Monday, December 27, 2010

Dant, "Adventures of the Soul" (reviewed by Jonathan Langford)


Title: Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies

Editor: Doris R. Dant
Publisher: BYU Press
Genre: Personal Essays Anthology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: ix; 261
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-8425-2739-2
Price: $14.95
Available from Deseret Book and other sources.

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. Review originally posted at A Motley Vision: 
Mormon Arts and Culture blog.

Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the editor.

A good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with 
a longtime friend. It's not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it about 
polished literary style--though there is a style and a demanding literary 
craft to writing such essays well. The essence of that craft lies in the 
achievement of a clear, intimate, authentic voice, as if the author were 
indeed a close and trusted friend. The satisfaction we as readers take from 
the experience springs in large measure from that sense of connection.

The other key to a good personal essay is the quiet insights it provides 
into ordinary life. Personal essays are the genre of the quotidian, focused 
into insight and clarity (there's that word again) through the lens of an 
author's mental reflection and then offered up for the reader's recognition 
and acknowledgment. The underlying ethos of every personal essay is our 
essential similarity as human beings. As Jane D. Brady (author of one of 
the essays published in this collection) puts it: "There's not a chasm 
between normal, functioning human beings and the bums on the street with no 
job and no life. There's one hair's breadth. Disaster is one step off the 
sidewalk. It is one migraine away" (p. 198). Personal essays persuade us of 
this truth (just as applicable to miracles as disasters) through a 
combination of narrated occurrence and quiet observation. We ponder the 
writer's insights, resonate with the writer's experiences, and feel that we 
know ourselves better as a result.

"Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies"
makes accessible 25 high-quality contributions to this genre, well suited 
to the tastes of orthodox Mormons who enjoy thoughtful reflection on what 
it means to be Mormon and what it means to be human. The essays--ranging 
from memories of World War II among the Latter-day Saints in an Australian 
branch to insights interwoven with recuperation from back surgery--are 
organized into the 4 categories of International Vistas, Family Views, 
Gospel Reflections, and Introspection. Truthfully, though, all of the 
essays strike me as being in some sense about family, self, and gospel, 
each set in its own specific geographical, cultural, and temporal frame.

Personal essays in venues such as "Dialogue" and "Sunstone" often explore 
what it's like to be in the boundary areas of Mormon experience. The essays 
in "Adventures of the Soul," in contrast, stay away from the edges but 
drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in 
a range of life circumstances. There's no controversy, but plenty of fodder 
for reflection and sharing.

The presentation of these essays matches the quality of their content. The 
book is beautifully composed and typeset, featuring grayscale photographs 
of waterfalls that harmonize with the thoughtful and reflective tone of the 
content. Overall, it's an ideal gift for the thoughtful, believing Mormon 
on your Christmas, birthday, or Mother's/Father's Day list who may not care 
for fiction but who likes to read and think about human experience.

I do have a few minor quibbles. The Introduction (by editor Doris Dant) 
provides thoughtful teasers about the specific essays included in the 
volume and how they fit within the myriad potentialities of the personal 
essay form. However, it doesn't supply any information about how essays for 
this particular "best of" anthology were selected--and from how large a 
pool. I couldn't help but notice that only two of the personal essays dated 
from prior to Volume 35 (published in 1995-96). Does this reflect a change 
in frequency of publication of personal essays in "BYU Studies" starting 
about 15 years ago, or an editorial process that found more recent essays 
to be of higher quality?

It would also be interesting to know how many personal essays "BYU Studies"
publishes in a typical year, and who is eligible to submit them. Members of 
the BYU community only? Alumni? Anyone? What types of essays are they 
looking for? This kind of information is likely to be of interest to many 
of those who might read the anthology.

An editorial point that annoyed me in reading the essays was the lack of 
any headnote or footnote giving the date of original publication: 
information that would have help create a proper mental context for my 
reading. Irritatingly, the About the Authors entries at the end of the book 
included volume and issue number for the original publication, but not dates.

These complaints, however, are minor compared to the many strengths and 
pleasures offered by this volume. My only real regret is that, due to the 
fragmented nature of the Mormon market, it's likely that many people who 
would enjoy this book will never have the opportunity to read it.

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