Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: "The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir", by Elna Baker

Since I last posted, I finished reading The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir, by Elna Baker (Dutton, 2009; 276 pages).

It is not a bad book, really. As I wrote before, it's a little too chick-lit for me. Still, Baker's story of living in New York City as a twenty-something practicing Mormon had its moments. Some of those moments were triumphant, such as when she had finally had enough of a holier-than-thou woman in a church group who said one mean thing to many to Baker's sister and instinctively launched a piece of fruit (a tangerine, if I recall correctly) at the woman, hitting her right between the eyes with it. Does that sound mean? Well, judging by Baker's description of the woman's behavior, she richly deserved it.

Other moments were cringingly hilarous, such as the Halloween when Baker attened the annual dance referred to in the book's title dressed as a fortune cookie. The only problem was that on the subway trip to the dance, bits of the costume rearranged themselves into something that looked more like a portion of the female anatomy that just should not be seen in public, much less at a church dance. Other moments were heartbreaking, including the episode in which Baker thought she had finally met the Mormon man of her dreams and moved to Utah to marry him, only to have him break it off with her a week after she arrived.

Some things in the book made me uncomfortable, such as Baker's account of her struggles with her weight, which included going to a medical weight control clinic which encouraged, or at least did nothing to discourage her from, losing forty pounds in seven and a half weeks. That is much too fast and too unhealthy a way to lose that much weight no matter how heavy an individual is. And indeed, after she gained some of the weight back, she obtained the drug she had used under the doctor's care from an internet site to lose the weight again and instead ended up in the hospital.

My feeling is that Baker spent much to much time describing her pursuit of men to kiss. Which, being a good Mormon girl, was about all she could do and maintain the standards of her religion. Although, she did describe an encounter she once had with a French man who asked her what she could do with her body as a praciticing Mormon. The discussion with him on the topic led to her conclusion that she could do anything she wanted to with her armpit. Baker also tells the story of how she walked away from an encounter with an older, apparently very well-known and very married actor with most of her virtue intact.

Throught the book, Baker chronicles her ambivalence about her religion. Raised a Mormon, but in a non-Utah and fairly liberal family, Baker questioned her religion from a very young age. As a former Mormon myself, I know that just that alone, the asking of questions, very often marks one as an outcast within the religion. Yet, despite her questions, Baker remains in the religion, only near the end of the book announcing to a non-Moromon man she had once had a relationship with, that she was no longer Mormon in an attempt to rekindle their relationship. And, even then, by the last pages, it still isn't clear whether Baker really does consider herself a practicing Mormon or not.

I do have to complement Baker for explaining the parts of the Mormon religion she discusses accurately and without sensationalizing it, and without being defensive about the church's beliefs, even when her feelings about them were ambivalent. It is difficult to do that when discussing any religion and, from my experience, it is even more difficult to do that when writing about Mormonism. Her explanations of the parts of the church and its beliefs which she wrote about were clear and easily accessible.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is probably not a book I will re-read. It isn't a great book. But it is a good book, especially for those who are interested in reading memoirs which present a way of life and a point of view that isn't often presented in this personal sort of way.

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