Friday, June 11, 2010

elna baker

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir

I can't remember when I first heard of it, but I decided to read the book after it created a small uproar in a Nashville book club among friends.

I just finished.

If you're a Moth or TAL listener you've likely heard Elna's voice and a couple of her stories before. They're funny. I liked her when I heard her. Elna's an actress-turned-comedienne, and I think she's a good performer. At least on radio; I've never seen her perform in person.

Anyway, I'm not going to give a synopsis of the book or anything, just share a few thoughts. Though, I should start by saying that I understood the book to be about Mormon single life in the Big City. Pop sociology dressed up as a memoir. That's not really what the book turned out to be (though that's a book I'd like to read).

At the beginning, I found Elna to be a sympathetic character. I found myself cheering for her. I liked her. She was funny. I laughed a lot. I liked her more with each chapter.

Midway through the book, I started to rethink Elna a bit. She’d make me cringe a little. For one, I can’t believe she’d actually share all that with the whole world... At times, just too much information. I was relieved she wasn't my sister, because wow--embarrassing. And I felt for her family. I kept wondering how much of this she cleared with them and what their reaction was to having it published. (I also wondered if she was really telling the truth.) I especially felt bad for her mom.

I also started to think Elna may not be as smart and clever as I thought she was. She began to reveal herself as being insecure in a way that to say she’s very insecure doesn’t quite cover it. And she turns out to be kind of a snot. Superficial, with not as much texture as I had expected.

(Hmm... Maybe that's too harsh.)

By the end, I was mad at Elna. I didn’t like her very much anymore. She kind of gave me the willies. I would be empathetic about her feelings towards Mormonism if she wasn’t so dumb about it. And the end of the book wasn’t nearly as funny as the beginning.

Now that I've finished, I struggle to put my finger on what the book was actually about. Sometimes Elna seemed to be making making a point about the difficulty of trying to live two lives. I liked that. I think it's a universally important topic. Something a lot of readers, not just Mormon readers, can relate to. But in the end she doesn’t seem to do anything with it, which I found disappointing. Sometimes the book is about change. Personal change. But for the book to really be about that, she would need to address why the change. If left to draw my own conclusions from inference, I'm back to the conclusion of superficiality. I don't really want to be there--it seems so uncharitable--but that's all she's given me.

So...maybe it was intentional, but I felt like the book just ended and I wasn’t left with anything. And its not that I demand a resolution or whatever, but maybe a well formulated question. A...something. Even from a comedian. Because if someone asked me what the book was about I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s not about being Mormon and single in New York. It’s not really a coming-of-age story. It's not about looking for love (not really). It’s not about weight loss. It’s not about sex. It’s not about religion. It’s not even really about identity.

I guess it’s just about Elna. And Elna, it seems, is a me-monster.

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