America’s Greatest Mystery Novel

Once you strip away all the Book of Mormon’s pretenses of scriptural import, what you have is nothing more nor less than a lusty tale of America’s favorite subject: families and murder….

Murder and ruin are written across the breadth of Joseph Smith’s pre-American panorama, and because violence always demands an explanation or a solution, the Book of Mormon’s unexamined greatest revelation is a truly startling one: As Moroni looks at the blood-reddened land around him, and as he reviews the full reach of the history that led to this mass extinction, it is plain that the force behind all these centuries of destruction is none other than God himself. It is God who brought these wandering people to an empty land, and it is God who established the legacies that could only lead to such awful obliteration. God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America’s greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin.

The single strongest instance of blasphemy in the Book of Mormon occurs when a charismatic atheist and Antichrist named Korihor stands before one of God’s judges and kings and proclaims: “Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgressions of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty of because of its parents.”

For proclaiming such outrageous words, God strikes Korihor mute, and despite Korihor’s full-hearted repentance, God will not allow him forgiveness. Korihor is left to wander among the people of the nation, begging for mercy and support, and the people take him and stamp upon him, until he dies under their feet. –Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart

You’ve never read a book quite like Shot in the Heart. Even if you’ve read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which deals with some of the same subject matter, you’ve still never read a book like SitH, which is a lot shorter and far less boring than The Executioner’s Song (which I am convinced went to press without any serious editing, because it’s such a bloated mess). People admire TES because of the power of Gary Gilmore, the person at the heart of the story, not Mailer’s sloppy thousand-page account of Gary’s life, crimes, death, and notoriety.

Gary Gilmore, in case you didn’t know, murdered two young Mormon men in Utah County on subsequent nights in 1976, for no reason but meanness. He was swiftly tried for one of the murders, convicted, and sentenced to death. He then refused to appeal his death sentence, which enraged people. The most devoted supporters of the death penalty had no interest in killing someone who wanted to die, because that was no punishment; they only wanted to execute people who wanted to live. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was shot to death at the Utah State Prison in Draper (if you’ve ever driven from Salt Lake City to Provo, you went right past it; it’s just to the west of I-15), and became the first person executed in the United States in almost a decade, after the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976.

Gilmore was in Utah because he had family there; his mother was born in Provo. Gary was never Mormon, but his mother and his younger brother Mikal both were, though Mikal went inactive as a teen–he was asked to stop attending when it became obvious just how much he loved girls and rock & roll. (Mikal wrote for Rolling Stone for years and has published a history of rock & roll entitled Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll.) Mikal’s insider knowledge of Mormonism makes his analysis of it all the more compelling. He gets a few details wrong (for instance, misremembers some of Mormon lingo across three decades), but he really nails some things, as when he describes his Utah cousins as “prissy and mean at the same time–in the way that only well-bred Mormon children can seem.”

Shot in the Heart is both a Utah story and a uniquely Mormon book on the one hand, and, on the other, a harrowing tragedy that transcends place and religion. Like the Book of Mormon, it is about love and loyalty and devotion and murder and intergenerational violence and children punished for the sins of their parents. It’s a ghost story and a family history. It’s scriptural exegesis and true crime. It’s an elegy and a polemic about the US prison system. it’s grim and despairing–it’s really hard to be cheerful when your brother is the most notorious murderer in the country–and still somehow uplifting. It’s a work that should help inform the mission and scope of Mormon Alumni Association Books.

It was made into a crappy TV movie in the early 2000s. Skip that and just read the book, even though it’s long. It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in ways Dave Eggers’ work can only hope to be.

Call for Submissions

Mormon Alumni Association Books is seeking LDS-themed novels in all categories, including literary, commercial, and genre fiction. We will also consider short fiction and poetry collections.

We are looking for completed manuscripts that explore the unique Mormon experience. Works may be critical of or sympathetic to the LDS Church and its members. However, we are not looking for books that focus on whether or not “the Church is true.” We are interested in stories drawn from across the greater LDS community, featuring convincing characters tackling real-life challenges.

If you have completed a book that seems a good match for us, please send your first 20 or so pages along with a query letter that includes a synopsis of your work to: mormonalumniassociation@gmail.com

Mormon Erotica, Mormon Romance

Mormon Erotica, the new novel from Donna Banta, is a joyous page-turner that, despite the title, is far more concerned with love and romance than sex. While the book contains plenty of reflection on Mormon attitudes toward sex and marriage, the action depicted is strictly PG. As with so many romance novels, the suspense lies not in whether it will end with its hero and heroine poised to live happily ever after, but what sorts of personal discoveries and growth will make them worthy of that reward. I was always curious about and frequently surprised by the routes the characters forged to true love.

51WPpyFWCTL

If you don’t like romance novels, there’s a chance you won’t like Mormon Erotica. To me, this post-Mormon twist on the romance novel is a breath of fresh air, but then, I have a fondness for romance novels, having read dozens if not hundreds of them, from cheap formulaic paperbacks I checked out from the public library when I was in junior high to great classics of English literature like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. For that matter, as a teen I even read a few Mormon romance novels, such as those by Jack Weyland. I think Mormon courtship and marriage make great material for narrative, and I’m glad writers are tackling it in fiction for an audience beyond active Latter-day Saints. It’s especially nice to read a novel that takes you on a good-natured romp through the subject.

One of the best elements of Mormon Erotica is the main character, Jim, who is devout but not fanatical. Jim’s first marriage was disastrous and brief—but his ex-wife still plans to be married to him for time and all eternity, since they didn’t get a temple divorce to go with the civil one. Jim is comfortable in his role as a single dad too lazy and jaded to attempt another marriage—until he sees an old college girlfriend, Sadie Gordon, at a wedding reception. She’s hot, charming, and completely inactive, and she’s written a novel full of Mormons having sex. The title of Banta’s book refers to the way Sadie’s novel is characterized.

Less compelling are a couple of the supporting characters. Jim and Sadie each have a relative who seems like a caricature of the most awful Mormon you can imagine: small-minded, judgmental, and completely unable to understand boundaries. I’m certain there are Mormons like that, but they were so consistent and predictable that I was aghast at their actions without being surprised, a fact made all the more obvious given that Jim and Sadie did surprise me in interesting ways.

Occasional chapters are from the perspective of Jim’s teenage daughter, Julia. I don’t spend enough time around teenagers these days to know if Banta got twenty-first-century teen lingo and social interactions exactly right, but I thought she did a great job making the basic psychology of adolescence interesting for an audience of adults. Julia was so compelling that I’m now interested in reading The Girls from Fourth Ward, Banta’s murder mystery about four girls who hope to go to BYU.

The book is published under the imprint of the Mormon Alumni Association, and the cover art (which, you discover about halfway through the novel, makes particularly good sense) is by Chanson.

The latest from the marvelous pen of Johnny Townsend!

If you like short stories and you’re interested in the lives of Mormons, you should be following the work of Johnny Townsend.

Since he writes from an ex-Mormon perspective, believers often dismiss Townsend’s work as biased — or as a priori “an attack on the church” — but I think that’s a mistake. Johnny Townsend writes his characters with a great deal of compassion and empathy, whether they’re in the church or out… or somewhere in between. He demonstrates genuine interest in people and curiosity about their experiences and possibilities.

Although almost all of Townsend’s stories involve Mormons, Mormonism isn’t always center stage. He explores various possible life situations — in all their sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes surprising glory — within this milieu that he knows so well.

Here’s a taste of some of the books he’s written lately:

Behind the Zion Curtain Behind the Zion Curtain is a series of powerful vignettes in which people grapple with one of humanity’s most pressing questions: “What should I do with my life?” Mormonism provides extensive and detailed answers, but they’re not necessarily good or helpful answers, as we see in the story of a missionary whose mission president deliberately humiliates him as a condition of promotion and in the tale of a woman who discovers that she feels relieved and free upon learning of her husband’s death.

True to real life, the exmos aren’t portrayed as having an easy time with this question either, and often find themselves at a loss when trying to figure out what to do that would be worthwhile and make a difference.

Gayrabian Nights Gayrabian Nights is a short-story collection (various authors) whose premise is a riff on the classic One thousand and one Arabian Nights. In this case, the storyteller is a gay sex-worker who has been hired by a closeted-gay Mormon senator who is planning to vote in favor of a bill denying rights to same-sex couples. The young sex-worker decides to try to keep the senator up all night in hopes that he’ll miss the vote the next day — or maybe even have a change of heart.

Townsend portrays the hypocritical politician with sympathy, and even though each character starts the evening with an agenda, they grow to understand each other through the course of their magical night of wild-and-raunchy Mormon stories. It’s a refreshing story arc for our modern age of political and religious polarization.

Lying for the Lord Lying for the Lord is a short-story collection in which Johnny Townsend explores the places where relationships come into conflict with Mormon beliefs and practices. From the tale of a family who chooses to use Christmas as an intervention for an apostate family member to the story of a Mormon man whose wife refuses to follow the commandment to have children, the characters in this series are faced with interesting dilemmas that they handle in memorable ways.

Missionaries Make the Best Companions And — as if that weren’t already a lot to have published in 2014/2015 — Townsend has a new book coming out, Missionaries Make the Best Companions!!

Mormon lit fans, I hope you’ll enjoy this feast from Johnny Townsend!

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Response edition

The big news this week is that Kate Kelly has appealed her excommunication.

In her appeal, Kate wrote:

I am, and have always been, a faithful Mormon. My only “sin” elucidated by you has been speaking my mind and pushing for gender equality in the Church. Far from being wrong, I believe I am following the pattern of revelation taught by Christ in the scriptures: ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you.

Kate’s husband also wrote a letter, questioning why he was not excommunicated when Kate was. My emphasis in bold below:

As a Melchizedek priesthood holder your failure to discipline me regarding my actions with Ordain Women demonstrates the inherent sexism in the disciplinary process taken against my wife. Neither you nor Bishop H* have contacted me or spoken to me about my involvement in Ordain Women. Therefore, I formally request you overturn Bishop H*’s excommunication decision regarding Kate and I request you reinstate her to full fellowship in the Church.

He has a point. Others have pointed out that the process seems flawed – Kate is publicly excommunicated but John Dehlin is not. At least, John hasn’t been excommunicated yet.

The feminists at fmh are wondering about a lost and tired generation. Truthfully, I left around the same time as the 1993 excommunications, but for different reasons. Yet I understand the frustration of wanting to remain in the community, and knowing that change was not going to come (if ever). It’s been a difficult few months for many believing mormons, particularly feminist mormons.

Rock has advice for those who may soon be ex’d – he will be at Sunstone next weekend – and he has a new book out What to Expect When You’re Excommunicated. His brief synopsis is:

designed this book partly with your mother-in-law in mind. If you have friends and loved ones who don’t ‘get’ you, who are convinced that you can’t be a faithful member of this church without displaying the requisite deference to modern Church leaders, this book may help those close to you come to understand that Jesus Christ does not require anything like that from members of His church.

I wish I could attend Sunstone this year, my cousin John Hamer is presenting on a panel titled “A Diversity of Faith: A panel on Heaven and Hell”, one titled “Project Zion: Pulling forward key threads of the restoration for a post-modern world”, and “Mormonism and the problem of heterodoxy”. I will be missing out! Hope everyone has a great time and can fill those of us in who were not able to attend the symposium this year.

In other news this week, Runtu was wondering if missionaries are leaving. Froggie had photos published.

It was pie and beer day – although dooce points out that you can’t buy beer in Utah on Pioneer day. Donna attended a pioneer exmo gathering. Knotty is moving. And I agree with Alexis that nothing is ever routine, ever.

And speaking of pioneers, if you haven’t listened to any of the year of polygamy podcasts – I highly recommend them. I particularly liked the recent one about Heber C. Kimball and his wives (and children), as well as the one about polygamy in public and private. It leads me to wonder more about how polygamy worked among my own ancestors in early Utah.

I’m sure I missed lots of what’s been going on – I hope everyone is well and enjoying their last few days in July!

No longer invisible: Latter-Gay Saints

They try to convince gay people that it’s in their best interests to be straight. In fact, they try to convince them that they’re already straight. (from “Ockham’s Razor”)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a gay problem. Specifically, the church has a plan for how to build eternal families — with non-negotiably gender-specific roles — and gay people are the fly in the eternal ointment. If only they could be convinced that they’re not gay — that there’s no such thing as being gay! — and that they can make a straight family work if only they’re faithful enough. Or, failing that, they should just stay single until they’re cured in the afterlife. Then the Plan of Salvation will go back to fitting everyone!

The trouble is that these are real people with real lives that the CoJCoL-dS is performing this experiment on.

One way to combat invisibility is to tell your stories. That’s what 25 authors have come together to do in the anthology Latter-Gay Saints, edited by Gerald S. Argetsinger (with Jeff Laver and Johnny Townsend). The stories are all fiction, but they paint a vibrant and true-to-life portrait of the gay Mormon experience. Naturally, the stories cover topics like missions and mixed-orientation marriage, AIDS and suicide. Some of the most disturbing scenes involve private worthiness interviews in which a priesthood leader probably sincerely believes he’s being helpful through intimate and emotionally invasive counseling sessions where the gay person — by definition — cannot be “worthy.”

The characters in the stories are fleshed-out people whose lives included homosexuality and Mormonism — they’re not just stand-ins in a morality tale of the intersection of these two central topics. A couple of the most outrageous ones hardly touched on Mormonism at all, like Dirk Vanden’s visionary “Gay Messiah” or Ron Oliver’s “Nestle’s Revenge” — which started out wild and exploded from there! Bernard Cooper’s “Hunters and Gatherers” roped a bunch of unsuspecting gay folks into a Mormon-style fun activity (with a poignant edge of keeping up appearances, Mormon-style), and for further fun, Donna Banta threw in a gay Mormon murder mystery! I’d like to discuss them all, but I don’t want to turn this into a tl;dr. People who have read it are invited to please add your own remarks in the comments!

One weakness that disappointed me a bit was how few lesbian stories were included. The introduction repeatedly refers to “gay and lesbian” stories, but the anthology includes only one story where the main character is a gay woman, leaving the lesbian Mormon experience as invisible as ever. Perhaps we’ll hear more from the ladies in the next volume…?

Overall it’s great collection; an enjoyable, edifying, thought-provoking read. Pick up a copy if you’re a fan of gay Mormons or simply of interesting stories!

Mormon Alumni Association Books!

Faith-promoting LDS books have a whole publishing-and-distribution network in Deseret Books (plus Seagull and others) — not to mention Mormon literature organizations and a ready-made audience in LDS wards around the world who’d like to help Orson Whitney’s prediction “We will yet have Miltons and Shakspeares of our own” come true. But what if your book is less faith-promoting, yet you think it would be of interest to people with a Mormon background? It can be a bit more challenging for your book and audience to find each other!

That’s where Mormon Alumni Association Books comes in. Mormon Alumni Association Books is an informal cooperative association of authors helping each other to promote and improve their books. It is centered around a website and a facebook group, and is organized by me, C.L. Hanson (contact: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com) in conjunction with the outer blogness blogroll and the community blog Main Street Plaza.

How to participate and help out:

  • Have a look at the MAA site and read any books that strike your fancy! If you like them, recommend them to your friends, and your book group!
  • Write book reviews — and tell me about them so I can link to them. (Post reviews either on MSP or on another site.)
  • Write articles for MSP! Despite that crap about “you can leave the church but you can’t leave it alone” the reality is that most people who stop believing in Mormonism typically only feel like talking about Mormonism occasionally. That’s fine, but it makes it trickier to keep the site regularly filled with interesting content (aside from my weekly link roundup).
  • Link to these three sites from your own website.
  • If you know any ex/post/borderland/etc. Mormon blogs that aren’t in Outer Blogness, please tell me about them and/or have them contact me so that I can include them.
  • If you have skills that would help various authors (editing, production and cover art, tech expertise in creating e-books or video trailers, etc.), please tell me and allow me to connect you with people who would appreciate your help.
  • If you have any contacts in the book distribution industry who would be interested in looking over the MAA catalog, please introduce them to MAA Books! Note that I can help get copies to sell on consignment and/or negotiate deals for shelf placement.

If you have written a book:

Contact me, obviously. 😉

Ideally, it would be great if you’d contact me before your book is set in stone. I can connect you with friends who will give you free feedback and/or refer you to professional (paid) editors. Note: I do not get any commission on this — it’s for your sake, to help your book be the best it can be! Well, OK, also to maintain the good reputation of MAA Books. 😉

Let’s share this adventure!

Reclaiming our stories, redux!

Remember my discussion on reclaiming our stories? About how we should take every opportunity to tell our own experiences, instead of standing by and letting the church invent the “apostate” narrative, according to its own agenda…?

Well there are some natural conflicts when it comes to being sure that your group is portrayed fairly and accurately. The biggest one is that stories have lots of people in them. And while you’re in righteous pursuit of portraying your own group right, you may simultaneously be portraying someone else unfairly.

I just heard that LDS playwright Mahonri Stewart wrote a new play, set in modern times, about a conflict between a Mormon family and an atheist. From a quick perusal of some posts about the play, I gather that the atheist is the villain ([the actress playing the atheist] “was forced to make a character who does some pretty mean-spirited things seem socially acceptable and even occasionally endearing”).

Now, this is par for the course, and I wouldn’t expect any different from a faithful Mormon playwright writing a faith-promoting Mormon play. I mean, it’d be cool if a faithful Mormon would write a play featuring an atheist who’s a friendly, laid-back, mild-mannered mom like me — but it ain’t gonna happen, so c’est la vie.

The thing about Mahonri Stewart, however, is that he’s one of the most outspoken people in the “only faithful Mormons should be writing about Mormons” camp. He’s especially prolific in complaining about “Angels in America”:

Angels In America is a political piece set in the 80s attacking Reagan-style conservatism and the religious right. It tries to raise awareness of the plight of the homosexual, especially in reference to AIDS. And it often uses Mormon characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause.

very few of the Mormon characters actually seem, well, Mormon. Even accounting for the fact that Mormons come from many different backgrounds and have struggles and vices just like any other person, there is something “off” about Kushner’s portrayal of Mormonism through characters like Joe and Harper Pitt.

I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached, but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.

Whether or not you agree with his assessment of “Angels in America” (or of “The Book of Mormon” (the musical)), he’s right that it’s reasonable to expect a fair portrait.

Given these statements of principle, I would expect that — to show people how it’s done — in his own work he’ll be doubly careful about this point, right? I certainly wouldn’t expect to see a “double standard in this regard” where “when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed [his] own” he would use those “characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause.” Right?

So let’s see if he holds himself up to this high standard in his portrait of an atheist:

Opinions?

So far I’ve only watched up to the part where the atheist badgers the Mormon girl into explaining about her visions (as a set-up so she can tell the Mormon how she thinks visions are a bunch of hooey), and then she explains how she decided not to believe in God because God is unfair to her gay friend who loved Jesus so much. Mmmmmkaaaaaaayyyy…..

Two Short Reads That Are Packed With Information

Need a good summer read? I picked up a couple at the Sunstone Conference that are both timely and on topic for the broader LDS Community. Here’s what I wrote about them on Amazon:

Could I Vote For A Mormon For President?An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion

Ryan T. Cragunand Rick Phillips

Wallace Stegner wrote, “It is almost impossible to write fiction about the Mormons, for the reasons that Mormon institutions and Mormon society are so peculiar that they call for constant explanation”

As a writer and former member of the LDS Church, I understand Stegner’s dilemma. In spite of their existence for over 150 years, the Mormons remain a mystery to many. Nevertheless, America is poised to elect one as its president. That is why “Could I Vote For A Mormon For President?” by Ryan T. Cragun and Rick Phillips is such an invaluable work.

Written with wit and clarity, this short and timely book covers all of the basics. The authors who are both professors of sociology and former Mormons tackle topics such as polygamy, the Mormon temple ceremony, whether or not the Mormons are Christians, the Mormon view of the afterlife, and the church’s stand on feminism, homosexuality, and race relations.

Cragun and Phillips’ observations are direct, at times humorous, and fair to both Mormons and their critics.

For example, on the topic of polygamy: “There’s really no other way to say it: Joseph Smith was a horny guy.”

On whether or not the Mormon underwear is weird: “We don’t think so. From an anthropological perspective, many religions prescribe ritual or symbolic clothing for their members.”

On the church’s view of women: “…men are the ultimate authority in Mormon families, and that’s the way God wants it. Men might be enjoined to be benevolent rulers of the household, but they rule nonetheless.”

On LDS approved sexuality: “No premarital hanky-panky and no masturbation of any kind is ever allowed. The church does not recognize the validity of gay marriage…hence gay people cannot have orgasms…(unless a sham-marriage spouse somehow manages to get them off).”

In the end, the authors portray the Mormon Church as an unusual, authoritarian, and staunchly conservative institution that is ideologically aligned with the right wing of the Republican Party. Could you vote for a Mormon for president? Read this book and draw your own conclusion.

The Collapse of Belief:What To Do When Your World Comes Crashing Down

Kurt Hanks and Barbara Hanks

This slim and efficient volume is a must read for anybody who has let go of a cherished relationship. Using interesting analogies and clever illustrations, the authors effectively explain the thought processes involved in going from believer to non-believer. With a slight emphasis on the loss of religious belief, the book also addresses other types of loss, such as death and divorce, as well as the trauma that comes from giving up unhealthy work environments, toxic relationships, and faulty assumptions or “world views.” It is hard to imagine that there is anyone who would not benefit from this readable and engaging work. It is especially relevant today in our polarized, religiously-infused political climate. I highly recommend this book.

–Don’t let the brevity of my review ofThe Collapse of Beliefdissuade you. It’s a great read, and the illustrations alone are worth the cover price.

They’re both great reads. Enjoy!

Sunstone and Mormon Alumni Association Books!!

As you may know, the 2012 SLC Sunstone Preliminary Program is online — and I’d like you to especially feast your eyes on page 37!!!

Mormon Alumni Association Books

As you can see, I’m planning to test out a little cooperative book distribution network for the books I’ve discussed on this site. I’m also planning to add a book page (to replace the “reading” section of our sidebar) in order to highlight more LDS-interest books that deserve more attention than they’re getting.

If you have written a book that you think should be on this ad — don’t worry! This is basically an initial experiment, and if it goes well, we’ll expand.

Also note: Since I live in Switzerland, if you live in North America, the symposium might be my only opportunity to meet you in person. I hope our recent preview discussion whets your appetite to attend!! 😀