Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2009

It's about: In this memoir, Elna Baker recounts her adult life, most of which is spent as a single Mormon woman in New York City. It's a period during which she loses an incredible amount of weight, kisses lots and lots of boys, works various odd jobs, and tries to define her relationship with her faith.

I thought: The only real problem I have with The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is the TERRIBLE title. It's ridiculously unwieldy and silly, and I think it oversimplifies and pigeonholes the book. I hate it so much that I'm just going to refer to the book as TNYRMSHD from here on out. (I'm also not crazy about the ├╝ber girly cover.)

I can count on one hand the number of memoirs I've read that I've really related to on a personal level. Obviously every person experiences life differently, and one of the purposes of literature is to express and expose those differences. But it's also extremely gratifying to discover sameness between individuals through writing. I loved TNYRMSHD because Elna Baker is just like me! (Only, you know, much funnier and braver and more interesting.) She's a Mormon writer, yes, and being Mormon makes up a huge part of her story. But she's also not like other Mormons: she swears, she watches R-rated movies, she makes out with lots of men, and she doesn't try to hide the "bad" things she does. It was so refreshing to read her point of view, and to learn about a person who can make a joke about her roommate's strap-on and then, in the same chapter, write sincerely about a personal spiritual experience. I know not every reader loves Elna Baker, and one of the problems with any memoir is that you have to listen to the same person's voice all the way through. But I didn't get tired of her- probably because we're so alike.

I think the people who will appreciate and connect with this book most are readers who have some relationship to the Mormon faith; ex-Mormons and those extremely rare unorthodox Mormons will definitely like it most. But many of the struggles Elna expresses are universal: how can a person belong to a group while still maintaining a strong sense of self? How and when should one quiet that rebellious/stubborn streak? How can anyone believe in and love oneself, regardless of external stimuli? The overarching themes of TNYRMSHD, I think, are about the choices we make and how those choices effect our lives.

But woah, that makes this memoir sound way more serious than it really is in the page-to-page experience. It's a very funny book, and an enjoyable, quick read.

Verdict: Well, I'd stick it on the shelf. But I know Connie and Ingrid had more reserved reactions to it, so let's make it In-between.

Reading Recommendations: You can listen to her tell a story on This American Life. Or watch a video of her standup if you want to get an idea of her storytelling style and sense of humor. Both stories are in the book, too.

Warnings: The dedication pretty much sums it up:
"Mom an Dad,
I could never have done this without your faith, support, and constant encouragement. Thank you for teaching me to believe in myself, in God, and in my dreams.
This book... aside from the nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, four A-holes, page 257, and the entire Warren Beatty chapter... is dedicated to you.
You might want to avoid chapters twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, anything I quote Mom saying, and most of the end as well.
Sorry. Am I still as cute as a button?

Favorite excerpts: "I think most religious people experience just as much doubt as they do faith; they just don't admit it. And I don't think doubting makes you bad. I think it makes you smart."

"And I don't know why I get this way, but sometimes I feel like I am being tied by invisible ropes and that I need to flail my arms just to prove my freedom. But then there's this feeling of impending doom because I know deep down that [Mormonism] is where I come from."

What I'm reading next: My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides