Friday, January 21, 2011

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen — 272 pgs


Book CoverRhoda Janzen's husband of fifteen years has left her for a man named Bob who he met on Gay.com. The same week her husband made his disappearance, she becomes involved in a serious car accident that leaves her injured. Deciding she needs a change of scenery, both literally and figuratively, she journeys off to visit her parents and the Mennonite community where she grew up. What follows is the true story of her temporary life amongst the Mennonites interspersed with the vivid recollections of her fifteen year marriage with a man afflicted with mental illness. Often hilariously funny, Rhoda divulges the strange habits and customs of the Mennonites alongside the tale of her heartbreak, sprinkling the text with do-it-yourself questionnaires, true stories of off-the-wall relatives and an exhaustive list of the top five most embarrassing Mennonite foods that can be carried in a lunchbox. Both clever and at times serious, Janzen explores the very unusual circumstances of her life in an unflinching and often candidly merry book.

When this book came out, it seemed to be all the rage. I had originally wanted to read it sooner than I did but things just kept getting in the way. Last month, my book club decided that we would do something a little different, in that we would each read a different autobiography and then discuss them and see if others wanted to trade reads. As I'm not a fan of autobiographies, I asked if it would be all right to read a memoir instead. It was agreed that I could go against the edict and read a memoir, so I decided that now would be the perfect time for this book.

I was immediately delighted with the first few chapters, for it seemed that Janzen wasn't going to get bogged down in a woe-is-me narrative about her life. The book got off on the right foot with an air of the refreshingly funny, and Janzen wasn't afraid to poke fun at herself as well. Interlaced with the more colorful stories she told came the story of her relationship with her husband. This relationship was bad with a capital "B". Her husband, afflicted with bi-polar disorder, would control her, berate her with name calling and go on horrific spending sprees. Janzen reached a point of numbness while dealing with his behavior and had trouble accepting that what her husband was doing constituted abuse. I think in her ability to be lighthearted and accepting towards him, she was actually doing herself a disservice, but it took many years for her to finally see that.

The other half of this book, the more lighthearted half, dealt with the oddity of her family and the Mennonite community at large. I didn't know much about the Mennonites going into this book, only that they were a bit like the Amish, which is actually one of the falsehoods that is addressed by Janzen. Though the Amish and the Mennonites came from the same stock, they are very different, with the Mennonites being a less rigid and more tolerant order. I really liked the more lighthearted reflections in this half of the book, and a lot of what made an impression on me was the dichotomy of living life as a Mennonite in communities that are decidedly less parochial than times past. The Mennonites weren't a wayward and backward bunch at all. They were professionals who were active in the community and didn't hide behind religion or segregate themselves from the rest of society. Janzen's mother in particular was refreshing, not only in her attitudes towards her children, but also to the community at large, including that small population of pot-heads who drive tractors.

A lot of the book was off-color, which was surprising given the subject it presented. I found these aspects quite refreshing and giggle-worthy. From monstrous patches of pubic hair to the indignities of wearing a pee-bag, Janzen reveals it all while managing to curtail a vibe of snarkiness, which really made the humor go a lot farther. There are discourses on the thrilling concoction that is borscht, a mother whose table talk is gag-inducing, and the tale of a sister-in-law who is extremely politically incorrect. In the end though, Janzen finds a way through her messy life, but the fact that she goes so far to keep it real throughout her ordeal is what makes this book the pleasure that it is. The humor is the kind you know polite people wouldn't laugh at but you can't stop yourself, knowing that Janzen has it right, down to the last letter.

This is not your typical memoir in any way shape or form, and that's what I liked most about it. In the double examination of both the Mennonites and her spectacularly bad marriage, Janzen manages to not only inform, but edify about the Mennonite community. The humor was well timed and placed, and the light-hearted approach curiously gave the book more gravity. I think those readers who are tired of all the drama in the memoir genre might really enjoy this book. I laughed right along with Janzen at the absurdities of Mennonite life and was able to rally for her when she finally started to let the baggage from her past go. An uncommon memoir; I need to find more out there like this one!

22 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds good. I don't like memoirs, but it seems this one has a lot of other elements to recommend it!

Amy said...

This sounds like a funny read, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy it. I'm glad that you did though! I hope book club goes well.

Jenny said...

Hm, sounds good. For some reason I haven't been drawn to this one, but your review does make it sound worth the read!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

You make this one sounds quite interesting. I don't know much about Mennonites either, but there is an emerging Mennonite population where I live. I'm hoping to read more memoirs in 2011, so I'm adding this one to my list!

TheBookGirl said...

I'm not much on memoirs either, although when I do read them, they are written by real people, not celebs. Not sure if this one is for me, although I would be interested in the Mennonite aspect.
I'm curious if you've discussed this one at book club yet, and if so, if others expressed interest in reading it.

bermudaonion said...

Oooh, you know I love a good memoir. This one's in my bookcase - I need to pull it out soon.

Amy said...

I've been wanting to read this one for awhile..I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Literary Feline said...

I like it when an author of a memoir can mix humor with the serious. It doesn't take away from the suffering the author may have felt, of course.

I enjoy a good memoir now and then, but like you, am not a fan of autobiographies.

Thank you for your great review, Heather.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love memoirs...I could give a few of them to try. This one was featured in EW awhile back, and I was tempted. But then I saw a few lukewarm reviews and I got distracted away from it. Maybe I need to add it back to my list!

Steph said...

Sounds like a really interesting book and certainly one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction! I didn't realize at first that this was a memoir!

Suko said...

What an interesting book club idea, to each read a different autobiography or memoir (in your case)! I'm glad that this one was humorous and enjoyable for you, Zibilee. Sometimes when we finally get to read a book, it works out to be perfect.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Oh, I saw another review of this the other day and I'm sort of digging the idea! I'm really not a memoir gal but for some reason this has my name all over it.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I do like my occasional memoir. I have this one on my wish list but I never got around to buying it. Great review!

Jenners said...

It was surprisingly bawdy, wasn't it? And it was funny. I had the opposite reaction to you though ... I thought too much humor got in the way of a lot of serious stuff that she experienced and kind of trivialized it (like her marriage). That said, it was still a worthy read.

Trisha said...

You have me interested in the tractor-driving potheads. :D

Jenny said...

At first I thought this was fiction, and when I was reading the first few sentences I kept thinking that it sounded like a rather far-fetched plot. Truth is so consistently stranger than fiction.

Trapunto said...

It seems like it's becoming a whole genre: "my religious past" memoirs. This sounds exactly like the kind of humor I'm in the mood for. It's going on my library queue. Thanks for the review.

Lisa said...

This one's been sitting on Mt. TBR for a long time but if it's giggle-worthy, it needs to come off soon!

Marie said...

that sounds so good. i've heard of this book but never really heard ABOUT it. Now I want to read it! Sounds right up my alley.

Erin said...

I listened to this one last summer and enjoyed it! I liked learning about the Mennonites while giggling...I relished the seeming dissonance! I listened to The Mighty Queens of Freeville shortly after, which is by Amy Dickinson and, I thought, had a similar feel. Though no Mennonites, unfortunately!

Swapna said...

I thought this memoir was amusing, glad you enjoyed it too!

Melissa M said...

I love memoirs, and always love something a little different!

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