Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Anne Lamott's Grace (Eventually)

From Simone de Beauvior's The Woman Destroyed:

"Anxiety began to mingle with my distress. The friends to whom I had sent my book ought to have written to tell me about it: none had done so...Not one (reviewer) had grasped the originality of my work. Had I not managed to make it clear?
...
'Well, what did you think of it?' (the narrator is querying a young friend)
She answered me in well-balanced phrases...The book was an excellent synthesis; it clarified various obscurities...
'But in itself, does it say anything new?'
'That was not it's intention.'
'It was mine.'
...I went on and on; I badgered her...No, I was producing nothing new...the book was rather a well-based restatement and summing up." (61-62)

Simone de Beauvior's character is devastated, mortified by her oversight. She is unsure whether, at her age, she can attempt something new.

I hope Anne Lamott does not think this, and have no wish to contribute to her well-documented insecurities. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith is Lamott's third book of religious essays, a collection, like the first two, of amusing, often self-deprecating observations on modern life viewed through the lens of Christianity. Only where Traveling Mercies and Plan B win the reader with laugh-out-loud lines and the author's wry awareness of her own lunacy, Grace takes us nowhere new. Instead we revisit same ground: body image, single motherhood, Lamott's transformation from alcoholic druggie to leftist Jesus freak, her own damaged mother. Where the other books were surgically irreverent (Bush the Second is likened to Yertle the Turtle; of her suddenly teenage son: "Maybe I fed him too much"), this latest is rather like a meringue: all airy white light. I don't doubt for a moment that Lamott has suffered terribly and deserves every moment of what reads like a much easier life. But it makes for lousy reading.

Take The Muddling Glory of God. Lamott, like most American women over the age of three, has struggled with body image and weight issues her entire life. Like many of us, she coped using the usual methods: starvation, exhaustive exercising, falling apart and binging. Over time she pulled it together enough to cope with the fact that she will never resemble Kate Moss. Few of us do. But on this particular day she was in a bad way, and attacked Safeway in a mad search for apple fritters. The first Safeway was out, so she drove to another store, where she purchased the fritters, ice cream, Cheetos, cookies, jalapeno poppers, and a few other deeply scary items. She went home, ate wildly, then began bailing herself out:

"I got myself some cool water, a pair of soft socks...I was finally able to call a couple friends." (57)

Well, good. Really. Except one thing stuck in my craw: how many women have time for this sort of behavior? I understand the self-hatred, the secret eating, the avalanche of loosed feelings. But the time to go not to one store, but two? To schlep it all home, eat it, then get into bed? Sitting up for water, clean socks, and calling a few friends?

Only rich people have this kind of time. Only rich people have free time to drop their kids off at school, then experience a "Holy Spirit Snatch," wherein one swerves back to the main road for a little unplanned hike with the dog.

Perhaps, as a woman forced to work both in and out of the house, I am a not the best reviewer. It could be I'm a little touchy about bikini crises endured on Hawaiian beaches. (See A Field Theory of Beauty.) But there's an awful lot of navel gazing going on, along with an unending wish for rescue. From the woman who dusts her off after a fall skiing, to the insane exchange with a corrupt carpet salesman, Lamott is constantly looking outward for help. She's a one-woman Verizon commercial, followed by a group of friends ever available for a hike or telephone chat. These people, who she dubbed her "pit crew" in Operating Instructions, act as cheerleaders, ego-boosters, reminders of holiness. None appear drained by her needs, or busy doing things like unloading the dishwasher or mowing the lawn. It's a rarefied world over there in Marin County.

The book features many hikes up Mount Tamalpais. Invoked to conclude some of the thinner essays-- Dandelions, The Last Story of Spring, Bastille Day, Junctions-- these hikes don't explain how she came to tolerate her friend's awful husband, or whether anyything concrete arose from her political activism. They are lovely passages in themselves, but they aren't enough.

Worst is the essay At Death's Window, where Lamott describes her active role in assisting a friend's suicide. The friend is terminally ill with cancer, and his decision a carefully reasoned one. I have no trouble with that, but Lamott gets in and out in seven pages, leaving the reader's mouth open. Wait! You drop this bomb and that's all?

I'm being relentless only because Lamott is capable of so much more. Bird By Bird is one of the best books on writing out there. Operating Instructions, alternately elated and crazed, should be required reading for new Moms. Traveling Mercies and Plan B are compelling explorations of the pull to faith. Lamott's political activism and obvious generousity to charitable causes is admirable. And it's really hard not to like someone who loathes Bush with such desperate intensity.

In the end, we're left wondering if Lamott on religion is Smiley on horses, or Kingsolver on the environment--each writer excellent, each giving her best to an obssession, threatening to leave even the most devoted fans behind.

Works cited:

Simone de Beauvior: The Woman Destoyed. New York: Pantheon Books. 1969.

Anne Lamott: Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books. 2007.

-----Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books. 2005.

-----Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. New York: Fawcett Columbine Books. 1993.

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