posted October 2, 2012

Memoir by Rhoda Janzen Explores Love and Spiritual Journey

The new memoir by Dr. Rhoda Janzen of the Hope College English faculty picks up where its predecessor left off, and in more ways than one.

Published this month, “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?: A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems” (Grand Central Publishing) continues the life journey that Janzen began chronicling in her debut memoir, “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.”  The new volume also shares the same spirit as the 2009 volume, examining highs and lows alike with optimism and good humor.

Reviewer Kate Braestrup, who is the author of “Here if You Need Me” and “Beginners Grace,” has said, “’Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?’ made me laugh out loud, often enough to make my beloved children inquire as to whether I was losing my mind.  Too much spiritual writing these days claims that religious practice is about healing or developing the self.  But Rhoda Janzen avoids this theme:  here she sets out on a path to become more loving, grateful and helpful to others.  This is particularly impressive given that she’s writing about a period in her life when she’s got a scary, life-threatening illness, and a brand new family.”

Janzen, whose first marriage ended in divorce after 15 years, focuses on the development of her relationship with a new man in her life, Mitch, from dating through marriage, and the start of their new life together—including her new experience as step-mother to a teen-age son.  Raised as the daughter of a Mennonite minister, she considers in particular her change in perspective as she comes to appreciate the Pentecostal tradition in which Mitch is active and finds her faith renewed and transformed.  Life challenges along the way included her diagnosis and struggle with cancer.

An extended excerpt is featured in the October issue of “Good Housekeeping” magazine, and early reviews in national media include the September 26 issue of “People Magazine.”

Janzen’s first memoir, “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” developed as she reflected on her experience visiting her family and re-encountering the faith community of her childhood while on a sabbatical leave in 2007.  The book was a #1 “New York Times” bestseller, earning national acclaim in publications as diverse as “The New York Times Book Review” and “People Magazine.”

As she heard from readers around the country, Janzen was touched by how strongly many responded to the book’s upbeat, affectionate voice.

“I was just amazed at how many people were taking my [first] book as a ‘how-to’ manual as opposed to a memoir,” said Janzen, an associate professor of English.  “People were asking me how to achieve gratitude, how to achieve humor, how to achieve a humorous outlook in life.”

Janzen resolved to maintain the same tone in “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?,” not that that was a struggle.  The voice that she has used in both volumes reflects her overall outlook that humor can serve a purpose beyond the realm of quips and knock-knock jokes, offering a way to cope when life is difficult.  “The rich application begins when we begin to extend and use it for the big, challenging issues,” she said.

The optimism also reflects her gratitude that she is in a good place.  Her cancer is in remission, she is happy in her marriage and family, and she appreciates the opportunity to learn and grow in her new faith community.

“I am happy and so blessed that I’ve been given another chance at this,” she said.

Janzen has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2000.  Her teaching emphases include creative-writing courses focused on poetry and memoir, American literature from 1865 to 1925 and modern English grammar.

Her poetry collection “Babel’s Stair” was published in 2006.  She has also had poems in many anthologies and journals, including “Poetry,” “Gettysburg Review” and “Yale Review.”

Janzen graduated from Fresno Pacific University in 1984, and completed a master’s in creative writing at the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1989, a master’s at UCLA in 1997 and a doctorate at UCLA in 2002. In addition to awards for excellence from her graduate program, she has received honors including a Wilson National Foundation Fellowship for the Charlotte Newcomb Award in 2000; first prize in the 1999 William Butler Yeats National Poetry Competition; the University of California Poet Laureate Award in 1994 and 1997.

“Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?” is available in hardcover for $24.99, and is on sale at the college’s Hope-Geneva Bookstore, on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., as well as at other area book sellers.  Copies may be ordered at the bookstore, which can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Janzen will be signing copies of her new book on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at Schuler Books, 3165 Alpine Ave. NW in Walker.  She will be reading from the book on Friday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at Holland’s Barnes and Noble store, located at 3050 Beeline Road, Suite 50, in Felch Street Plaza.