Book Review: Some Assembly Required — Anne Lamott


From ALICE EVANS
OregonLive

As an about-to-be first-time grandmother myself, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Anne Lamott’s latest book, knowing I’d be treated to some great laughs delivered with warmth and authenticity by a quirky holy woman who likes to share her wild journey with the rest of us. I was not disappointed.

In her usual reverent but irreverent way, Lamott describes the trials, triumphs and joys of becoming a grandmother. This journal-style memoir includes interviews and emails from new father Sam Lamott, the 20-year-old son she raised alone as a single mother. Many of you may remember that Lamott wrote a rollicking memoir about the first year of Sam’s life, “Operating Instructions,” which became a best-seller in 1993.

Written in much the same tone, “Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son” includes descriptions of grandson Jax that possess a slapstick quality.

But there’s frequently a self-deprecating bite to this humor, a reminder of where Lamott has been: “Jax drinks from his bottle like a wino with a bottle of Night Train. His tongue lolls out when he gets a good hit, and then he starts sucking fiercely again. According to Sam, he’s saying, ‘All I need is one more slug of that, baby. Just to take the edge off.’”

Lamott never seems reticent to admit her own struggles with alcohol and drugs. Sober now for two-and-a-half decades, she still has to work at it, and humor is one of her great tools. But so is faith. A kind of leftist radical born-again Christian, Lamott shares her faith in such a matter-of-fact way that really, I want to kiss her for it. She shows us how she lives in community, how she works at building and keeping the support of her tribal circle of friends, family, priests, advisers and church brethren. She freely expresses her innermost feelings but consciously reveals more about herself than those nearest and dearest, removing, carefully but publicly, the log in her own eye. If she makes critical, complaining remarks about someone — for example the mother of her grandson — she turns it back on herself.

In this first year of Jax’s life, Lamott is pitted against her grandson’s mother, Amy, a tiny 20-year-old of Mayan ancestry whose fierce determination to make her own decisions runs counter to Lamott’s sense of grandmother-knows-best. Lamott clearly adores Amy, at least sometimes, but is bemusedly taken aback by the physicality of this other woman in her son’s life, nursing her grandson: “tiny Amy, with these now gigantic 36G breasts, often exposed, like milky torpedoes ….”

Amy’s independence and her temper butt up against Anne’s stubbornness and certainty about the best way to do things, while Sam, caught in the middle, moves from teenager to man in meeting the new demands of fatherhood.

Frequent reports about breakups and near-breakups, threatened leave-takings and actual leave-takings, are neurotic but honest: “Sam called to say that he and Amy have been fighting and she has a one-way ticket to North Carolina to live with her parents. … I am experiencing sickening fear, the need to control, and the ubiquitous litany of good ideas. I thank God again and again that my mind does not have a public address system.”

Lamott strives to learn to love and let go at the same time — at least occasionally. She takes off for a two-week visit to India and later flies to Stockholm for a cruise of the Baltic … even as she freaks out about her daughter-in-law’s running off to Chicago to be with her own dying grandmother. This is how she balances things, bringing greater perspective to her own situation by seeing life and death on the big canvas of India, and in the museum of a concentration camp in Poland. The young parents are not the only ones who grow up a little in the course of this year.

At one point, worshipping at a meditation center with Sam, Anne describes the scene: “I watched Sam, his eyes closed and arms extended like Zorba in dancing prayer, shifting from foot to foot, and this filled me with respect for his ability to let go, to go within himself and find a center. I did not have this at twenty, not by a long shot.”

Lamott relishes the moments with Jax. “Right now, we are a circuit of comfort and calm … My arm and his head are one unit. That’s not going to last. This tiny guy contains such a huge, galumphy kid, who will unfurl, as we all have done, like those sponge animals that come in small capsules.”

“Some Assembly Required” relates a great family adventure — “light-years away from the Disney images of family,” as Sam puts it — but something really messy, real and wonderful. What I learned and felt while reading it helped guide me through my own grandmotherly crisis when two months before her due date, my daughter called to say she’d been offered a teaching job at a girl’s school in Kuwait, and that if she took it, she would be leaving four months after the birth.

“But have you considered how this might affect your baby?” I asked. Remembering Lamott’s tale, I took a deep breath, and left my daughter and her husband to their own decision … sort of.

Available for Rent at Mulligan Books
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