Reading Round-Up: April 2018

Happy May! It’s a glorious spring here where we are; the trees are blossoming, the sun is out, and the books are good. Here’s what I read in April:

  1. The Stranger from the Sea (Winston Graham)
  2. The Miller’s Dance (Winston Graham)
  3. The Loving Cup (Winston Graham)
  4. The Twisted Sword (Winston Graham)
  5. Bella Poldark (Winston Graham)
  6. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
  7. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (Rhoda Janzen)
  8. Simplicity Parenting (Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross)
  9. The Year of Less (Cait Flanders)
  10. Human Chain (Seamus Heaney)

This will be a shorter wrap-up post, because I’ve already treated three of these in their own posts: the two books by Rhoda Janzen and Simplicity Parenting .

The month began with the final five books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series — I touched on that a bit in last month’s round-up, so I will just add that the series ended as well (or better!) than it began and had me its pages eagerly until I finally reached the last. It’s a great series; I highly recommend it.

When I started reading The Year of Less, it took me a few chapters to figure out why it felt so familiar: I used to read Cait Flanders’s blog a few years ago, back when she was just known as “Blonde on a Budget.” This book isn’t just recycled blog posts, but it does retell a lot off her same story, of the year she decided to enact a personal shopping ban: for one year she would buy nothing but consumables (groceries, gas, toiletries) or items on her brief “allowed purchases” list (travel expenses, a few other things). During the year of the shopping ban she also decluttered an impressive 70% of her belongings. It was an interesting read and Flanders certainly learned a lot about her own consumption habits and shopping triggers, but it wasn’t until I was finishing up the last chapter or two that I was able to put my finger on what was bothering me about it all: the narrative and the project are both entirely self-centered. I mean that in the strictest descriptive sense: everything was about what Cait was saving for, what Cait was spending on, what Cait’s money could do for Cait. The idea of living on less so that we can share with or bless others never entered the picture, and by the end it seemed a pretty glaring omission.

I first read Seamus Heaney back in December and have been meaning to pick him up again — so I did. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes find Heaney obscure. Perhaps if I knew more about Ireland it would be different — or could translate the Irish into which he occasionally slips. Nevertheless I find his poetry highly evocative and it often gives me “the flash” even though (or perhaps because) it often speaks of something that I cannot quite grasp. I will be coming back to Heaney, I am sure.

And that was all she  ̶w̶r̶o̶t̶e̶  read! On to May…

On a journey with Rhoda Janzen

Whenever I’m at a secondhand store, I always check out the books. Most of the time the shelves are filled with self-help treatises, weird diet books, and a dozen used copies of Harry Potter and Twilight — but occasionally you find some gems. I grabbed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress chiefly because of the title — and because I’m always ready to risk a new author when a paperback only costs me $0.50 — and I loved it so much I immediately sent off for a library copy of its sequel, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (which appears to also have been published under the title Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?).

Although they were published several years apart, these two books make, in a sense, one long memoir detailing the break-up of Janzen’s tumultuous first marriage, her sibsequent refuge in (and reflection on) the Mennonite community in which she was raised, and finally her wooing by “Mitch,” the born-again Pentecostal whom she weds midway through Mennonite Meets Mr. Right. But as it turns out, Mitch isn’t the only “Mr. Right” in this story; the two books also detail Janzen’s long wooing by God as she returns to faith. In between all that there’s cancer, embarrassing childhood memories, a good dose of humour, and of course, plenty of borscht, four-part German harmonies, and prune soup.

The two books are also somewhat divergent. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made me laugh out loud perhaps a dozen times. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is also funny — and I did laugh out loud a few times — but it is infinitely more tender. It’s mellower; or I suspect one could more rightly say, Janzen is mellower:

Dating Mitch prompted me to attend church regularly, but spiritual change had been creeping up on me for some time. It started five years ago, when after a long absence I went back to visit the Mennonite community in which I’d been raised. Elsewhere I’ve written about what I saw there, but I haven’t written about what I took away. In simple terms, I saw that people who live by the Spirit experience the Fruits of the Spirit. In the New Testament book of Galatians the Apostle Paul promises believers that the life of faith yields good and practical fruit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Who wouldn’t want those things? I did. Of the nine, I could then lay claim only to two, love and self-control. I adored my family and friends. But isn’t it easy to be loving to folks you like? As for self-control, it’s no great achievement to run six miles a day when you have a genetic drive to do so. The remaining Fruits of the Spirit were distinctly absent in my life. In fact I was static, restless, impatient, grudge holding, skeptical, and petty. The choices I’d made hadn’t made me happy, so I was ready to try something new.

In these past five years my life has changed tremendously. I’ve had ample opportunity to watch and ward, to look for the Fruits of the Spirit in my own life and the lives of those around me. I still struggle with skepticism, but I’ve made real progress in other areas. And I love it that the mystery of faith turns on what is after all a simple logical equation. In surrendering to the divine, we yield to divine transformation. A causes B. This surrender is the only intentional gesture we can make to invite real and permanent character change. It may not perfect us, but, thank God, it sure makes us better than we were. (171-2)

We can cancel our church’s sermon series on Galatians now; I think she nailed it.

I’ve taken a peek at the Goodreads reviews for Mennonite Meets Mr. Right and they are extremely mixed, which is perhaps not surprising considering the gulf in tone and subject matter between it and the first book. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is funnier, and snarkier — and also more heartbreaking and ambiguous. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is written from a very different place and is unapologetically Christian, and I can understand having a bit of whiplash if you’re going into it expecting a straight continuation of the first book. Taken together, though, Rhoda Janzen’s memoirs form a touching story of wandering and coming home again. They may be different than each other — but Janzen is different, too, in a beautiful way. I’m very glad I read them.