I wasn’t going to write any more reviews in this blog — except by offering this space to guest reviewers whose writing I know and trust. I have vowed to keep the chapter drafts of my own memoir my first priority for my precious writing time. Reading and reviewing a new book can take one or two weeks of time. I just don’t have it.
That is, I didn’t have the time until I saw that sign in the Barnes & Noble on Union Square that said Anne Lamott had a new book out. And that she and her son Sam were both going to appear in person right there on March 20 the very first day the book was available in stores.
So, of course, I bought the book, appeared early so as to get a good seat, took pictures, and tweeted about my excitement.
By the time the clock struck 7 p.m., the announced beginning of the reading, all the chairs were full and most people were clutching brand new copies of Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son.
Having enjoyed three of Anne Lamott’s previous books, I couldn’t believe my good luck that she has written this new one about an experience I myself am in the middle of — enjoying the first year of my son’s son’s life — while trying to write my own childhood memoir.
What follows is a stream-of-consciousness report on how the public reading led to my private reading and to my reflections about both.
Before I left for Barnes & Noble at Union Square, I asked advice from followers on my facebook writers page (to join, please “like” the page here) One of them, Melissa Shirk Jantz, gave me a suggestion for the Q & A period. Those who hesitate in New York are lost. Thanks to Melissa, I was armed and ready.
But first, there was the appearance and introduction of both Anne and Sam, who have lots of friends in NYC, so greetings and hubbub ensued. The mostly female audience drew in their collective breaths when they saw Sam for the first time. You met him as a baby and young child if you read Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Most people can’t believe it when they hear he himself is now a father.
But there he was in all his ruddy-cheeked, slightly shy, glory. And there was Anne Lamott, mother and grandmother, standing beside him. Watching the two of them observe each other read was a great pleasure. Love and struggle have etched themselves in their hearts and on their faces.
I loved them both.
During the Q & A time, my hand shot up right away. “What have you learned by becoming a grandmother?” I asked, knowing the question was deceptively simple.
Anne was ready for me, having thought about this all during the memoir writing time. Immediately, she said, “It’s the gift of giving unconditional love without the toxic obsession of parenthood.”
That kind of nugget is Anne Lamott at her best. Short, passionate, tinged with the suggestion of past pain overcome by grace.
Now to Some Assembly Required, the book.
The first book you read by Anne Lamott, especially if you are a person of both faith and doubt, feels like the mighty wind of spiritual housecleaning. She’s written 13 books. I suppose if I had read them all instead of only her three most famous, (Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird, and Operating Instructions) I might eventually tire of her recurring themes — the search for God, searing self-doubt, soaring epiphanies, moments of grace, self-deprecating humor, spiritual devotion co-mingled with salty language and sarcasm. She’s an unapologetic Christian who nevertheless despises Republican policies. (In an Easter Sunday tweet, however, she imagines herself able to wash feet with Dick Cheney!)
She speaks for a group not well represented in our era of political and spiritual stereotyping and lack of nuance in the media: a seeker who finds Jesus and St. Andrew Church a refuge from the storms of life. Her prayers, “Help!” and “Thanks!” have moved many others to seek similar refuge.
When reading a new Anne Lamott book, a fan hopes for both the familiar voice encountered in previous books and for new high and low notes sung by her ever-evolving writing self.
In Some Assembly Required, I found both old and new. The plot revolves around the surprise that comes when 19-year-old Sam announces to his mother in 2009 that he will become a father. With an understandable mixture of emotions, Anne moves from shock to awe and ends with a hard-won acceptance of her new place in the universe as grandma, mother, “mother-in-law,” and solitary writer.
Anne is the primary writer of the journal-style book that includes emails from Sam and interviews with both Sam and Amy, (his girlfriend, and the mother of baby Jax, the center of all their attentions). The book is dedicated to Amy. From a Goodreads interview with the author I learned three things of interest: (1) that Amy and Sam are now separated (something one almost expects given their youth and volatile relationship) and are now sharing childcare with each other and extended family, (2) that Anne Lamott herself had to be convinced by her editor, and then her son, that writing this book was a good idea, and (3) Anne gave Amy and her parents the right to remove material they did not want in the book. All three of these facts present writerly challenges, and my hat’s off to Anne for having written a good book despite them.
Many sentences ring with the quintessential Lamott voice (Sam’s voice bears some resemblance to his mother’s, not too surprisingly). Here’s a section from the beginning of the book:
While Amy struggles valiantly to deliver the baby without the aid of drugs, the family suffers with her. Anne describes her relief when a doctor who “looked a lot like Ethel Kennedy, scrappy and beautiful” bounds into the delivery room, squinting. Just at the moment of peak dramatic tension, Anne thinks, “Oh my God, she’s a blind gynecologist. Affirmative action has gone too far this time.” This was the first of many laugh out loud moments for me in the book.
But the description of “Dr. Ethel” continues in a way that few writers can match, with King James English in the background and American pop culture in the foreground: “She squinted off to one side, way in the distance, as if to the hills whence help comes, like Mr. Magoo in Pharaoh’s Egypt, and I realized she was not seeing with her eyes, but with her hand and her mind.”
Dr. Ethel’s abilities forecast the new skills need by this family of wayward saints. They are ready to receive the gift of a child, but first they must practice distrusting old ways of being in the world (seeing with the eyes alone) and learn a new tactile, spiritual and intellectual language. The change will be revolutionary for all of them. Old walls will be torn down, new ones built. They will in fact be like a blind gynecologist transformed into an agent of healing and hope.
One of the things I admire most about Anne Lamott is her brutal honesty. She admits to terrible thoughts, like being glad to have Jax, just in case anything ever happens to Sam (an “heir and a spare” jokes a friend); trying to manipulate Amy and her parents into letting her be the primary grandparent and making California Jax’s permanent home; acknowledging her anxieties about writing; her jealousy of her own son, who has so much more support in parenting than she had twenty years earlier when she wrote Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.
These admissions will make her books seem narcissistic to some readers. But because she both makes herself “the goat” more often than other characters (Mary Karr’s advice), she gets to tell the truth as she sees it. Any writer who gives intimates veto power over what goes in and what stays in her book is not self-obsessed. Any writer who brays at God one day and praises extravagantly the next is following in the steps of the Psalmist. Her definition of heaven? Those moments when we forget ourselves.
A few caveats. The travel sections of the book were good but did not feel thoroughly integrated into the family story. And the picture of the baby foot on the cover is too pink and white. Jax’s father is dark, his mother is Hispanic, and he himself is “tawny.” This is probably a comment to the publisher more than the author.
I expected to see this book reviewed in The New York Times and to hear Anne and Sam Lamott on NPR. I’m surprised that they so far have not been. So I say, grandmas, unite. Support this book and its authors. And share your enthusiasm in person and on line. You will find your own deepest feelings for your grandchildren expressed through Anne Lamott’s gift for language. If you don’t believe me, I offer you this passage:
Babies’ smells set off chemical reactions through us that make us want to love and nurture them. This is such an unfair advantage, and it is truly how they get you. What if al-Qaeda could weaponize this? . . .
Sam can see now what beauty he sprang from, and how pathetically I loved him as a baby. . . .
And babies’ needs are achievable for the time being. They know they want something in their tummies; there’s a lot of pleasure for them in fullness, in contact with warm skin, in the sweet circuit with the mother and father.
I identified with Grandma Lamott in ways that make this review far from objective. But I am not alone. In Poetry Month, we need to expand our definition of the lyric poem to a work like this one. Lamott herself concludes as she reviews Jax’s first year:
“He’s grown from a helpless newborn to an accomplished and complex human being who is days away from walking. He’s grown me, too; grandchildren grow you. With your own child, you’re fixated on the foreground, trying to keep the child safe and alive. But with a grandchild, you can be in softer focus, you can see beyond the anxious foreground.
In other words, if you squint, you can see the hills from whence cometh our help. If you stretch out your hands and your mind, you can feel the groaning of creation.
Now I’ll turn Anne Lamott’s question over to you. What have you learned about life by being a parent or grandparent? If you are neither, what have you learned from children in general?