Monday, December 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEWS: Q's Legacy by Helene Hanff and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

We can call this Memoir Monday - but it won't be a recurring theme. I finished two memoirs this past week, both enjoyable pieces of writing by authors whose voices I have to admire. Still, I’m afraid memoir just isn’t my genre. I found that even though I liked pieces of the books, I wasn’t all that interested in the plot of either one. Maybe it's because memoirs don't really have plots the way novels do -- and maybe that's why I have a hard time being pulled into the stories.

The first was Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff. I suppose I was expecting a bit more of the "Q" in there – a bit more of how she taught herself to appreciate literature and to write thanks to a series of books-based-on-lectures written by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cambridge don. I guess I wanted more of a blow-by-blow account of what books she’d read and what lessons she’d learned. Instead, the "Q" recollection was just a bit of intro to lead us into a tale of how and why she wrote 84, Charing Cross Road and the twists and turns her life took following the book’s success.

I loved 84, Charing Cross Road. That’s how I came to be interested in this memoir in the first place. But I wasn’t looking for a simple behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writing of the book with a peek at Hanff’s peripheral involvement in the various stage adaptations that came afterward. Hanff is a charming writer, but I much preferred her interactions with her friends in her letters. This seemed more forced.

I enjoyed the second book more. This was one that a friend lent to me but I put off reading because, well...I don’t read memoirs. But, coincidentally, my book club picked it for our January meeting, so I plucked it off the shelf: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.

This is the story of a lapsed Mennonite who, at the age of forty-three, is dealt a rapid series of blows that cause her to reevaluate her life. First - a surgery with complications. Second - her husband leaves her for a man, and finally, she’s in a car accident that results in broken bones, limiting her mobility.

Rhoda is a college professor, an intelligent, professional woman. She’s used to supporting herself and her husband. However, she can’t afford her house payments without her husband’s contribution. Devastated and at her wit’s end, she returns to the Mennonites.

More specifically, she returns to her parents’ home to recuperate with her Mennonite mother and father and with the support of the community of wonderful family and friends. In course of the book, while poking gentle fun at them and at herself, she embraces and dispenses with stereotypes about Mennonites. She also allows the story of her marriage to haltingly unfold, showing the reader how very much better off she is without the guy, no matter how much she loved him. It’s complicated.

Janzen is funny and can get the most out of an anecdote. It’s an entertaining book and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the book club discussion. Still, all-in-all, I’d rather read a novel.


  1. I enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road, but from your description, don't think I would enjoy Q's Legacy.

    Mennonite in a Little Black Dress sounds much better. I think I would enjoy that one. I tend to like the meandering, plot-less style of memoirs, myself.

  2. Mennonite in a LBD seems to pop up all over the place. I'd like to think that I'd get to reading it one day, but that dream TBR is just so huge I know that I won't. Although I do love the random books that popup in my reading schedule from time to time. I too really enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road, I hadn't heard of this other book, but enjoyed your experience of it, even if you weren't totally thrilled.

  3. A gorgeous thought provoking book. It was sometimes sad and introspective, sometimes laugh out loud funny. It entertained and informed. I loved the way that Rhoda Janzon so generously allowed me to enter her world and meet her family and friends. This was a terrific read written by an intelligent vibrant woman. It was great!
    Highly recommended Bear Viewing trips