Anne Lamott is one of my heroes. Her essay collection, Traveling Mercies, helped me get through a particularly rough patch spiritually, and since then I’ve read every single one of her nonfiction books. (I’m less enthusiastic about her fiction, although I have read and enjoyed several of her novels.) One of my favorites is Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, a raw and moving and laugh-out-loud hilarious account of her first year as a completely overwhelmed single mother. So when I saw that she, together with her son Sam, had written a sequel, I couldn’t get my hands on it quickly enough. Thank goodness, the great LibraryThing Early Review algorithm complied and I won a copy in their January giveaway.
Subtitled A Journal of My Son’s First Son, this new book is about the first year in the life of Sam’s son, Jax. I’ll just wait for a moment and let the fact that Sam is old enough to have a son sink in. If you’re a long-time Lamott like me, you probably though we was about 14, but I read Operating Instructions at least that long ago and it was not brand new then. It turns out that Sam was 19 years old when Jax was born, so while he had his son a little earlier than he or his mother would have planned, he’s also much older than I thought.
Most of the book is written by Anne herself. Sam’s contributions mostly come in the form of e-mails and interviews with Anne, as well as the foreword in which he reveals how much he loves Operating Instructions and how happy he is to be able to be part of creating a similar gift for Jax. I’ve always wondered what Sam made of that book, which is so frank and raw at times, and it made me happy to know that he loves it.
As the title suggests, the book is written as a journal, with a few e-mailed entries from Sam and his partner, Amy. Most of the entries are Anne’s day-to-day thoughts on becoming a grandmother and a mother of a young parent. But it’s not all baby love and grandmotherly angst. She also writes about a trip to India, a death in the family, a family wedding, church services, parties, and the day-to-day pleasures and annoyances that make life what it is. You don’t have to be a new grandmother to find something to relate to.
The thing that’s so wonderful about Anne Lamott is that she says all the things I sometimes think but wouldn’t dare say out loud. When she doesn’t feel like going to church but goes anyway, she’ll say that it sucks that all those hymns give God an unfair advantage so that she can’t stay mad. She refers to her mentor as horrible Bonnie, no doubt because Bonnie always says the things she doesn’t want to hear, but Anne knows she needs to hear them so she still turns to horrible Bonnie when she’s hurting. Anne often says seemingly mean things that most people simply couldn’t get away with, at least not right out in public. I think the key to her getting away with it is that she’s so willing to talk about her own foibles and moments of foolishness and, perhaps more important, that she’s so open and embracing of other people. When she talks about how long her Indian cab driver’s name is, it doesn’t feel like she’s making fun. She loves the fact that it’s 14 syllables long and that she can’t pronounce it. At one point, Sam tells his mom that he loves that she can be friends with a bunch of Tea Partiers or bikers or whoever, and you get the feeling that she absolutely can. She loves life. She loves it even when she’s mad at it—she just can’t help herself.
This love of life comes through in the way she writes. She’s a very observant writer who makes note of small details and describes them in down-to-earth ways. Her prose is poetic, yet earthy. And her frequent sarcasm keeps it from seeming precious. She gets away with a lot that would have me rolling my eyes if it came from another writer. She writes extensively about her faith, but she doesn’t come across as trying to teach people how to be better Christians. She writes about it because it’s part of her life and not talking about it would be impossible, dishonest even.
This review is coming out being as much a review of Anne Lamott’s nonfiction in general as it is a review of this book in particular. The reason for that is that what I love about it is precisely what I love about her other books. Her wit, her honesty, her insights, her openness. It’s all there. It is a little different from her essay collections in that it’s a journal and revolves largely but not entirely on her new role as a grandmother. But her voice is her voice, and that’s what I sign up for when I read Lamott. She didn’t disappointment me there one bit.