"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, March 29, 2014

'Everything is Illuminated' in Book Clubs

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book club became downright wild this week.

We discussed Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated. At one point I asserted the following: "Part of my difficulty getting into this book was the author's excessive use of devices--the constant switching of narrative voices, chapters where punctuation is done away with, the page and a half where he repeats the phrase "We are writing..." over and over. His indulgent use of stylized proze distracted from my ability to connect with the characters."

My two cents flung onto the reading club's table, several people nodded. Then, from directly across the table, a lady looked me in the eyes and in a reserved yet non-apologetic tone said, "Actually, I did not find the characters at all compelling. So the author's use of narrative devices was what interested me the most." As her two cents came to rest upon--no, to smother--my two cents, I nodded politely.

Like I said, book club became downright wild as we discussed Everything is Illuminated.

This novel is a perfect selection for a book club, inciting a wide range of reactions. Our club's discussion resulted in delicious disagreements, but also some vindication all around. Our reactions were various, but none of us reacted alone. For me, and I suspect for others, the realization that I was not the only one who found the book frustrating and inaccessible provided relief.

Everything is Illuminated is a novel about searching out one's roots, about uncovering family secrets, and about realizing one's destiny. This is also a novel about shedding light on horrific periods of history. At its most personable, the book depicts two similar minds nitpicking over details and perspective. These themes are tried and true, yet none of them are guaranteed to move and inspire.

Perhaps this is a masterful novel that I was not in mood for. Perhaps, as I asserted at book club, this is a so-so novel gilded with excessively stylized prose. Either way, the chance to mull over my reaction in person with other thoughtful readers made the whole experience worth it. As a matter of fact, that is one of the main ideas depicted in Everything is Illuminated.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Witnessing 'Conflict in the Quorum'

Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph SmithConflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith by Gary James Bergera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Young used for the purpose of trying to drive Orson Pratt out of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My brow furrowed. I had never before heard that notion, nor for that matter was I aware that a serious conflict had occurred between the two men. I left the matter unexplored until I found Gary James Bergera's book Conflict in the Quorum.

Orson Pratt, one of the great theological voices of early Mormonism, had run-ins with both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. His rift with Joseph occurred over the practice of polygamy and claims that Joseph attempted to take Pratt's wife in plural marriage. His conflicts with Brigham Young covered a great deal of ground, including questions of authority--should Church rulings be made by a First Presidency or a majority of the Twelve--and issues of theology, such as the nature of the Godhead.

This work is a magnifying glass held up to two men who were fiercely devoted to Mormonism in excruciatingly different ways. Young was a manager. Pratt was a theologian. Bergera's book is not for the beginner. This book is not a primer. It is a close examination of original records. It moves fast and is laden with footnotes.

One of the great values of Conflict in the Quorum is in providing the reader extended excerpts taken from meeting transcripts. At times, the reader has the chance to picture being in a closed-door meeting of the Twelve. Bergera provides enough depth and breadth of material so that, whether one is partial to Young or Pratt, it is possible to appreciate the perspective each man had.

For me personally, I strongly valued the candid discussion of Brigham Young's Adam-God Doctrine--in which Young taught that Adam was a resurrected polygamist when he entered the Garden of Eden, and also the Father of our spirits. Pratt became an outspoken critic of this odd doctrine that did not stand the test of time. Pratt and Young also repeatedly butted heads over the question of how God's omniscience omnipresence should be understood in light of Mormon belief that God has a physical body. In these matters, Bergera lets Pratt and Young speak for themselves.

As Young and Pratt grapple with each other and deep doctrines, the reader has a chance to learn a lot about human nature and also 19th Century Mormonism. The goal of this book is not to disprove Mormonism, nor does it come down unequivocally in favor of Young or Pratt. I recommend it for people engaged in a serious study of Mormon history, and who are interested in examining source material not as often examined.

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