Saturday, September 8, 2012

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

The subtitle of this book is "A Memoir of Going Home."  Rhoda Janzen is an accomplished, smart, funny woman.  This memoir mostly takes place during a sabbatical she takes in her early forties when she has gone through a divorce and then is seriously injured in a car accident.  She has a dry sense of humor and has a unique story to tell.  Because she has chosen her parents' home for her sabbatical, she delves into several aspects of her childhood. I think reading stories about growing up in different sub-cultures of the US is interesting and I think her background growing up as a Mennonite qualifies.  

Janzen fits in a lot of funny stories from her childhood.  One part that was hilarious to me is when she lists "In order of least to most embarrassing, the top five Shame-Based Foods for Mennonite youth lunches."  What follows is a list and detailed description of leftovers and portable food that her mom would pack for her lunch.  This reminded me of Melissa in This Life is in Your Hands  describing how her mom would pack her homemade yogurt in a glass jar for her dessert, while her peers were eating Twinkies.  I like things that are widely universal, and I think wanting the foods other moms packed for your classmates is one of those things everyone relates too.

Because her marriage has ended, and it was rocky throughout, Janzen has found herself dating again.  I thought her commentary on this phenomenon was funny.  Her husband was brilliant, but mentally abusive.  I think her "sexiness" criterias might just as easily be "rules for attraction."  She says, "In my opinon, sexiness comes down to three things: chemistry, sense of humor, and treatment of waitstaff at restaurants.  If the sparks don't fly from the beginning, they never will.  If he doesn't get your sense of humor from the first conversation, you'll always secretly be looking for someone who does.  And if a guy can't see restaurant servers as real people, with needs and dreams and crappy jobs, then I don't want to be with him, even if he just won the Pulitzer Prize."

There are some great ideas as she reflects on her family's religion which she has moved away from.  She quotes her mother saying, "When you're young, faith is often a matter of rules.  What you should do and shouldn't do, that kind of thing.  But as you get older, you realize that faith is really a matter of relationship--with God, with people around you, with the members of your community."

I also liked Janzen's realizations about virtue.  She says, "I have come to believe that virtue isn't a condition of character.  It's an elected action.  It's a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we'll create a habit so strong it will carry us through our bouts of pettiness and meanness."  I love that.  We choose daily what we are going to do.  And we hope that by making good choices over and over, we will be come more resilient to making bad choices.  I can see this in so many areas of my life.  Gossiping, exercising, cleaning...when I choose the better way over and over, it becomes more of a habit.  Even if it doesn't get easier, I do believe that good habits prevent us from entertaining bad ones.

The main thing that bothered me about this book was that many times the funny, quirky even annoying stories felt forced.  I feel like maybe Janzen made a list of all the entertaining and interesting stories from her life, for example her sister-in-law, bad dates over the years, random weirdos from college, and then orchestrated how to fit them in to the time frame of this memoir.  Sometimes it was in the form of a conversation she had with someone during her sabbatical, and I wanted to say, really?  Did this happen or is it an easy way to squeeze in a story you know will be entertaining?  When she went back in time to explain different elements of her marriage and relationship with her ex-husband, I could follow along and understand the relevance.  But many other times I felt like it was too far of a digression, and the only reason for including the anecdote was to get a laugh.  While her philosophical discoveries were sometimes spot on, other times they felt more like a tirade, and kind of forced.  I know I can be critical, but for me it seems like she was trying to prove how funny she was.  I wanted her to quit trying so hard because I think her intended story was enough.

I enjoyed many parts of this story, but over all too many parts irritated me to give it a glowing recommendation.


Tara @ Tales of a Trophy Wife said...

I love that definition of faith.

Kammy T said...

Me too. I used her definition of virtue with my YW lessn yesterday.

Betsy said...

I picked this book up at Costco several years ago -- based on the cute cover (I totally judge a book by it's cover) and premise. I got a few chapters (?) in and then threw it away. She really bugged me. I think I felt like I was cheating on the Mennonites. I would hate to read a book by someone who left our church and then bagged on her weird childhood. Again, I didn't give it much of a chance. Maybe I should've. . .

Kammy T said...

Betsy--I didn't get too bogged down on the Mennonites. I felt like her focus was way more on herself. She was pretty brutal toward her ex-husband, and even if he was a creep I felt uncomfortable with all she revealed. Overall, I think you could spend your "free" time reading better books.