Tag Archive: Review 19


You can go home again

If you were raised in a religious household, I think that you often spend much of your life living either in accord to what you were raised with, or in some tension with your tradition (whether you leave it altogether, join one that is similar but different, or decide to take an academic turn and spend your life studying it.)  Rhoda Janzen depicts this tension in her memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, an English professor, hit a nasty patch during midlife. She survived the aftereffects of a major surgery that was botched, only to have her husband leave her (for a man), get into a nasty wreck thanks to a  drunk driver that slams into her, and is then left with a mortgage she cannot pay.

So what does one do when such a thing happens? Well, you go home for a spell, and let the people that love you take care of you. Janzen’s family are rather well-educated Mennonites, her father is a theologian and major leader in the church, and her mother was a nurse. As Janzen goes back home and begins to re-explore her relationships with her family and her community, details about her life emerge in a non-linear manner, and she begins to heal.

A few things about the book. First of all, it is a non-linear read- she digresses a lot– some of it is a bit stream-of-consiousness. And  is not an all-about-Mennonites book. Her family happens to be Mennonites and Janzen has rejected her childhood faith, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Mennonite life/theology/etc. Her humor has a biting edge to it- although sometimes it is really gut-wrenchingly funny. While she makes fun of her Mennonite family it is pretty clear that she absolutely loves them. Really, truly, loves them and finds a certain amount of security in the faith that she left that they continue to embody– even though it is no longer hers.

As the book unfolds Janzen is pretty honest- she made some bad decisions- her marriage, which lasted 15 years was a rocky one, and her husband had always been iffy about his sexuality, was cruel and often emotionally abusive, but was also charming, smart, funny, and oh, yes, bi-polar. As the book unfolds Janzen realizes that the mess of her marriage was just as much her fault as his, because she allowed herself to get swept into this. Along the way, her family and friends help her sort it all out.

Janzen’s mom almost steals the book. She is caring, hysterical and earthy. I had moments when reading the book when I was reminded of my mom, and Janzen lovingly outlines all of her mom’s quirks, often for maximum humor potential. She also waxes on Mennonite food– and her love for it. So it is clear that even though Janzen became an urbane, educated, agnostic college professor, there are some things from her Mennonite past that she will never shake. Such as her love for borscht.

The book reads quickly and in places is very funny. It is a bit uneven, because I think this memoir in the end was more conceptual and stylized then perhaps a general audience would like. All the same, I really enjoyed it. Janzen has a great voice– honest, funny, and down-home and very real.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Advertisements

NOLA State of Mind

Continuing with the Catholic novel theme, this past weekend I read Walker Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer.  Set in Louisiana, where Percy spent much of his adult life, the story centers on John Bolling, the eponymous moviegoer of the title.   As I sat down to write this blog post, I happened upon the epigraph of the novel from Søren Kierkegaard: “… the specific character of despair is this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Being the brilliant literary critic that I am (/sarcasm), I quickly realized that this epigraph epitomizes John Bolling.

Bolling, aka Binx, is a man with no clear direction in life.  A veteran of the Korean War, he now works as a stockbroker in Gentilly, LA and finds what little meaning he can at the movies.  The novel describes, at times beautifully and often meanderingly, Binx’s “search.”  “What is the nature of the search? you ask. … The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Though most people associate the notion of a search with a quest for God, Binx is reticent to identify the object of his search.  Though he identifies himself with the 2% of Americans who are atheists or agnostics, he leaves open the possibility that the 98% who believe in God may be right – he simply doesn’t know.

Despite his fascination with the movies, Binx does not look to them for a proper understanding of the search.  On his reading, the movies screw the search up: “The search always ends in despair.”  Binx’s definition of despair is not, however, the typical definition: the protagonist in the movies inevitably marries and settles down and “In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”

Given this understanding of despair, it is hardly surprising that Binx spends his life doing anything but settle down – his self-avowed goal is to avoid everydayness.  Unable to develop or maintain meaningful relationships, Binx periodically has flings with his secretaries, with only minor qualms about mixing business and pleasure.  The only escape he can hold on to is one that, somewhat oddly, he shares with his fourteen-year-old half-brother Lonnie.  In many ways Lonnie is the polar opposite of Binx: confined to a wheelchair, Lonnie is a devout Catholic who wonders about things like habitual dispositions.  In a rare moment of vulnerability, Binx tells the reader that he envies Lonnie’s ability to offer up his suffering to Christ.  Despite their differences, there is a deep affection between the two, which plays a vital element in the stories denouement.  Indeed, it is a combination of this relationship and Binx’s relationship with Kate, another main character in the story, that leads to the surprising end of his search.

As with the other existentialist novel with which I began this project, I’m sure there’s more to The Moviegoer than I caught on the first read through.  The search is clearly a central theme of the book, and yet I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it.  Even the title is a tantalizing riddle.  At one point Binx says of another character in the story that he, too, was a moviegoer, even though he didn’t watch movies.  There’s something there that I’d like to get, but it would take at least a second read through for me to begin to figure it out.  Alas, such is not the nature of this project.  Regardless, The Moviegoer is a great introduction to Percy and an interesting window onto the Louisiana of the 1950s.

Nineteen down, (at least) thirty-three to go.

Ta,
J