The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance – Elna Baker

Posted 1 June, 2011 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 21 Comments

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Title: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance
Author: Elna Baker
Published: 2009; Pages: 274
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3/5

Ok, not gonna lie. The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is the worst title ever. Sorry Elna. Even after carrying the book around in my purse for weeks I still couldn’t tell you what it’s called.

And a bit of a disclaimer. I accepted this book from the publisher with some firm biases already in place–some of my own and some from my cousin – a single Mormon living in New York who shared a bit of information about the book and author when I told her I was going to receive it from the publisher. I knew I had to separate myself out when reading this book and at first it was easy but in the end I’m not sure how well I succeeded.

Brief Blip: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is about Elna’s struggles to come to terms with herself, her body, her religion, and her relationships with others while living in New York City in her early twenties. Overweight and never been kissed, she turns to God and her faith to help her make the right decisions and find herself.

Thoughts in General:
Upon beginning NY Mormon Singles Dance I immediately liked Elna. She was funny, honest, witty, and I could relate to her struggles with her religion. She writes:

“When I came to NYU, I was kind of on the fence about whether I wanted to be Mormon anymore. I obviously didn’t tell my parents this. It was just such a big thing to be, a Mormon. And it’s not the sort of religion you can do because you don’t want to disappoint your mom and dad. It requires major commitments: It asks for your life. And while I understood that I was influenced by my Mormon upbringing, I knew that I was many other things. In addition to being Mormon, I was Elna” (8).

She continues to discuss her religion but also her experiences in New York as an aspiring actress, her attempts at weight loss, and her desire to be desired by the opposite sex. I laughed out loud and nodded my head in agreement…until I didn’t agree anymore.

At the core of this book is the struggle to define oneself within a tiny little box. Having grown up in the Mormon church (but no longer practice), I understand how rigid the tiny little box is that Elna was trying to fit within. I understood her difficulties so well that at the beginning of the reading I couldn’t wait to see where Elna was heading (the quote above defines my late teenage and college years).

What I did not agree with was how religion was constantly used as a scapegoat for various situations that Elna got herself into. There is a difference between not knowing what you believe in and searching to find out just what that is and constantly toeing the line and pushing boundaries because you’re unsure whether a certain religion is one for you. This especially came up during Elna’s romantic encounters and I was always left feeling a little uncomfortable about the message she was trying to get across to her readers. I feel this is a somewhat harsh evaluation of the book and author, which I try to avoid, but an evaluation that I couldn’t ignore in my reading. I do realize that my response was personal, however, and I totally own that.

Bottom Line:
I enjoyed the book and have heard many others say they enjoyed the book as well. I haven’t heard much criticism, but then again I haven’t read many reviews. Elna is very likable and her honesty makes you want to continue with the story. But in the end I’m not sure what story she’s writing. When I closed the book I realized I had no idea what the book was truly about. It started off being one thing and in the end took a huge detour. I wonder if this is because Elna is still young and still looking to find herself.  After finishing my reading I wanted the book to be a bit more concrete, but I guess Elna says it best herself:

“I’ve spent a decade saying yes to both sides, stalling and questioning, not ready to choose and watch my life become simpler and more ordinary. Only without definite or definable values I’m a genuine indeterminate. I am what I might be, not what I am” (272).

On the fence…about my feelings on this book.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Many thanks to Ashley at Plume and Hudson Street Press for sending me a copy of this book!

21 Responses to “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance – Elna Baker”

  1. I actually loved this book and have recommended it to a lot of people. I do agree that the story started out about one thing and took a “huge detour” but I actually LIKED the detour it took. I felt like Elna was being truthful about the way she felt and I identified with a lot of her struggles.

    Not coming from a Mormon background I did have more distance from the story than you did, and I also hadn’t heard anything about Elna (other than a hilarious video) before I read the book … maybe those two factors allowed me to enjoy it more than you did.

  2. Rae

    I wish I could say I read it totally unbiased, however it just wasn’t possible, being in the same ward as Elna for a few years, and while the book came out.
    First off, I heard about this book for MONTHS, and then read it, and still to this day could not tell you the title. So I completely agree with you there. :)
    Thanks for your honest thoughts, I enjoyed reading them.
    I’ll try to have some tact here…one of my (and a lot of others’) big issues with Elna is that she seems to speak as if she’s going to Relief Society with a bunch of non R rated movie watching, non Sabbath breaking, non virgins. If you think that’s the case amongst a group of single 20 and 30 somethings living in New York city (many of whom have been married before) you’re crazy. I don’t know every single person’s life experiences, but from what I do know first hand, I would say those who don’t have the same struggles as Elna are the definite minority. I feel like Elna thinks she’s this outlier, when in reality, most of us are having the same issues and struggles. Which then leads me to feel like she’s using all of it just as a platform. I guess it’s hard to sit and listen to someone going through something it seems she thinks is so unique and different, while the rest of us are sitting there thinking, “Yeah, we know.”
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with vocalizing her struggles, however, after years of listening to her get up and bare her testimony, or make comments in classes, it seemed she was searching more for a spotlight, than for answers. I know how judgemental that sounds, and I’m sure other readers will take issue what what I’ve said, however, I’m going to refrain from saying anything more.
    Thanks for your thoughts Trish. I know you contemplated reading and then posting, but I always love hearing your thoughts!

  3. I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard her speak and thought she was very funny, and I’ve looked into this book.

  4. Amy

    LOL about the title, I totally agree! This doesn’t really sound like a book I’d like, but I’d read other really positive reviews so it was interesting to read your less than positive thoughts. ;)

  5. I read this earlier this year and haven’t posted my official review yet, but I really loved the book. I found it very hard to put it down.

    My experience with the Mormon faith is very limited, to the point where I felt I learned more about the religion just from reading the book. There were a few moments which I found a bit difficult to believe, but I thought it was a good read. You’re right in that the book starts as one thing and kind of meanders through different things, but I enjoyed the ride, and didn’t mind it too much. She kinda reminded me of earlier Sarah Vowell novels in that way.

    Oddly, I was able to remember (most of) the title pretty easily, but often get the words in a mixed up order. I saw on Goodreads that this book has gotten some pretty bad reviews, but a lot of those seem to be from people objecting to her talking about sex or using “foul language”, despite the book being (I felt) really quite clean!

  6. *Heather – Don’t get me wrong–I did enjoy the book. I think I’m just sensitive to how the religion was used in the book–part of me thinks I’m just being defensive?

    *Rae – Oh how I wish we could get together over coffee and talk about this one in person!! I actually didn’t see Elna using her religion as a platform as much as she used it as an excuse for how she acted and I didn’t like that. I guess I just wanted her to be more firm one way or another instead of crossing the line and then blaming her religion. But definitely interesting what you say about how many people can relate to Elna. Honestly in my experiences I wish I had known more people like Elna–but that’s neither her nor there. ;)

    *Amanda – This book is definitely funny! Aside from the issues I had with her treatment of religion I really enjoyed the book–she’s very easy to relate to on so many levels.

    *ReviewsbyLola – I really hope you enjoy it! It’s definitely an entertaining read.

    *Amy – And I still liked it–just didn’t love it. Does seem to be getting really positive reviews–at least from the few comments here.

    *Bermuda – I think if the author had given herself a few more years distance before writing the book it would have been a really solid story.

    *Tediousandbrief – I’m glad you loved it! Like you I had a tough time putting the book down–I just feel like I was thrown for a loop a bit when I got to the ending and realized that she had kind of pulled a fast one on me. Interesting about the bad reviews on Goodreads. I wonder how many of the reviewers are Mormon who might be more sensitive to the content? It’s like going to see an R movie with my grandmother (which I will never do again). Every little “shit” is totally exacerbated by the “honestly” muttered under her breath. ;)

  7. Trish: A fair number of the “bad reviewers” seemed to identify as Mormon, it seemed.

    I remember some complaining about the sex and language (which, honestly, there seemed to be little of either.) One of them, I recall, complained that she was a narcissist, presumably because the book was all about Elna Baker. I read that and went, “Well, would you have rather her write a memoir about someone other than herself?!?”

    I think they choose the title because it was eye-popping (the awkwardly long title combined with the very pretty girl on the cover did make me check it out at the bookstore when I first saw it.) I emailed her a week or so ago to let her know I liked the book, but have yet to hear back from the author.

  8. I’ve got to admit that this book is probably not my kind of book but with that said I really liked that you were on the fence about it. I always find these type of reviews more interesting and thought-provoking. So thanks for sharing :)

  9. I’m interested in what she did that she used religion as an excuse for – did she use at the excuse for acting out and ‘sinning’ or for being cruel to other perople in the name of orthodoxy, or what?

    Otherwise, I think its strange (being one myself) how ex-Mormons that write or make public statements will frequently brush out very simplistic caricatures of Mormons. It feels, sometimes, like telling an inside joke to an outside crowd. Its analagous, to me, to regionalism. I used to live in Wisconsin, and people’s image of Wisconsin is, generally, that they have UP accents, say things like ‘goshdarnit’, drink a lot of beer, and are naively rural. Of course, this is horribly inaccurate generalization, though there are leements of it that have roots in some realities, at the same time. But if I tell a funny story about Wisconsin, its much easier to tell it as if the people are trademark Wisconsin instead of actual, three dimensional people. Particularly if I’m making fun of Wisonsin, or have bad memories of it. I think its too easy to do this with Mormonism, in the same way – its funny if you’re talking to someone else who’s mormon or ex-mormon, who knows “OK, but REALLY, we know that every Mormon woman doesn’t ACTUALLY look like Barbie and have 300 Jell-O recipes, and has no knowledge of how sex works” . But when you tell that joke to someone who is outside the culture, it comes across differently. Maybe that doesn’t make sense?

  10. I must admit I shy away from books with a religious focus, so I’m not the right person to comment. I just wanted to say hi! :)

  11. Rae

    I can’t help myself….

    tediousandbrief – hopefully I’m not coming off as defensive here. Tone is SO hard to read through text, so please know this is coming from a place of just general discussion, not trying to get on a soapbox. I hope you took what you learned from this book about the LDS church with a grain of salt. I’m sure you did, but just so you understand where I’m coming from, my whole life people have told me what they’ve learned about my religion from sources who are often times speaking from a spot of opinion, or a brief experience. The worst is the media. I always laugh when people tell me what they learned about my religion on Big Love, or from reading Under the Banner of Heaven. I tell them to check out mormon.org if they want to know facts.
    Anyway, like I said, I really really hope my tone comes across as friendly and not as one of contention. Also, I was surprised to hear complaints about all the “sex” and “language” as well. I don’t even remember thinking there was an issue there??? Too funny.

    Trish – I would love that too!! My statement of Elna using her relgion as a platform could be just from knowing her, reading her book, hearing her speak in church, and reading other articals she’s had published. Not just the book itself. I have mixed feelings about it, because most comedians poke fun of themselves. How frequently does Jerry Seinfeld mention his religion as a Jew? No one gets bent out of shape. I think I am probably just being defensive because I feel like most of the time, anything public about the LDS church is negative so I feel like, “Really? One more thing to make us look bad?” But maybe she’s not even making us look bad, I don’t know…
    Regarding saying people can relate to Elna, I didn’t really see that until my life as a young single adult, post college. I think most people are still in the bubble (esp if they’re going to an LDS college) and it’s still a hell of a lot easier the keep the church standards in that environment, than it is when you’re trying to live it through your mid to late 20s and into your 30s. Also, my experience with LDS single members in New York is very different than that out west. I find we tend to be more liberal than those living out west, and especially those who were married in their early 20s.

    Lastly, please please tell me it was Grandma Marks who you went to the R rated movie with? Hahaha. I can just hear her…..

  12. @ Rae I’ve actually never watched Big Love, which is surprising since one of my favorite actresses is in it. lol.

    However, my tone was meant to be somewhat serious. The aspects I had never heard of before included the “underwear”, no caffeine drinks (though I had heard one person mention it in passing once), and the aspect of getting together with the family (or in her case friends) one night a week in a group. It’s been a few months since I read the book, so I cannot remember the name she gave it. All things I had never heard of before.

  13. Rae

    Sorry to blow up your comment section Tri, would email tediousandbrief directly if I could. :)

    @tediousandbrief – the caffeine thing is a very common misconception. As I’m typing this I’ve got a Diet Dr. Pepper cracked open right next to me. :) Some Mormons choose not to drink soda with caffeine, however that is their choice. Mormons are, however, advised to follow something called the Word of Wisdom, which advises not to drink “hot drinks” which is obviously something that is open to enterpretation because I guarantee you Mormons are allowed to drink hot chocolate. Growing up I always heard it meant coffee and tea, however it seems a little confusing to me because I’ve since been told “herbal tea is okay.” Anyway, I just don’t drink coffee OR tea. Never been a thing for me. But I can’t tell you HOW many times I’ve had a non-Mormon see me with my Diet Dr. Pepper or Diet Coke and say, “Hey! You’re not allowed to drink that!” Not so. In fact, my current bishop (head of our congregation) keeps a mini fridge of Diet Coke in his office at the church. (One of the many reasons I love him.) :)

    Anyway, my point in all this rambling is, don’t believe everything Elna Baker says about the Mormon church. Or even everything I say, for that matter. I don’t know every piece of doctrine perfectly (although, who does about their own religion?) but I can tell you there are a lot of misconceptions due to media relaying false or partially false information.

    Sorry again Tri! Off my soapbox for now. :)

  14. You guys are killing me! ;)

    Haven’t been able to get to the computer since yesterday afternoon but will try to get on this afternoon to respond. :)

  15. @Rae, @tediousandbrief – One thing I’ve foudn interesting, having lived in many different wards or branches in many diff parts of the world, is that rules like the ‘no soda’ thing, while they are purely cultural choices, have become blurry in people’s minds – so I’ve lived in places where bringing a cooler of Pepsi to a scout function makes people feel uncomfortable. I think its that, like most religions, there is a Mormon Culture and a Mormon Dogma, and the Mormon Church is the combination of these two things. So, Mormon Dogma does not say ‘don’t drink Dr. Pepper’, but many parts ofMormon Culture do. It’s an interesting muddle – and a common one. Catholics have this, for instance, with widely varying cultural views on, for instance, the sinfulness of certain acts, depending on what parish you’re in, the prevailing tadition, etc. I think its a natural byproduct of a cohesive religious culture with a rich history.

  16. I don’t know that I have too much to say about the review. It sounds like an interesing enough book. Mostly because I come from a mormon background. If I didn’t, I don’t know that I would be too interested in reading it. I am curious about all she has to say about her struggles. I wonder if many people with stong religious values can relate in some way with her riding on the fence with said values so to speak. It seems to me that is a sort of way of finding yourself and what you truly believe.

  17. Ok, not sure where to begin…

    *Samantha – It was a fun read–good if you like memoirs.

    *Jason – Yes, I absolutely know what you mean about the caricatures and I felt like for the most part Elna did a good job of fairly portraying the Mormon religion. I never felt like she was being disrespectful and I appreciated that (even though I’ve parted ways I’m still respectful). In terms of what bugged me—as an example, she’d become very intimate with a man she was dating and then all of a sudden back off because of her religious beliefs but at the same time be questioning the religion and poking fun at it a bit. I don’t think I explained my feelings well in the post…it’s almost like she was using the beliefs as a convenience but also as an excuse. Bahhhh, I still can’t explain it. ;)

    *Rae – I know what you mean about hearing negative things about the church and even though I haven’t practiced in over 10 years I still get defensive as well…and maybe that’s why I reacted the way I did to the book. I think I would have been able to brush a lot of it off had I no connection with the church. And yes, saw Double Jeopardy with Grandma M when I was going to Ricks. She had this mint wrapper that she played with the whole time and kept muttering “Oh Honestly” under her breath at every curse word. Ha!!

    * Rae and Tedious and Jason – I didn’t know about the hot drink rule. I thought it was more about the caffeine. Shows how much I know! But I will say that there are certain things about the religion that are made more public than others. And some of the dogma and culture has evolved over the years. I even think that some beliefs aren’t taught as widely as others…

    *Michelle – I do think you’d find this one more interesting because of your Mormon background but I’ve heard a lot of people not from the church who really like it. And maybe even connect with it better because they don’t have the church connection—if that makes sense. I would be curious of your thoughts!

  18. Rae

    I love this discussion.

    @tedious, I think I’ve for the most part said all I have to say, but you never know, you might get an email from me. :)

    @trish, that story about Grandma made me laugh. Regarding hot drinks, D&C 89 goes over the WoW and that’s where “hot drinks” is stated, which has then been translated by modern day prophets as “coffee and tea.” I guess people run with it from there.