Friday, June 20, 2014

Sidekicks are Loveable Too!

Oh, the love triangle. My overused foe.

I’ve come down on the “wrong side” of all the love triangle debates. Team Jacob or Team Edward? Hermione/Harry or Hermione/Ron (that’s an old debate rekindled!)? Team Gale or Team Peeta?

I try. I really do. And I do have favorites. I am firmly in whatever camp I tell you because I think the narrative works better that way. But the truth is? Those aren’t the characters I care about.

Team Jacob or Team Edward? You know, Team Jasper. I’m really digging the Southern gentleman turned angsty hipster. And a real, solid backstory that explains his actions in a believable, endearing way? I’m there. Yes please.

Harry/Hermione or Hermione/Ron? I’m going with Fred Weasley/hilarity and awesomeness, please. More of the Weasley twins being hilarious and making me stop reading the book to put it down, giggle, and then reread the lines. Or, for that matter, more Luna Lovegood being innocently adorable and yet profound. Or more Colin determined to keep up his photography hobby. More Tonks sassing her way through her life problems (including Lupin and his life problems).

Team Gale or Team Peeta? Really? Finnick. Tragic character who breaks so believably and is so broken we can’t imagine him picking up the strands when, finally, he’s handed happiness only to lose it all in the end? This is really gutting stuff, guys.

So why do I love the sidekick characters so much more than the main characters and their ridiculous love triangles?

Maybe it’s the lack of attention to their flaws. Side characters aren’t the center of attention; we only see them at their best (or worst) and don’t have to sit through mind-numbing whining about how hard the Triwizard Tournament is or how awful aging is when your boyfriend’s immortal . . . . Side characters can and often do have fleshed out backstories (in fact, the best side characters often have better backstories than the main characters!), but that doesn’t mean we get so much of them we’re annoyed.

Maybe it’s the filter through which we see them. Most YA is written from the main character’s perspective, so we see these characters as they do. And most of the time, it’s a glowing view (though sometimes they have to grow on us and the main character before we get there). Fred and George? Harry thinks they’re brilliant, so we do too. Alice and Jasper? Bella adores Alice and respects Jasper, so we do too. Finnick and Annie? Oh, the journey we take with Katniss from disgust to mistrust to friendship to near-siblings! We love them because our eyes and ears in the world does too.

Maybe it’s the comedy effect. After all, the sidekick characters tend to be funnier, if we’re honest. No one has ever accused Katniss of a sense of humor, and yet Joanna’s snark and Finnick’s teasing are some of the only lights in a frankly very dark series. Fred and George are comedy gold, and Bella’s friends are often more engaging than she is!

Or maybe it’s that we’re meant to connect with the main character, and if they’re so much like us, they’re flawed, as we are. The sidekicks? They can’t be. They’re Others. They’re better.

Whatever the reason, the side characters deserve much more attention when we talk about books. I’d much rather fight with you on which staff member at Hogwarts is the best (McGonagall, of course) or which tribute is the sassiest (it’s a tossup, it really is) or which member of the Cullen family brings the most life to the side stories (Alice, let’s be real). Please, fight with me on any of those things, just don’t drag me into the love triangles. Chances are, I didn’t care as much about them as you did. I was distracted by the shiny sidekicks.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: Lady Thief

So I'll tell you a story about this reviewer because it really made my day. After she sent in her review and let me know where it was posted, she asked me if I was working on anything else. I told her I was in the middle of an urban fantasy series and a dystopian superhero novel and that I had self-published a fantasy novel just to try it out. She wished me luck, and I thought that was that.

A few hours later, she emailed me to let me know she'd bought Birthright Unknown and was going to start reading it!

That's what really struck me about this review and this reviewer. It wasn't the review itself (which was really great, by the way, filled with constructive criticism as well as tangible goods that I can use in my future works) that touched me but the reviewer's enthusiasm. Someone who independently wanted to read more of my writing after reading my first novel from years ago.

I was walking on air all day.

3.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Lady Thief by Shelby M. Hailstone May 27, 2014
The Lady Thief infiltrates a team of spies whose members include her nemesis Kittie, a brilliant scientist who also happens to play her in movies; Devon, the actor who stars opposite Kittie as the Lady Thief's love interest; Jared, her confidential informant and a few others, previously unknown to her.

Disguised by make-up and hair dye and using the name Kristi, the Lady Thief successfully becomes accepted into the team and part of their experimental use of a superpower injection. As the experiment gets underway, it becomes clear that a leak in the team needs to be stopped.
The Lady Thief must discover who is responsible for the leak, whilst fighting her growing feelings for the charming Devon.

On the whole, the characters are well written with their personalities coming through. The likeability factor is there, and flaws in some of the characters show their vulnerable sides.

The story is interesting and multi-faceted - there is a lot going on here, but not too much to keep track of. It's easy to read, with minimal grammatical errors to distract the reader.

A negative for me is that it is rather long-winded. After a hectic action scene in the middle of the novel, the subtlety of the story didn't hold my interest as well.

The Young Adult market is flooded with so many books that it is very difficult for a new novel to stand out from the crowd. I just hope that this title attracts attention in the overcrowded market.
Sincere thanks to author Shelby M. Hailstone for providing me with a review copy.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Mormonism and Feminism: Why I'm not pushing for the ordination of women, decrying teachings of the prophets I swore to sustain, or laying claim to the priesthood.

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[Because this is the Internet, I have to put a disclaimer here. I wrote this to gather up my thoughts on this very, very contentious issue. I make no claim that what I have written is pure doctrine, nor do I claim that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I don’t intend to convert anyone, only to explain, and I don’t intend to argue, only to organize my thoughts. If you disagree—even vehemently—with my opinions or my beliefs, that’s fine, but it doesn’t give you license to take up proverbial arms against me with your Internet pens and try to put me to rights or save me from burning in hell or any of the other things that I’ve heard a million times every time I even start to say “As a Mormon, I believe…” or “As a feminist, I understand….”

Basically, I don't you to get all your info on what I believe from the New York Times instead of from, like, an ACTUAL MORMON or something....)

This post has been running through my head for some time. I've kept it in my drafts for a long time, too, because I'm always so hesitant to talk about my beliefs. This is not because I don't believe them but because of a childhood and adulthood filled with people telling me I'm going to hell for what I believe and with people who refuse to remain my friend or even give my opinion a second thought when they hear what I have to say.

At the time I'm writing this first draft, a very public thing has happened in my church: the Ordain Women movement.

Now, this requires some serious backstory.

Our church has the priesthood, which we believe is the power of God on the earth again. We believe it is the same power that Moses and Noah and Adam as well as Peter and Paul and Christ Himself wielded, and we believe it is the only authority that gives power to saving ordinances such as baptism and the sacrament and temple ceremonies including but not limited to celestial marriage for time and all eternity.

And yes, the men in the church have the priesthood. 

However, men are not allowed to use this power on themselves, and if they exercise anything approaching unrighteous dominion (ie claiming to be above their wives, forcing their families into subjugation, etc), their priesthood is revoked and their power counted for nothing. 
So why do they have it?

Well, the priesthood is the means by which ordinances are performed (although in the temple, women as well as men officiate in many of the most important of our ordinances, which are sacred and so I won't go into detail, but I think it's very important to note that in the temple which is considered a place of most Holiness and the House of God Himself, men and women are not only equal but exalted together). But more than that, it's a means of organization.

Our church has a prophet, who we believe has the same keys (authority) as Moses and those like him in the Bible. Underneath the prophet are Twelve Apostles (think Christ's organization). Underneath them are Quorums of the 70 (see Moses' father-in-law and his direction to divide the Israelites so that groups of 70 could officiate rather than bringing every single thing to Moses and overwhelming him), and below that are areas, stakes, and wards (these are geographical areas). And yes, those leaders are men because they have the priesthood.

But in each of those geographical areasincluding the whole world (AKA General President), there is a woman leader. She's called the Relief Society President. Her job? To provide relief and aid (in case you couldn't tell by the name) and to direct the women in the church in doing the same for all members of the church.

(No but seriously, stop to think about that for a second. How many other social orders do you know that have male and female leaders over geographical areas? And yes, I know there are more men leaders, but I'll get to that.)

And you don't have to be in the Relief Society to be a leader of women in the church. Women run the Young Women Program (aka teenage girls), the Primary (aka ALL children), and are active in scouting programs (boys AND girls). Women lead in our seminary program (for example, my mother is over all the seminaries in our stake back home, which means it's her job to basically make sure all the Bible Groups are running (seminary is when teenagers gather to learn about the scriptures and study them, often in the early mornings before school starts or during school hours in areas where Mormons are prevalent enough for the school to adopt these classes into formal education hours)). Women lead in our institutes. Women lead in teaching programs. It's not like there's not an abundance of callings to which women are called to lead.

And here's another importance point to consider: No one in the church is paid to do those callings, unless those callings are so all-consuming that they would prevent having a job to support yourself (AKA being the prophet or something similarly consuming). In fact, one of the Apostles, Henry B. Eyering, was formerly a heart surgeon, and that pays a heck of a lot better than traveling across the world feeding God's sheep, so it's not like this is a power play or financial gain in the temporal world, okay?

But there is a vast movement of Mormon women who are demanding that they also receive the priesthood. And, okay, I get where they're coming from. I also wanted to know why I, as a woman, couldn't have this power of God. (This is a VERY WRONG interpretation of the priesthood, by the way. It is by faith that we move mountains, and I could ask God for a miracle if God willed it just as much as my husband could, thank you very much. The priesthood is the means of organization and ordinance in the church, not the exclusive power to speak with God or receive revelation or any of the things that women can also do.) I struggled with this question a lot.

But here's what went wrong: the Ordain Women movement decided to make this into a civil/political matter rather than a spiritual one.

You'll recall earlier when I said that our temples are sacred ground? Yeah, the Ordain Women movement staged a march and protested around the grounds of the temple and the General Conference area where our prophet was. If you've read the Bible and know any stories of people revolting against the prophet publically, you know how well that's received. (On the other hand, if you know any Bible stories about honest questioning and seeking the prophet's advice, AKA ANYTHING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, you know that humble questions are met with honesty and explanation.) 
See, we have this thing called General Conference twice a year where the prophets come and speak to us and the church leaders give talks. It's one of the best things about my church, I think, because the Bible is kind of vague on a few things, and ancient scripture doesn't have answers to things like internet pornography and stuff, you know? But living prophets mean we can be edified on modern problems, so we all gather to feast on the word of God.

But there's like a heck of a lot of people in the church. I'm talking millions. And they all have different needs. And so we have the General session of Conference, addressed to the entire body of the church, and then we have specific other sessions. There is a women's session and a men's session, for starters, but also a session for young people and a session for leaders and basically it's like breaking up pieces of the pie so the leaders can address issues specific to these groups. 

The Ordain Women movement, along with demanding the priesthood because of some kind of flawed belief that our lack of access to it makes us less powerful in the church (spoiler alert: it doesn't, but I'll get to our beliefs in the power of women vs. men after I do the whole General Conference story, okay?), demanded to be let into the men's session, which had historically been closed to women.

So to recap: a session specifically directed at the men of the church, which is supposed to be a place where men can be advised on things like adultery and sexual sin as well as depression in the face of pressure to provide for their families and questions about the priesthood that they hold, is supposed to be attended by the people to whom the words are directed. Shocker. There's also this thing called the women's session which is supposed to be a place where women can be advised on things such as child-bearing and the choices that accompany it (since, you know, we have those parts inside us that carry children and create the OFFSPRING OF GOD so that's kind of a miracle all by itself and we should maybe hear words about how that power makes us great, not inferior??), the glory of our bodies and their exalted status as temples and not as objects of lust, and the epidemic of depression facing many female members of the church because we are so hard on ourselves. And spoiler alert: it's attended by women.

So the main problem Ordain Women had with the men's session was that the women's session was more open to the public (it was broadcast on TV, but you had to go to a church building to watch the men's session), and the church responded by going: you know what? That's a good point. We'll broadcast that so people all over the world can watch the messages in the men's session, including women if, you know, you really want to watch us lay down the law on the men and beat them over the brow and tell them to stop cheating on their wives (which happens a lot, actually, the beating them over the brow thing). So yeah, you can totally watch the session now. Thanks for making your voices heard so we can help address this issue of getting the message of God to everyone!

And the movement said, "Yeah, but that's not good enough. We want to go to the session in person."

And the church was like, "This session is directed at specific people, and we want them to hear the message. You can hear it from home, but we want the seats to be populated by people who we're talking to. You can have those same seats in the same building when we talk just to you women. It's not like anything we say here is secret. Even before we started broadcasting the men's session, we put the exact transcript and video files of all the talks on our website just days later."

And instead of listening, the Ordain Women movement took to the media and insulted the prophet and belittled those who supported him. Historically not an awesome move. (For the record, there was belittling happening on both sides, but there always is....)

So the next General Conference came, and the church specifically told them not to do the same thing, to instead protest in areas that were not held as sacred and would not be disruptive to the people trying to attend a conference designed to bring peace and unity to the church (think Moses and the entire book of Deuteronomy. Same basic thing as General Conference). Spoiler alert: these women and men did the thing the prophet told them not to do. (Seriously, guys. Read the Bible. How well does this turn out for anybody ever?)

The next General Conference was populated by talks that not only specifically outlined why the priesthood was given to men but also outlined the powers granted to women that were equally as important. They were populated by talks about the power of EQUAL marriage between man and wife and the profound spiritual strength of women (to be discussed in just a bit as soon as I finish this story). The other talks mostly went to the tune of: Decide where you stand. With the prophet or with the world. You can't serve two masters, and you must decide whether or not you believe in the divine ordination of this man. If you do, you'll follow him, and if you humbly petition him for help in understanding this plight, you might find answers. The church might even change its doctrine and give women the priesthood, but if it does, it will be a change from GOD, not from SOCIAL MOVEMENTS. This is how it always goes.
So no one (at least no one who is paying any attention to anything at all) is surprised that when the woman who lead this movement continued to call the prophet "patriarchial" and "out of touch" (that one really gets me; like, the whole purpose of having a prophet is so he can be in touch with the needs of the church right now this very moment???), she was disciplined by the church. Right now, she might be excommunicated (removed from the church). But our doctrine is one of forgiveness, and if she repents and stops trying to force the prophet to see her way and her way only, she will be welcomed back into the church and her standing fully restored with no detrimental effects to her salvation or anything like that. It's not a permanent solution, but it is a severe one. It's reserved for very few people, and it's telling just how dangerous it is to go against the prophet that a church whose message is that questioning is a good thing to do and individual faith is ultimately vital is taking such steps. Excommunication is meant as an act of love (see also: parents taking your laptop when they catch you chatting with a creepy stranger who wants to come over to your house and possibly kidnap you. You feel like you’re being punished, but your parents know they’re saving your life).

Tldr: The problem lies not in questioning but in refusing to accept the answers you are given, by men of God, to those questions and in catapulting the church into a political circus rather than humbly petitioning for help in understanding.

On to my explanation of gender roles in the church

Arguably, Mormonism is actually one of the most feminist religions in the world. Why? Because we celebrate Eve rather than denigrate her.

We believe that Eve made the choice in the garden to eat the fruit and then celebrated that decision because she knew her choice had brought mortality and the Fall but also the possibility of family and ultimately the Atonement (yes, Eve knew about the Atonement. God taught her that along with everything else in the Gospel). Her choice is noble rather than evil, and she is revered for it. Yes, she was beguiled, but without her, mankind could not be.

Furthermore, we believe that God the Father is not alone. We believe in a Heavenly Mother, the equal of the Father and a god of power and creation in her own right. (This is a radical belief among Christians, I know. We'll get into a debate about monotheism and the Trinity later. That's when you get to tell me I'm going to Hell.) Her role in our religion is not very large, but I'm getting to why.

Okay, so I said before that men have the priesthood. Let me explain why and what women have that's just as powerful. 

Men are ultimately on the path to become like God the Father. They guard the gate out of this world, the one filled with ordinances and faith and repentance and the directing of the church. That is their role in this life.

Women are ultimately on the path to become like Heavenly Mother. They guard the gate into this world, and yes, childbirth is part of it, but saying the priesthood is to motherhood as men's power is to women's power is not an accurate analogy at all. This gate into the world includes the power to keep people in this world. The power to save lives. Women are tasked with teaching and pointing the way to the gate out of the world. We're tasked with nurturing families and friends and the rest of humanity. To define a woman only by her role in childbearing is to ignore the responsibility women have in our church to care for the motherless, to teach the fatherless, to feed the homeless, and to guard the defenseless. Women who are businesswomen are just as important to the church as women who are mothers. Both have the capacity to affect human lives and shape the world as we know it. Our responsibility is not to perform those single acts of salvation but to be salvation and to invite salvation, which is arguably a much bigger and more terrifying task because we can never stop doing it, whereas one single ordinance is a one-time thing as long as the one who receives it lives up to those covenants. Men do the baptizing, but women fill the font with spiritual water. 

(If you're thinking this sounds like eighteenth century nonsense about women being the "fairer sex" or something, please stow your crap. I'm talking here about shaping lives through directing change, and I can just as easily do that as President of the United States as I can as a mother, and who says I can't do both? I just choose to focus more on being a mother because I have covenanted with God to bring His children to the world and to care for them and because the family is the most important unit of anything ever, seeing as how it lasts into the eternity and all. I'm married to my husband for time and all eternity; I'm not going to be a US citizen for all that time, ya dig? Priorities. But still, my choice. Some women in the church never get the chance to have kids or choose not to, and they are the women who shaped my lives, including one leader that I credit with basically saving me from my own doubts in my self worth, so please stuff your crap and understand that this is all couched in religious terms and flowery prose because that's how scriptures roll, so moving on).

(Second side note: We have always placed a very, very high emphasis on families in the church because our most important callings in life are as fathers and mothers—even more important than callings as leaders, bishops, apostles, Relief Society presidents, whatever else. Family trumps everything because it is eternal, and so yes, we do place a high value on motherhood. But also on fatherhood and also on brotherhood and sisterhood and on aunts and uncles and grandparents and children.... Family reigns supreme in our list of priorities in our religion; thus, the huge billboards saying pay attention to your families and become good wives and mothers aimed at women. We kind of have a huge role to play in families, in case you missed high school anatomy and psychology classes.)

Furthermore, our gaze is fixed on the gate out of this world, and we do not often enough look behind us to gaze on the gate we have already come through. (And when we look only at the gate men guard, it's easy to think they have somehow been set up as superior, when really what we are doing is the very thing feminism fights against: erasing or making invisible the very contributions that make women unique and powerful.) Our church proclaims that people lived before we came to this world (see prophets told by God that they were chosen before they came into this world, that God knew them before the womb, etc), and that humanity had a pre-earth life. 

Just as we don't know much about our Heavenly Mother and her role in God's Plan, we don't know much about what women did in the pre-mortal existence. But we know it was wonderful.

Tldr: Mormonism is a wonderfully feminist religion because it a) believes men and women cannot be saved without each other b) celebrates Eve’s choice c) celebrates a heavenly Woman d) lends eternal power to the role of families but will never induct a rule that says women have to have kids or that their salvation is suspect if they don’t blindly obey their husband or any of those things.

To focus only on the priesthood is to deny the power of a woman's spirit. Literally. To focus only on the priesthood is to say that this tiny sliver of earth life is the only important part of an eternity that we can't even imagine. And to focus only on the priesthood is to say that only the responsibilities assigned to men can ever be good enough for equality and, by extension, to denigrate the very things that make us women. Denying the feminine and demanding the masculine is not feminism: it's actually one of the most misogynistic demands of all time, because it denies that woman can ever have her own power outside that of man.

When I get to the next life, I will be a priestess as my husband is a priest. I will have power and authority to be an eternal being and to one day become as Gods, and I will do this all alongside my husband. We are partners, and the next time someone accuses me of being anything less than equal to my eternal sweetheart, I might scream.

***UPDATE: A dear friend added that men are more than just priesthood holders, and to put all of man's value in the priesthood is to deny the individual works of salvation and the capacity for good that men hold. They are more than the tools whereby ordinances are performed; they are fathers and brothers and leaders of men, friends and protectors and care-givers just as capable of love and spirituality as are women. In a sense, this movement is as damaging to men as it is to women because it puts all the focus on outward works and ordinances rather than on inner strength and faith. Men guard the gate out of this life, as I said, but not only with baptisms and ordinances but also with leadership and care and love and all those things that make them unique as well. (Thanks for pointing this out to me so I can be more inclusive in my analysis!)