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?
These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.