Tag Archives: book review

Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

A surprising number of Mormon novels came out in 2014, but none of them seemed to receive as much attention as Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. Admittedly, when I first learned about the novel, I yawned. Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels had just given us a novel about a dysfunctional Mormon family in the United Kingdom, so nothing about Issy Bradley seemed all that original. For this reason, perhaps, I took my time getting to the novel—a delay I now regret. While A Song for Issy Bradley is not the One Mighty and Strong Novel avid #MormonLit watchers are waiting for, it is an impressive addition to a growing list of well-written and finely-crafted twenty-first century Mormon novels.

A Song for Issy Bradley takes place within a small Mormon community in Southport, a coastal town in the United Kingdom. Its main characters, the Bradleys, are a typical LDS family with too many obligations and hardly any time to fulfill them. When the novel opens, their home is on the brink of bedlam. It is seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and his friends from school are coming over for a party. Ian, the family patriarch and ward bishop, is on his way out the door to tend to a chronically-needy ward member. This makes the morning more stressful for Claire, his wife, who feels the burden of her husband’s calling and struggles to meet cultural pressures that ask her “to make a willing sacrifice” of his presence (28). Ian, after all, is the kind of bishop who can’t refuse a petitioner. Although he has difficulty discerning the Spirit in his work, he tries to do everything by the book—literally, the Handbook of Instructions—and be there for people as “Jesus would do if he were here” (44). Unfortunately, that often means not being there for his own family, which frustrates Claire, a convert, who tends to be less rigid in her Mormon practice and belief.

Rounding out the Bradley family are their four children—Zippy, Alma, Jacob, and Issy—each named for characters in scripture.[i] Zippy, a teenager, is adrift in a sea of kitschy chastity object lessons and tactless admonitions to dress modestly. Alma, a deacon, is a rebel who would rather play soccer than pass the sacrament. Jacob, the seven-year-old, is a firm believer in the mystical world of the primary manual. And Issy, the youngest daughter, is the object of everyone’s love. She is the glue the holds them together.

Continue reading Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt: A Review

Recently, the cover of Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith has been splashed across seemingly every major Mormon blog as reviewers have praised its frankness and lack of “theological Twinkies.” I myself preordered a copy of the book shortly before its release—and subtly endorsed it—based solely on the high praise of many early reviews; my admiration for the authors’ previous book, The God Who Weeps; and my respect for Givens themselves, who have become vocal champions of what we might call the “New Faithful” of Mormonism. Since The God Who Weeps, that is, the Givens have come to represent an alternative approach to faithful Mormon practice that seeks to change certain culturally-inscribed attitudes and practices by modifying the tone and focus of the dominant discourse of contemporary Mormonism. (To get a sense of what I mean, I recommend listening to interviews with the Givens on Mormon Stories and other podcasts. Or read their books.) Buying the book, and encouraging others to read it, seemed like a safe bet a month ago. And now that I’ve read the book, I can say, with great relief, that it was. The Crucible of Doubt is a beautiful book, and you should read it as soon as possible.

If you do, you’ll soon discover that the Givens are revolutionaries, but not in any radical sense. As you would expect from authors published through Deseret Book, their tone towards the institutional church is always positive and affirming. This accounts probably for their popularity with readers, including me, who are easily wearied by disillusioned critics of the institution; yet, I think it also strikes a chord with readers for the honest, earnest way it offers hope to those who struggle with faith, who recognize within themselves an encroaching disillusionment. If The God Who Weeps is a book for believing Mormons seeking cultural-intellectual affirmation for their beliefs, as well as a slightly bigger tent, then The Crucible of Doubt is for Mormons who are beginning to wonder, in an era of MormonThink “objectivity,” if there is anything in the Church worth affirming. Like The God Who Weeps, therefore, it makes a case for Mormonism and faith drawing upon the great minds of the Western tradition, particularly the Romantics Terryl Givens so admires. Yet, the book is more ostensibly Mormon than its predecessor, particularly in the way it draws unabashedly from latter-day scripture and General Authorities. For me, this subtle change in approach is a necessary shift, considering their topic, because it reiterates the value of Mormonism’s intellectual tradition and heritage, which critical voices often disparage as thin and platitudinous.

Continue reading Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt: A Review

On Mormon Writers and Cultural Tithing

All the TruthJulie Berry’s’ All the Truth That’s in Me (Viking 2013) is this year’s Whitney Award winner in the Best Young Adult General Novel category. It has been well-reviewed by the New York Times , The GuardianPublisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It has also received a number of other national honors, including an Edgar Award nomination.

The novel tells the story of Judith, a young woman who cannot speak because half of her tongue has been sliced from her mouth. How and why she was mutilated in this way remains a mystery for much of the novel, although Judith’s stark and haunting narration makes it clear that it has something to do with Colonel Whiting, a shadowy outcast from her village who had kidnapped and held her captive for two years. When the novel opens, Judith’s captivity is a thing of the past, although the physical and emotional scars it left are ever-present in Judith’s interactions with her family and village, a Puritan-esque community called Roswell Station. Her daily life consists of subsistence living, silently doing chores to keep her struggling, fatherless family from starvation. Because of her muteness—and unanswered questions about her captivity—she is a curiosity with a dubious reputation. Most in her village, including her embittered mother, doubt her intelligence and virtue.

The draw of the novel is Judith herself. Wounded but strong, she wants the dignity and respect everyone wants from their neighbors. Helping her achieve that dignity are her few close friends: Maria, who gives her confidence to speak despite her damaged tongue, and Lucas, the son of her kidnapper. In fact, it is to Lucas, whom she loves, that the novel’s narration is directed. Written in second person, as a kind of love letter and confession to Lucas, the novel has an intimate voice that is honest and uninhibited. Through it, we get a portrait of Roswell Station not from its center of power, but from the margins—where the forgotten and ignored reside. It is a perspective any teenage reader can relate to.

Continue reading On Mormon Writers and Cultural Tithing