Tuesday, November 30, 2010

12 months/12 books: Post #2 "The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance" by Elna Baker

This is part 2 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. **This is re-posted from my personal blog - not sure why it took me until now to figure that out **

I realized when I picked up this book and paid FULL PRICE for it that I would probably choose to review it. And that I wasn't sure how much I would be able to simply review this book as much as review my own take on Mormonism, "single"-ness, and faith.

That proved pretty true while I was reading it as well: it was tough to hear Elna Baker's voice without filtering her through my own experiences in nearly identical circumstances. She caught me when describing the crepe-paper festooned Mormon gymnasium and nut cups, and I can attest that she is deft at portraying many typical Mormon experiences with a great eye for their intrinsic and myriad loopiness. Unfortunately, the editor in me begged to push her (over and over again) for more personal authenticity than glibness.

Elna Baker is a professional comedienne who fits in with the current oeuvre of memoirists who (as it seems to me) are like your funny friend with a lot of ability to build up to a good punchline in a life-of-the-party sort of way, and who then find themselves writing a book piecing together all their funny punchlines. For Baker, sometimes that works, and sometimes it's a mess. However, it's not a terrible thing to say that this book is funny and messy, but unfortunately, it's also occasionally teen-journal-angst-ridden (the format is part journal as well, including a map of whom she's kissed, and where), excessively narcissistic, and generally pretty glossy when it comes to self-examination.

She's no David Sedaris, but she's definitely interesting, even if her best selling point is that she is someone funny from the Mormon world, navigating a life where she doesn't drink, smoke, do drugs, engage in premarital sex, swear, or drink caffeinated beverages. Almost all of her punchlines are related to being Mormon. And that's okay. A little one-trick, but (to me, at least) unique by virtue of being genuinely Mormon in a world FULL of "my weird childhood/life/religion/sexuality/money-making-scheme" memoirs.
Generally, I find that Baker's humor is sharp in the well-edited passages, and a bit of a toss-off in many other sections. Here's one example:
"“Do you guys know what cereal killers are?” he asked.

We shook our heads no.

“You guys are the cereal killers!” he said emphatically.

He piled us into the van and drove us to Fred Meyer. While he bought us masks, gloves, and squirt guns, we each got to pick out any cereal that we wanted.

From there we headed to several of his friends’ houses, assembling in a clump on their doorsteps while Tina, my oldest sister, rang the bell.

As the door opened we cocked our squirt guns with one hand, and held up our cereal boxes with the other: “Hands up,” we yelled. “We’re the cereal killers!” Then, at my father’s instruction, we went into his friends’ houses and forced them to eat cereal."
It's a funny little story, but it lays there, sort-of lodged in as a substitute for more information about how her family dynamic works. It needs a framework that just isn't there to strengthen her voice, and the overall effect is that she's weak at painting other people into her single-spotlit world.

One of the most intriguing things Baker admits in this book is how she complicatedly mixes her suppressed sexuality with spirituality. At one point, she meets a man to whom she is very connected and attracted but who is also an atheist. She likes him, and wants to be with him, but can't reconcile their clashing worldviews. Soon thereafter, she gets mostly naked with him (Major Mormon Taboo), then whispers in his ear "I really want you to pray about whether or not you believe in God".

Ha! So...the build-up to that is great. Awful. Embarrassing and deeply crazy. But the aftermath to that scene isn't "what is UP with me that I am trying to turn this guy on and then get him to pray?" Or even laughably clueless "I wonder why he ran out of here?" It's just...hum. Sort of "That was weird of me, wasn't it? Oooh, toast!" It's probably a situation not many authors could handle deftly, so maybe I could cut her some slack. However, Baker flubs the aftermath of many situations by not giving them the chance to reverberate fully. Like your friend at the party, she's already on to the next funny story, leaving the last story falling apart in her wake.

What I like most about the book is that Baker is generally very good at laughing at herself - something I think most Mormons lack, like a genetic defect caused by all that inter-breeding of Scandinavian zealots. (NB: Not all Mormons are Scandinavian descent, clearly, but look at any Ward phonebook and count how long the J section is "Jensen, Jergensen, Johansen, Jorgensen"...).

At any rate, I think the thing I wanted most from this book is something I may never get from any Mormon memoirist: a thoughtful, intelligent understanding of how their faith functions and how they reconcile the myriad requirements and inconsistencies of that faith with the rest of the world. Baker does an okay job, albeit superficially, of talking about how faith for her is more the feeling of peace with belonging to a group she understands and to which she belongs from birth. And I get that, even if she can't plumb much deeper into her own understanding.

As I stated before, some passages are clearly better edited than others, and it ends in the fraught-with-messiness setting I associate with a contemporary memoir. She chases atheist ex-boyfriend to (seriously) Africa, learning that being connected with someone doesn't erase the months of craziness you've put them through. It's got a bit of an Eat, Pray, Love end-vibe (minus the Love), but again, it ends up being a funny, if overall minor work.