Self Help Book Review:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
Here's a confession - I am secretly in love with Anne Lamott.
Not love love, exactly, but she would be a great friend. I love her bright spirit, her soggy hopeless neurotic despondency, her gritty determination to climb back onto the path. Not to mention the fact that she takes woefulness and turns it into hilarity, which is one of my favorite things.
Lamott, a Marin County recovering alcoholic evangelical Jesus- freak who says bad words single mom peacenik Democrat who is also a great writer, defies categorization. Seriously.
This book is a collection of essays, mostly written originally for publication at Salon.com, an online literary magazine. The theme which ties the book together is Lamott's struggle to navigate through the perplexing challenges of adulthood, and she chooses to turn to her church and her faith for support and meaning.
Part of Lamott's gift is to write sentences that sound like the way real people experience themselves - in the midst of an all- too-real day, with surly teenagers, hypochondria, imperfect parents and scary things happening in the world.
In Bird by Bird, Lamott's breakthrough book which has endeared her to millions of (struggling) writers, she claims that all writers begin with a "shitty first draft." She must be a hell of an editor. Her sentences sparkle and surprise and as a writer I hate her for it. But as I read this book imagining the review I would write, I kept wanting to underline stuff so I could quote it.
This is a seriously funny book about faith. Another of Lamott's gifts is telling the truth -- about the struggles of parenthood, the grief of losing dear friends, the consuming anger at a parent who was difficult, fears, worries and failed love. Each of the essays takes an achingly real life challenge Lamott is facing, and shows how she attempts to shine the light of faith and hope and love on it. Her humor allows her to hold on just a bit longer until an unexpected breakthrough occurs.
"On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death. These are desert days. Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow death by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration." These opening sentences, in the first essay "ham of god" put the reader on notice that we are in uncharted territory here. By that I mean the unique combination of despair, wry humor, spiritual questing and realpolitik - leavened with love and gratitude.
Life can turn on a dime for Anne Lamott. While enjoying a meditative moment in the hills above her Marin County home - "I closed my eyes, breathed in calm, and grass; and then, the piece de resistance: the smell of dog shit filled my nose, sharp as ammonia, and foul." It gets worse. "Then I looked at the sole of my shoe. My entire childhood passed before my eyes -- kids holding their noses in schoolyards, parents commanding us all out of the car, demanding that we check our feet." She concludes: "It's a miracle that more of us didn't shoot up our neighborhoods."
Lamott describes her struggles to forgive her mother. "In a superhuman show of spiritual maturity, I moved my mother's ashes today from the back of the closet, where I'd shoved them a few weeks after she died." Her mother had been difficult, preoccupied, needy. "So I left her in the closet for two years to stew in her own ashes, and I refused to be nice to her, and didn't forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance."
As she was moving the ashes, she discovered her mother's purse and hesitantly opened the time capsule of her mother's life - filled with old tissues, band-aids, pictures of grandchildren, expired library cards, ACLU and Sierra Club membership cards. Something began to shift inside her. "I don't actually forgive her much yet. Besides, only part of a day had passed, and I was definitely not hating her anymore. Grace means you're in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own."
I'd love to go on quoting from this dazzling, super-ordinary performance art book, but I don't want to deprive you of the pleasure of having your own laughter and tears as you read this little masterpiece.
The God-talk in this book is serious, though I in no way felt assaulted by it. Anne Lamott wears her faith lightly and doesn't need to convince anyone of anything. She's too busy trying to get through her day.
David Yarian Ph.D.