MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS by Rhoda Janzen

Book Quote:

“In general, Nick’s policy was, if you haven’t used it in a year, throw it out….Nick therefore supported the hysterectomy, but only on the grounds of elegant understatement. To him the removal of unnecessary anatomical parts was like donating superfluous crap to Goodwill.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (DEC 25, 2009)

Janzen’s laugh-out-loud memoir gets its impetus from a botched major surgery, a debilitating car accident and a crushing divorce.

Incapacitation itself – never mind the catheter bag – was a shock to her self-image as the embodiment of robust Mennonite genes. But after a yearlong convalescence during which her handsome, brilliant, if not entirely reliable husband, Nick, was a peach, Janzen expects to be healthy for decades to come.

And maybe she would have been if Nick hadn’t gotten a fancy new job. Previously Janzen, a poet and professor, had always been the dependable breadwinner in their 15-year marriage. Now, needing to be near his work, they move to an expensive lakefront home with a huge mortgage. And two months later Nick has left her for a guy named Bob he met on Gay.com. That same week, on her long commute back to the home she can’t afford, Janzen is hit by a drunk driver and left with numerous broken bones.

So, she does the sensible thing. She goes home to the Mennonites for Christmas and stays to recuperate. “ ‘Bring on the Borscht,’ I thought.”

To pay the mortgage, she’s ghost-editing a scholarly monograph on sacred dramatic literature of the late fifteenth century. Trouble is her father keeps interrupting her with his latest accomplishment on his new toy – a computer. “My parents had grown up without cultural advantages such as electricity, toilets, coffee, fabric – I could go on here, but you get the gist.”

Things had been looser in her own childhood, but tight pigtails, long skirts, no TV and overly aromatic ethnic lunches had made her burn with embarrassment at school. But now her parents have grown so relaxed they even dance and surf the Internet.

Her father – tall, handsome, patriarchal and cheap – had retired five years ago as head of the global church (“the Mennonite equivalent of the Pope”). He and her plain, sunny, generous and unselfconscious mother had traveled the world and believed it important for their children to do the same.

Their global perspective and the attendant openness and tolerance add a complexity to their essential conservatism that Janzen explores throughout the book. Though she fled the trappings of Mennonite life, her affection and admiration for her parents shines through.

Janzen takes us on a hilarious holiday tour of her extended family – as affectionate as it is snarky – which segues into stories of growing up, sibling rivalries and alliances, adolescent agonies, and leaving the nest. Along the way the picture that emerges of her own path – her husband, her choices – becomes more nuanced, complicated and pocked with pitfalls.

Janzen’s humor is most often self-deprecating, but I couldn’t help but gasp once in a while, wondering how her relatives will react to seeing themselves exposed in print.

Readers will like Janzen and wish her well. Sharing her Mennonite roots and many mistakes, her scholarly zeal and cultural ease with cooking, her illusions and self-deceptions, she engages the reader with her honesty as well as her humor and insight.

Those who enjoy David Sedaris or Norah Ephron will also appreciate Rhoda Janzen.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 53 readers
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (October 13, 2009)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AMAZON PAGE: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
AUTHOR WEBSITE: The New York Times interview with Rhoda Janzen
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Others you might also like:

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

The English American by Alison Larkin

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Bibliography:


December 25, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: California, Family Matters, Humorous, Non-fiction, Reading Guide

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