Monday, September 5, 2011

Memoirs, Mennonites, and Mmmmmm . . . Borscht!

For my first posting I've selected the book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen.  This is the first nonfiction book I've read in full (and for fun, no less) in quite some time, and, no, all those books from grad school don't count.  Carlyle is many things, but I doubt you could accuse him of being fun.  I thought it would make a fine starting point given that the book a) is fantastic and b) occasionally dedicates some serious focus to food.

The Basics

Janzen, Rhoda. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.
(Clearly, MLA citation form has been branded into my brain. I tried to do it differently, but I just couldn't stop twitching.) 
Dr. Janzen, poetess and writer extraordinaire, currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Having lived outside the Mennonite community of her childhood for years, she returns home to recover from a rather nasty relationship and a painful car accident.  The book documents her sabbatical spent with family along with other episodes in her life.

The Book
Anywho, the book first caught my eye when I came across the title one day at work.  I'm always somewhat impressed by catchy titles, since naming anything is something I struggle with whenever required (we won't talk about all the titles I went through for this blog.  Lalalalaaaa... I can't heeeear you!). This title packs a lot of punch.  You have the juxtaposition of the two disparate concepts of mennonites and LBDs, which effectively draws a potential reader's attention through a contrast that makes us go "Schwaaa?" The title also declares itself a memoir, alerting readers to its position firmly in the realm of biography, as opposed to romantic fiction about mennonites (seriously, Beverly Lewis, wtf?*)

The book itself is well-written, with a nice mix of hilarity and self-examination. It was at the end of chapter 5 that I realized I was already half-way through the book and the chapters were a bit on the long side. I remember thinking at the time that Janzen was definitely an academic, but I'm shudderingly grateful to be able to say that Janzen's prose is highly engaging and at times hysterically funny.  For example, she constantly references the man her husband left her for as "Bob the guy from," a repetition I find amusing.

Janzen's descriptions of people, mostly her family, are what drives this memoir forward, engaging, delighting, and occasionally infuriating her audience. Her mother, is easily my favorite.  Janzen's descriptions of her mother create a picture of someone who is both the funniest and most endearing person in the book. At times her mother is releasing epically audible farts in the middle of Kohl's (163-65) or as Janzen describes it: "This was the Moses of all farts, a leader of its kind. The trump shall sound! It shall rouse us to action! I could not believe that my own mother had produced such a remarkable acoustic effect.  In public" (164). At other times, she's astutely questioning what she interprets as Janzen's sudden desire to hide her legs and, in a way, encouraging her daughter's recovery (both emotional and physical) from the car accident (217-18). By the end of the book you have no doubt as to why Janzen dedicated the book to her mother.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband, stories and memories of whom are interspersed throughout the text, is such a complete and utter d-bag that you want to leap into the pages and slap him around a bit.  Janzen describes his abuses (though I don't remember her explicitly labeling them as such, that's exactly what they were) in way that makes your heart clench a little more for her with each memory (see for example 83 -91).  Throughout these painful moments, Janzen does a brilliant job describing her own thoughts and emotions with a startling level of honesty.

Just as her descriptions of people drive the book, Janzen's constant relation of the book to various aspects of her Mennonite culture and heritage provides a connecting thread that runs throughout the memoir.  While the book enlightens readers to many aspects of Mennonite life, naturally, my favorites are the parts about food.  I spent a large part of reading this book with my mouth watering, lusting after the tastily described Zwiebach buns.  Janzen also describes such deliciousness as Warmer Kartoffelsalat, a hot and "tangy" potato salad (107).  But the food that fascinates me the most is Borscht, which Janzen describes as both amazingly tasty and incredibly embarrassing when packed in school lunches (111-13).  Borscht interests me for three reasons: 1) it sounds interesting and I have a thing for soups, 2) it's fun to say and 3) it also sounds foul.  Borscht, I learned, is made from cabbage and beets, creating a vibrant and pungent red soup, which is then served with vinegar and sour cream.  As a lover of both soup and vinegar, Borscht sounds pretty good; it seems like it'd be fun to learn how to make. However, I also loathe cabbage and beets, and so this soup simultaneously fascinates and disgusts me.  Simply the smell of beets is enough to set my stomach churning and hasten up memories of being force fed the gag-inducing root vegetable.  Thus, I must decline to ever apply my cooking skills to Borscht, but those raisin-walnut persimmon cookies, platz, and Zweibach might merit further culinary investigation.

Overall, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. The book makes you think about relationships, warms your heart and tells the rather engaging story of the author's life.  By welcoming you into the home of her Mennonite family, Janzen also illuminates a culture that few of us know much about beyond the surface. I fully plan to add this memoir to my own shelves someday soon.

*okay, so some of those are about the Amish, too, but still.
  • For her take on the writing of the book, visit Janzen's webpage.
  • Or for a recipe for Borscht try Janzen's Mennonite Primer. I have to say, even I might consider it with tomato soup instead of beets . . . 


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