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Short Takes

‘The Book of Mormon Girl’; ‘The Dead Do Not Improve’; ‘Dreamland’

THE BOOK OF MORMON GIRL: A Memoir of an American Faith

By Joanna Brooks

Free Press, 224 pp., paperback, $14

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In this lyrical, resonant memoir, Brooks recalls growing up Mormon in Southern California. A minority among her neighbors, she felt exalted in her difference, taking pride in Marie Osmond, annual treks to the Mormon Dance Festival, and the beauty she found in her family’s traditions. As she grew, though, Brooks began noticing less appealing characteristics of the religion, including rigid gender roles, a history of racial prejudice, and politics that ranged from conservative to reactionary. While attending Brigham Young University, she struggled to reconcile the faith she loved with a hierarchy that excommunicated critics. After graduating, she considered herself “a Mormon feminist mourning her own exile from the Church of her ancestors.”

Brooks writes with an urgent intimacy reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” coating even the most painful memories with a honeyed warmth. One might wish for a sharper tone, especially when Brooks revisits her despair over Mormon support for California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriafe, but there is a steady strength here, too. In the end, after a tentative return to Mormonism — on her own terms, which include a Jewish husband and a family where, she says, “[e]ach of us knows how to pray in at least two languages” — Brooks speaks of being whole, “an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith.”

THE DEAD DO NOT IMPROVE

By Jay Caspian Kang

Hogarth, 250 pp., $25

Graduate of a prestigious writing program, Philip Kim puts his fiction aside to take a job at a sketchy internet start-up (he’s better off than his classmate, who ends up “teaching creative writing at a school for the criminally insane”). In Jay Caspian Kang’s San Francisco, underemployment is a mark of privilege, as is living in the imperfectly gentrifying Mission neighborhood, where coffee shops play “barrel-aged indie rock” and hipsters compare street crime tales. When Kim’s elderly white neighbor is murdered, most of his friends chalk it up to Latino gangs, but Kim suspects a deeper conspiracy is at work. In Kang’s loopy, hilarious, neo-noir novel, Kim proves abundantly correct.

Here, a quick-paced Hammett-esque plot structure supports a cast of strippers, surfers, slackers, cult members, and cops. Along the way, Kim meets a woman he calls Performance Fleece (for her outerwear), whose New England preppiness entrances him: “She, like all sturdy girls from Boston, knew just enough about the Red Sox to carry on a conversation, but not enough to raise concern.” As their romance unfolds, so does the novel’s subtle inquiry into race, class, love, and violence. If the book doesn’t completely hang together (it doesn’t), it’s nevertheless an extremely smart, funny debut, with moments of haunting beauty.

DREAMLAND: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep

By David K. Randall

Norton, 290 pp., $25.95

We live in a time, David K. Randall writes, when “sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.” Insomnia is rampant; high school students routinely snooze through the first class of the day; and many of us are locked in a dismal cycle of poor sleep, overeating, obesity, snoring, and sleep apnea. If a good night’s rest is indeed elusive, sleep as a biological process is frustratingly obscure even to scientists who study it. While we know a lot more than we did 100 or even 50 years ago — certainly more than the ancient Greeks, for whom the god of sleep was twin brothers with the god of death — sleep largely remains a mystery, a vague inconvenience in a world that values endless work, a poorly understood yet crucial piece of “the puzzle of what it means to be living.”

Randall’s research took him to sleep labs, psychologists’ offices, athletic departments, courtrooms, and the ancient bedrooms where our ancestors once slept, according to recent historical theory, in a two-part pattern: the “first sleep” referred to by Chaucer occurring soon after sunset, followed by a few hours of midnight wakefulness and then a second sleep. Sadly, Thomas Edison’s lightbulb — along with the idea that “sleep was a sign of laziness” — shattered this leisurely pattern. Other enemies of rest include jet lag, sleepwalking, troubled dreams, and the inability to fall asleep at all, which has spawned an enormous industry in sleeping pills. This is a vaguely dispiriting landscape — as Randall writes, “the more you know about sleep, the more its strangeness unnerves you” — but Randall’s wit and curiosity make him a comforting guide.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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