Books I’ve recently finished
Elders, by Ryan McIlvain: I intended to write a longer post reviewing this book, but I got distracted and never finished it. In short, this novel on LDS missionary experience is one of the best cultural depictions of a mission I’ve come across in terms of capturing the everyday experience while also being attuned to deeper, political issues that come with global missionary work (situating the church within different cultures, the politics of scriptural translations, etc.). The story focuses on Elder McLeod, a bright but searching American, and Elder Passos, his devout and ambitious Brazilian companion, who are searching for investigators during the lead-up to the Iraq War in Brazil. McLeod undergoes something of a crisis of faith, though this trope has become so typical of Mormon and religious fiction that it is hard for McIlevain to tread new ground. And while McLeod’s viewpoint dominates, his character is sometimes confusing and finally exhausting. For all his religious doubts and intellectual hunger, McLeod never seems to think so critically about his native country, and his sophomoric patriotism feels odd and more like a plot necessity. He’s impulsive in the worst ways. By the end, I’m just tired of him. Passos, on the other hand, is a fascinating figure who exhibits a mature but conflicted perspective on his faith. His spiritual devotion is constantly beset by his secular ambitions, his hopes to leverage excellent missionary service into a BYU scholarship, and his wariness towards an American-based church that at times feels so foreign to his native Brazil. If McLeod serves as a pseudo-autobiographical figure for the author (McIlvain left the church in his mid-twenties), Passos is a revelation about what Mormonism might look like for an non-American perspective. It’s a fast-paced read as well; I finished it over a weekend. Strong language and some mature content, FYI.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: I got this book for Christmas, started it, but got sidetracked when the semester began. I’m glad I recommitted to read it. This novel is a delight, a demanding but rewarding read. Mantel chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell, an integral figure in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. I’ve never been one for historical fiction, but this is not your typical historical novel. Wolf Hall isn’t a mere romp through medieval castles, indulging in monarchial nostalgia, but a vivid portrait of courtly dynamics and human frailty. Rarely do characters feel so alive or palpable; historical figures are resurrected as actual people rather than plot figures in a political timeline. Mantel moves you briskly from one scene to the next, and the effect can be disorienting (she has chapters but relies more on intervals, so time and place can change almost instantly). But it also keeps the action moving across decades without feeling like you are getting bogged down in a bloated, pretentious epic. Her grasp of dialogue is deft, but she saves her best prose for the carnality of a world where death is always in the air and political stability relies so heavily on the inconstancy of royal reproduction. Torture, burnings at the stake, sickness, sexual exploitation: it’s all there in devastating form. One example, of King Francis recalling the body of one of former his mistresses (the initial “He” is Cromwell): “He would like to stop him but you can’t stop a king. His voice runs over naked Mary, chin to toes, and then flips her over like a griddle cake and does the other side, nape to heels. An attendant hands him a square of fine linen, and as he finishes he dabs the corner of his mouth: and hands the kerchief back.” A brilliantly disgusting metaphor.
Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology, by Adam Miller: I loved Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines from last year, so I was curious to read some his academic writing. He continues to be a brilliant wordsmith, but he is also a very handy explicator of Bruno Latour, a difficult but increasingly relevant philosopher. Miller’s object-oriented philosophy is immensely profound for the way it tries to bring theology away from transcendance (metaphysical abstraction and speculation) and into the messy material world–bodily sensation, evolution, genetics, etc. I wrote a more complete review on the book’s Amazon page.
Hmmmm, I know I had more in mind, but they’re not coming to me, so maybe I’ll follow-up later.