Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Some Assembly Required," by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott, who lives here in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, as I do, has a unique voice in her writing. I read several of her novels some time ago, and enjoyed them, but would not say they are great literature. But her memoirs, all of which I have also read, seem to me to be better written, more authentic, and more compelling. In them, she writes of her difficult family of origin, whom she nonetheless loves very much, as well as the alcoholism that runs through her family and her own alcoholism and recovery. She writes of finding salvation, religious and otherwise, through a small African-American church. She writes of how hard it was to be a single mother, and yet how wonderful. When she wrote about that topic, almost 20 years ago, in “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year,” she was lauded for her honesty about the great joys and the great difficulties of motherhood, especially single motherhood. Now, in her most recent book (which I listened to on CD, read by the author herself), “Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son” (Riverhead, 2012), co-written with her son Sam Lamott, she writes about her 19-year-old son’s and his girlfriend Amy’s unexpected parenthood. Although surprised and concerned about their becoming parents at such a young age, and at a time that they are in a relationship with an uncertain future, she is also absolutely besotted with her new grandson Jax, and does all she can to help, yet makes an effort not to “take over.” The strength of Lamott’s voice is her openness, her willingness to confess all her thoughts and feelings, including the less worthy ones. Her feelings are understandable, though. For example, she hates it when Amy takes Jax to visit her family in Chicago, and she lives in fear that Amy and Jax, or maybe Amy and Sam and Jax, will permanently move to Chicago; I imagine most parents and grandparents can relate to that feeling. She writes of insecurity, of jealousy, of fear, and more. But she also writes of joy, family, sharing, and celebrating life. The book covers the time just before little Jax is born, and during the first year of his life. Much of the book is concerned with the everyday ebbs and flows of life, of worries, of happiness, of visits back and forth, of family celebrations, of hikes with friends and consultations with her therapist and her priest friend. She also takes trips to India and to Europe, and describes those trips in some detail. She writes of her meditation practice, and says a little about her own writing and her book tours. Most of all she writes detailed descriptions of Jax and his personality and growth; these, although in certain hands might be tedious to read about, are beautifully observed. Sam’s contributions are only perhaps 20% of the book, but his perspective is important. His maturity, love for his child, and ability to adjust to his new, unexpected life as a father are all impressive. He says that because his own father was not in his life, he wants to make sure that he himself will always be there for his son Jax. I can’t help thinking that despite all her eccentricities and insecurities, Lamott must have done a lot right in the way she raised Sam, because he seems to be have turned out so well. As for her writing, I think it is an acquired taste; it is admirable and brave and sometimes very funny, but also sometimes annoying, with a whining undertone. But these are two sides of the same coin, because she clearly knows she is whining sometimes, but is brave enough to share what makes her look petty or unappealing. This is all part of her candidness. Obviously many people love her writing, as her memoirs have all been bestsellers. And despite any reservations I have, I too will probably keep on reading them as she publishes them.

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