By Jennifer Anne Moses
Published July 2007
Reviewed November 13, 2007
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
How do you deal with your life when you’re gripped with anxiety, professionally stalled and involved in a family that seems more dramatic than an Augusten Burroughs novel? Apparently, as Jennifer Anne Moses writes in her expressive memoir “Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou,” the solution is to go so far out of your comfort zone you completely renovate yourself.
Having spent all her life in a comfortable East Coast existence, Moses and her family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana after her husband accepted a job at LSU. Looking to form a connection in the state’s humid, diverse environment, she began volunteering at an AIDS hospice and threw herself into studying her Jewish history. These influences lead her to think about faith, and ask the major question of what she truly believes.
Moses’ fervent desire is to find a sense of belonging through Judaism – not only belonging in the close-knit synagogue, but with a family whose history she has never fully experienced. The reader gets taken along on this journey, learning quite a bit of Jewish faith and lifestyle as Moses picks it up herself. We also get a great picture of growing up in her household, with parents who inflict equal measures of drama and humor.
The struggle with faith is the main part of the book, and the rest of it is the struggle with the self. Moses is entirely honest with the reader about her neuroses, be it obsessing over the perfect throw rugs or compulsively checking herself for cancer. Her hang-ups do get repetitive as the book goes on, but she counters this by managing to be funny about it, particularly when acknowledging how her problems pale next to others: “I don’t have any villains in my childhood baggage. The best I can come up with a bunch of tattered, ill-fitting underwear.”
Neurotic or not, Moses is an excellent writer. The stories she tells of the people in the hospice are the book’s strongest part, ranging from the gregarious to the delusional yet united in how “their T-cells disappear with each commercial break.” The setting, be it Baton Rouge, Virginia or Glasgow, is described subtly but in every case conveys her exact perceptions.
“Bagels and Grits” is a purely human story – be it the suffering of the AIDS patients, the complicated relationships with her parents or Moses simply saying what’s “in her own imperfect heart.” You can feel a rush to get through some of the more uncomfortable times in her life, but they still come through with a flash of enlightenment.