on April 10, 2008
When I finished the first chapter, I loved this book. Beth is struggling through Thanksgiving with her family after just leaving her husband who suffers from Bipolar disorder and quit taking his medication. By its middle, I had changed my mind. Tina seemed to be every character in a Jack Weyland novel. She does bad things and bad things happen to her. As I turned the last page, I loved it again. Wait a minute. This is it. These are the stories of families trying. Some of their tales are quite extraordinary.
I don't generally read much LDS fiction. I find the stories usually a bit too tidy and my most important qualifier for really good literature is that it be honest. A lot of time, LDS fiction can be fluffy. Yes, there is usually some necessary conflict that involves the bad character doing bad things. By its end, however, the punishment usually fits the crime and when a miracle is in order, it rarely fails to show up.
I saw a recommendation for this book on Blog Segullah and it got such rave reviews from some seemingly picky readers that I requested it from my library. It's brand new and I was the very first person to check it out. If you consider where I live and what kind of book it is, you'll agree that it was a special moment.
At just under 200 pages, this is the kind of book you can easily read in a day or two. I started it last night and have had a hard time putting it down. Bound on Earth follows the Palmer family through many generations, although not chronologically. The chapters bounce around in time and between family members, a writing technique I'm not always super fond of. Part of me thinks it's a shortcut, to eliminate the tricky transitions that progress a plot. But I also admit that as a reader, it can work well to experience multiple first hand narratives; it makes it much easier to get the "BIG" picture. And this is a book that is all about the big picture.
What is marriage? What is family? How do they survive? Do our trials break us apart or bind us together? Hallstrom doesn't cut corners with heartache. The situations she puts her characters in are vividly real, so real that I felt like I knew these people. I do know them. They just have different names.
If you're wary of LDS literature, give this a try. If you are looking for a great book to read with your ward bookgroup, this is your book. Or if you simply want to discover some great characters that you feel sad to part with at the end...read it. It's legitimately good.
on February 24, 2008
Angela Hallstrom's debut novel Bound on Earth fleshes out the fiction and non-fiction of marriage and family. Through a series of vignettes written from the perspective of different members of the Palmer family (mother, daughter, father, grandparents and others), the book allows its reader to discover the texture of being bound to those we love. It describes what happens between "I do" and our final whispers, the price of raising and losing children, the toll of mental and physical illness, and the not-so-black-and-white choice to leave or to remain. Reading the novel was like looking in a fun-house mirror. I recognized a faint double of myself but it was distorted, turned upside down, made shorter, taller, extended through time and tested. This book does what good fiction should do-distort reality just enough to tell the truth.
It is difficult to find an LDS novel that adequately communicates the nuance that fills the dusty corners of our lives-that faces the reality that we must become perfect even in our imperfection. And there were moments in the novel where I thought it might easily descend into trite summaries of belief. It never did.
The most powerful image of the book is found in the concept of `being bound.' At first, I felt like telling the characters to run away from their bonds, quickly and deftly, in an act of self-preservation. However, the book artfully aided my discovery that our bonds can teach us where and how to grow.
It is in this imagery of `being bound' that I found my one critique. The dominance of this theme left me wanting a richer subtext of symbols to decode. I wanted more ambiguity that would keep me returning to the text. But even with this weakness, the author succeeds at articulating intimate truth and helps us uncover a maze of complicated emotions. For instance, when Beth's mother peeks through a bedroom door and sees her daughter and her daughter's husband, she comments, "They are curled towards each other, sleeping, their heads almost touching and Beth's arm slung loosely across Kyle's side. Seeing them reminds me how difficult it is for two bodies, even sleeping, to face each other and not turn away (187)." The act of facing each other, constantly resisting turning away is what this novel is about, and if that is the lesson to be learned from the book, then that is good enough for a return visit.
As I discovered when I started researching genealogy, a family's story is never adequately told through a linear genealogical chart. Histories and narratives are needed for elucidation but often lead to other questions waiting to be answered. In a way, Angela Hallstrom's novel says what most genealogical documents will never say. However, maybe they should because many of these characters seem as real as the paper that I gripped when reading about them, as tangible as the warm hug that I receive from my toddler as he climbs into my bed at dark o'clock, and as vivid as the man I wake up to every morning, ever more a mystery to me especially when I think I have him figured out.
on July 31, 2015
This is a multi-generational story about a family that goes through various challenges, adjustments, and temptations. Feels very real, and very close. Knowing what the different family members have been through in the point of view chapters gives them an extra sense of depth and significance when you read about them as side characters in other chapters. While I think most people could get a lot out of this book, it has special meaning for Mormons who take family extremely seriously and see characters who share some of the same outlook and values wrestle with life's problems.
I cried while reading this book. It meant a lot to me to read something so well-written and moving about my own people.
on October 31, 2012
This story is so well written. Seamless, understated, but emotionally gripping. The women in this story all have different challenges and weaknesses, and yet they are each strong in their way. I found myself wondering how I would react in each of their circumstances. I found this a refreshingly non-judgmental, multidimensional exploration of families and choices in the context of LDS culture. This book will stay with me for a while, and I'm glad.
on February 24, 2008
Finally, a deeply satisfying read about real, complex characters who just happen to be Mormons. I've been waiting for this book for a long time. And, as any great work of literature, it speaks to all audiences regardless of culture. Hallstrom skillfully depicts real family dynamics through situations that make you squirm, cry, rejoice. I can't wait to give it to all my friends.
on May 12, 2008
Bound on Earth is the best, most finely crafted novel featuring complex, fully-rendered Mormon characters to date. Many have tried, but Hallstrom got it right. My copy of Bound on Earth takes its place proudly next to the works of Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver on my bookshelf.
on May 11, 2009
Angela Hallstrom got inside my brain and wrote a book about it. I suspect somehow she got in some mens' brains as well, and some young peoples' brains and some mentally peoples' brains and probably was invisibly visiting some LDS homes as well. That's how good this girl can write. I know, I probably should write "well" but she is just good, damn good.
I haven't been this excited about LDS fiction since somebody put me onto Levi Peterson, a couple of years back.
She doesn't write like Levi Peterson. She writes like herself. Clear, keen, incisive insight into human nature, that made me cry because she used my very words to express her character's emotions, "I ruin everything" (Alicia Palmer). Angela Hallstrom gets it.
Bound on Earth is about three generations of the Palmer family, Tess, the matriarch; her son Nathan, married to Alica (who feels she ruins everything); and their three daughters and their spouses. Her writing is never effusive, it's spare, which I love in a writer. I couldn't put the book down because she told enough in one chapter to make me want to read on, to understand.
From her youngest granddaughter's husband, Kyle's struggle with bi-polar disorder to middle child Tina's wild child promiscuous ways to Marnie, the oldest's valiant fight to remain righteous, each character is so well drawn that they became real to me. Hallstrom is never preachy and I loved Alicia's attitude toward her children's rebellion. You'll have to read the book to know what I'm talking about. This is a book about real life and real life isn't pretty tied up in bows, with temple marriages and missions for all.
"Bound on Earth" is an apt title, as the book explores each individual's level of commitment to eternal marriage without spelling anything out, trivializing the subject, or insulting the reader's intelligence. It's a fairly small book, as LDS fiction goes, and isn't one of those multi-sequeled two pounders that Mormons are famous for loving. It's quiet in its storytelling--and always respectful of the Mormon faith.
I think Richard Dutcher should make a movie of this book. It's been "written true" as Elizabeth Berg teaches her students. Somebody tell him. I know some of you big cheeses know him. This is the movie he should make.
Here are a few teasers--I'm going back to read it with a red pencil.
Alicia, big with pregnancy to her calm quiet steady husband, Nathan: "Do you ever wonder who's in charge? I mean, is it God? Sometimes I wonder if he's just watching, not mixing himself up in any of this. Like our lives are just a big play and he's waiting to see what happens next. Wouldn't we feel silly, then?"
She kept her silence with God for many months (referring to Tildy, a character I invite you to find in the book, after the death of her fourth baby). Then one summer while feeding chickens in the yard, her thoughts wandered; she found herself talking to God as she once had, telling him her troubles in her mind. She spoke to God in an ordinary way, thinking things like "Lord, this hen is not a good laying hen. I could use your blessing on this hen." Suddenly she realized to whom her mind had turned. "What have I done? she thought. "How can I be speaking to him again, so easily, as if nothing had happened between us?"
When I finished reading, late into the night, I studied the photo of the author on the back page, trying to figure how one so young was so wise. Angela, you touched me with your book. Thank you.
on February 21, 2008
Bound On Earth is a rarity among a lot of contemporary literature and among the sub-genre of LDS fiction. It is unlike many stories published in the annual O. Henry or Best American collections in its sense of compassion for the characters. Rather than portraying the Palmer family as a collection of freaks and walking dysfunctions as is so popular to do, the book shows the characters as flawed and difficult, humane and striving, sympathetic and, ultimately, deserving of compassion. This is not to say that each member of the family has some easy, trite, heroic moment or epiphany. On the contrary, it is their ordinariness, their familiar every-day-ness that makes them so authentic and relevant.
A reader won't feel as though he or she is looking at a display behind glass in a literary museum with this book. Readers will feel as though they are visiting home, sitting next to familiar siblings, friends, and relatives at the dinner table. Rather than the cold, arm's-length distance one has come to expect from authors who seem only able to focus on dysfunction, betrayal, and emotional disaster and death, Hallstrom ably and realistically portrays real people with real struggles. She does it in a way that never insults the reader's intelligence or lets the characters off the hook. The humanity and compassion for its characters and, by extension, for its readers are what set Bound On Earth apart from most of what you can find on the New Fiction shelf these days.
What sets the book apart from a lot of LDS fiction has to do with what the book is not. It isn't any of the things that are normally conjured by the label of "LDS literature." It isn't historical fiction like The Work and The Glory, it isn't weepy stuff targeted at youth like Jack Weyland's stuff, it isn't a missionary narrative. Nor is it centered around someone's struggle with faith and the climax is all about whether or not the hero stays in the church.
The book is distinguished even from wonderful, classic LDS novels like The Backslider simply because it is contemporary. Hallstrom has written about Mormon life as it is right now. This isn't a reformulation of some glorious historic heritage nor is it a fossil of LDS culture from the past. These stories are finely crafted tales that both speak to and show the experience of being a Latter-Day saint in the late 20th and early 21st century.
It's not intellectually popular to talk too much about emotional involvement with a book. It's okay to talk about themes, motifs, possible interpretations, extra-textual connections, etc. but it's quietly, definitely frowned upon to to just talk about how much you love a particular character or event in a story. Too much emotion is unseemly in the academic world. Emotion isn't thought, it might be said.
Nevertheless, I've got to say that I loved this book and I loved these characters. I saw pieces of myself and my loved ones in them and that, I think, is a large part of why people read -- to know that we are not alone in the universe. Bound On Earth makes me feel like I am in good company.
Of everyone, I have to say that I have a bit of a literary crush on the character of Beth. She's the youngest daughter of the Palmer family and her narratives are the head, tail, heart, and funny bone of the book of the book. My heart about broke apart during the "Sunday Story" of her trying to help her mother around the house as a five year old and I laughed out loud while reading about her crush on her high school English teacher. Her struggles to love and forgive a damaged spouse later in her life struck me as utterly authentic.
It's a small book, just over 200 pages, but it is a substantial, worthwhile read that makes you feel as though you have met people, been places, and done things. It's well worth the small price to buy and ship it to your door.
on February 17, 2008
"Bound on Earth" is a compelling, well-written novel that offers a realistic view of modern LDS life as lived by the fictional Palmer family. Perhaps the strongest quality of this story is the richness and depth of its main characters. Most readers will identify with their successes and failures, testimonies and trials, and the joys and monotony that life presents when viewed through the perspective of the restored gospel. Through my own personal experiences and observations of life, I connected in many ways with the Palmers and developed an emotional attachment to the main characters. I often judge the quality of a novel by its ability to draw me in and forge some sort of personal, emotional investment in its ultimate outcome. When judged by this standard, "Bound on Earth" is a clear, unequivocal success. Angela Hallstrom delivers an impressively strong debut novel and I am eagerly awaiting her future publications.
on March 5, 2008
With honest, lucid prose, Hallstrom offers the best, most real, picture of contemporary Mormon life I've seen. It is a moving multi-generational story of one family drawing together through all their trials and foibles. Rather than centering her story on conversions, Hallstrom centers it on endurance. The complex, well-realized characters do not find simplistic answers to deeply troubling challenges; instead, there is often just simple, daily, difficult faith. They earn our compassion and teach us much about how to live well as flawed humans in a flawed world. Hallstrom gives us all this in just under 200 pages of tightly focused moments, deftly shifting from one time and perspective to another. This quietly affecting family portrait left me more compassionate toward myself and those I am bound to.
Minor quibble with an earlier reviewer: the character does not nearly succomb, he recognizes and parries.