I like novels and books from small presses, the independents, those that rely on Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, word-of-mouth … for sales. I read two novels and one scholarly book, from respectively, Strange Violin Editions, Leicester Bay Books, and Xlibris. They are Byuck, a novel by Theric Jepson, well known in the Mormon literary scene, The Hand of Glory, by Stephen Carter, another fixture in Mormon lit, and German Leaves: Opposing Nazi Cannons with Words, by retired academic Ralph P. Vander Heide, a resident of Ogden.
Below are capsule reviews of the books and short interviews with the authors, as well as links to buy the books.
Byuck: This is a crazy book. It’s chaotic but hilariously funny. It’s a satire on life at BYU in
the 1990s and involves two eccentrics, Curses Olai and David Them, to create a rock opera, “Byuck,” which deals with avoiding what is regarded as the main responsibilities of being at BYU, namely matrimony and the ensuing white-shirt-and-tie responsibilities of adult life. The novel is intersected with assorted musings and academic contributions from Dave, such as his “Memory Book,” and lists of spiritual brainstorming from stake conference, and so on. There are witty caricatures, such as Peter, a “macho” BYU guy.
A lot of people have compared Byuck to “Napoleon Dynamite” and I read a review that tagged it with “The Death of a Disco Dancer.” As I told the author, I kept thinking of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The plot’s not similar but it has some of that creative chaos that makes “Confederacy” so memorable. By the way, the history of Jepson’s efforts to get Byuck published, including his dealings with Deseret Book, are as chaotic and hilarious.
The Hand of Glory: This young adult paranormal novel is a genuine horror tale. Carter, who subtitles it “Harrowed Valley Hauntings: Book 1,” has written a spooky story with talented, and chilling illustrations from Galen Dara. The back story of Hand of Glory is steeped in early Mormon history, with polygamy, sin and blood as a means of settling dilemmas. The protagonist is Paul McCallister, 14, who moves to a small Wyoming town. He’s not too happy there, being chased by bullies and wondering where his mom disappeared to. Eventually, Paul’s activities energizes ghosts of a long-ago generation, leading to a scary resolution.
I love antiques, old books and magazines, and anything that shows history at its dustiest. My favorite sections of the novel revolve around Paul’s visits to an old junk shop run by a distant relative. To sum up, a great read, for kids and adults, but beware, this is not faux scary. It’s creepy.
German Leaves is not a novel, it’s an expanded work of scholarship from academic Ralph P. Vander Heide, who long ago covered the topic while getting a doctorate in German Exile Literature. The topic involves ideas, and writers who became exiles as a result of totalitarianism in Germany, the spread of Nazism.
There’s many subtopics in German Leaves, and my advice is to find sections that pique the readers’ interest and delve right in. I particularly enjoyed a section in which the author notes the failure of organized religion to prevent world wars and proposals, in various literary journals, that posit the idea of atheist-based altruism as a preferable alternative to religion. Whatever the topic, Vander Heide has a passion for “German Leaves” and his writing style is both interesting and provocative.
Here are links, via amazon, to all three of the books reviewed: Below that are interviews with the authors, in this order, Jepson, Carter and Vander Heide:
The Hand of Glory: Here
German Leaves …: Here
Me: Eric, the novel is chaotic but cool. For some bizarre reason, it reminds me of a Mormon version of A Confederacy of Dunces. Question: Is the novel a unique slice of life from 1990s BYU, or is it still relevant to the campus experience today? Also, I read The Motley Fool interview and the process trying to get accepted by Deseret Book is worthy of its own story. After all the talk, receiving a form rejection notice is hilarious. Do you think DB rejects works such as BYUck strictly for marketing reasons, or is a blend of ideology and marketing?
Jepson: “I had a similar experience with Covenant and in that case I know for sure that it was the marketing department that forced the editors to drop it. So I suspect that marketing leads. In fact, I rather think that marketing defines ideology — or, more accurately, perception of customer ideology leads marketing ideology.
“I appreciate the Confederacy of Dunces comparison. I haven’t read that book in years and so I can’t comment on whether any particular influence should be seen — certainly I didn’t include anything intentionally — but you make me want to reread it. In many ways, I think I was too young when I read that one.
“I did a promotion with the BYU Memes Facebook page, but it’s too soon to say how well Byuck captures their experience. I will say that one of the kids at my high school got his hands on a copy and he, a non-Mormon Bay Area 16-year-old son of Russian immigrants, seemed to latch on to it. If he can dig it, surely 2013 Cougars can. But we’ll be testing that when we finally get it into the BYU Bookstore. I’ve been a bit lax about getting that bit of sales done.”
Me: “I’m wondering how you market a scary YA tale with a Mormon overview, albeit pretty light.
Have publishers mentioned any concerns with the polygamy backstory? Is their reluctance from traditional Mormons pubs to the content? I know that Twilight isn’t even sold in Deseret Book.
The old shop fascinates me maybe the most. What were some life experiences that helped transmit those pages to the novel?
Carter: “You’re right, the book isn’t Mormon because it presents doctrine or events unique to Mormon life, but because of its interest in how connected we are to our ancestors, and how our actions resonate in worlds we can’t see.
“Interestingly, the Publisher’s Weekly review didn’t mention the Mormonism at all; it was more interested in how the plot has roots in the Bible. It said: ‘A very interesting family history tied closely to the Biblical story of Abraham and his two wives gives a unique angle to this ghost story.’
“I was actually more worried about the Bible story turning readers off than the Mormonism. In an MFA course I attended, we read an essay based on Samson and Delilah, and three-quarters of the class were thoroughly confused. Apparently, the only students who knew the story were the two Mormons and the Baptist minister’s daughter. I don’t think Bible stories are really that well known anymore.
“It was probably inevitable that religion would show up one way or another in this book. I grew up loving the author John Bellairs, and his ghost stories always had Catholicism working in the background. In one series, the protagonist is assisted by a Catholic priest. In another, the protagonist tries to recover the Urim and Thummim from some evil force. (When I read that particular book, I thought, “Hey, Joseph Smith knows where those are!”) The thing that fascinated me about Bellairs’ books was that the key to overcoming evil wasn’t purity or a crucifix or holy water, it was smarts, soul, and a dose of crabbiness. You couldn’t just put your arm to the square and cast out the ghosts, you had to encounter them, figure them out.
“And that’s kind of how I spent my nights as a kid: encountering the possibility of ghosts. Because if you’re a Mormon, you have to believe in ghosts. Your parents can’t tell you there’s no such thing: the scriptures are full of them, LDS Church history is full of them, our theology is full of them. And Mormonism will be the first religion to tell you that ghosts have identities; that they have personalities; that they can be as evil or as good as any human being. So my young self with his overactive imagination would stare into the darkness and wonder who the ghosts were.
“The old shop was one of my favorite parts of the book, too. I based it on a thoroughly amazing place I visit from time to time in Wyoming and mixed it in with memories of filing numerous newspaper clippings away in my grandmother’s dozens of full-size filing cabinets that seemed to multiply while I wasn’t looking. And finally, I added the feel of a dream I sometimes have where I find new, fascinating rooms in a house I thought I knew well. I look forward to exploring the shop further in the next book.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much to tell about trying to get the book into stores yet. We are still finding our way through Deseret Book’s process, and I have no idea how that will turn out.”
Me: What was the key distinction between the academic work of the past and turning it into a book decades later?
Vander Heide: “The good academics who advised on the dissertation insisted that I write in a logical , ABC (or B follows A) style without compromise. The final product was not to be a novel! The professor who reviewed grammar and style, etc. was an editor for the Modern Language Association, which is prestigious in the academic world. Curiously his German pronunciation was so poor that he was the only professor I had who did not conduct his classes in English. The man knew the language inside out as a study in grammar, history, knowledge of lit, but for some reason could not pronounce it. I appreciated his editing skills, but….
“I always wanted to write an equally informative and researched study, but a “better read” (or at least less dry). The story of the Deutsche Blätter is a fascinating one. I wanted it preserved. Germans are no more evil than anyone else and the persons who founded this magazine prove that point. How well educated they were! (They were) true humanists and educated in the tradition of Goethe and Schiller whose portraits appear on the cover. They detested Hitler and Nazism, but did not believe they represented the true German historically.
A most daunting obstacle for me was the task of translating all the German passages. It certainly would not, I knew, sell in the USA with so much in German. The university German department did not want translations. So, one good day I had an epiphany to keep it all, i.e. two languages as explained in the preface. “I did it my way” as the song says, concerning the two languages.
“My second inspiration was to add personal anecdotes including the murder of my cousin in the Netherlands, Dutch women collaborating with the Nazis, so many Netherlanders joining the German armed forces, resistant groups, and the account of the “brain drain.” It seems Hollywood especially profited. However, we also received the learning and wisdom of philosophers, scientists, politicians, so very many.
“The Leaves is not dry history, but not a novel, of course. Perhaps it is an historical narrative which allows me to grind my ax (axes) and both ask and answer questions. How did Hitler accomplish it ? How could the German people follow him? Could this happen again? Through Dr. Rukser, Mr. Theile and all the contributors I freely examine the questions free (good or bad) from the pressure and power of graduate school professors.”