on 10 January 2011
Not my usual thing but I'm a typical female reader who reads anything my Mum says is amazing- and she's always right!
Ten times better than Eat, Pray, Love here is the woman you would go to in times of need! Janzen is funny, thoughtful, optimistic, her story moves in ways you wouldn't expect with the frankness and laughter of a good friend. She's brave too, and her tale of looking into the past when confronting an unknown future after her marriage falls apart and she suffers great illness is genuinely inspiring. It makes for a nice easy read rather than one filled with loss and pain. Highly recommended- a lazy Sunday or long train journey kind of book.
Forty-something American/Canadian Rhoda Janzen has had a terrible time of it. Her wonderful, gorgeous husband has left her for for a guy called Bob who he met on Gay.com and her troubles multiply as, in the same week, she is hospitalized following a serious road accident. Incapacitated, she decides to return to the bosom of her Mennonite family to lick her wounds.
So far so good, I am fascinated by the lifestyle of faith groups such as the Amish and Mennonites and I was eagerly anticipating how Rhoda, a self-proclaimed "bad" Mennonite and 21st Century girl would fit back into this conservative Christian community. However....what I got instead was more like a marathon stint by a stand-up comedian - the "pee-bag" joke was funny the first time I read it but then it cropped up again, and again, and again.. Yes, it's good to be self-deprecating in a world which sometimes encourages us to wallow in self-pity but after a while it just becomes irksome and there's surely only so many custard pies you can throw in the face of quirky family and friends before the humour fizzles out.
I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn't been a book - odd to say in the midst of a book review, I know. Janzen tells us that friends encouraged her to write the book after receiving funny e-mails from her about her return to the Mennonite community. Indeed it is like a series of rambling e-mails except we don't have the benefit of dates to aid our navigation through the jumble of anecdotes which would have been much better suited to blog posts or a weekly newspaper column. Janzen jumps about through time and space at a pace which would give Captain Kirk a run for his money. I wanted to know more about how she felt, not hear another tale about her mother's flatulence! Oh and there's a potted history of Mennonites and a few recipes from her Mom tacked on at the end - something for all the family!
As an academic and a feminist, Rhoda Janzen's life is built around critical thinking and challenging received ideas. None of which explains how she ended up in an abusive marriage with a man who dumped her for Bob from gay.com.
When her misery is compounded by a car accident, Rhoda decides to take a sabbatical in the form of an extended visit to her parents and the strictly religious Mennonite community in which they live.
The result is a thoughtful and, at times, intensely funny reflection on the author's Mennonite upbringing and its lasting influence. This is no navel gazing exercise - Janzen is as interested in the lives of her mother's generation as her own. And, although she rejected God and the Mennonite worldview at an early age, she takes time to reflect on the experiences of those contemporaries who have remained in the Mennonite fold.
"My Little Black Mennonite Dress" isn't the tale of a miserable childhood,a polemic against religion or, despite the publicity, about someone returning to their roots. It is, however, a well-written, insightful memoir in which the author looks back on her life through eyes which have matured in middle-age to detect shades of grey where they once saw only black and white.
It's fair to say that The Mennonite and academic backgrounds to this book are distinctly American and some of the cultural references may be lost on many British readers. My other criticism is that the book seems to end in an abrupt and slightly unsatisfying way.
If you enjoyed the Lake Wobegon books of Garrison Keillor, you will definitely appreciate this book. The writing is pithy, honest, very funny and slightly off-the-wall in many places.
The book is autobiographical and follows the emotional and physical recuperation of Rhoda Janzen after her husband leaves her for a man he met on Gay.com and she is badly injured in a car accident. Returning home to her family (I hadn't heard of Mennonites before, but think liberal Amish and you're getting close)where she reconnects with the old-fashioned values of her community's faith. These guys are sweet but very odd and have eating habits that makes the Germans look sophisticated.
It is a charming account and avoids gloom and sentimentality. There is a fair amount of introspection, but done with humour and laudable objectivity. I can heartily recommend it.
I started out really enjoying the opening chapter of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. The author is droll and self-deprecating, describing her recovery from botched surgery and her need to use a catheter bag, and her abandonment by her husband for a man met on gay.com, with a light, wry tone which made me laugh aloud several times. Sadly, the remainder didn't live up to the promise of the opening. Confused and wondering where to turn, Rhoda Janzen returns home to her Mennonite parents, whose lifestyle she has long since abandoned. But don't expect any revelations, or even any sense of narrative. What follows is a mixture of Janzen's memories of her relationship with her bipolar, bisexual husband, interspersed with her almost anthropological observations of her extended family. I was unable to read the memoir without wondering, increasingly uncomfortably, what her family felt about their exposure to public scrutiny, and why Janzen would want to do the same for her own incredibly destructive marital relationship. The urge to do so would have made more sense had she drawn any significant insights from her return to her Mennonite roots, but a tentative discussion with her sister about whether a very religious upbringing has made it difficult for her to assert herself is about as far as it gets. Her marriage is shocking to read about, full of frankly abusive behaviour from her husband which is continually excused on grounds of his bipolarity and brilliant personality, but almost as shocking that even when the marriage ends due to his infidelity, Janzen herself still doesn't seem to see him as abusive.
on 7 February 2011
Rhoda Janzen took a sabbatical from her career and went home to her Mennonite family to recuperate, after her husband left her for a man called Bob and she then had a serious car accident. Over a period of time her emails about life back under the parental wing amused her friends so much that they suggested she save them and turn them into a book - and I'm personally glad that she took their advice.
Ms Janzen admits that while she is an accomplished, award-winning poet, she has no grounding in writing non-fiction, and I think that this shows: her narrative sometimes jumps quite surprisingly from one point in time to another, and the ending is very abrupt. In places (at least in the Kindle edition) the editing was also a tad sloppy. But overall this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book, which is well observed, wittily amusing and in places very touching.
At the beginning of the narrative the author's husband comes across as a demon figure, but as she goes through the story she reveals more about him and our changing picture of him seems to reflect her own emotional journey from raw distress through to a more balanced understanding of their relationship. Running parallel to this aspect of the narrative is a second strand, which describes her feelings on returning to the Mennonite fold which she had rejected many years earlier, and her increasing understanding and appreciation of her Mennonite heritage. I have to say that if her family are accepting of the level of detail she has revealed about their lives, and the humour she draws from this, then they truly are a very forgiving sect. But although she pokes fun at some aspects of their society, I was left with the overwhelming impression that these are gentle, kind and generous people and that Rhoda Janzen loves and respects them.
I recommend this book.
This book is proclaimed to be the No. 1 in the U.S. at the moment. It is a very 'American' book. By that I mean that unless you have an intimate knowledge of the States, i.e. having grown up there or lived there for at least ten years, you will not get some of the humour. There are just some things that no amount of watching American sitcoms will ever fill in. That said, parts of the book are very good; well-written with good, serious points to be made and mistakes acknowledged and changed. And then there are the bad parts. This is what really soured my reading of the book. There is a lot, and I do mean a lot, of very crude, very coarse so-called humour or attempts at humour. Toilet talk, literally, with descriptions of bodily functions and fluids that really add nothing to the book but made me wince. But you may enjoy this type of humour. It may set you laughing and really brighten your day but I did not enjoy it and found it forcing me to rush through the pages. If educated people, she does have a Ph.D, need to resort to this type of writing to share his/her life story well, ... I don't know. And her parents are also well-educated. It is probably just a matter of taste but somehow I still feel she could have been just as funny without lowering herself to this coarseness. I also think it relys too much on out-dated sterotypes of a certain generation from certain Eastern European countries who are followers of a minority religion; a minority sect of Christianity. She is trying to laugh at herself and her attempts to live a life outside of her early upbringing, but it seemed forced to me. And so much of what she was saying seemed to be describing persons more recognizable as middle Americans than those currently living in 'the old country'. It just didn't work for me but it may do for you. If nothing else there are a few Mennonite recipes at the back of the book plus some discussion questions if you belong to a book group.
on 7 August 2010
I picked up this book in airport and was thoroughly engrossed during my 12 hour journey. Reminiscent of David Sedaris's touching and hilarious short stories I really enjoyed the structure of the memoir and her stories packed a punch. Her love of words and language shine through and made me happy that I paid attention in English class. But most importantly her stories ring true and there are some passages that are incredibly touching. Rhoda took some traumatic events in her life and with a deft hand transformed them into fantastic read. My only wish is that she had included a recipe for Zwiebach! A fantastic debut.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this book, but really enjoyed it. Hardly a mention of God, just a bit of Mennonite life (which tends to revolve around food a lot)
It could have been a bleeding heart story or full of sarcasm & bitterness, I mean how would you feel in the space of 1 week, your control freak of a husband left you for a MAN and you are involved in a head on collision on the freeway?
Janzen avoids the bitterness & poor me aspect she could have written about & instead concentrates on the warmth, humour & weird advice as well as the love she receives when she packs up & goes home to her Mennonite family.
Her mother tries to marry her off to a cousin who "has a tractor" & an 86 yr old lady in a care home arranges a date for her with her grandson who " always does what grandma says!
There is warmth and feeling as she proves that every family, Mennonite or not, has weird traits & oddball family members, but when it comes down to it, they accept you as you are & only want the best for you, even if their world is not your world & they don't really understand it.
A very good read, which made me chuckle and had me reading bits out to my husband as it was funny & heart warming at the same time
Written by Kim Cranson who was given the book to read by her husband
Following the break-up of her marriage, and a road accident that leaves her incapacitated, Rhoda Janzen decided to return to her Mennonite family to recuperate and find her feet again. In so doing she reflects on the mistakes she made in her marriage, and on the religious up-bringing she rejected, with a great deal of humour. This is one of those rare books that really did make me laugh out loud from the first page: "all of my relatives on her side, the Loewens, enjoy preternaturally good health, unless you count breast cancer and polio".
I also learnt that the Amish were once Mennonites but broke away because of the 'liberalism' of Mennonite ways. Having watched a recent Channel 4 documentary series about a group of young Amish people, I was particularly interested in seeing where their roots lay and what it is about their simple way of life that holds such appeal.
Rhoda's mother is a strong and central character in these memoirs and the author casts a wry but affectionate eye at her ways and those of her Mennonite community. She even adds an appendix giving a brief history of the Mennonites (again, humorously told), though I think the recipes were somewhat out of place.
This is a warm and funny memoir and I really enjoyed it.