enough moving to roll my eyes at myself because really—it's so corporate.

library dvd
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

This is pretty good but, as is often the case having just read excellent source material, the adaptation pales. I'd probably have liked it more if I hadn't been debating the film over its every alteration as it progressed.

Part of what it changed though just feels very Forties. Lana Turner was dressed too well and her hair was too done, and the strange violent sexuality of the leads was largely absent. Somehow I imagine that gap is what Jack and Jessica sought to fill. Maybe I'll find out.

library dvd
History of the World: Part I (1981)

I recently saw a teaser for the upcoming Part II (here's the trailer, too) and, for the first time, it made me want to see Part I. Because here's the thing: I don't really like Mel Brooks.

I mean—I love Get Smart and I like the 2,000-year-old man fine. I like Young Frankenstein, mostly. But I did not enjoy at all Blazing Saddles or SpaceBalls, and The Producers was barely fine, imo. I'm just kind of mystified adults find this stuff funny.

Anyway. It had some funny bits. I laughed a few times.

And only 92 minutes long!

Previous films watched


jan feb














So a young widower in my parents’ ward recently remarried. The wedding happened in Cedar City and then he and she and his (now their) kids came to my parents’ ward the following Sunday. It was a Fast Sunday and so my dad, predictably, stood and bore his testimony. It’s what he does.

Now, this new couple happened to be sitting just in front of my parents and, as my dad spoke, she started texting furiously. And when sacrament meeting ended, she rushed to my father and wanted to tell him she had told all her friends that Paul McCartney was in her new ward and she was so excited to talk to him!

My dad’s insistence that he was not Paul incognito was received with skepticism.

A month later, talking to my mom, she told her that she’d been asking my dad a bunch of questions and while most of them checked out, she was deeply shaken to learn he was right-handed.

All the same, did my mom think he would mind if she called him Brother McCartney? And what if I call you Sister McCartney? Mom said that would be fine.

Now that it’s been pointed out to me though, yeah, I can see it. He’s nine years older than my dad, but as they’ve moved into old age, they’ve started to look much more alike.

Enough so—and here’s your evidence the Beatles are not dead—that he’s getting the comparison from high-school students when he subs, as well. And apparently even at the store a couple times as well.

So: Paul McCartney is secretly Mormon and he lives that life a couple hours from L.A. in a small mountain community where he can maintain his anonymity (almost) while remaining within range of the jetset.

Tell your friends.

This important information also available on Thubstack.


If it weren't for a friendly sex talk, everything here would be miserable


So James M. Cain is now may favorite. Write that down. James M. Cain is Theric's favorite. And then I read a book that I found fascinating and fun but also deeply angering and irritating. Great combination? Probably not. And inbetween, a new BCC Press book I highly recommend to all you sexual creatures out there.

Let's dig in!


015) Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, finished February 10

After being blown away by Postman (every day that passes, the more highly I think of it) I decided to get the one based on a movie I have seen (albeit twenty years ago—all the same, great movie; although I think it wasn't quite exactly what I just read; but then: twenty years ago).

And it too was incredible—what a writer!

Cain can make a novel-shaping metaphor in a two-sentence paragraph—or even a two-word paragraph. It's amazing to watch. And amazing that it works.

I love the twisted messes of humanity he presents, and his view of a relentless justice pressing down on his do-badders is relentless. And all along we are propelled forward. I know they're short books, but I wasn't even trying to read this one quickly. It was quick all on its own.

Anyway, James M. Cain, every body. I should maybe read something else before picking up another, but I dunno. I might not wait....

three days

016) Sex Educated: Letters from a Latter-day Saint therapist to her younger self by Bonnie Young, LMFT, finished February 13

Good book. I appreciate the angle and the information. I hope it gets a wide audience. Too many minor errors (eg, a missing space; thinking her friends made up something Judy Blume made up; two endnotes at the same location, the second of which reads "Ibid."; which reminds me that sometimes it likes "Ibid" and other times "Ibid."—stuff like that), but they don't get in the way of the book's value.

The book has twelve letters to her younger self, one each for when aged 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 26, and 28. The conceit is solid. The execution varies at time but since, at it's core, this is an exercise in practical advice for an external audience and not actual letters sent back in time, the shaky literary choices that would get her eaten alive by an audience neck-deep in time-travel novels hardly matter and I'm ashamed of myself for even bringing them up. I should work on my self-control, I suppose. See the letter to sixteen-year-old Bonnie.

I do love the concept and execution, though, make no mistake. I read things and thought, oh yeah, that would have been helpful at the time, even with the later letters. And she makes a few points later on that I'm not sure I'd had articulated for me before and, frankly, I appreciate that they now have been.

It's not a long book. You can read it in a day or a week or six months, as you please. Although in the opening letter to the reader, she says, "despite the fact that the first few letters of this book address a child, this is not a children's book." I've been thinking about that—just when is the right age to leave it lying around for a kid to find? When you've read it, I'd be interested in your opinion.

four or five days

017) Unmask Alice: LDS, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson, finished February 20

I had a wide variety of reactions to this book. Let's see if I can get them to cohere into one thing in one draft. Ready, go.

The book is super-readable. Maybe an eighth-grade reading level in terms of vocab and syntax, with supershort chapters, often a bit cliffhangery. I zoomed through this book. It's like potato chips.

I've never read Go Ask Alice or Jay's Journal or any other of Beatrice Sparks's books. My primary memory of them is me age . . . eight? (so years after Jay had been released in 1978) at my aunt's house, she and my mother having a whispered conversation about Jay's Journal. I don't remember details, but satanicpanicesque rumors swirled through the 80s and I knew Jay's Journal was connected. (We also weren't allowed to watch Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday morning. Though I snuck it in a few times anyway.) The book stayed at our house, while my mom was reading it, with a strict warning not to touch. Even today, when you enter my aunt's house, the first thing you see is her bookshelves, and so that haunted hardback's spine would look at me every time I entered.

Go Ask Alice I was less aware of, though I knew it was controversial. It never attracted my interest to actually read and I didn't know the two books were connected by the same serial hoaxer. Or, if you prefer, the same liar. And I didn't know she was LDS until just a few years ago. As was the nonSatanist kid she based Satanist Jay on.

In an early footnote on the word "Mormon," Emerson says this:

* Officially "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," a bulky phrase I don't wish to type nine thousand times. In daily life—and despite the Church's best efforts—it typically gets shortened to "LDS," but given this book's frequent mentions of "LSD" (the drug), that seems like asking for trouble and/or inadvertent hilarity. For clarity's sake, I'm sticking to "Saints," "Latter-day Saints," "Mormon," and other casual terms. No disrespect is intended.

No disrespect may be intended, but it's hard not to be disrespectful when you have genuinely zero idea why anyone might be religious. The book's vibe on religion can be summed up as "crazy-stupid shit we have to respect for some reason" and it shines through.

Now, look—midcentury LDS culture had plenty flaws I've no interest in defending, but when religion is defacto crazy-stupid to you, so are its adherents. Every Mormon in this book is, on some core level, a fool and possibly a dangerous fool. And details that emphasize that thus get more light shined on them than any that might mitigate.

Unmask Alice opens with an author's note that essentially says—I am not exaggerating—don't check but I have sources for everything and you can trust me.

I decided to go ahead and take him at his word but when I came to the second author's note at the end of the book, I was shocked to see that his sources consist of 1) things you can check yourself so I didn't put them in the book, 2) other things you can check yourself if you really want to, and 3) "Things that aren't public and, for reasons of privacy, aren't currently checkable."

The last few chapters of the book consist of research that largely falls into #3, and he does say when he's doing it as he's doing it, which is a great way to build trust (suspiciously great, a cynic might say, being a tool Sparks also used). He says, for instance, that one of three librarians he's talking to will not be named at her request as her brother also committed suicide (like "Jay").

Emerson works to assure us he's naming his sources whenever he can. But at one point he slams an HBLL program that works on Wikipedia articles by quoting an anonymous "BYU researcher." He later gives a generous thank you to the HBLL in his final acknowledgments, but that anonymous BYU researcher remains anonymous. Why? Did his brother commit suicide too?

Even more startling to me was something thrown into the appendix. After three scans of Library of Congress records (to demonstrate how inconsistent they are describing Sparks's work and how library records are, essentially, entirely whatever an author/publisher claims—he spent pages complaining about this system earlier in the book), he includes a scan from his own contract that "stipulates that fact-checking is my responsibility, and that I solemnly swear not to lie" (all captions were italicized)—which I found shocking because, given his trust-me form of sourcing, I was really counting on assurance that the publisher provided some New Yorker-level factchecking. They did not.

Look: The book largely rings true. But given my own knowledge about some aspects of what he talks about, I know he's not playing totally straight, even if he thinks he is. Plus, he just takes so much (perhaps justifiable) delight talking about historical panics over LSD and marijuana and (nonexistent) Satanic cults. At one point, he blames his style on his experience in talk radio, and honestly that does feel explanatory. But no sources, no index—in the end, this does not feel like a work of scholarship. It's a fun read and I believe it is mostly true, but the deeply disturbing irony of a book about someone who failed to source anything failing to source turns Unmask Alice into a work of popular entertainment. I would like to update several Wikipedia articles using his research, which seems good, but his assertion that his sources are out there should I too wish to search the Nixon tapes or Pleasant Grove High School yearbooks or the historical rosters of UCLA is weak. It's just incredibly, embarrassingly weak.

It's hard for me to understand why someone would do all this work and then get so lazy at the end. I suspect it's because the publisher told him to do it himself. There's a lesson here for authors and publishers alike. (Sadly, that lesson might be you can cut corners and sell the same amount of books, but I'd rather not consider that lesson.)

Finally, Rick Emerson is just kind of a jerk. And while he's usually a good host, his willingness to take cheap shots now and then did not inspire my trust. I penciled "What a dick." at the bottom of page 334, and I'm leaving it when I return it to the library. Let the rest of Contra Costa County know my opinion. I stand by it.

five days


Previously . . . . :