Although breast cancer also runs in my family, it hasn't played a significant role. It comes to us late in life, shriveling a tit or two, and then often subsiding under the composite resistance of chemo and buttermilk. That is, it would shrivel our tits if we had tits. Mind you, I'm not sure Janzen has any business dispensing dating advice. This is a woman who accidentally married a gay man, and lets herself be picked up by a born-again Christian wearing a Crucifixion nail around his neck. If the guilty pleasure is a little slow in coming, there's still some G-rated fun to be had along the way.
But instead of Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis ripping off their dark clothes, I see the young Amish couple at the supermarket buying Pampers and baby formula. The pies they sell to tourists are made with a pre-fab filling that's heavy on the corn syrup, and the laundry billowing on their clotheslines is polyester. But she is over the top in her descriptions of folks, outrageous really, and because of that she ends up coming across as rather screwed up and the people she is poking fun at come across as sane and likeable. The creamed smoked herring was from the Swedish side of my family, although the Italian side also had a similar staple of "baccala," salt cod. I hail from Holdeman Mennonites and found that Janzen didn't even begin to tell the down and dirty side of conservative-ism. I should have been so fortunate to wear jeans even in the barn...
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Broken in every sense, she headed back to the place of her upbringing, the Californian Mennonite community where her parents still live. Janzen, the author of a poetry collection called “Babel’s Stair,” teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Michigan. Those aren’t promising details, I know — readers may suspect that an academic poet’s memoir about failed marriage, debilitating pain and a strict religious upbringing would be dry, self-pitying and overly earnest. But “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” is snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound, and poetic without trying. In fact, the whole book reads as if Janzen had dictated it to her best non-Menno friend, in her bathrobe, over cups of tea. Her story tells of the ending of her fifteen year marriage to a guy named Bob, who her husband met on gay.com.
Her Mennonite family, who, for theological reasons, oppose drinking, dancing, smoking, higher education, homosexuality, and divorce. It is in this safe place that Rhoda can come to terms with her failed marriage; her desire, as a young woman, to leave her sheltered world behind; and the choices that both freed and entrapped her. I laughed a lot while reading this memoir.
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Lola stoically hosed out the VW, reasoning that urine duty was a small price to pay for all of the excellent deals we had found. And less than a week later my doctors upgraded me to the kind of pee bag you strap on with Velcro around your leg, under your skirt, like a nasty secret. I taught for half the semester like that. And dang, I'm here to tell you that when it's ninety degrees outside, nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a steaming hot bag of urine hugging your thigh.
Much of Janzen's book reads as a script from the monolog of a stand-up comedian. Her narrative wanders through her life experiences in random order moving from health problems to marital difficulties, from stories about growing up in a Mennonite family to almost attending a Mennonite seminary. She seems to accept the possible premise that her life may have been different had she decided to attend the seminary. But instead she obtained an English PhD from UCLA, won some prizes along the way, and landed a professorship at a liberal arts college.
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Denise Morland, January 11, 2010Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is Rhoda Janzen's account of growing up Mennonite and her return to the fold after her husband leaves her for a man he meets on gay.com. This book is filled with kooky characters, not the least of which is her own parents. Seriously, you couldn't make people like this up!
I was interested to hear the story of how someone recovers from a heartbreak like this. I'm not sure how to explain the voice, but the best description I can give is that it sounds like she's trying too hard to be breezy and funny and witty...and I found her to be neither breezy nor funny nor witty. I made borscht while reading it, but unrelated to the book.
So Lola has to wait to go shopping until she comes stateside, and that summer, in spite of my postsurgery frailty, we were itching to go to Nordstrom Rack. We were trying to find a way to make an afternoon at Nordstrom Rack a reality. "Let's just tuck your pee bag into a colorful tote, and then you can carry it like a purse," said Lola. For years I felt so alone, as I questioned, as I cried, and as I stumbled through trying to make sense of life.
It's just a pity that Rhoda Janzen is still acting like the 10-year-old who has to claim to despise everything that her mother does, even while she obviously loves her. P.S. Went to book club last night; 1 out of 8 loved it; 4 bailed on it partway through because of reasons outlined above; 3 of us finished it and had similar thoughts. To see what your friends thought of this book,please sign up. Let us know what’s wrong with this preview of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.