Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Thirty-Five: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Complete disclaimer here. Rhoda Janzen works at the same school I work at and since I teach one English class, we are even in the same department. Despite that, I've never actually met Rhoda (one class does not require me to attend department meetings). In fact, seeing her picture, I don't think I've ever seen Rhoda. What happened to my small school! I do know of her reputation as a good teacher with a passion for saving the English language from the grammatically illiterate, so I'm hoping she never reads my blog (although I can claim "blog grammar," whatever that is). So I am free to tear into this book and say all the nasty things I want with no fear of retribution. That said, this is a great book!

I approach memoirs with a great deal of trepidation. I'm not that social of a person and (this is a horrible thing to admit) not really interested in how some event has impacted people's lives. Sitting in a restaurant I would be open to hearing the story, but committing myself to reading a book about their rather normal lives does not appeal to me. To be fair, if I were to write a memoir and make some past issue my turning point in life, I would be loathe to read it as well.

Janzen has a book in which all the elements of woe are present for some serious whining. And she deserves to whine! She suffers and then beats cancer only to have her husband leave her for another man which is followed (by a mere few days) of being hit head on in her car by a young driver. But don't worry, this is no plot giveaway. Janzen tells you all this by page 14 -- now the memoir can get going. Janzen is going home to the Mennonites for a little rest and recovery. We watch as Janzen reacquaints herself with parents, siblings, friends, and even meets (and dates) some new people along the way. Much of this is humor waiting to happen, but Janzen's take makes it hilarious.

The valuable blurb on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) claims she rarely laughs aloud, but Janzen's voice "slays" her. Gilbert gets my backing on this one. Rare is the book which is laugh out loud funny, but Janzen has that gift. Her humor is dry, self-deprecating, and honest. Her scene of mom's dating advice in the Christmas checkout lane at Best Buy raises the bar in humor.

Janzen's mom is the real hero of the book as she goes through life with a faith which makes her see the positive in all situations, finds discussing "poop" while eating normal, and by the end of the book is farting loudly in Kohl's due to some medical issues. Farting is okay, figures mom, since that is what the body is supposed to do. This woman is real!

Janzen is aiming for "realness" herself. She is critically honest about her shortcomings and has no hesitation holding herself up as exhibit one in how to mess up your life. Perhaps she has inherited her mother's positive outlook, but so far she is using it to put a gloss on the past instead of the future.

She knows she has the sympathy angle sewn up with the cancer, the husband leaving her for "Bob on" (which becomes Bob's name throughout the book), and the car accident. Plus, just for kicks, her husband's leaving places her in a financially tenuous position because of an expensive house he wanted to buy and she now owns, but can no longer afford alone. But she does not want your sympathy and seems to avoid people who would give it. The cancer causes her to wear a "pee bag" which provides Janzen with no end of amusement, and she passes on a support group because she is not really all that upset about having her uterus removed. Heck, she is not planning on kids anyway!

Her trip home reacquaints with her Mennonite upbringing (Janzen provide a helpful and humorous Mennonite primer at the end of the book). Her father was once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States...the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks." Her mother "does enjoy good health...Nothing gets this woman down." Janzen's brothers and sister have all headed in different directions. Her brothers are still involved in the Mennonite community and at one point she has a theological run in with one of them, while her sister lives outside of the community, but is still the sensible one. Her sister provides Janzen with much of the reflection we expect in a memoir, but coming in a dialogue it feels less self-indulgent than many memoir writers. Her brothers are not close to her, and it would be interesting to see that relationship develop. Janzen returns but manages to avoid much of the substance of the Mennonite community, which she refers to often but is usually engaged elsewhere. It is the one aspect of the book which could use more emphasis on. We get many traits of the Mennonites through her family, but her reflections on the larger community are usually based in childhood memories.

Of course, the childhood memories are no less humorous. Being one of two Mennonites in her class left her with plenty of unwelcome opportunities to stand out. While wishing for a Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox, Janzen brought to school a vinyl bag which on reflection she wonders if it was really a diaper bag. No expensive plastic sandwich bags in her lunch, instead she enjoyed stylistic used wax paper. But inside the lunches lay the greatest treasures, and Janzen ranks the top five embarrassing lunches, including the top-ranked Borscht. "The soup also has a distinctive smell, a noxious blast of savage fart." Needless to say, no one traded food with the Janzen family.

Food is an important part of the Mennonite community and Janzen carries the joy of food to present day. She still enjoys the hearty Mennonite staples, although her sister exposes her to the expanding cooking options now found on television. But Janzen does not shy away from what she once tired of, even describing the joy of sharing her childhood friends with friends and students.

Toward the end of the book Janzen begins to take stock of her current dilemma as she prepares to return home. Her ex-husband reenters the scene briefly and dramatically, but much of Janzen's drive is her own realization of why she is in the situation she finds herself. Yes, her Mennonite upbringing made her subservient to authority, especially men. Yes, a short time of her life could rival the Egyptian plagues.  Yes, she has made her fair share of lousy decisions. But she is not going to dwell in everything that has gone wrong. Instead, she recognizes what she already knew -- the importance of community, of support, of singing in harmony as part of a large group. In other words, Janzen's reflections lead not to an obsession with herself, but a return to all of us.

Reading Challenges
This will now become an optional section because the challenges are fewer every week. Yes, I'm starting teaching again and have more night commitments, but the reading has become so second nature that I'm finishing books well ahead of my weekly schedule. I hope a good habit is hard to break.

Next Up
Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid. I've been circling some Middle Eastern literature lately and this one is recommended by many. It was published in 2000 to quite a bit of critical acclaim and the author has written more since then.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very nice and comprehensive review of this memoir. I've had this book sitting on my desk for a while and now can reach for it with less trepidation- what will it be about? Will I like it? I look forward to the humor, which always helps writers in difficult situations, it seems:)