Thursday, January 14, 2016

2015 in Review: Books

This is the second in a series looking back on 2015.  Other entries will include movies, music, food, TV, and more.

Compared to the year previous, my reading totals took a severe hit in 2015.  Of course, 2014 was a remarkable year in which I read 58 books and nearly 14,000 pages.  For 2015, my total (according to Goodreads) was 31 books and 8,468 pages.  Yikes!  I’m not sure what happened, to be honest.  I was going strong during the first half of the year, but I feel like things slowed down dramatically after I returned from my summer stint in Nauvoo.  August and September won’t so bad, but I completed only two total books between September 22nd and December 31st, one of which was rather small.  I’m appalled.

Moving on, let’s take a look at what kinds of books I was reading in 2015.  Of the 31 books I read, half (15 of them) were fiction.  Of the 16 non-fiction books I read, 9 were books on Mormonism, broadly construed.  I say “broadly construed” because one such book was on RLDS / Community of Christ history, and these people do not view themselves as Mormon.  But you get the idea.  This reveals yet another drastic shift in my reading habits—only 29% of the total books I read, or 56% of my non-fiction selections, were on Mormonism.  This may have something to do with my conversion to Community of Christ, but was likely further influenced by my participation in a book club during some months of 2015.  I wasn’t always choosing, in an explicit sense, the books I was reading.

10 of the books on my list are books that I read with my children, not including picture books.  This also represents a slowdown in reading to my kids, which is sad.  After reading the Bunnicula series and some of its spin-offs in 2014, we’ve struggled to know what to read together.  For 2015, we latched onto the Fudge series by Judy Blume.  The boys quite enjoyed the books, but Mom and Dad did not relish them nearly as much as we did the Bunnicula series.  In fact, I gave two of the four Fudge books we read just two stars, and the other two I gave three stars.  (Bear in mind that, unlike movies, I rate books on a five-star system so as to coincide with Goodreads).  The best of the bunch was Superfudge, which we finished back in April.  I had the impression Blume is supposed to be a great author, but I didn’t think her writing was all that great.  Sometimes it was even on the poorer side.  This is certainly true when it comes to narrative flow.  One problem I had with the books was how episodic each of them felt.  It may be that Blume captures something about child psychology, and captures it well, but the characters themselves are rather flat.  I deem them fluffy entertainment.  My kids seemed to enjoy them, which is great, but I wouldn’t recommend them per se.

Aside from Blume, only two authors showed up on my annual reading list more than once.  One of them is another author of juvenile fiction, Louis Sachar.  With Melanie and the boys, I read both Holes and Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  Both were quite good.  We read the latter, which featured some very off-the-wall humor, while in Nauvoo.  I associate the book with sitting in the upstairs loft / bedroom of the Sidney Rigdon house, all three boys nestled into a single bed.  Sigh.  The other author to appear twice is Samuel Morris Brown.  He wrote one of three books I read last year to which I would give a superlative five-star rating.  That book is In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.  Published by Oxford University Press, In Heaven as It Is on Earth explores the influence of death on founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s developing theology.  Brown argues that many developments in early Mormonism arose as the prophet Joseph both responded to and sought to overcome the prevalence of death around him—his brother, his own children, and so on.  It’s a captivating read.  Impressed by Brown’s earlier work, I excitedly picked up a copy of First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.  Even having left the LDS Church, I continue to find LDS temple theology and the development thereof to be quite fascinating.  Thus, I was quite disappointed by Brown’s book, to which I gave a low three stars.  My main beef was that the concepts Brown presented were not fleshed out enough to appreciate or make complete sense of.  As I said in my Goodreads review, “Brown draws some broad strokes with this book. They are intriguing enough that I want to stop and look at the picture he is painting, but I also wish he would come back and paint a bit more.”

Continuing with the theme of Mormonism, three of my favorite reads from the year dealt heavily with the issue of polygamy.  Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History was originally published in 1986 but remains an excellent and extensive overview of Mormonism’s most infamous spiritual practice.  The book had quite an impact on me.  Prior to reading the book, I knew that Joseph Smith himself had practiced and yet publicly denied polygamy.  I knew he was, sadly, rather deceptive to his legal wife Emma regarding his polygamous relationships.  But I was shocked to learn just how pervasive and long-lasting the dishonesty surrounding polygamy was.  Extensively lying to the public, and even to their own church members, about polygamy continued with several of the LDS Church Presidents that followed Joseph.  I was also surprised to realize just how much of LDS culture today is influenced by its polygamous past.  Several times during my reading of the book, I saw connections between the behaviors being encouraged in the polygamous heyday of the 1800s and the modern Mormon mindset.  To cite just one example, the perpetuation of polygamy relied on convincing prospective plural wives that they should obey a church leader’s counsel no matter what, even if it didn’t sit well with them or they couldn’t understand why such a thing would be required.  I find it interesting that such a mentality continues quite strongly in the LDS tradition and yet is starkly absent from Community of Christ, which has always decried, and in fact owes its existence in large part to its denunciation of, polygamy.

Another great read is Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.  Also written in the 1980s, Mormon Enigma remains the preeminent biography of Joseph Smith’s only legal wife, Emma.  As one would expect, polygamy factors heavily into the book.  I’d deem the book a must-read, even though the writing sometimes annoyed me.  The content itself is excellent, but things aren’t always communicated clearly, and sometimes stories are thrown into the mix that seem like asides and not entirely relevant to the discussion at hand.  On very rare occasions, the authors also appear biased toward a pro-LDS interpretation of events that isn’t adequately supported by the text.  You may also find it interesting to know that, if you go to Nauvoo and take a tour of the historic sites owned by Community of Christ, a great deal of what you’ll hear can be found in Mormon Enigma.

The final book on polygamy that I read is The Polygamous Wives Writing Club by Paula Kelly Harline.  Harline’s book, published in 2014, offers a fascinating peek into polygamy as it was lived among the average—that is to say, non-elite—members of the early LDS Church.  The book is comprised largely of diary entries and the like from the plural wives of rank-and-file LDS men.  These are not the women who were married to apostles and prophets, but those married to normal folk.  By reading this book, you get an idea of what it was like for those women who practiced “celestial marriage” as part of an otherwise very normal, very routine life—which is not to suggest that these women were content in their situations.  Despite being published by Oxford University Press, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club is a very approachable read, suitable for non-scholastics as well as those with a more academic bent.  Early in the book, I feared a little too much speculation was creeping into the commentary supplied by the author, but it’s easy enough to overlook such things as one wishes.  It’s a very worthwhile read.

I mentioned above that I was part of a book club in 2015.  More specifically, it was the Salt Lake City congregation of Community of Christ book club (not an official title).  I haven’t read every month’s selection, and I’m uncertain I’ll continue with the club at this point in time, but book club accounts for four of last year’s reads, plus one book that I read most of during December but didn’t officially complete until after the new year (disqualifying it from this list).   The first such book I read was Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I got the impression that everyone else in book club had gone goo-goo ga-ga over this book, but I found it rather middle of the road—for the same reason, I think, that two other hugely popular book club selections didn’t really resonate with me.  They feel like fluff pieces to me.  There really isn’t much depth to them at all.  They might contain a handful of quotes worth remembering, although even those are often only the caliber of something you’d see on a motivational poster or passed around on Facebook as part of some feel-good meme.  And that seems to be the aim of these books: to make you feel good and motivated.  Problem is, they seem to rehash their own ideas over and over and over again without ever diving too deeply below the surface.  The other books that fall into this category are The Gifts of Imperfection by Bren√© Brown (which I enjoyed even less than Pastrix) and the book I finished last week and so can’t officially count (Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor).

Two of the book club selections I read were actually pretty good.  I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, which tells the story of The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (as the subtitle reminds you) is undeniably engaging.  How can you not be pulled into such a story?  And yet the writing itself is not particularly memorable.  There were moments when it seemed obvious the reader was getting much more of Lamb’s journalistic voice than Malala’s own.  There were also moments when the things being said felt obligatory, motivated by public relations, and/or otherwise mildly contrived.  You can’t go wrong reading it, but it’s not a story that’s worthwhile because of the way it’s told.

My favorite book club selection of 2015 turned out to be Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who argues that, at their core, Buddhism and Christianity are really teaching the same things.  I’m very much drawn toward ecumenical and interfaith types of ideas, and I’m a universalist at heart.  It’s easy to see why I would like this book better than some of the others.  There is also a great deal more wisdom—honest-to-goodness wisdom, folks—packed into this book, gems like:

To “love our enemy” is impossible, because the moment we love him, he is no longer our enemy.

And here is, I believe, an excellent and beautiful defense of religious pluralism:

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango.  The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits.  Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them.  Only their manifestations are different.  Authentic experience makes a religion a true tradition.  Religious experience is, above all, human experience.  If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love.  The similarities as well as the differences are there.  They differ only in terms of emphasis.  Glucose and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ.  We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not.

Now let’s move on to the best of the best, from both fiction and non-fiction.

My absolute favorite read of the year, which also happens to be non-fiction, is Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet by Roger D. Launius.  I finished Pragmatic Prophet in early May, shortly after I had officially become a member of Community of Christ.  I wanted to learn more about the first president of the church after the death of founding prophet, Joseph Smith (Jr.).  I had grown up accepting Brigham Young as Smith’s rightful successor, but the more I’ve learned about Young over the years, the more horrified I’ve become.  Reading Pragmatic Prophet was an eye-opening experience, not only because I knew next to nothing about the so-called succession crisis or the early days of what became known as the RLDS Church, but because Joseph Smith III provides such an astoundingly stark contrast to the man I had always believed rightfully held the title of prophet and president after Joseph Smith’s death.  The difference between the two men is truly astonishing.  I fell in love with Joseph Smith III while reading this scholarly work, published by University of Illinois Press.  He was a humble and sincere man who sought to do only what he truly felt God wanted him to do.  Especially powerful to me were the dreams and/or visions of Joseph Smith III that seem so clearly to foretell of the two distinct paths that the LDS and the RLDS churches would take.  Pragmatic Prophet solidified for me the notion that God is and always has been a part of the RLDS / Community of Christ tradition, no matter how much God has also been involved in LDS history.  I’m not the type of person that would want to limit God’s influence to only one of the two churches, but not everyone would be as generous as I.

Other highly recommendable works of non-fiction:
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  •  Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy by Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, Editors

The best work of fiction I read in 2015 is Brady Udall’s 2001 novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.  It’s a quirky, depressively humorous book that features a catchy story and an even catchier voice in main character and narrator, Edgar Mint.  Edgar is the perpetual victim who never sees himself as such, even when a mailman accidentally runs over his head with a mail truck at the age of seven.  Edgar is, understandably, a little odd from that point forward, but he’s someone you’ll love spending time with.  Now, it’s true that Edgar spends some of his time in a Mormon foster-family, but I promise that’s not the only reason I liked this book.

Other highly recommendable works of fiction:
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donahue  (One of the most genuinely creepy “scary” books I’ve ever read!)
  • Heroes of the Dustbin by Tyler Whitesides
  • Finders Keepers by Stephen King

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