The Common Good

Cheerful Books for the Bleak Midwinter

Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. What's a (middle-aged) girl to do when her husband leaves her for a guy named Bob and a car accident leaves her with multiple injuries? Go home to mother, of course. Even though mother is the ditzy matriarch of a prominent Mennonite family, and Janzen hasn't been part of that community for decades. Mennonite is one of the few Christian religions I've never practiced (though it looks attractive, especially when POTUS starts talking about just war theory), but I still found this memoir hilarious. Mother Janzen is a funnier-than-life character not to be missed.

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Elna Baker's The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Disclaimer: I haven't read this one yet. My daughter Heidi enjoyed it and said I should. When I was visiting her for Thanksgiving, I read part of the first chapter on her iPhone before giving up and going back to a book with actual pages. I really liked the beginning, though, and Amazon cross-references this book with Janzen's. And while both books -- Mennonite and Mormon -- are humorous and ironic, they are affectionate, not bitter. Bitter books stop being funny very quickly.

A precocious detective

Ya gotta love a 70-year-old first-time novelist whose debut mystery is translated into 19 languages. Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, number one in at least a three-part series, features an 11-year-old narrator and sleuth who has been called a cross between Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. I noticed hints of Lemony Snicket in the author's style, though Bradley is less outrageous. Sweetness is so popular at the Wheaton Public Library that I had to wait in line for months -- I think I started out as hold number 34. Mr Neff is now reading it and snickering. I believe our teen-aged granddaughters would also enjoy it.

Tragedy and slapstick

I also waited patiently in line for Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, having not the slightest inkling that partway through chapter nine I would start laughing out loud. I'd recently read -- well, listened to -- Russo's Bridge of Sighs, and there was nothing funny about that book. And Publisher's Weekly's review of Cape Magic was not auspicious, unless you like books that are "dense" and "flashback-filled" with "navel-gazing interior monologues" about "a life coming apart at the seams" (kill me now!). Hey, it wasn't that bad -- and once Harve propels himself, wheelchair and all, into the upper branches of a yew tree, it's positively hilarious. You'll have no idea how many things can go wrong with a wedding until you've read this book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Need I say more?

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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