Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks

Reviewed by Connie and Christina

Published: 2012

It's about: Joanna Brooks, author of popular blog AskMormonGirl, is a modern-day Mormon feminist intellectual. In this revealing memoir, Joanna describes her conflicted relationship with the Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) church, from growing up eating green jello and idolizing Marie Osmond, to attending Brigham Young University, to finding herself at odds with the church's position on gay marriage and leaving it, to finding her way back and taking her children with her.

Christina thought: In the past, I've done some hardcore complaining about self-published books. I had all but given up on them because I can't handle the lack of editing and proofreading. Then guess who came along and changed my mind? Ms. Joanna Brooks. The Book of Mormon Girl is beautifully edited and free of typos and mistakes; the quality is at least as high as any mass-produced book. But that's one of the more minor things I loved about tBOMG.

What stood out to me most, personally, was how closely I could relate to Ms. Brooks' life and struggle. So I kept trying to imagine reading this from a non-Mormon or non-liberal Mormon perspective. And when I did, I didn't stop enjoying it. Thanks to the clear, subtly poetic writing and well-stated explanations of Mormon culture, The Book of Mormon Girl isn't just for frustrated LDS Feminists. It is a very emotional memoir. But then, one's personal relationship to religion IS emotional. I'm not sure I would appreciate the feelings-laden narrative as much if it didn't so closely mirror my own life.

I couldn't help comparing tBOMG to another Mormon memoir I read fairly recently: The New York Regional Mormon Space-Hogging Name. I enjoyed TNYRMSHD, but next to tBOMG it seems terribly shallow and silly. Maybe it's not really fair to compare the two. Elna Baker is a comedian; her purpose is to entertain. Joanna Brooks is an academic and an artist; her purpose is to inform and express. If you're curious about Mormon culture but didn't love Elna, or if you just want a more serious, artful memoir, you've got to pick up The Book of Mormon Girl.

Connie thought
: Christina said it all. This is an incredibly well-written, intelligent but emotional look at the Mormon religion through the eyes of a Mormon feminist intellectual, which is why Ingrid, Christina, and I all really related (there are more of us than you'd think!). I was blown away by how Joanna balances honesty about certain less savory aspects of LDS history and culture with a profound love and respect for the religion and its heritage.

Unlike other Mormon or ex-Mormon memoirs I have encountered, this one is undeniably fair, and it fills a much-needed niche. This is the Mormon memoir we've been waiting for. I couldn't agree more with Christina's comparison to Elna Baker's memoir, which I didn't especially enjoy. Misguided, is what I'd call it. While Elna is overly critical of other members of her faith, setting herself up as the only normal Mormon in the world, so to speak, Joanna writes her memoir to reach out to others like herself, "because no one should be left to believe that she is the only one."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Joanna's memoir is her rather poetic call for more love in the world in the final chapter of the book. Here is a glimpse of it:

"I want a faith as welcoming as a Pioneer Day dinner table set with a thousand cream-of-chicken-soup casseroles and wedding-present crockpots, a table with room enough for everyone: male and female, black and white, gay and straight, perfect and imperfect, orthodox or unorthodox, Mormon, Jew, or Gentile." 

That entire final chapter is terribly moving. In case you still can't tell, I loved. I loved. I loved this book.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: People who should read this book:
  • Non-Mormons who dislike Mormons because of things like Glenn Beck and the Prop 8 Mess.
  • Conservative Mormons who have trouble understanding liberal Mormons
  • Anyone who feels alienated within or without the Church
Warnings: none

Favorite excerpts:
"No one says: I laid on the floor of the Venice Beach apartment and Parliament was on the record player and my friend and I, we looked at the ceiling, and I waved the smoke from the air with the back of my hand, and when he asked 'Help me understand what this Mormonism means to you?' I said 'it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart.'"

"Every Mormon carries with them a bundle of stories like a suitcase of family secrets. Polygamous ancestors we have learned to be ashamed of. Histories that reveal the human flaws of the ones who came before us. Doctrines we dare not mention in public for fear of ridicule. Sacrifices we refuse to believe God would ask of us. Stories of loss that do not end neatly with restoration and stories of leaving that do not conclude with the return home...I am not afraid of them. Because this is the story life has given me to tell."

"This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human failings. There is no unmixing the two."