2009. Dutton. Hardcover. 272 pages.
From: the public library
Recommendation from: The Captive Reader
In a nutshell:
Elna Baker is a Mormon and a virgin and a comedian, aspects about herself that influence how her young adulthood plays out in New York City. The book chronicles her tottering love life, weight loss, family relations, and unusual jobs – including a stint as a toy demonstrator at FAO Schwartz.
When I was describing the premise of the book to my roommate, she said “It sounds like that story from the Moth”, referring to the storytelling radio show that we marathon-listened to online for a couple of nights. And my roommate was absolutely correct: Elna Baker has apparently performed on the Moth a couple of times, though we only heard her once. That story – about her brief dating relationship with an atheist – actually appears in the book as well, although I think I liked listening to it better.
I read Baker’s book while on my way to San Francisco. I laughed out loud several times, especially near the beginning of the book. My two favorite stories were the one with her father and the Dilly Bars and her story about working as a toy demonstrator for FAO Schwartz.
Baker’s book (the title is too long to retype) can get too naval-gazing at times, and too intent on discussing her identity crises and her romantic trials. It could have been my own travel-weariness, but by the end of the book, I was tired of Elna Baker.
In thinking about Elna Baker’s book, a scrap of song lyric comes to mind: “the faint aroma of performing seals.” Because Elna Baker is a performer and it’s her job to over-dramatize everything, her life increasingly felt less real as I continued reading. This was especially true about the last section of the book, where she travels far to reconnect with an old flame. At that point, she knew she had a book deal. It was the book deal money that funded the trip. And after that point, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Elna was trying to force a story to happen in her own life. It struck a false emotional note.
The book definitely had me thinking, if not for the first time, about how tricky it is to turn your life story into the basis of your career. What if Elna decides to stop being a Mormon after all? It’s that identity that has undoubtedly won her gigs. And how does it change your life if you are constantly assessing it for possible story material? It sounds exhausting.
If your curiosity has been kindled despite my lack of enthusiasm about the book, I recommend you start by listening to Elna Baker (and others) on the Moth radio program.
Book Nut – “… there was something in her story, in her journey that I found fascinating. Not just because I’m Mormon, though that’s part of it, partially because I can empathize with her inner spiritual life, her doubts and questions. And, yes, partly because Elna’s is an interesting, if pretentious and self-absorbed, journey.”
A Bookworm’s World – “Baker’s zest for life is infectious and it shines through in her storytelling and writing.”
The Captive Reader – “Amusing, thoughtful, and honest, Elna’s story is easy to read and I came out of it both liking and respecting her – an outcome I’m not all that used to when it comes to the coming-of-age memoir.”