Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Last October I was sent a review copy of Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, shortly after it came out in hardcover. I had a chance to read it a month later when on vacation in Turks & Caicos -- when I should've been working on my own book. (I had this brilliant idea that a change of scenery would inspire me to write... when all it did was inspire me to want to lay under an umbrella, drink fruity drinks, gaze out at the beautiful ocean and do anything BUT write.)

I truly enjoyed this book, but once I returned home I had no choice but to kick my manuscript-molding efforts into high gear and so I never got around to reviewing it. When I heard that Mennonite came out in paperback a few months ago I made a mental note to myself that I had to remember to tell my fellow book-loving peeps about it. And so now I finally will.

Allow me to steal a line from Publishers Weekly's review in order to summarize the plot: "At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up." The crash Janzen survived was truly horrific, and it forced her -- a woman in her forties -- to move back in with her Mennonite parents. The narrator had long ago left the religion in which she was raised, but this didn't seem to be something that bothered her parents -- or at least it didn't bother them enough to refuse to help her in her greatest time of need.

I was most interested in this book because -- truth be told -- I had no idea what a Mennonite even WAS. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that, but I'd rather be honest because I have a feeling I'm not alone in my ignorance. Since much of the book involves anecdotes about the Mennonite religion and culture (there's even a very fun "Mennonite History Primer" included at the end), I'm not going to attempt to explain it here, except to say that this particular Christian Anabaptist denomination is kind of known for its nas-tay food. And seriously, some of Janzen's descriptions of certain dishes had me gagging.

The best character in the book is Rhoda's mom Mary, who is totally blunt and has a thing for singing songs, passing gas and never thinking twice when it comes to talking about bodily functions or parts. She is an unfailingly optimistic rock star, and in many ways she reminded me of my own mother-in-law, who has the uncanny ability to always, ALWAYS look on the bright side of life. We need more people like that in the world. But of course Rhoda's mom also has her own opinions about her daughter's checkered romantic past and what kind of man she should now be looking for. Apparently her first cousin Wally, who "drives a tractor in his spare time," was a top pick.

So here are three reasons why I think you should check out Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: 1) You will learn a lot -- but in a subtle and fun way, 2) you are guaranteed several laugh-out-loud moments -- stories from Janzen's childhood are particularly chuckle-worthy, and 3) no matter what might be going on in your life that you wish you could change or improve, you will feel better about your situation after reading this book. It's crazy how many hits kept coming for Rhoda -- the things that happened to her would most likely be unbearable to a lot of people -- but this is by no means a "poor me" memoir. If anything, the author uses the book as a chance to dig deep within herself to figure out how she can do better going forward.

There were only two things that bugged me about Mennonite, one moreso than the other:

1) A lot is made of the fact that Rhoda's husband left her for "Bob, the guy from" It's sad-funny the first time you read it, but she repeats it A LOT throughout the book, and (spoiler alert... skip to #2 if you don't want to know, though it won't ruin the book for you...) then much later in the story she reveals that she actually knew her husband had been in gay relationships before she started dating him. I felt a bit misled in that the earlier chapters had really made it seem like Rhoda didn't see her husband's affair coming at all, when in fact there had been several, several clues all along -- his dating history being the biggest.

2) Rhoda teaches English and Creative Writing at Hope College in Michigan, and I can only imagine that's the reason why every once in a while she would throw in some big fancy word that I'd never seen before. Now, I know that's my own damn fault that I'm not word-savvy enough to understand all of the terms she included, but she did it enough that I started noticing it, which I view as a negative thing -- I felt distracted from the story because I was like, "What in the hell is THAT word?" I'm sure the more literary types out there, however, might actually enjoy having a few new words to haul out the ol' dictionary for. And feel free to shame me for listing this as something that bothered me, especially since I'm a writer -- I know I deserve the lashing.

If you end up reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, make sure you come back here and tell me what you thought of it. And if you feel you need a bit more info before making a purchase, you might want to visit:

- The New York Times book review (they loved it)


- An excerpt from Chapter One (you'll have to scroll down on the page I linked to, because it also includes a lot of other cool nuggets about the book -- like a few of the author's remaining tour dates in the Midwest. I already have plans the night she's in Chicago, or else I would've tried to attend.)

Finally, I must admit that even after learning all about Mennonites, I still have absolutely no desire to try -- or even come near -- borscht.


Aunt J-ha said...

I read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress a few months back & really enjoyed it. I loved how supportive and hilarious her family was.

Pam said...

This one sounds perfect to read on the Kindle. You can look up those weird words without even changing positions. This will be my third e-book. Thanks e!

Sherylm said...

I was very surprised to read in your review that the Mennonites are supposed to have bad food since people flock to Southcentral Pennsylvania where I grew up to dine at Amish-Mennonite smorgasbords and Pennsylvania Dutch pastries are becoming the in-thing around the country (read this article at the NYTimes about whoopie pies:

But then when I saw that you mentioned borscht and I read the first chapter of the book, which explains that the author's parents live in California, I realized why. Since the Mennonite are a religious and not an ethnic group, Ms. Janzen's Mennonite food experience is Eastern European and mine is German :-) I have a Ukrainian friend, who's a pediatrician and looks like a Botticelli angel, who has often tried to sell me on the idea of having some borscht with her (since she knows my paternal grandfather's family is Slovak/Slovenian) because her French husband will not touch the stuff :-) I haven't gotten up the courage to do so yet, though.

I'll see if I can find an e-version of this book since it's not likely to be carried in any French bookshops. You particularly intrigued me with your comments on her "fancy" words and I'd like to see what they are :-)

Thanks for the heads-up

Kelly, UK said...

Not sure it's available in the UK, but if it is I'll add it to the long list...

Thought I'd share my favourite authors with you (and I'm a librarian so I've read a LOT of fiction). Maggie O'Farrell and Dorothy Koomson are top of the list. I also like Diane Chamberlaine and my newest discovery, Louise Candlish. I love reading, and I have to take a break between books because I am a selfish reader, once I'm hooked into a good book it's almost impossible to tear myself away to do less essential stuff like cooking dinner for my family...

Having said all that, up there in my top 5 books has to be The Time Travellers Wife, which I know you also love. It's so original and it caught my imagination, and made me cry.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to finish the book, but I totally agree that the use of BIG fancy words are getting in the way of a rather enjoyable /laughable read.

Michelle said...

Thanks for posting this review e, this book is on my "to read" list. My mother's side of the family is Mennonite from Ukraine and all over Eastern Europe, I have been learning more about them lately. Personally I love beets, and I think they were heavy on the root vegetables because of the climate. When I was a kid I visited my Aunt's Mennonite church and they had a potluck of all Mennonite foods. All I remember is borscht. The easy explanation I give when I tell people I am half Mennonite (non-practicing if that's possible) is that it's sort of like being Jewish or Amish, but without the homeland and with electricity!

I agree that when writers throw in "two dollar words" it interrupts the flow and when it's done excessively I stop reading.

Best - M