I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Done any rereading lately?
What books have been balm for the soul for you?
~This review contains plot spoilers.~
Sue Monk Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Church tradition has always insisted that he remained unmarried, but she felt that, given the cultural norms of the Middle East at that time, it would have been highly unusual for him not to marry. Musing on the motivation for airbrushing a spouse out of the picture, on the last page of the novel Kidd asks, “Did [early Christians] believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual?” Or “Was it because women were so often invisible?” Although The Book of Longings retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century CE and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality.
Fourteen-year-old Ana is a headstrong young woman with a forthright voice and a determination to choose her own life. Privilege and luck are on her side: her father is the head scribe to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee; and the repulsive widower to whom she’s been betrothed dies, freeing her to marry Jesus, a travelling craftsman who caught her eye at the market. Ana’s aunt, Yaltha from Alexandria, is a major influence in her life. She had a rare chance at education and encourages her niece in her writing. Ana knows several ancient languages and fills every papyrus scroll she can get her hands on with stories of the women in the Bible. Yaltha also gives her an incantation bowl in which to write her deeply held prayers.
If you’re familiar with Kidd’s other work (such as The Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates), you know that she often explores the divine feminine and matriarchal units. Historically, Christianity has a poor record of acknowledging its patriarchal tendencies and redressing the balance. But Kidd imagines that, right at the beginning, Jesus valued women and was open to them having a life beyond domestic chores and childrearing. He involves Ana in his discussions about God and the nature of the Kingdom; they both see and take compassion on people’s suffering; together they are baptized by John the Baptist. And when Ana tells Jesus she doesn’t believe she is meant to be a mother – her mother and aunt took herbal potions and have passed on their contraceptive knowledge to her – he accepts her choice, even though childlessness could bring shame on both of them.
I appreciated this picture of a woman who opts for writing and the spiritual life over motherhood. However, Kidd portrays a whole range of women’s experiences: Jesus’s mother and sister-in-law submit to the drudgery of keeping a household going; Ana’s friend is raped and has her tongue cut out in an attempt to silence her, yet finds new ways to express herself; and another major character is a servant involved in the healing rituals at a temple to Isis. A practicing Jew, Ana finds meaning in other religious traditions rather than dismissing them as idolatry. She also participates in wider intellectual life, such as by reading The Odyssey.
Some descriptions make this novel sound like alternative history. If you’re expecting Ana to save the day and change the course of history, you will be disappointed. Ana is simply an observer of the events documented in the Bible. While she recounts the inspirations for some parables and healing incidents, during two years in exile with her aunt she only hears secondhand accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Her brother, a Zealot, disagrees with Jesus on how to usher in the Kingdom of God. By the time Ana returns to Jerusalem, the events leading to the crucifixion have already been set in motion; she can only bear witness. For her, life will continue after Jesus’s death, in a women-led spiritual community. From avoiding motherhood to choosing a monastic-type life, Ana has a lot of freedom. Some readers may be skeptical about how realistic this life course is, but the key, I think, is to consider Ana as an outlier.
Kidd has made wise decisions here: for the most part she makes her story line parallel or tangential to the biblical record, rather than repeating material many will find overly familiar. She takes Jewish teaching as a starting point but builds a picture of a more all-encompassing spirituality drawn from multiple traditions. Her Jesus is recognizable and deeply human; Ana calls him “a peacemaker and a provocateur in equal measures” and remembers him telling her what it was like growing up with the stigma of his illegitimate birth. The novel is rooted in historical detail but the research into the time and place never takes over. Engrossing and convincing, this is a story of women’s intuition and yearning, and of the parts of history that often get overlooked. It wouldn’t be out of place on next year’s Women’s Prize longlist.
The Book of Longings was released on Tuesday the 21st. My thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
I’m the last stop on a small blog tour for the audiobook release: if you’re interested in listening to the first hour of The Book of Longings, visit the blogs below and follow the links. Each one is hosting a 10-minute excerpt. The final one is available here.
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
Theology rarely appears on this blog, though I have a dual degree in English and Religion and read a fair number of books with religious themes. Never fear: it’s not your average pie-in-the-sky Christian talk in Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway’s brand-new book about old age and death. Holloway was a career priest and has written nearly 30 theological works, but he comes at things from a refreshingly different angle. In Leaving Alexandria (2012), one of my all-time favorite memoirs, he recorded his drift away from orthodoxy – even as he rose through the ranks of the Church of Scotland to become Bishop of Edinburgh. He recognizes morality as provisional (like in another of his books I’ve read, Godless Morality (1999)) – the Church has changed its mind about women and gay people, for instance – and doesn’t waste time pondering the supernatural or the chance of eternal life, but he still thinks religion has lessons to teach us about how we can approach death with dignity.
The thematic scaffolding of this short book, which grew out of a Radio 4 series that aired in 2016, is acceptance versus denial. For Holloway, going prematurely bald was like a preview of ageing, and the futility of the quack hair restoration pills he ordered from a magazine was his first lesson in accepting what you cannot change about yourself. Seeing ourselves as we really are is a lifelong struggle, Holloway acknowledges; some only grasp their identity right at the end, as death approaches. Predestination is a doctrine common to Christianity and Islam, but he is more inclined to mix free will and fate. His recurring metaphor is of a deck of cards: life is a hand that you are dealt, but you get to choose exactly how to play it.
This is a richly allusive book, full of snatches of literature (especially poetry), as well as excerpts from obituaries and from funeral addresses Holloway has given. He also discusses the fear of death, the dystopian possibilities of cryogenic freezing, countering regrets with forgiveness, and how the way we face death could redeem a disappointing life. Holloway’s is a voice of wisdom worth heeding, and he is honest and humble instead of giving pat answers to life’s enormous questions. I would be particularly likely to recommend this to readers of Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of who want a contrasting perspective.
A couple of favorite passages:
“I have ministered [Last Rites] myself and seen the peace they can bring at the end. I have sent good friends into the arms of a merciful God I was no longer sure I believed in. And I was convinced not only of the efficacy but of the honesty of what I was doing. I was not there to ventilate my doubts but to help the dying find the strength to cast off and take the tide that was pulling them out.”
“Religion is at its most compelling when it restrains the urge to explain death away and contents itself with voicing our sorrow and defiance that [death] keeps beating us into the ground. It feels most authentic when it stops preaching and becomes, instead, our song, our protest, the handkerchief waved against the immense tank looming at the corner of the street.”
Waiting for the Last Bus is published in the UK today, March 1st. With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.