Missy Schwartz
October 16, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Three years ago, Rhoda Janzen’s husband of 15 years left her for a man he met on Gay.com. That same week, a car accident left her physically ravaged. Lonely and broke, she returned for the first time in 25 years to the California Mennonite community in which she was raised. ”I was going through culture shock,” says Janzen, 46, an English professor. ”I had funny stuff to say about my folks and was sending e-mails to my friends. One of my colleagues said, ‘Start saving those e-mails and putting them together.”’

The result, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, is a hilarious collection of musings on Janzen’s childhood, marriage, and eccentric family. (Her ”fabulously goofy” mother once packed a deep fryer and chicken in her suitcase for a Hawaiian vacation.) For the uninitiated, she offers a lighthearted primer on her people: pacifists who encourage a simple life but are less austere than the Amish. Advance buzz has been through the roof, with no less than Eat, Pray, Love‘s Elizabeth Gilbert praising Janzen’s ”singular, deadpan, sharp-witted” voice. ”I still can’t get my mind around it,” says Janzen. ”I’m just a novice. I’m not even sure I technically know what a memoir is!”

Janzen also had no idea how funny she was. ”You have to have confidence to be in touch with your sense of humor, and I was not confident growing up,” she says. Though her family is mainstream Mennonite — no buggies or bonnets — her childhood was ”painfully uncool.” In college, she left the church, a decision she says her parents accepted with ”respectful grief.” And while she mines Mennonite culture for comic effect — calling borscht, platz, and other malodorous grub ”Shame-Based Foods” — she does so with love.

Now married to one of the men who appears in her memoir — she won’t say which one, but it’s not the tractor-driving cousin recommended by her mom — Janzen is about to begin her next book, about organized religion. ”It’s kind of a sequel, from the same humorist perspective,” she explains. So what color dress might she be wearing this time? Red? Blue? Maybe none of the above. Says Janzen: ”Mennonite in pink panties!”

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