093) The Hypo by Noah Van Sciver, finished August 28
I've been telling people for a while that this Noah Van Sciver kid is a major talent primed to explode. And even though I only recently realized this book had been finished and released, HE HAS OFFICIALLY EXPLODED.a week or so
Noah's tale of the melancholic young Lincoln captures the place and era in a way I just haven't seen elsewhere. The pathos young Lincoln carries on his face---the way he ages over the 200 pages of story---this is a powerful piece of work. From his series of failures to finding a fellow damaged soul to spend his life with---from suffering under frontier medicine to using hyperbole and humor (and a bit of luck) to escape a duel---from changing his mind in a whore's bedroom to his reason for doing so---Noah's young Lincoln is a complex and powerful characterization. And it doesn't play any of the postmodern games many of the better comics (and aspiring-to-be-better) of our era are getting caught up in.
(Aside: One thing I know having read this book? I really really hope he finishes his Joseph Smith book.)
The book finishes with an addendum with an illustrated version of the almost-certainly-by Lincoln poem on suicide. It's not a bad bit of verse. I've taught it before.
Anyway, the pacing is both stolid and rapid. The art has, in my controversial opinion, not only gone beyond its Crumby origins but quite arguably surpassed Crumb.
Noah Van Sciver has unquestionably arrived.
092) Martyrs' Crossin by Melissa Leilani Larson, finished August 24
As I recently noted elsewhere, sometimes I have a hard time seeing a script, in my mind, in the full glory it would enjoy on stage. This was an occasional problem with this reading. The complicated stagins? No problem? The mystical flow of dialogue by the historical characters? Hard to see quite how that could be pulled off.an hour or two
But that's far less important than the fact that the primary characters---Catherine, Margaret, Joan---and their interactions make terrific sense.
Since I'm dealing with three Mormon writers in this post, I should note the choice of having Joan quote the Doctrine & Covenants and the Book of Mormon. I think it's a smart choice for a couple reasons. For Mormon audiences it has the weight of scripture while seeming exotic and new coming from Joan's mouth. For nonLDS audiences it would have a similar effect, but balanced differently. To have a mixed audience processing the same line in such similar but divergent ways could well prove weirdly electric.
Anyway, I'm quite fond of the play's decision to keep God absent---at least to the audience---and to allow the great to struggle and stumble towards got just as anyone does. There's some sort of meaning here. I can taste it.
091) Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster, finished August 22
It occurred to me after finishing this particular review that it would be better placed somewhere else.methinks almost two weeks
I don't know if Sarah would have sent me an ARC of her upcoming novel if she hadn't already been reading Byuck, but I like to think so. In her email, she said, "I think we share some literary similarities. I think you would like this one... it's marketed romance by Cedar Fort (blah) but it's about as much Romance as Byuck is" (ellipses in original). I'm going to use this as an excuse to navelgaze a bit as I review her new novel. My apologies in advance.
I don't know if all writers compare what they're reading to their own work, but I often do. Especially when a book keeps reminding me in blatant ways of my stuff. If you were to take Byuck, cross it with "The Widower," set it at BYU Idaho, and swap the sex of the major characters, you would get something very much like Mile 21.
In some ways I think Byuck is better (largely in issues of style, but my complaints here are largely connected to issues inherent with writing in the first person), and in some ways I think Mile 21 is better (it successfully incorporates direct religiosity into the plot in ways I shied away from), but both books share an ethos of dealing with the modern, early-twenties, Mormon scene within the artificially heightened setting of a Church-run university.
(Also, Byuck once again has more jokes.)
I rush to admit that this is hardly a new topic or setting for novelists. And I don't want to speak for Sarah, but I suspect that her lack of enthusiasm for the "romance" label is similar to mine. First that romance has an (often undeserved) reputation for poor plot/character development. Second that "romance" suggests a single-mindedness of plot. Mile 21 is waaaaay to complex to pretend it is "just" a love story. In fact, the love story's conclusion functions largely as an external and parallel signification for the completion of the internal trajectory.
Which makes this a good time to mention that I admire the layering of metaphor in this novel. And Sarah's using for metaphors stuff that is just lying around, waiting to be used, but currently underutilized. For instance, I don't know of any other Mormon fiction that uses video games to such good effect. And since I rather notoriously do not like "Blood Work," I don't know of any other Mormon fiction that uses running to such good effect either.
(Note that all quotations are cited at Nook locations based on an epub file I made myself from a Word document of a pre-ARC proof copy Sarah sent me, and are out of 241 locations---at best, the parenthetical number will be an approximations for you.)
Time to buy new shoes.It's not particularly subtle---the old shoes are her dead husband!---but it's just one part of what Sarah's up to; all the metaphors are twisting around each other making a nice little tapestry that runs the risk of driving us mad right along with our hero. Who doesn't overexamine life for significance when nothing important seems capable of maintaining meaning?
Are you sure? What if I like my new shoes better than my old ones?
Well, that's kind of the point. Off with the old, on with the new.
But the old shoes fit so well. They brought me through hundreds of miles.
They're not working anymore, Abish. (75-6)
But this also brings us back to my earlier complaint re first-person point-of-view. At times, Abish (our female protagonist) is given more words than are strictly necessary to help us get it. Anyone who's had me edit them will know that one of my mantras is to assume the reader will get it with the minimum of help. Anyone who's edited me will tell you I take sometimes take my own advice to an unfortunate extreme. Perhaps a half dozen times over the course of Mile 21 Abish unpleasantly overexplained herself. It is, I grant, a tough line to straddle when you're using first-person. Abish herself is a curious mix of self-aware and deliberately ignorant that helps with the straddling, but there were those moments I felt pandered to.
I'm feeling sort of puzzled. I'm not sure why Bob's being like this. (108)Oh, Abish. I can accept you're thinking shallowly enough to end up puzzled. I cannot accept that you are simultaneously puzzled and pretending you can't hypothesize concerning boy/girl interactions. Either you're puzzled or you're thinking about it. But you can't open the box and still find the cat both alive and dead. A third-person narrator has more leeway here, but with Abish narrating, it doesn't quite work in this spot.
Anyway, it's just like me to spend an inordinate amount of time on style issues. Suffice it to say that first-person's a hassle---especially one as self-contradictory as Abish---and Mile 21, though generally successfully, did not escape unscathed.
Here's something else. Mile 21 is a decidedly for-Mormons novel, or so it seems to me. Although keep in mind that everyone says that about Byuck and that was never my intention and still is not my belief. The reason I place this label on Mile 21 is how much time Abish spends in decidedly Mormon relationships. Not just roommates, but a ward, a Relief Society, a bishop. She gets even deeper into the weirdness that is BYU-I and Rexberg generally. They're so much stricter than BYU Classic that I find it bewildering. A two-hours earlier apartment curfew? A city with a similar curfew? Reading about BYU-I gives me the same kind of eyes-wide-open disbelief I imagine nonMormons get reading Byuck. (Which is to say I may be completely wrong about my own for-Mormons claim.) But these down-the-rabbit-hole aspects of the novel are part of what I admire about them. This bold foray into the heart of darkness (so to speak) is something Mile 21 does and does well.
Another thing that strikes me as particularly for-Mormons---though in a somewhat subterfuged way---is something about the tone or voice that puts me in the mood to expect sudden moralizing or tidy messages. But it never happens (cf Nephi Anderson, below). Yes, the ending is quite tidy (here "romance" raises its head again), and Abish find not just romantic answers but many spiritual answers, but those spiritual answers are less clear than the surface romantic conclusion. Sure, she "discovers" that the Plan of Happiness is a plan of happiness, but she also apparently arrives at the conclusion that confusion and uncertainty are not opposed to happiness. Which is not the sort of pat answer detractors of Mormon lit might anticipate this novel to provide. The fact that the novel keeps suggesting simple answers are forthcoming---without ever providing any---allows the novel to function on levels beyond that a casual reader may happily tuck away in a backpocket.
I'm not suggesting the novel is secretly amoral or even wishywashy, but that it rejects the simplicity of tidy fictions in favor of a more realistic complexity, while occasionally allowing the reader the the pleasurable, if immature, hope that life is preordinately predictable. In fact, those characters who promote a simplified, predictable worldview, are the clearest villains of the novel. But even the clearest of villains is seen working through a penance at the end of the novel, presumably shedding her simplicity as she encounters the complexity of others' suffering.
Perhaps the greatest lesson offered by the text is that every character---no matter how simple they seem on the outside---has inner layers of pain and holiness. Each soul is worthy of saving. The crass are sensitive. The sweet live horrors. We are all broken and fallen. We are all capable of love and redemption. We should not give up on ourselves. We should not assume the strong do not need our help. We should not eschew offers of succor from the weak. We should get over ourselves; we should never get over anyone, not even ourselves.
And maybe---just maybe---at least in a story---things really will more or less work out and no matter our confusions, we can be happy.
090) Piney Ridge Cottage by Nephi Anderson, finished August 20
I enjoyed this book so much more than I expected to. I shouldn't be surprised---whenever I read a novel by a long-dead author I've enjoyed in the past, I enjoy it more than I expect it to. Somehow, school made even me fear classic literature.maybe exactly three weeks
Some may argue against calling Piney Ridge Cottage classic, but I'm not alone in thinking it good. And it is good. I found it unwilling to take obvious roads. Even elements that others could choose to interpret as stereotypical Mormon copouts (eg, Chester's quick conversion) are twisted into unexpected forms. And Anderson's made some peculiar decisions as well. Back to Chester, Anderson spends so much time developing this character who, in the end, is primarily a foil for a character we barely see at all! Who does that? He's crazy!
The novel's been sitting on my Nook since SASS but I didn't start reading it until it became fodder for a pending online discussion. Then I read it and was so enraptured by the lead character and the milieux she travels that it kept taking me away from my primary read of piratey sex and violence. Nice girls are not supposed to be able to compete with piratey sex and violence, but this one did.
As a work of realistic fiction, I feel Piney Ridge is a great success. Unquestionably it is a Mormon book with Mormon theology and Mormon actions, but nothing is as clean or as simple or as certain as it may sometimes appear on the surface.
Personally, I still think Dorian is the superior novel, but I would not be surprised if I secretly end up liking Julia more.
Previously in 2013 . . . . :