This tartly told memoir with its tenderhearted core and luscious detailings of tangy borschts and double-decker Zwiebach buns slathered with homemade rhubarb jam is an honest, philosophical chronicle of poet and English professor Rhoda Janzen's return home at 43, to her Mennonite family, after being chewed up by a soap operatic sequence of very real personal calamities.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress begins when Janzen's botched hysterectomy leaves her Velcro-strapping a urine collection bag to her thigh for six months. Just as she's snapped back from incontinence, Nick (her hunky, frequently drunk, charming, bipolar, and verbally abusive husband of 15 years) leaves her for Bob, a man he's met on Gay.com. That same week, a tipsy teen driver crashes Janzen's car on a snowy road. She ends up with two broken ribs and a fractured clavicle. "Under circumstances like these, what was�a gal to do?" she asks. "I'll tell you what I did. I went home to the Mennonites."
What transcends Mennonite in a Little Black Dress from a series of zany essays on "Menno" culture (a capella singalongs, raisins, and sweater vests) is Janzen's deeply nurtured respect for her community. She observes that, like the rest of us, Mennonites struggle with bratty children, substance abuse, dieting, and cheesy first dates an admission that opens up her quest to re-learn happiness into a universally felt exploration.
Janzen's spiritual leader turns out to be her sunny, irreverent mother, Mary, whose bouncy perceptions of sorrow, death, marriage between first cousins, and bodily functions she casually breaks wind at Kohl's while inspecting bundt pans end up revealing how intimately she grasps the true order of things. Hillary Huber is the narrator of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and her droll, throaty voiceover perfectly pitches to Janzen's acerbic wit and academic background. A master quick-change artist, Huber so nimbly spins into bubbly, chattery Mary Janzen that when she conspiratorially shares, "A relaxed pothead sounds nice", about Rhoda's latest fling, it registers as mildly as "Please pass the Cotletten, dear." Nita Rao
The same week her husband of 15 years ditches her for a guy he met on Gay.com, a partially inebriated teenage driver smacks her VW Beetle head-on. Marriage over, body bruised, life upside-down, Rhoda does what any sensible 43-year-old would do: She goes home.
But hers is not just any home. It's a Mennonite home, the scene of her painfully uncool childhood and the bosom of her family: handsome but grouchy Dad, plain but cheerful Mom. Drinking, smoking, and slumber parties are nixed; potlucks, prune soup, and public prayer are embraced. Having long ago left the faith behind, Rhoda is surprised when the conservative community welcomes her back with open arms and offbeat advice. She discovers that this safe, sheltered world is the perfect place to come to terms with her failed marriage and the choices that both freed and entrapped her.
©2009 Rhoda Janzen; (P)2009 Highbridge
As a Mennonite in the Fresno area, I hardly recognized my community in this book. I'm 25 years older than the author (whose family I know) and didn't suffer the deprivations she describes. There's a whole lot of literary license going on here. So I say, go ahead, listen to the book and enjoy it, but keep that grain of salt firmly in place.
A bigger disappointment for me was the mispronunciation of so very many words by the reader. I was under the impression that readers or producers checked with the author re pronunciations. Guess I was wrong.
Boy, Rhoda Janzen has bad luck. The schadenfreude alone would be reason to read this memoir, but luckily she also has a sense of humor and a way with words. I hope I'm not giving away too much but you have to or else there's no plot summary at all. Rhoda grew up Mennonite but as an adult, she strayed far afield, becoming a college professor (Mennonites do not approve of higher education), marrying an atheist, not having children. Then she has a medical issue, and the procedure does not go well. To her surprise, her husband is great at nursing her back to health. Then he leaves her for a guy named Bob that he met online. A week later, Rhoda is in a terrible car accident. Unable to really get around (and unable to afford her house payments alone), she moves back in with her parents, temporarily. Which means she becomes reimmersed in Mennonite culture.
Most of us are probably pretty unfamiliar with the Mennonites. They are not the Amish - in fact the Amish split with them centuries ago because the Mennonites were so liberal - but liberal is not a word anyone would use to describe them. Rhoda's church had an outhouse. Her mother had grown up wearing clothes made from flour sacks. Rhoda and her first boyfriend in high school dated for a year without even French kissing - because they had no idea it existed. As someone who has lived fully in the secular world for over 20 years, she is the perfect person to introduce us to Mennonite culture. Also it's refreshing that she didn't have any great falling out with the religion herself - it's just not for her, but she respects her parents' beliefs and still likes the food and hymns.
Throughout the narrative, as small incidents of everyday life are conveyed, Rhoda is healing both physically, and emotionally. We get details of her tumultuous life with her artistic, bipolar husband. Returning home was obviously soothing to her soul as well as her body. And her mother is hilarious. Hilary Huber does a good job is giving the different characters different voices (although all fairly nasal though that's not her normal voice), but Rhoda's mother's voice is the best. The slightly childish aspect of the tone matches up perfectly to her upbeat, effervescent personality.
There is an explanation of the Mennonites at the end of the book.
I am not sure what I expected but this was a fun listen and at times laugh out loud unexpectedly funny. The narration added a great deal to what otherwise might have been a disjointed "memoir". Somehow her voice and tempo made the transitions easier. I always enjoy hearing words that I know I don't know how to pronouce...half of the food consumed in this book met that definition.
An funny and quirky look into the life of this author. An excellent "read" and a good job by the narrator. Kept me interested and laughing the whole way through.
This is a sweet tender book. Janzen Reflects back on her Mennonite upbringing with great humor and intelligence. She is kind to her parents and siblings. If you are looking for dirt, go elsewhere. This is a book of love and hope.
I'm a designer (interiors and graphics) with an English degree. I recovered my love of reading after a disastrous bout with grad school.
I also grew up in and out of an isolating religion, and thought I would relate to Ms. Janzen's book. However, her memoir does not succeed, at least for me.
The first problem is structural. This book had its genesis in e-mail messages to friends and colleagues during her sabbatical, and its structure betrays this: it's discursive, disconnected and uneven. Lots of space is taken up when she's bored (the pointless board game story), and not enough space given when she's busy/involved (the encounter with Mitch is dropped with virtually no development, even though I've read that they in fact became a couple).The narrative pools and repeats, but does not get anywhere: she has no more real insight at the end than she does at the beginning and the closing uplift feels tacked-on.
The second problem is one of tone. She insists that she is genuinely fond of and interested in the people and practices she describes, but she sure scores a lot of cheap shots off them before professing her affection. While it's clear that her upbringing launched an intelligent, hard-working woman into the world, it is also obvious that it left her so naive and unworldly that she was dangerously vulnerable to exactly the kind of disastrous marriage she made. She never expresses anger or regret toward her religion or community for this. Instead, she engages in relentless mockery of the "they don't even know what Prada is!" variety. When there is more serious criticism to be made, the fashion-label snark is a bit jarring. It makes Janzen appear more superficial and slight than she can possibly be. I understand she does not want to engage in self-pity, but she's turned it inside out with a coat of brittle barbs. What's hilarious over wine with girlfriends doesn't come off well on the page.
This is a fast-paced, charming, smart memoir! GOOD FUN and the narrator easily brings across the irony and humor in the author's story. Great job.
This was enjoyable, although the writer jumps around from thought to thought and it is easy to get lost. However, the book never really goes in a definite direction, so it doesn't matter where you start listening...
Say something about yourself!
Rhoda Janzen has Mary Carr's acerbic voice and Elizabeth Gilbert's desire to understand herself. So if you liked "Lit," "The Liar's Club," or "Eat, Pray, Love," you will find this a most satisfying addition to the group.
I listened to this book in bed and kept waking up my spouse because I was cracking up. There were even a few occasions when an actual snort escaped me. I had to turn the book off at that point, just for the sake of harmony in the old bedroom.
If you were the kind of person (like me) who couldn't wait to get away from the place where you grew up, only to realize later all the wonders you left behind--you will love this book.
In particular, I loved the author's rendering of her mother, a doggedly sunny ball of energy with a penchant for dopey scatalogical references, all within the context of a severe and austere religion. Much to laugh at here. I hope Janzen does a follow-up book on her mom! She is a character (and, oh, how I do mean that) about and from whom I'd love to hear more.
I think the narrator did a great job. Her tone is wry and tough when the humor calls for it, and soft when detailing some of the more painful moments.
Even by the title you can get a glimpse into the mindset of the author, that she is too grand for her awkward 'anti-cool' Mennonite upbringing.
It made me wince with embarrassment as she seemed to underline, again and again how vulgar and frumpy her family culture is compared to the educated and sophisticated circles in which she moves now.
The juxtaposition was amusing, (after her marriage fails, she returns to the bosom of her Mennonite family for some recovery time). However, I felt it got tired.
The plot - being a memoir, was not exciting, and I was bored.
Couldn't wait for it to end.
This had a great review in the Telegraph so I downloaded it for a long car journey and boy am I glad I did, It is quite brilliant. I didn't laugh out loud a lot but had a big smile on my face most of the time, which probably worried other drivers! It's a beautifully read story of life in middle age beset by the kind of trials that life hurls at you when you think you're doing alright but in this case Rhoda Janzen has the guts to get back up (with the help of her eccentric family) and face it full on, then write a book about it. It's funny, it's sad, it's upbuilding, it's family, it's life.
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