Wednesday Book Review: Garden Spells and A Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

“Wednesday?” You ask. “What happened to weekend book review? You know, that thing you posted a mere five days ago?” Let me explain.

Last week I had a brilliant idea. Since I read a book, sometimes two, every week I should start doing a review of the book/s I read each week the weekend after I finish them. Blogging gold, no? Okay, so maybe it’s not a particularly original, but it was good none-the-less. Then I hit a little snag.  I was sick this past weekend, so I finished not one but both of my books by Monday. And since I was finished with my assigned reading, I was bored. What’s a girl to do? Start reviewing in the middle of the week, that’s what!

So, without further ado, I introduce you to my new brilliant-ish idea: The Wednesday Book Review.


As you may remember, I read these two books this weekend, as planned:

You may be asking yourself why this is assigned reading and who assigned it to me. That’s easy: I assigned it to myself. I find I read better if I assign myself books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction per week. I write them down in my planner  like so: “Saturday 9/10: Begin Garden Spells and Mennonite. Finish by Friday 9/16.” “Friday 9/16: AMANDA! Finish your books!” “Saturday 9/17: Begin Map of Time and Half Broke Horses.” Etcetera, etcetera. It may seem a bit extreme, but I only plan a week or two in advance, and otherwise I’m all over the place, starting new books willy-nilly and meandering through seven books at a time and rarely finishing them in an orderly fashion. I might start four books during one week while I’m in four different moods and not finish a single one of them for a month. It’s a mess. I’m a mess. So I’m forcing discipline upon myself. It’s a little weird maybe, but it’s how I’ve managed to stay on track for my Reading Challenge.

Speaking of discipline, I’ll move on now.

I’ll get into the books in a second, but first take a look at this picture:

Is it just me, or do these two authors look eerily similar? I discovered this oddity on Sunday night, and I kept imagining each picking up the others book, flipping to the author info page in the back, and one exclaiming in shock, “Oh my! It’s the sister that mom and dad always said was abducted in the seventies and never found! No doubt about it, that’s ______ alright!”, while the other shrieks, “It’s one of the kids from the family that lost me! I’d recognize that nose anywhere!” And then both rushing to inform their families that long-lost Suzie/mystery sister had been found.

But maybe it’s just me. I was drugged and perhaps a little delusional after two straight days of reading, sleeping, and eating soup. Even without the imagined reunion of long-lost siblings, they do look similar, no?

No? No. Okay.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Jenzen (long-lost sister #1) was amusing to say the least. Janzen grew up as an ethnic Mennonite, which is to say that her family has been Mennonite for as long as there have been Mennonites upon the earth. Growing up jeans and shorts were forbidden, low German was spoken in the home, and yummy morsels such as Borscht   and Warmer Kartofelsalat were sent for school lunches wrapped in wax paper. Any mention of sex was prohibited, as were playing cards, foul language, which includes not only the better known four-letter words but also lesser recognized ones such as “fool”, designer clothes and anything else considered “vainglorious”, slumber parties, dancing, smoking, and 99% of television.  The Mennonite world she describes is strict but loving. Her people are scrupulous, thrifty, and hard-working, if not a little overly zealous at times.

Jenzen was never completely sold on the Mennonite tradition, but did always believe in God. With one Masters Degree already under her belt, she was planning on enrolling in a Mennonite seminary for a “luxury degree,” aka, “a degree because it sounds like fun, not because I plan to pursue this as a career.” She was chased away, however, but the overly excited letter of the only other woman enrolled at the seminary. This lone other woman was so excited! She was six-letter-pages-long excited! Together, they would blaze the path for women to attend Mennonite seminary! Wielding the double-edged sword of sisterhood and prayer they would fight the patriarchy!  Hoorah!

The day after receiving this letter, Jenzen applied to twelve grad schools. Soon she was focusing on her graduate studies as a grammarian and marrying a handsome but troubled atheist with whom she would have an off-again on-again fifteen year marriage before he eventual left her for a man named Bob that he met on  A few days after the split, she was involved in a horrible car crash that left her barely able to care for herself. With her husband gone and her home located on a lakeside in Michigan in the middle of winter,  she had few options but to go home to her solidly Mennonite parents to recuperate.

Janzen account of going home is funny and witty and smart, all the things I like best in a memoir. She does not agree with her family in many areas, but she mostly treats them with respect and love. She also does a very good idea of explaining her views on the areas where they differ and why she no longer holds this particular set of beliefs. My only frustration was that she does  sink into a mocking tone at times, which is not vicious but it does come across as an air of superiority.

But, overall, the good far outweighs the annoying here. Growing up about three minutes away from Amish (and Mennonite) Country, and having been homeschooled alongside many good Mennonite kids, I know a little bit about their culture, but an insider’s perspective is always interesting. My favorite part by far were the stories about her hilarious mother who can find something positive to say about anything and has an odd comfort with bodily functions and fluids. The most interesting aspect to me was that out of a family of four kids, two boys and two girls, the boys have both remained Mennonite and the neither of the girls practices anymore, having moved on either to other denominations or out of the Christian faith entirely. I’m not sure exactly what caused this gender divide or if it was a fluke, but it fascinated the psychologist in me.

My next book, Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, was fantastic! I had read another of her works, The Sugar Queen, last year and absolutely adored it, so I was expecting this one to be good as well. It did not disappoint. Allen is a master of magical realism. The book focuses on the Waverly sisters, Claire and Sydney, who were abandoned by their mother at the family home in Bascom, North Carolina, where they were raised by their grandmother and elderly cousin, Evanelle. They are the last of the Waverlys, a family known for their magical garden and it’s unusual properties, as well as for their own subtle brands of magic.

Sydney takes off for New York City the moment after she graduates high school, determined to shake Bascom off her boots and leave the name of Waverly and all it’s implications behind, just like her mother did years before. Claire remains behind to tend to the family garden and home. Still wounded from her mothers abandonment and blaming herself for her sister departure,  she has grown into a stoic loner, her only real interaction coming from Evanelle and the clients she garners from her catering business.

Then, years later,  Sydney shows up unexpectedly with a daughter of her own in tow, fleeing from some unspoken terror. The sisters must learn to make peace with their past and themselves if they are to live life together. And of course Sydney’s terror catches up with her, and of course love is a possibility if the sisters can just work through a few flaws first.

Garden Spells was a delightful. It was a pretty quick read, a beach read if you will. It was so easy to slip into. I’d read for what seemed like fifteen minutes and look to discover two hours had passed. A few of the plot elements were predictable, but the atmosphere was so delicious that it hardly mattered. I wanted to put the story on like a coat and walk around in it for a few days, even if I did know what to expect next. To that end, I’ve already ordered Allen’s third book, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, so I can dive back into this quirky Southern small-town world she’s created asap.

And now that I’m waaaaaay ahead of my reading schedule, I’ve started this little book that I really wanted to read but wasn’t sure where to fit in (Okay, okay. I lied. At this point I have my “assignments” planned pretty far in advance. Call it an illness.) :

So far I’m 56 pages in and I’m fascinated! The world of Hollywood in the 1950’s is intriguing, as is Audrey herself. Did you know that she was considered a sexless, mediocre-looking oddity when she entered into the business? Or that she never really wanted to be an actress but a dancer? She was talked into acting by Colette, the author of GiGi, but she still didn’t believe she was a good actor until long after her success in Roman Holiday. Aside from Ms. Hepburn, it was apparently quite a difficult effort to get Breakfast at Tiffany’s made, and it almost didn’t happen. But that, my friends, is a story for another review. Happy Reading!



Filed under Book Reviews, Books

2 responses to “Wednesday Book Review: Garden Spells and A Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

  1. Pingback: My 12 Favorite Books of 2011 | Lovely Little Things

  2. Pingback: October Poetry, NaNoWriMo, and Some Books I’m Excited About | Lovely Little Things

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