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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home Hardcover – October 13, 2009

3.3 out of 5 stars 407 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up. Her 15-year relationship with Nick had always been punctuated by manic outbursts and verbally abusive behavior, so recognizing her co-dependent role in their marriage becomes an important part of Janzen's recovery (even as she tweaks the 12 steps just a bit). The healing is further assisted by her decision to move back in with her Mennonite parents, prompting her to look at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes. (She provides an appendix for those unfamiliar with Mennonite culture, as well as a list of shame-based foods from hot potato salad to borscht.) Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being. (Oct.)
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“Wonderfully intelligent and frank. . . . Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound, and poetic without trying. . . . [Janzen’s] tone reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s deadpan, affectionate, slightly hyperbolic stories about urbanities and Minnesota Lutherans. . . I loved this book, and Rhoda Janzen. She is a terrific, pithy, beautiful writer, a reliable, sympathetic narrator and a fantastically good sport.”—Kate Christensen, New York Times Book Review


“Hilarious and touching.”—People (four stars)


Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a hilarious collection of musings on Janzen’s childhood, marriage, and eccentric family. . . . Janzen mines Mennonite culture for comic effect, but she does so with love.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Janzen looks at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes. . . . Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] spirited, fascinating memoir. . . . Janzen’s story reminds us what a beautiful gift our past can be.”—Hannah Sampson, Miami Herald


“Hysterical. . . . In the tradition of David Sedaris, it’s [Janzen’s] family who is the source of the book’s biggest laughs, and its heart.”—Marisa Meltzer, The Daily Beast


“Rhoda’s life may not sound amusing at first: She’s a poet/professor whose husband just left her for Bob, whom he met on Gay.com. But what happens after she heads home to her Mennonite parents is beyond funny. Her wry, affectionate depictions of her frugal dad, sweet but slightly scatological mom and a youth in which jeans and dancing were off limits make for an honest and entertaining memoir.”—Family Circle

“This soulful, affecting first memoir . . . will enchant anyone who has ever gone back home after suffering a setback.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“This book is not just beautiful and intelligent, but also painfully -- even wincingly -- funny. It is rare that I literally laugh out loud while I'm reading, but Rhoda Janzen's voice -- singular, deadpan, sharp-witted and honest -- slayed me, with audible results. I have a list already of about fourteen friends who need to read this book. I will insist that they read it. Because simply put, this the most delightful memoir I've read in ages.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

“Compelling . . . Janzen explores her past and her present with honesty and self-deprecation and the result is both hilarious and touching . . . [A] lively chronicle of the patience and strong sense of humor one needs to go home again.”—Booklist


“Readers will find themselves laughing out loud at Janzen’s wry commentary. . . . The playful humor is balanced, however, with genuine thoughtfulness, especially as Janzen reconnects with childhood companions and reflects on how different her own life might have been, had she chosen to remain in the Mennonite community instead of embracing an intellectual life. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress will resonate with any reader who has ever thought about how such choices shape our futures, or with anyone who has struggled to recapture faith—in God, in other people or in oneself.”—Norah Piehl, Bookpage


“Janzen excavates her past with the might of a backhoe and the finesse of an archaeologist’s brush. . . . The author’s relatives feature prominently throughout the narrative, her mother’s quirky sensibilities bubbling over in merry nuggets of old-fashioned, home-spun wisdom. . . . A buoyant, somewhat mordant ramble through triumphs, upheavals and utter normalcy.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This is an intelligent, funny, wonderfully written memoir.  Janzen has a gift for following her elegant prose with the perfect snarky aside.  If it weren't for the weird Mennonite food, I would like very much to be her friend.”—Cynthia Kaplan, author of Why I'm Like This and Leave the Building Quickly
“Rhoda Janzen, a stunning woman, has written a funny book, very funny when she gets to cranking on her family, and she gets to cranking.  The writing enjoys the exactitude of poetry, and the comedic melody runs over a bass line of intellection that makes things gratifying in ways lesser books are not. Spectacular merde falls into this life.  It's a marvelous book of brave cheer.”—Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080508925X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805089257
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (407 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #829,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Rhoda Janzen holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She is the author of Babel's Stair, a collection of poems, and her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
My expectations for this book? I assumed that this would be an account of returning to one's roots after going out into the real world. Beyond that rather banal description I assumed I'd get special insights into the Mennonite world, including possible rituals and practices with a horse drawn carriage or two thrown in and an account of farm life.
In reality, this is a personal memoir that provides info. about carriages and Mennonite culture with food and recipes thrown in for a bit of flavor. However, at the heart of the matter is this wonderful account of how a series of unfortunate incidents brought the author back home. What I find completely amazing is that when even dealing with really serious or sad issues, Rhoda Janzen does it with such incredible style and humor that I found myself chuckling.
Janzen's writing style is conversational. Her sentences are complex and descriptive, but they flow easily. Best of all, it passed my acid test. Normally if I can't get involved in a book within 20 minutes, that's it. I put it down and don't invest further time or effort.
This book on some level reads like fiction. It's like a really good box of chocolates. I couldn't put it down. I loved the eccentricities of her friends and family. I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Fortysomething Rhoda Janzen hasn't spent extended time with her Mennonite family in 25 years. But when her husband leaves their 15-year-marriage and she's injured in a car accident, she trades the costly sabbatical she'd planned from her midwestern college in favor of a few months back home on the west coast.

Janzen (a very likeable narrator) weaves childhood memories with anecdotes from those months spent visiting her parents (both of whom I loved: Dad is "the Mennonite equivalent of the Pope"; Mom is a pragmatic nurse and eternal optimist); her family and friends; and the Mennonite culture. But deep into the book, the story that finally emerges is her recovery (of self and roots) from her mentally ill husband and their failed marriage.

As a memoir, it's uneven. Some passages, even some words, are laugh-out-loud funny and make me thankful to have read this book. Others seem self-indulgent -- more amusing to the author than a reader -- and continue too long and at the expense of more-relevant material. The writing is likened to poetry, but I can see that only in its lack of transitions, not in language or sense evocation. I often wondered "Where are we?" and "When is this happening?"

Probably, this book was prompted by the pressure to produce something tangible from a sabbatical -- and what's more relevant for a teacher of English and creative writing to produce than a book? As a concept and draft, it's terrific; as a published work, it's okay.
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Format: Hardcover
Despite small rebellions, Rhoda Janzen stayed close to the Mennonite world she was raised in. That is, until she went to graduate school. At that point, too many of her social, philosophical and spiritual ideas were challenged, causing her life to become more secular. But she never severed ties with her family or the Mennonite community, so when crisis struck in the form of a divorce followed by a debilitating car accident, she was welcomed home with open arms. Her memoir, MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS, centers on that homecoming but also celebrates a religious community more vibrant and diverse than most people realize.

Janzen may have been primed for the secular world unwittingly by her parents, both of whom were college educated (something very unusual for Mennonites). She and her three siblings were sent to public school and were allowed some spiritual and intellectual freedoms by their thoughtful yet conservative parents. Though her parents may have been inwardly disappointed by her choices to become a poet/professor and to marry the emotionally uneven Nick, they wanted her to be happy and were kindhearted when her turbulent marriage fell apart. In her early 40s, Janzen found herself back in her parents' home, enveloped in a life of German folk songs, strudel, borscht, traditional handicrafts and pious religious beliefs.

With biting humor and unflinching honesty, Janzen chronicles her divorce (the verbally abusive Nick left her for Bob from [...]) and shares childhood adventures and misadventures growing up Mennonite. And although it's Janzen's memoir, the star of the book is quite often her mother, Mary. Mary is funny, warm, and much sassier and worldlier than readers would ever expect.
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Format: Hardcover
I found this book thoroughly entertaining, and laughed out loud at several points. As other reviewers have already explained, the author, Rhoda Janzen, was raised Mennonite, but as an adult became a secular academic. This book is written when she returns home to her parents after a difficult divorce to heal. The author has a biting wit and insightful eye for detail and irony, and some might find her portrayal of her parents and their friends patronizing. But I didn't, because I sensed her deep love and affection for them. As much as she appears to have rejected her upbringing in the way that she lives, she clearly has maintained an emotional and historian's interest in her familial culture. As she recounts childhood memories, she mixes in her historian's perspective with her emotional reverie, and I think it works quite well.

My only issue was that overall the book doesn't really go anywhere. There's no arc, like there is in the best-told memoirs, partly because Ms. Janzen is only willing to share so much. She shares some details of her marriage and the divorce, but it feels a bit distant and limited, and it's not linear, so it's tough to get a sense of her healing as a process. So while I loved the individual anecdotes, both from her childhood and from her time with her parents while she stays with them, I didn't connect with her overall healing process in a way that would have lifted this book to another level for me.

But overall, a funny, intelligent read. And if you are wondering what the difference is between the Amish and the Mennonites, she even has an appendix to let you know!
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