Sunday, February 22, 2015

Addressing The Complaints About The Bishop's Wife

Stuck home with a nasty cold yesterday, I was intrigued by the polarized reviews of Mette Ivie Harrison's recent mystery, The Bishop's Wife, so I bought a kindle copy and read it.
Basically, it's a step up from cozy (it's been edited, for one thing!) but not a real crime novel.  It still features a middle-aged female protagonist, but there's no romance sub-plot, as she is happily married.  Also, this woman is not stupid (as in most cozies) and she has no "in" with any cops.  Linda, the protagonist, is indeed the Bishop's wife, and the main plot begins when her neighbor, a young mother, leaves home without a trace.  At the same time, another neighbor's husband is dying -- and he keeps raving about his first wife, a woman whose death is also clouded in mystery.
I really liked this book, but people are going nuts with negative reviews.  So, instead of giving a regular review of my own, I thought I'd comment on a few recurring themes in the negative reviews.

Negative theme #1:  "It moves too slowly."
Yeah, it kind of does move slowly.  I agree.  However, I think it's because Harrison gave it a Mormon setting, and, while an author can explain ordinary cozy hooks like baking or antique hunting with a few references, giving the non-Mormon reader some clue as to what life is like for Utah Mormons takes a fair amount of explanation.  There just had to be a good deal of backstory.  I'm not sure how Harrison could possibly have done otherwise.

Negative theme #2 "It misrepresents the Church."
A reviewer (unfortunately) named Lisa gave this book low ratings  on goodreads, stating, "My chief complaint is that the book misrepresents the Church in some ways.... "  Hers is a common complaint.
Several readers objected to the fact that Harrison omits the Stake President in the story, which I found odd, because that position is completely irrelevant to the plot.  Why would Harrison complicate things with even more Mormon backstory?  I think that's also why she left out visiting teachers and home teachers; they aren't necessary to the plot, and the reader doesn't need to know every single thing about Mormons.  Harrison also left out fast offerings, baptisms for the dead, and ward bulletins -- because they are necessary to the plot.
Oddly, though, Harrison -- or perhaps her editor -- made a couple of mistakes glaringly obvious to a Mormon reader.  One is that Linda (the protagonist) keeps referring to making tea without calling it herbal tea.  Since regular tea is forbidden by devout Mormons, it is unlikely that a Bishop's wife would do that.  Another bit of strangeness is that Linda and her neighbor Anna speak of donating a deceased man's clothing to Goodwill.  Odd.  Utah has only had a Goodwill for a couple of years.  A Utah Mormon would be unlikely to donate to Goodwill (with its shady business practices) instead of the church-operated Deseret Industries.  But maybe the editor didn't want Harrison to explain even one more thing about Mormons.  Thirdly, there is a scene, upsetting to several reviewers, wherein Linda helps her friend dress her deceased husband's body in temple clothing for burial.  Linda comments on the temple garments  (the famous "Mormon underwear"), but Harrison has written in the wrong number of markings on them; she says "three" -- two on the chest and one on the leg -- but there are actually four -- the one not mentioned being in the abdomen area.  Why bother to mention the markings at all if not to mention them correctly?  I thought this was strange.

Negative theme #3: "It's feminist."
Yeah, it is.  And that's a good thing, not a bad thing.  Get over yourself.
One Amazon reviewer who goes by "mindful" calls the book "a wolf in sheep's clothing."  He identifies himself as a former Mormon bishop and is clearly offended by the fact that Harrison shows a lot of the turmoil Mormon women face.  But it is precisely that realistic turmoil that makes the book work!  Linda deals with everything from blatant misogyny (Alex Helm) to benevolent patriarchy (her own husband and every other "good" man in the plot) -- and she struggles with it.  She also struggles with the eternal polygamy which still exists in the church.  (If you're not familiar with this, it's basically that Mormons believe that marriage is eternal and necessary for the highest glory in the afterlife.  Although mainstream Mormons stopped practicing polygamy during mortality over 100 years ago, the concept has not been erased from doctrine.  A man may be sealed to many wives for eternity.  A modern Mormon woman who marries a widower or even a divorced man who has not had a cancellation of sealing to his first wife must deal with her worries about "sharing" this man in the afterlife.)  I know NUMEROUS women who are very, very troubled by this.  I don't know a single man who worries much about it.  Therefore, this "mindful" and the reviewers like him who pat women on their heads and tell us not to trouble ourselves with all this feminist thinking are EXACTLY the reason why books that deal with these issues need to be read.

Negative theme #4: "The men aren't like real Mormon men."
Several reviewers commented that there are no "good" men in this book.  Huh?  Linda's husband, her five sons, Tobias, Cheri Tate's husband, and her new son-in-law are all good men.  But the book is about a crime, so it naturally focuses on the "bad guys."  What do you expect in a mystery novel?
Amazon reviewer L. Hawkins, who appears to be "Lisa" on goodreads, said, "In my forty-plus years of Church membership, I have never met anyone who believed that women are inferior as several of the men in this book do."
I find this a strange comment, for my experience is that about 80% of Mormon men over the age of about 35 are into benevolent patriarchy and find no problem at all with the fact that women are constantly second class in the church.  And as for the evil men in the book who can "fake" righteousness, oh yeah, I've known plenty of those.  The father of one of my former students was a dead ringer for Alex Helm -- and he was a respected leader in his ward.  Also, a former neighbor of mine, a man who held high political roles and was well-liked and in ward leadership used to slap his wife and call her the B-word all the time.  Two men in my old ward had been counselors in the bishopric -- and it was later learned that they were each having adulterous affairs.  They hid it well.  The father of three of my former students was in several high positions in his stake while he had a porn addiction and was frequently visiting prostitutes for over a decade.  When the man's son told his bishop that he had found evidence of this, the bishop told the boy to stay out of it because it wasn't his business.  So, do I believe that an LDS man could be hiding some pretty hideous sins and still hold a church leadership position?  Yup.  If he's a good liar and a good actor, he can do it.  Thus, a reader cannot discount Harrison's fictional characters by calling them "unrealistic."

So, would I recommend this book?  Yes, I would -- to readers who can get through all the necessary backstory about Mormons and to Mormons who already know that backstory.  If you're an impatient reader who needs constant action, if you couldn't make it through The Scarlet Letter and all its introspection, skip this one.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Anatomy of a Cozy Mystery

There's a lot of kerfluffle going on in Salt Lake right now over Mettie Ivie Harrison's new mystery book, The Bishop's Wife, which is set in Draper, Utah (a wealthy suburb of SLC), and is based on the well-known case of Susan Cox Powell, a woman who disappeared from another suburb of SLC a few years back.  At first, Powell was criticized by the public for having "abandoned" her children, but more and more info came to light, and it soon became apparently that it was unlikely she had.  Since her evil husband murdered their two children and committed suicide a few years after Powell's disappearance, most people now are fairly convinced that Powell was murdered by her overly-patriarchal husband.
I have not yet read The Bishop's Wife, but its negative reviews fall into 2 categories: the first is from readers offended that Harrison deals with the HUGE problem of male superiority complex in the LDS church, and the second is from readers who apparently have no clue what modern cozy mysteries have become.  It is the second issue which I wish to address.
First of all, let me state that I LOVE mystery novels.
I was never a Nancy Drew fan as a kid, but I was obsessed with The Three Investigators series, books with stories far better than Nancy's or the Hardy Boys.  With plots dealing with stolen jewels, stolen artwork (my favorite case was The Stuttering Parrot), revenge, mummies, lost pirate treasure, and reportedly haunted houses, I was entertained for hours.
In my twenties, I got hooked on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  Once again, there was a great deal of variety in the crimes and the plots.  It never got dull or boring.
Then I discovered crime fiction and began my obsession with Ian Rankin's novels.  Although its usually murder going on here, there is a lot of variety in what happens.
Very recently, I began reading tons of Agatha Christie novels.  Now, Christie is the inventor of the cozy, but her books still have what modern cozies lack: variety.
I still read lots of current cozies, but I'm beginning to tire of their sameness.  And it is the cozy formula about which some readers are complaining with Harrison's new book.
Let me summarize the modern cozy formula here:
1) The protagonist must be a woman between 30 and 45 years of age.  She must be single -- divorced, widowed, never married.  She is generally plump, yet male characters invariably find her attractive.  (This always makes me laugh!  In real life, men do not hit on fat women.  Nope.  Doesn't happen unless the guy has a very poor self-image.)
2) The protagonist must be into some kind of small business or self-employment.  This serves the dual purpose of giving the woman lots of free time for investigating and as a hook for readers.  (Like antiques? Baking? Knitting? Crafts?  Bookstores? If so, there's a cozy mystery for you!  However, you must like traditionally girly stuff; if you're into fishing, running marathons, or dirt biking, there might not be a cozy for you.)  The book's title will also be a terrible pun on this hobby, such as Needles of Doom or Purling For Murder.
3) The protagonist must have a cop in her life.  Usually she ends up dating the hunky and conveniently single cop, but sometimes the cop is her dad, brother, or even her son.  This gives her an "in" to the police side of things -- and someone to rescue her.
4) The protagonist must be stupid.  She will always forget her cell phone when walking into the forest or the abandoned cellar.  Or she may be a luddite who cannot use a cell phone or a computer at all.  She will never have the common sense to foresee even the most obviously dangerous situations.  This trait simplifies the plot and is supposed to make the reader feel smarter.
5)  The crime is always murder.  Always.  Usually, the protagonist finds the body herself.  There is ZERO variety in the type of crime in modern cozies.
6) The setting is nearly always a small town.  I think the purpose of this is to simplify the plot by reducing the area in which the crime takes place, but it may also be so that the protagonist knows everyone and has connections.  Naturally, if the cozy becomes a series, it becomes increasingly unbelievable that so many murders would take place in a single small town, however.
7) The plot always goes as follows: a murder is committed and either the protagonist or someone of whom she feels very protective is implicated, the protagonist will then snoop and be nosy, she will be warned repeatedly by the police to stay out of the investigation, she will continue to snoop, she will then walk right into the hands of the murderer and need rescuing by either the police or her love interest (or both).
8) The book will be poorly edited.  Let me give examples from the cozy I read most recently, Victoria Hamilton's (not her real name) Muffin But Murder.  (Surprise!  A baking mystery!)
Pg 38. The word "between" is spelled with three E's.
Pg.  66 Non-dialogue writing contains the phrase "with the attention of Lizzie and I" instead of "Lizzie and me."
Pg. 68 contains a similar mistake with "for Cranston and I" instead of "for Cranston and me."
Pg. 73 contains use of the word "candelabra" as if it were a singular noun, when "candelabra" is the plural of "candelabrum."
Pg. 131 contains a verb tense shift which garbles the meaning of the sentence.  Hamilton writes, "I would have loved to pair it with natural wood trim, but it would [have] take[n] forever to strip the baseboards...."  I have shown the corrected version in brackets.
Pg. 134 contains the phrase "to whomever took over Junior Bradley's position." It should be "whoever" in this construction.
Pg. 241 contains another error of this type: "whomever you are" instead of "whoever you are."
Pg. 262 has yet another of the same: "who you met in jail" instead of "whom you met in jail."
Pg. 272 brings us back to not knowing objective case with "to snuff both Bob and I" instead of "me."
Pg.286 gives us "than her" instead of "than she is," using a subordinating conjunction as if it were a preposition.
 This is typical for cozies.  First of all, I find it inexcusable for a writer not to know the basics of English grammar, but I'm also offended that the so-called copy editors are not doing their job either.  In other types of professionally published books, I often find one or two errors, but most cozies are like the one I just dissected above: deplorable when it comes to mistakes.

So, with The Bishop's Wife all the rage as a Mormon cozy right now, I'll simply have to read it.  Perhaps it will surprise me and be different.  It's set in Draper, which is not a small town.  However, the protagonist seems to be a woman of the correct age with no job so she can snoop, and the crime does seem to be murder.  If the protagonist turns out not to be stupid and if the copy editor turns out not to be  a waste of space, I will be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why I Have So Many Unused Sick Days

How to take a sick day if you work in a cubicle:
1) Decide you are too sick to go in to work.
2) Call supervisor.
3) Deal with extra paperwork/e-mails when you return.

How to take a sick day if you are a school teacher:
1) Agonize for 30 minutes as to whether you are sick enough to make this worth the hassle.
2) Determine you really are too sick to drive/walk/deal with kids all day long.
3) Call subfinder.  Spend 10 minutes clicking through the menu to arrange for a sub.
4) Pray that a sub will actually be available.
5) Spend 45 minutes to 1 hour typing up explicit instructions for the sub, knowing that most subs display an underwhelming amount of intelligence when it comes to following rules and lesson plans.
6) E-mail PDF to school secretary.
7) Pray that the district e-mail doesn't go all weird again and that your PDF will actually make it to its intended recipient today -- instead of next week.
NOTE: The first 7 items must all be completed BEFORE 7:00 AM.
8) At 7:20, call the secretary and make sure she got the PDF and that someone is covering your classes.
9) Go back to bed.
10) Field e-mailed parent complaints because you're not there to do whatever it is they want you to check on, e-mailed administrator complaints because THAT ONE KID acted up for the sub (even though you left the sub specific directions on where to send THAT ONE KID and she ignored them and brought in the admin instead), and e-mailed kid complaints because you weren't there to answer whatever questions they could have answered for themselves by looking at your website.
11) Return to school when well for MOUNDS of paperwork, missing/stolen items, and a huge mess left by disrespectful kids and an apathetic substitute.

Yeah, my cold got so bad I actually stayed home today.  This is my first sick day since last May.  Really, it's usually easier just to go teach when ill.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Things That Never Happened When I Began Teaching School Years Ago

1)  "Ms. Shafer, can I just take a picture of the assignment instructions?  I don't want to write all that down."
2) Instead of carrying a compact mirror or using the restroom mirror, girls pull out their phones and use the selfie function on the camera to check their make up.