A Mother's Book Review: Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott
I first read Anne Lammot's Traveling Mercies in 1999. I was a senior in high school. I remember loving it. I remember recommending it to everyone I knew. I loved her honesty, humor, and self deprecation. I don't know, maybe I just loved that she was a Christian who could throw around the f-word casually, and purposefully.
I have since changed my mind about Anne Lamott. What was once a distant respect and awe for a woman who seemed so spiritually and personally together (in all her admitted neuroses), has turned into annoyance without pity. As a mother, but even more importantly, as a daughter-in-law with the only grandkids in both sides of the family, this book, at times, angered me.
This book is the non-fiction, journal style follow up to Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1994). When her son, Sam, becomes a father at eighteen, Lamott journals first year of her grandson's life.
Sam and Amy, the parents of little Jax, are both young, unmarried, unemployed, and living in San Fransico, within minutes of Lamott. This means Neurotic Nana has plenty of time to spend with the growing boy, and even more time to complain about how nothing seems to be going her way.
The book is filled with Lamott's usual amount of rambling about different friends, family, and important people who come and go--each complete with overzealous praise of the unparallelled inner beauty and awesomeness of each person with whom she's chosen to be close. The book also chronicles two trips, one to India, one to Europe, where Lamott glamorizes everything from poverty to materialism through the eyes of all encompassing spirituality and humanism. And like every other first time grandmother, she chronicles the greatness of every poop, every fart noise, every inch of movement, and every brilliant milestone of physical, emotional, or mental growth--weekly--in Jax.
There are also, sprinkled throughout the personal journal entries, several interviews with her son Sam as well as emails from various friends and family.
What I Liked
November 27 Entry: "Letter to Jax on the Secret of Life"
Despite my general anger and annoyance, I admit that various moments in the book did bring a smile to face or a small chuckle to my lips. This entry, however, was by far the best in the entire book. In it, she explains to Jax that sometime around 2nd grade he will feel like he missed the day in school when the "grown-ups" came in and explained "everything important to the kids." She then goes on to reassure him that he missed no such day in school, and that the secret to life is knowing that everyone else feels equally unprepared for everything.
This lack of instruction manual is how most people develop compassion... otherwise you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others...I know exactly one other thing that I hope will be useful: that when electrical things stop working properly, ninety percent of the time you can fix them by unplugging the cord for two or three minutes. I'm sure there is a useful metaphor here.
What I Did Not Like
- Her extreme insecurity and selfishness is sometimes joked about, sometimes hyperbolized, and other times lied about. But the thickness of it in this book is nauseating. It was forgivable, in previous books, when she seemed to be affecting no one but herself.
- Her portrayal of her relationship with Amy, the mother of Jax, seems highly contrived. Throughout the book, Amy, though frequently referred to as "the mother," is never given a place of importance as such. In fact, it seems Lamott just looks at her as the incubator, then feeding breast, and then, pretty much just in the way of her time with the grandson. She attempts to balance her obvious scorn for Amy (simply as something that prevents her from having Jax all to herself) with what comes across as disingenuous compliments of very random things, like her physical beauty, or moments she seems to be "getting it" as a mother. I could not empathize with Lamott. I could only empathize with Amy, who is so rarely given a voice in all this.
- Meanwhile, Sam, the baby's father, is exactly one notch below Jesus Christ himself, in his mother's eyes. There is a glaring contrast between her portrayal of Amy as the mother and Sam as the father. Sam could not be more perfect. He could not be more strong, beautiful, smart, nor grown-up, all of a sudden. Lamott's pride in her own flesh and blood serves to further steamroll Amy. Basically, Jax's mother is painted as both unnecessary and redundant, while his father continues to bring Lamott to tears of joy and awe.
It was difficult to review this book with any sort of format or structure, because the book itself, aside from being chronological, lacks so much structure. In many ways, I again appreciated Lamott's honesty, because though many of her thoughts sound like they are meant to be exaggerated for humor, I don't actually believe she exaggerates much. I also believe that she's admitting thoughts and feelings that every single Grandmother on Earth has probably felt.
What I don't like, however, is the sense of entitlement she has because she's finally graduated to grandmother. Perhaps my thoughts will change one day when my own children have children, but right now, I do not believe that grandparenthood equals an automatic ticket to "I get to do whatever I want with and for this child, despite what his parents might ask of me..." Or, the worse attitude projected is, "It's all about me because clearly I love him [Jax] the most." And even when she behaves, and succombs to the wishes of the parents (Amy mostly) or circumstances she cannot control, she complains about it, sends guilt-trips out like teenaged pheremones, and generally acts the most childish of everyone in the situation.
This book was enlightening, but exhausting, and more than anything, I wanted a moment to sit down with Amy to listen to her side of things.