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LDS Fiction: Bound on Earth

April 23, 2009

I hosted my book club last night, and we read Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. In preparation for my book club, I reread it, and was again impressed. It deserved all the Whitney votes it received (and possibly more). Here are a few of my thoughts (this is not a full review, and beware: spoilers abound. How can you analyze a novel without spoilers?):

-Some of the stories (it’s a novel told in stories) operate at the negation of the negation nexus. This was fascinating to me; I’m just starting to read books like a writer instead of a college student analyzing text. So, for example, I recognized in “A Bed of Your Own Making” that the worst possible thing for Nathan would be to work on a bed for his wife’s birthday and then have her ruin the moment unintentionally but effectively. Whereas a novel requires a lot of build up to get to that worst possible thing, the short story has to explore that negation-negation moment in a quick time frame. “Things Unsaid” does the same thing: the worst possible thing for Joel is not just having a stroke, but having to watch his wife return to school because of it. Hallstrom deftly explores the pain of these worst possible moments; she doesn’t let her characters get off easy, but helps us to understand their pain.

-The women in my ward rock. We had a great discussion. I love the tangents too–one woman’s grandparents were in the Japanese internment camps, which was so interesting to hear about.

-No one said anything like “LDS books shouldn’t be going there,” even though Bound on Earth has characters who make bad choices (a wayward daughter; a husband who is faithful to his wife yet acknowledges the real attraction of a would-be seductress; a mother addicted to pills). It’s not just the great women in my ward; I don’t, in fact, know anyone who has read Bound on Earth who has complained that its LDS characters should not be making the choices they do. This speaks well of Angela’s ability to both allow her characters the agency to make bad choices, and to fully experience the consequences of those choices, while still telling the story in a way that resonates with LDS audiences, instead of alienating them.

-Everyone in the book wanted more; they all wanted to know what happened with Kyle and Beth. Even though the book ends on a hopeful note, we still don’t know for sure that they are going to be okay. I like the current ending, but I understand that perspective too. I would like to see a sequel, too.

It’s a great book, and I’m so glad we could discuss it. I’m crossing my fingers that it wins at the Whitneys this Saturday!

Dandelion Bouquets

April 21, 2009

I have arrived. My daughter brought me one this afternoon.

I hate our dandelions. Every year we spray them and then grow back. They pollute our lawn.

But there’s nothing as sweet as a dandelion bouquet.

Comfort food, comfort books

April 18, 2009

So DH and I went to Chef’s Table tonight (gift certificate. Woohoo!), and while the food was indeed very good, I have been confronted with an uncomfortable truth: I’m just not refined enough to appreciate cuisine. Yeah, the food was good. Very good. We had mushrooms and polenta for an appetizer (yes, all out–gift certificate, remember?) and he had steak, I had salmon for dinner. Then we shared a (small. too small.) dessert.

And it was all very good. But I just don’t know enough about food to be able to fully appreciate what I was tasting. Honestly, it could have been… I don’t know. Chili’s? Applebee’s? People who know food would roll their eyes at such heresy. But, while I like to eat, and I enjoy a good meal, I can’t distinguish flavor overtones. I always mock wine reviews for that reason. “Blackberry and oak, with a hint of melon,” that sort of thing. Intimidating, distant, and–for a Mormon–unreachable. I left feeling like I did not understand enough about my dinner to praise it as the price indicated it should deserve.

I think to educate my palette would require more calories and more cash than I’m currently able to devote. But it’s made me think about books. I am like that with books as well. I remember my Comp Lit class in postmodern literature. I was just beginning to wrap my brain around the theories and philosophy behind what we were reading when the semester ended, which was kind of a relief. And even now, in my spare reading time, I don’t like to have to think too hard. This is bad. I feel slightly guilty for it. I ought to be reading all those Great Works books on the Honors list that I never finished. I ought to be reading all the books I should have read. I’m not, though. Instead I read comfortable books.

But I do analyze them to death. I can’t read even a simple kid’s book without picking it apart to figure out how it works, dissecting everything from the language to the characters to the story structure. I’ve kept some of the analytical stuff from my college days with me. And when I take the time for it, I do enjoy reading things that require more effort on my part.

But right now, both my literary and my culinary palate are stuck in Applebee’s mode.

More on negation of negation

April 17, 2009

I discussed Robert McKee’s principle of “negation of negation” in this post. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and it occurred to me that it’s really hard to take an LDS fiction plot through this kind of value change. Why? Because if you do it, someone in the book has to be very bad. Deliberately evil, even. For example, Sarah’s abusive student filled that role in Waiting for the Light to Change. Not only does someone need to be evil, but the protagonist must feel the full weight of that evil intent. That can be hard to take.

So, for example, if your governing value was faith, you could have a protagonist who is 1- full of faith (positive value), who dealt with an antagonist who 2-became indifferent to faith (contrary value), 3-Doubted (contradictory value) and finally 4- posed as faithful while really working against faith (negation of the negative value).

But you see what problems that particular value scheme would cause if the protagonist and antagonist were both LDS. You wouldn’t be dealing with just an annoying member of the Church (a contrary value), or a doubting member who needed to be helped back to the fold (contradictory). Instead, you’d be dealing with a hypocrite, someone who pretended to believe but was really working against the cause of faith. If the protagonist overcame such forces of antagonism, it would be a brilliant work. But it would be hard to read, I think: we’d have to accept a villain, who was really a villain, who was also a member. And we’d have to let the protagonist feel the weight of the villainy.

Or maybe not villainy… take Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (he’s often brought up when Mormons speak of what LDS literature could become; see this Red Brick Store post). Say the governing values of that book is “good parenting.” Danny’s father raises him as his chosen one, his successor, but he is silent and cruel to him. The positive value here is good parenting, and Reuben’s father is more what you’d typically think of as a good parent. The contrary value is indifferent parenting, and that’s what Danny’s father seems to be: cold, indifferent, uncaring. At times Danny’s father seems to be not just indifferent, but mean, thus leading us to the contradictory: he is a bad parent. But at the novel’s climax, we realize that Danny’s father’s method of good parenting is silence and harshness. So the negation of the negative is the perception is cruelty inflicted in the name of good parenting. I need to articulate it better, but I hope you get the idea. Danny’s father is not a villain, per se, but he does act in ways that seem cruel, extreme. And it makes for a great story, but only because Potok allows the story to have someone be unrepentantly difficult. Yes, we understand Danny’s father, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t harsh.

I am pretty ignorant when it comes to LDS literature; for all my babbling about it, I’ve really not read a whole lot more than this year’s Whitney finalists and The Giant Joshua. So I’m interested in recommendations. Who does negation of negation well?

LDS Fiction: Redefining Rock Bottom

April 15, 2009

In an earlier post, I referenced the importance of allowing characters to hit rock bottom, and discussed the problem that LDS fiction sometimes has, that of allowing God to rescue our characters too quickly. I’m redefining “rock bottom” a little in this post, because I just read a great YA book that does this very well. It’s called Fame, Glory, and Other Things on my To-do List, by Janette Rallison, an LDS YA author from Arizona. Total spoilers ahead, just so you know.

In this book, Jessica, the protagonist, loves acting. She also loves the new kid in town. She undermines her relationship with him by letting slip a secret that’s important to him. Then, in order to prove her love for him, she sabotages the school play and kisses him when she’s not supposed to at all. This proves to him (the son of a famous actor) that she really cares about him more than the theater.

Janette Rallison does a couple of important things here:

1-She allows her character to make a really large error in judgment. Jessica should not have told the secret. Bad idea. In telling the secret, she gained one of her desires–a school play to act in–but lost the other–her guy. In the terms Robert Mckee uses to describe fiction (in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting) Jessica made a choice that broke open the gap and caused further events to unfold. The choice made her look bad, but without it, there would be no story. LDS fiction needs to allow its characters the agency to make bad choices sometimes.

2-She forces her character to hit rock bottom IN THE WORLD/GENRE OF THE CHARACTER. So in a teen’s life, what could be more humiliating than making a fool of yourself onstage in front of your friends, family, potential boyfriend’s parents, and a Hollywood agent? Nothing, right? And yet she has to choose that humiliation in order to gain love, which is what she wants most.

Reading this book so close to reading Robert McKee made me realize that “rock bottom” means different things to different characters and different genres. In light YA fiction like this book, rock bottom means total humiliation. In Pride and Prejudice, rock bottom is when Elizabeth realizes that Darcy saved her sister Lydia by forcing Wickham to marry her, and that therefore all her earlier criticisms of his character were ill-founded. In Ender’s Game, rock bottom is when Ender realizes that the war games he’s been playing are real, and he’s destroyed an entire race while saving the world.

So what does “rock bottom” mean in LDS fiction? I can’t always put my finger on it, but I know it when I read it… in general, I think that the best “rock bottom” moments are character-driven, not event-driven. Just as we have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology, there’s also sometimes a tendency to let outside catastrophe create a false rock bottom. This proves that our protagonist is really a good person, because none of the truly bad things that happen to him/her in the book are his/her fault. For example: heroine A is plucky, shows her faith in God, and yet towards the end of the book a handcart falls on her leg and breaks it [this is a totally made up book]. Though distraught, she struggles on, and her faith and pluckiness get her to the end of the book with grace.

Okay, yes, that’s a terrible event. In fact, in real life, it’s that kind of event (hello broken leg!) that makes me feel like I’ve hit bottom. But. In a novel, the best rock bottom events are the ones that, if they employ external events, combine them with consequences of the character’s choices, not merely responses to sudden bad events. Or heck, even a well-foreshadowed but externally imposed bad event is just not as effective as a rock bottom created from the decisions a character has made. Why? Because externally imposed climaxes feel fake, even when they are well-foreshadowed, unless they’ve got some underlying character-driven angst going on as well.

I am happy to report that my favorite Whitney finalists (see here) are great at reaching rock bottom, each in their own genre. They allow their characters the freedom to make bad choices, and then suffer the full consequences of their character-driven (or well-foreshadowed external) events.

I so want my picks to win. Mostly for their sakes, because they deserve it, but partly as a vindication of my own opinions.

At least I’m honest about it…

“It’s just impossible to ever have anything nice”

April 1, 2009

I’ve been reading family stories for my talk on Friday, and I read this account given by my grandma of her mother, my great-grandmother. I never knew her, but my mother and my daughter are named after her.

I don’t remember Mother really scolding us a lot. I don’t ever remember her really yelling at us ever. I’m not saying she didn’t, I just don’t remember. I do remember one time somebody was scuffling with the broom and my mother had a glass vase, it was kind of like a basket with a handle over the top that she put her nasturtiums in and one of the children broke it. They were scuffling with the broom and the broom handle hit this and broke it and I remember my mother crying and saying that “it’s just impossible to ever have anything nice. I’ll never have anything nice around my house.” You know it was a day when it was impossible to have money to replace a lot of things if they were available.

Wow, do I resonate with that. And reading it, I think, I shouldn’t. I have perfectly lovely vases that I rarely use, very nice china (again rarely used), and many lovely things. But the things I want to change, and don’t, are the ones that fester: the matted-down carpet, that needs replacing but that I dread replacing until all my potty-training days are done. The couch slipcover, which also needs replacing. Or heck, the couch itself. I could go on.

But I love that my great-grandmother felt like that too. I know she worked harder in her days than I have ever done, and I guess it makes her feel more real to me, more human, that she tried to create beauty in her home and became frustrated when she didn’t always succeed.

My great-grandmother died young, in her forties. This is the best story about her I’ve ever read. It’s not the kind of material I need for the talk, but it’s a story I will remember.

April Fools and Funeral Talks

April 1, 2009

I’m speaking at my grandma’s funeral on Friday. I feel the weight of this responsibility like nothing I’ve ever felt when speaking before. I love giving talks; I love that talk-writing zone when the research is done and the ideas flow and the Spirit helps me figure out how they fit together. I love delivering them, when after the nerves wear off and I start speaking slowly (instead of fast like I always do at first) there’s a stillness when I reach the talk’s center, and even the babies are quiet, for just a minute.

But this is like no talk I have ever given; it is shared with my cousin (thank heavens) and we have ten minutes to talk about my grandma, and it’s going to be hard to write and harder to deliver. I feel honored and humbled. I love lighter funeral talks, with funny stories and memories. That is what this is supposed to be. That’s what it will be. But I have all these tender memories in my head right now too: the last time my kids played at her park. She and Grandpa had a good day, health-wise, and they watched my kids scoot around and slide. Grandma laughed at them. And she brought out some pop-tarts and chocolate milk, because she was always, always the hostess, even at age ninety, even when her health was fragile. Grandma always turned the conversation back to me and my family, with genuine interest. Everything I wrote was brilliant. All the stories about my children were funny. And if one of my kids (who got shy sometimes) would run hug and kiss her without being prompted, it made her day.

For all the grandkids and great-grandkids she had, she never took them for granted; they did not run together. Each baby was a cause of joy. Her fridge was covered with great-grandkid pictures; she had a picture wall downstairs of all her children and grandchildren.

See, and now I’m meandering into vagueness, which is the curse of funeral talks: vague stories don’t work so well. It’s not helpful to say “we always went to Bear Lake every summer” or “we always had Christmas Eve as a family.” What works best is something concrete, specific, real, with details I can pin down, unique to me but which everyone identifies with. But what if I don’t recall one Bear Lake out of the many I went to? Or one Christmas Eve memory of her? All I know is that she was always there, and that constancy of tradition and love was bedrock and foundation and home to me and to all my cousins.

I’m going to sift through some papers, and beg emailed memories from cousins, and hope that in all of this my cousin and I can do her justice.

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, and my kids want me to do something silly. I hate minor holidays. They want fun stuff, and it makes me tired to think about it. And now I have this interesting juxtaposition: on a day when I feel grouchy about doing something clever for my kids, I am supposed to be writing a talk about my grandma, who delighted in doing clever things for her kids and grandkids.

But I need to remember that it’s not as hard as I make it out to be. I think that’s what she would tell me. The talk isn’t as hard as all that. Neither are the simple pranks. My son still remembers the silly pancakes I made last year.

Okay then. Here goes.

LDS Fiction: Taking Chances

March 31, 2009

This is a great little read. I shall analyze it briefly based on my Romance Rules:

1-The plot is not a bad imitation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a good imitation of Pride and Prejudice. The protagonists do dislike each other from the start, but she handles it pretty well, and the dislike is funny and character-based, not random.

2-The married-but-still-need-to-fall-in-love plot. Doesn’t apply; that’s not the plot here.

3-The characters cared about more than the romance! Maggie is engaged with her art, and also with confronting her mother’s abused past. She’s got depth because she truly cares about more than just her romance with Luke. She’s also dealing with the town’s gossip. And her need to heal and forgive her grandma. All kinds of layers there. Go Maggie!

4-The physical description was not too heavy-handed for me. Almost, but not quite. Maggie wasn’t described as gorgeous too many times. Her insecurities felt real to me.

5-Hooray for a sense of humor! The scene with Luke’s sisters made me laugh out loud.

There were a few things that could be smoothed out, but overall I really enjoyed this book. I thought its use of healing and the Atonement was quite effective too–well-earned, with healing not granted too soon.

Nicely done.

What if I missed that?

March 30, 2009

My dear grandma died early this morning, and I need to write about her.

The last few years of her life were very difficult–she was in pain much of the time, she had humiliating effects from undiagnosed colon cancer, she had to depend on her children for many things when she preferred to be independent.

In spite of that difficulty, she still made time for me. Several years ago I helped write our stake’s Christmas program. My husband played the organ for it, and both of us sang in one of the numbers. We spent many hours, and invested a lot of time and energy in it. My grandparents both came. It was on a snowy night, and the roads were difficult. This meant that they had to leave early, and also that they needed to ask for a ride, which was again difficult.

The program went well; there was a great spirit about it, and I was so grateful she had made the effort to come (I know that I did not know what it cost her to be there). After it was over, I thanked my grandparents for being there. “I know it was a lot of effort to come,” I said. She hugged me and said, “It’s a little harder getting out than it used to be. But now I think, what if I missed that? Oh, what if I missed that?”

She had that approach to so many things: she felt that kind of joy watching her great-grandkids play on the Bear Lake beach, or listening to our recitals and performances. She knew how to minister to us by just being there for us. She still called me to thank me for letters I had sent, even towards the end of her life.

And now my confession: I am not like her. I am wrapped up in my own space and my own world. But I want to be like her; I want to honor her memory by living like she did.

I want to say to life, and to the people in my life, you are wonderful. I want to have her kind of joy, and say, What if I missed that?

LDS Fiction: The Negative of the Negative

March 29, 2009

StoryI’ve been thinking a lot, as I read the Whitney finalists, about story theory, specifically Robert Mckee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting . I referred to it in an earlier post; it’s been an interested lens through which to view the books I’ve been reading. In his text, Robert Mckee explains the principle of antagonism:

A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually compelling as the forces of antagonism make them. . . . by “forces of antagonism” we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire. . . We pour energy into the negative side of a story not only to bring the protagonist and other characters to full realization… but to take the story itself to the end of the line, to a brilliant and satisfying climax.” (page 317-18)

Then he explains how to develop the negative side of the story, the antagonistic forces that the protagonist must overcome, to the end of the line. I will paraphrase here (ideas taken from pages 319 -333).

First, you take the value at stake in the work, for example Justice. The opposite of justice is injustice. In between Justice and its opposite is unfairness. But beyond injustice, there’s the “negative of the negative,” or Tyranny: injustice institutionalized.

McKee’s diagram looks like this:

Justice/ Unfairness
===== / ========
Positive / Contrary

Negation of the Negation / Injustice
================ / ======
Tyranny / Contradictory

Another example:

Love / Indifference
==== / =========
positive / Contrary

Negation of the Negation / Contradictory
================= / ===========
Hatred posing as love / Hatred

McKee analyzes several other potential value systems and their application in a few screenplays, and then he ends the chapter with this:

“Fine writers have always understood that opposite values are not the limit of human experience. If a story stops at the Contradictory value, or worse, the Contrary, it echoes the hundreds of mediocrities we suffer every year. For a story that is simply about love/hate, truth/lie, freedom/slavery, courage/cowardice, and the like is almost certain to be trivial. If a story does not reach the Negation of the Negation, it may strike the audience as satisfying–but never brilliant, never sublime. All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, greatness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side (page 332)

So, my favorite books of this year’s Whitney finalists explored the Negation of the Negation very well indeed. Take the brilliant Waiting for the Light to Change (warning: spoilers ahead). What is a governing value for it? You could argue that safety–safe children–is one value. It’s what Sarah has lived her life for, working at a demanding job to take care of her kids after her husband left them. So the value system moves from Safety–Sarah’s children and students are safe and in her control–to accidental harm–Sara’s daughter Jenny needs better clothes, she’s not socially adept, Sarah could have done better, but it’s not a huge deal. Yet. Next value change: Deliberate harm inflicted by child on self: Jenny makes bad choices and ends up with a boyfriend who is only dating her to hurt Sarah. Finally, Harm caused by Sara to her own daughter through Sarah’s vengeful acts against the student she hates. This is the Negation of the Negation, the ultimate value change.

Waiting for the Light to Change
is a great work, and part of what makes it so compelling is the way it negotiates this complex value system. Sarah is devastated by the forces of antagonism, and they are taken to their extreme.

Ever since I read McKee’s analysis of antagonism, I’ve been analyzing everything I read, trying to see if the books reach that extreme negation of negation. Not all do. As he says, you can still just reach the negative value and be a satisfying read. But my favorite books, the ones that stay with me, are the ones in which the protagonist overcomes these extreme forces of opposition. Sarah’s vigil with her daughter in the hospital, and her Wyoming pioneer epiphany, have been haunting me for weeks now.