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Book Week (Life?)

August 24, 2010

Last week

Me: Should we sing? Do you want to do a song?

Henry: Vigorous nodding

Me: Singing

Henry: Dancing

This week

I don’t even get a chance to ask about songs because I am having so many books shoved at me, book after book after book, and then I am being directed to snuggle and turn the pages and READ.

Hooray! Henry has never been opposed to books, per se. He has never been a book burner, so far as I know, but he has never been as crazy about them as, say, the grownups around here. We forgive him for that, because he is technically still an illiterate baby, which is not a judgment. But everything is getting much more intense and pleasurable in the last few weeks, including reading, with which has has become completely obsessed. He may even be so obsessed with books that he prefers a pre-bed bottle to a pre-bed drink of milk from Mom, since it is difficult to get any READING done when the main thing in your line of vision is someone’s BOOB. This is a huge about-face on his part.

Trashy Town and Yum Yum Dim Sum are Henry’s two real favorites, in addition to Good Egg. Good Egg is a beautiful and crafty looking book but it is so exciting that my child literally cannot rest when it is in the room, because the thought of making an egg spin around by pulling on a tab is so intensely delightful. And the chicken that pops out at you at the end? With the sharp little arms? Who could sleep?

My Own Intense Delight

When I consider how much the right book can raise my baseline level of happiness I often wonder if it’s the sort of thing that could or should be counted as a problem, simply because reading, when it is good, is so escapist. There are periods of time during which all I want to do is climb into the tub or the bed and just read to the exclusion of all else. And if I wanted to get away from everything to, say, go to a casino, or play internet poker, or if I wanted to escape with drugs, we might see this as a problem.

However, not everything strikes that chord. Unfortunately, it’s awfully rare. But I’ve got a book like that this week!

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott is a book that I’ve owned for years and been unable to sustain an interest in. You may know Lamott from Operating Instructions and or Bird by Bird; if not, then you lucky duck, because two of life’s great pleasures lie ahead of you. The first is a book about her son’s first year, but it’s not syrupy. It’s highly reflective and extremely honest and funny in a jagged way. Bird by Bird is her book about writing that will kick you in the ass.

Lamott also wrote a number of quiet novels about living in the Bay Area that I could never really sink my teeth into. I prefer her nonfiction, but I thought that I’d read all of it that was going to move me, because Traveling Mercies is a collection of essays about Lamott’s conversion to serious Christianity: and she wants to tell you all about it.

While I liked hearing about being an alcoholic, and confessions about what terrible thoughts she had when her baby was colicky, I wasn’t sure that I was ready for something so private and potentially preachy as someone else’s faith — extreme faith. Why did one of my favorite writers have to go and get all Jesusy on us, I have wondered.

Ironically, that’s sort of Lamott’s position, as well. She fought this transformation. Raised as a liberal intellectual, becoming born again was approximately the most embarrassing thing she would have to tell her community. But I guess that ultimately, seriously drunkenness is one of the most expedient paths to Jesus, and she took it.

The essays in Traveling Mercies have had me weeping in public during subway rides for the last few days. One evening I couldn’t find a tissue and since it’s summer, I didn’t even have any sleeves. Still, I kept reading, and kept crying. If it bothered me so much, I could stop reading, but the enjoyment of the book outweighed the shame as well as the practical difficulties of being covered in my own mucous. What’s so good about it? Well, when pressed about what is so good about this book, I’d probably say.

What’s So Good About This Book?

1. Relatability: Because of her brutal honesty about her own character, Lamott is incredibly easy to relate to, which is what makes her nonfiction come alive more than her fiction. Why read her made up characters when she is so good at talking about herself and her child and friends and family? It’s the sort of book that you read and you think — that is how I feel. I am terrible and I know it but I don’t want to deal with it, she says, but then she finds a way to forgive herself, and instead of seeming formulaic, it seems like maybe there are ways to forgive one’s own self, as well.

2. Expert pacing: she is skilled at delivery information in excellent order, with a great weave of action and analysis (and asides, which contextualize the whole thing). For more on the pacing and weave, see below.

3. Expert framing of a topic: if Lamott wants to write about redemption, she’ll start with something funny, interesting, sad, or self-deprecating (largely a combo) from her own life, and move from there into some Larger Lesson, as illuminated by friends or any number of priests or rabbis or other faithful individuals she has come across. And she illuminates her own journey from Point A to Point B in real life parables: epiphanies. And if you’re not a blind faith sort of person, seeing an intellectual’s logical leaps to faith, especially in an emotional and accessible and FUNNY voice, has a real poignancy.

4. Good content: The content is fascinating and close to the bone. Also, these are homilies, in a sense: they are the story parts of church that make you want to connect, told by someone with a real gift for story telling.

Read it. Perhaps I will post a delicious little excerpt later but since I’ve been finding blog posts writing next to impossible lately, I’m going to post this now. You can find some excerpts here, on Amazon, though what it will give you is random and not as curated as excerpts should be. Still, if you are searching — for God or for just a good book — read it.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    August 24, 2010 9:24 am

    Oh, you have made me want to re-read all her (non-fiction) books! She is just so awesome. You can have many things not in common with her (alcoholism, drug addiction, Christianity) and still totally connect with her. Of course, the fact that she’s also a raging liberal helps.

  2. August 24, 2010 12:13 pm

    Maybe I will read this again, or more likely, I will read Bird by Bird again. One of the (great? terrible?) things about reading for escape, at least the way I do it, is that I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. So on the second reading I get a whole new book! Maybe that’s how Henry feels, too? Also, in terms of Lamott’s fiction, I didn’t care much for the One Blue Shoe book or whatever it’s called, but Crooked Little Heart kicked me in the teeth, and then it kicked me in the ass. If you like to weep on the subway, I recommend that one.

  3. Karen permalink
    August 24, 2010 12:24 pm

    While I will never make that leap to faith, as I get older I find that I have more in common with some believers in organized religion- even the “evangelicals,” several of whom I find myself related to by marriage.

    Proselytizing (sp?), right to life debate, existence of god- these are things on which we’ll never agree. But: protecting the earth, protecting the people on it from violence, kindness and compassion, forgiveness (you’ll never think of it the same way again after losing a parent), self-examination and reflection (parenting? anyone?), and just the wisdom and imagination of really old stories- these are all things I can appreciate as I get older.

    My husband went to a very wealthy christian school, which also happened to give him an excellent education in addition to a grounding in the bible. He tends to use this as a weapon in argument against the people with whom we don’t agree- or at least their positions. It makes me wonder if we’ve learned anything from the world’s religions- we’re still fighting wars over it all, large & small. But the personal moments of religion- people interacting with each other, with their own thoughts- I can see some of myself and my values there.

    That said, I’m the mother of a 2 yo- all of my non-fiction Lamott reading happened when I had more brain cells to devote to it…

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