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
Funny at times, the self-deprecating humor and author's making fun of the eccentricities of her parents become tiresome. Book is repetitive and has few interesting themes. The title is catchy and for this reason will sell copies. However, this is a lightweight bit of fluff.
Expected to get a view of the Mennonites. A terribly boring and inane story instead. Sorry I didn't believe other poor reviews.
Unfortunately, the serious points Janzen makes later are overshadowed by the, at times forced, humor. Not a waste of a credit, but I wouldn't fault readers who felt disappointed either.
As a non-Mennonite I can say, "What a disappointment!!!!" I listened to the book in its entirety hoping that there would be a redeeming aspect but found none. Rather, I walked away feeling as if this "read" had simply been a cathartic exercise for the author that should not have been published.
Firstly, the book is not written by a Mennonite. The author was reared in a Mennonite home and left the faith as a young woman. Basically, the book is an arrogant, "axe to grind" account of the author's life which was seemingly built on a number of poor choices. Although she periodicallly succeeds to extract humor from some of the situations she recounts, more often the recounts are a harsh, judgmental condemnation of a seemingly well-intentioned group of people (the Mennonites). There is also a imbalance throughout the book as the author is diligent to analyze the actions and characteristics of the Mennonites while failing to do the same with her own. As a result one is left feeling as if there has been a "Mennonite-bashing" with the question of "why".
I have a friend who is a former Mennonite, so I downloaded this book and we read it together. We both agreed to stop listening to it around 3 hours, 30 minutes. I was hoping for insights and my friend was hoping for humorous, relatable stories about being Mennonite. Instead, we got stupid stories that mean nothing. For instance, Janzen goes on and on about playing a board game with her niece. In another part, she goes on and on about having a urine bag taped to her leg. It left you constantly wondering that any of this has to do with being a former Mennonite and when the darn black dress is going to make an appearance.
Save your credits and skip this book.
I don't know if I'm going to make it through this book! I'm finding it very BORING. I should have read the Amazon reviews first. They told the real story. Lesson Learned!
As Rhoda's saga comes to a close, she hooks up with another Mennonite 17 years younger than she. The guy just happens to be well-educated, well-employed (so she wouldn't have to be a farm wife, or any kind of wife at all, and wouldn't have to sell her deluxe house by the lake) and in a field close to the author's - i.e. a socially acceptable Mennonite, not one of the "uncool" Mennonites of her childhood and teenage years. It's no coincidence that she goes on a "magical mystery tour" at the end of the story to rediscover her heritage right after this attraction begins. I wanted to see Rhoda evolve past her personal baggage of a restricting and oppressing religion and open up more to life. Instead, because of a lustful liaison with a co-Mennonite, she goes back into her past and wants to re-immerse.
There were funny parts to this novel, but I was way more interested in the conflicts of Rhoda's life with the gay husband and the issues of their separation, than I was with the Mennonite thing. The narrator did a great job, with just the right ironic tone. No sense of being too old, too young, nor any identifiable accent. I was only able to listen to this book because of the narrator, and unfortunately I have to reject many audible books because the narrator is too old, too male (sorry, guys), or reads with too much of an accent.
While the story was at times somewhat funny, I found the negative references to Christians unfriendly and definitely didn't enjoy the swearing-didn't finish the book and wouldn't acquire other works by this author-a language warning would have been appreciated.
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