Tag Archives: Anne Lamott

Child Is Father to the Man

Some Assembly Required (nook book)

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Baby by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott (Riverhead Books, $26.95, 288 pages)

I’m a huge fan of Anne Lamott. Having said that, it’s nevertheless hard to fathom who the audience is supposed to be for her most recent memoir, Some Assembly Required. This is the follow-up to Operating Instructions, in which Lamott wrote about the sometimes tense, oftentimes close relationship with her aspiring artist son, Sam. In Assembly, she writes about her first year as a grandmother (“Nana”) to baby Jax, balancing her love for a new male child with the demands of her son’s new life and the often conflicting desires of her daughter-in-law – a young woman who has very strong, opinionated ideas about the best way to raise a child.

The first Scripture reading today was Luke 15, the Prodigal Son. Of course. It’s the only real story – coming back to God, who welcomes us with heartbroken joy, no matter what, every time. I do not get this.

Ask and allow: ask God and allow Grace in.

What makes this memoir odd and often troublesome is that Lamott writes about her strong Christian beliefs (and about such things as the Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit) but frequently does so in language that would cause devoted church goers to blanch. For example, there’s the point at which she thinks about taking her son aside to say “something spiritual like ‘Shape the f–k up!'”. The latter type of language is going to draw the interest of some young, alienated college students – possibly a new audience for the writer, but they may be alienated by the countless references to God in the traditional religious sense.

And then things get even worse, as the memoir detours in another direction. Notwithstanding her Christianity, Lamott writes about traveling to India in a seemingly sideways search to find the meaning of life:

We were on the Ganges at five in the morning, in a riverboat in the fog. One image that had called me to India for years, besides the Taj Mahal, was a dawn visit to the Ganges on a riverboat, for the sunrise.

How does all of this come together in a manner that makes some sense? Well, it doesn’t. Reading Assembly is like reading the diary or journal notes of someone whose life heads in all directions at once, without meaning or apparent purpose. If Anne Lamott does not seem to know how to tie the loose ends of her life together, then – trust me – the reader is certainly unable to do so.

Some Assembly Required reads like an overly-rough draft of a memoir that screamed out for a very talented editor – a figure that apparently failed to appear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Coming Attractions (2012)

Here’s a sampling of new and upcoming books that might well wind up on the to-be-read stack.

The Bungalow: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; December 27, 2011)

We loved The Violets of March by Sarah Jio and thought it was one of the best debut novels of 2011.   Now Jio returns with a quite different type of story set in Bora Bora during World War II.   Wrote reader Laura Bolin on Amazon: “The Bungalow was an old black and white movie straight out of my grandparent’s generation.   I was swept away by Jio’s vivid descriptions and I loved every minute of it.”

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell; January 3, 2012)

An entertaining story about an almost-retired counselor who tries to help a group of four women – all of whom have serious pending matters with the legal system – manage their anger issues in court-ordered group counseling sessions.   The women will have to graduate from the group in order to return  to their normal lives.   Oh, and they don’t like each other at all – which means that the counselor is going to have to take some drastic (and perhaps even professionally unethical) actions in order to get them to a kinder and gentler place.

Gun Games: A Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow; January 3, 2012)

Faye Kellerman once again showcases Peter Decker of the Los Angeles Police Department and Rina Lazarus, likely the most popular husband and wife team in modern crime fiction.   A series of shocking adolescent suicides at an elite L. A. private school is at the heart of this thriller.   As if this isn’t enough, there’s  also the fact that Decker and Lazarus have brought a very troubled teenager into their home: Gabriel Whitman, the son of a psychopath.

The Confession: A Novel by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow; January 12, 2012)

An historical crime novel, continuing Charles Todd’s World War I veteran, and yet still highly effective Scotland Yard Inspector, Ian Rutledge.   Rutledge struggles with a startling and dangerous case that reaches far back into the past when a false confession by a man who was not who he claimed to be resulted in a brutal murder.

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster; February 7, 2012)

Not to be confused with Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, this is a moving memoir about a boy born with a defective heart – located on the right side of his chest – who weathers major heart surgeries before being hit with a highly unique, perhaps untreatable disease.   Those who years ago read Death Be Not Proud may be drawn to this account.

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (Wm. Morrow; February 7, 2012)

Kate’s an ambitious – if self-damaging – reporter who goes undercover.   She enters a drug and alcohol rehab clinic to find out what’s happening with the popular and troubled young actress Amber Shepard.   “Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way…”

The Lola Quartet: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; May 15, 2012)

We gave a highly recommended rating to Mandel’s 2010 novel The Singer’s Gun, which was as gutsy as it was unique and engaging.   Her third novel examines “questions of identity, the deep pull of family, the difficulties of being the person one wants to be, the un-reliability of memory, and the unforeseen ways a small and innocent action can have disastrous consequences.”   It’s bound to be worth the price of admission.

Joseph Arellano

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The Best Book of 2010-2011

In 2009, this site selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   Last year, my selection for book of the year was American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.   This time I decided to do something different, which is to select the best book I read between January of 2010 and the end of December 2011.   It happens to be a book that I read prior to its release, and it was first published in hardbound form on April 6, 2010; re-released as a trade paper book on April 5, 2011.

My personal and subjective choice as the best book of 2010-2011 is Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott.   Here is my review.

Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Press, $15.00, 336 pages)

“I try to write the books I would love to come upon…”   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogeyman away by writing about people who are like her, except that  maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

“Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.”   Rumi

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of  her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…  Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a dead little animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…  Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A pre-publication review copy was received from the publisher.   “Powerful and painfully honest…  Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.”   The New York Times  

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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7 Questions

We are here continuing our interview with writer Maddie Dawson, author of The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel.   In this concluding part of the interview, the questions were asked by Joseph Arellano (JA) and Kimberly Caldwell (KC).

4.  JA:   When I was writing music reviews in college, I loved to read interviews in which musicians cited their influences, idols and role models.   (I would then go and listen to those other musicians to see if I could hear the connections.)   With this in mind, which authors come to mind when you think about who has influenced you?

MD:   I love writers who really explore the complexities of relationships and the inner lives of their characters – writers like Alice Munro, Amy Bloom, and Anne Tyler.   (Hmmm, a lot of A’s there.)   I also love so much of Jane Smiley’s work, particularly her early novels – and I love Anne Proulx’s short stories and her descriptions.   I believe that life is a  mix of humor and pathos, that the hilarious gets mixed in with the mundane and the tragic on a daily basis, so I adore the work (particularly the non-fiction) of Anne Lamott who is just so honest and real.   I love the wordplay and intelligence of Lorrie Moore’s work, and I’m constantly awed by the humorous work of modern male writers like Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Tropper.

5.  JA:   Is there a particular novel that you’ve read in 2010/2011 that seemed to be exemplary or mind-blowing?

MD:   I’m so glad you asked this question, because I was completely blown away by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.   The complexities of that novel, the ins and outs of the plot, the depth of the characters:  I found it truly mind-blowing.

6.  JA:   What’s either the best or the hardest thing about publicizing your own work?

MD:   Ack!   Getting the word out about a book is such a huge task for authors these days.   I love some aspects of it – the social media stuff, the connecting with readers, the skype-ing with book groups and the constant feedback from people who have comments.   But other aspects are harder for me:  keeping up a blog and being interesting when really my head and heart are with my new characters and my new book, which is just coming into being.

7.  KC:   Are you working on a new book and, if so, what is the premise?

MD:   I am working on a new book.   It’s the story of a woman who, at 43, discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, just as she and her long-term boyfriend agree to a separation so she can care for her 88-year-old grandmother who is suddenly having little strokes.   It’s a story about the risks we take in loving, and the way that you can’t ever truly predict what your life will be.   I think all my work is basically about finding our true lives and our real families, and the ways in which we can be surprised by the life that finds us when we’ve gone ahead and made other plans, to paraphrase John Lennon.

Note:  Part One of this interview (The Author’s Perspective; click on the link in the Recent Entries column on the right to read it) was posted on this site on August 30, 2011.   Maddie Dawson’s novel, The Stuff That Never Happened, is now available as a trade paperback release.

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Suburban Dreams

Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe (Harper Perennial; June 29, 2010)

This is the first novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe and it may gain her admission into the club of today’s best women writers.   At one point in Commuters, a character goes on vacation and takes with her “a satisfyingly quiet Anne Tyler novel.”   Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, and Jennifer Weiner are just three of the popular authors whose influence can be observed in Commuters.

Commuters deals with the lives of individuals who, while they live in a quiet one-square-mile suburb, are only a train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.   It is also about the way people’s lives change – sometimes instantly – when their partners and family members experience tragedy or opportunity.

The story begins with the marriage of seventy-eight-year-old Winnie Easton to Jerry Travis, a wealthy businessman from Chicago.   Winnie and Jerry (a widow and widower) had met once while both were in their twenties attending a wedding, and now each is taking a chance on this late in life pairing.   For Winnie, the act of getting married to Jerry may be her first taste of true freedom:  “She had married once because it was a good match, mostly for her parents and his…  But now she found herself about to do something that felt like the first thing she’d ever done on her own…  She was marrying a man for the delicious and wicked and simple reason that she wanted to.”

Winnie and Jerry’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws all, of course, have their own strong opinions about the wisdom of their joining together for better or worse.   In Commuters, the story is told from Winnie’s viewpoint; from that of her distracted and tired daughter Rachel (whose one-time lawyer husband has recovered from a serious accident); from the perspective of her angry daughter-in-law Annette, who views Winnie as an opportunistic gold-digger; and from the perspective of Avery, Jerry’s troubled grandson.

Each of these individuals has hopes and dreams – Avery for example wants to be the owner-chef of his own restaurant in Brooklyn – which may rely, in part, on securing some of Jerry’s fortune via inheritance.   Winnie becomes a wild card thrown into the game that forces everyone to scramble and re-evaluate their positions vis-a-vis Jerry.   The well-planned timetables for getting on Jerry’s good side are now thrown out of whack; even more so when Annette elects to sue her father for the control of his business and Jerry’s mental and physical health begins to fade.

Tedrowe does a remarkable job of telling this story from four different perspectives.   All sound like true voices and a wrong note is never heard.   The author incorporates a couple of sex scenes in a way that is subtle, unlike so many of today’s popular fiction writers who drop in such scenes in an attempt to enliven boring narratives.

Each of the narrators in Commuters encounters either unexpected opportunity or tragedy, regardless of their age, maturity or economic standing in life.   This novel informs us that dealing with family and dealing with money are two equal challenges.   And then there’s the matter of love, which does always win in the end.

Commuters also tells us that we’re seeing the emergence of a great new talent in Tedrowe.   Let us hope that she keeps up her craft.   If so, her name may one day be mentioned alongside that of another highly gifted writer, Anne Lamott.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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