Book Review: Some Assembly Required
Author: Anne Lamott
Publisher: Riverhead / Penguin
Length: 272 pages
Quote: “I brought Jax up here in his baby backpack last week. I won’t be able to carrry him much longer.”
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Twenty years ago (allowing for the delay of the publishing process), Anne Lamott published Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Now her grown-up son has collaborated in writing Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son.
Like Lamott’s first nonfiction book, this one takes us through one year of grotty baby stories, plus the stories of the adults who help raise the baby. In Operating Instructions Lamott hadn’t been sober for very many years, and her best friend was dying of breast cancer. In Some Assembly Required Lamott loses an old uncle, her son and daughter-in-law are “too young” and still working out their own relationships with each other and their vocations, and Lamott’s self-imposed assignment is to step back and let the young parents be adults...toward which goal friends take Lamott on tours of Europe and Asia.
Of course, they’re all trendy San Francisco types. Apparently the grandson’s legal name is not John, Jacob, Jacques, or even Jack, but Jax. Some days his parents go to the little multiethnic, left-wing Presbyterian church Lamott has made famous, where several of the older ladies and gentlemen helped to feed and rear Sam Lamott, and some days they go to meditation sessions with some people from India whom Sam Lamott picked up on the street one afternoon. It’s still 2009; Lamott is still able to bond with taxi drivers by chanting “I love Obama!” This is not what the Southern Baptist Republicans in my home town expect a “Christian Book” to be, but it is nevertheless a deeply Christian book.
Not, of course, to the exclusion of anybody. There’s a Jewish relative-by-marriage (a “bagelly,” as opposed to Orthodox, Jew), the neo-Buddhist meditation group, a Jesuit who deliberately teases Lamott and feminist readers with a bit of unholy and theologically incorrect sexism, a Peace Corps volunteer, an onion-domed Orthodox Church, an atheist, and what a pity that the look-like-America Lamott clan doesn’t seem to include any Muslims at the moment; but stay tuned. Christians are, after all, the salt of the world, never directed to socialize exclusively with fellow believers.
And it’s a pro-life document, in its left-wing way. Anne Lamott has never written anything blaming those who “choose” abortion (many of whom, according to accounts from the front, are not pregnant women, but reluctant fathers, bossy social workers, and people who don’t want to be grandparents). She has apparently never voted against legalizing, and doesn't mention it if she's voted against subsidizing, abortion. She just joined this church where people quietly slipped money into her pockets and donated hours of baby-sitting time when she was a sick, broke single mother. And writes about how she loves, to the point of compulsion or even addiction, the “untimely” first grandchild some fifty-somethings would have bullied Sam and Amy into rejecting. Of course it’s hard for Sam to stay in school while raising his son; every other time Sam and Amy are mentioned, Lamott seems to notice how tired they both are—but hard things are valuable. Three generations of adult Lamotts, in this book, celebrate the love and blessing of a child born to teenaged students.
What’s not to love about this book? Well...if I want to be picky and cranky, I can say that that Old Left version of Christianity Lite, though real and vibrant for the newly sober addicts in Operating Instructions, seems less adequate for the full-grown Christians in Some Assembly Required. Instead of building solid respect for her daughter-in-law, or getting to know the people who might really be able to help the beggars she meets in India, Lamott is still stuck in a self-focussed effort to maintain a bland emotional affect. Of course she doesn’t really stay stuck in that miserable me-me-me-and-my-little-feelings mode. She does, in fact, do something to fix the facts. She goes back to her own work; she writes this book. And maybe if she’d put in more words about the writing process and fewer words about a merely negative attempt to practice Buddhist-type detachment (which is not, in fact, a Christian duty) this book would have been better written.
Maybe. Then again: was Some Assembly Required a disappointing read? It was not. Did I laugh? I did. Did I go “Awww”? I did. Did I think, “Dang, this writer’s good”? I did; only not as often as I did during Grace Eventually. Do I think, in the end, that Some Assembly Required has been a world-class affirmation of life as a beautiful choice? I do. And Lamott’s emotionalism and self-blame is not only disarming and amusing, but instructive when she’s exposing the real motives of those who push new mothers to hurry back to work and give other people more baby-sitting time.
Who should read this book? Anyone who is or might become a parent, grandparent, foster parent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or baby-sitter should definitely read this book. Also monastic people, who need the insights into what they’ve missed for their writing, teaching, counselling, and/or praying. Teachers and social workers should be required to copy it by hand.
Should anyone not read this book? Those suffering from acute nausea may want to postpone reading a book that contains descriptions of infants and diapers. However, Jax is a breast-fed baby, so a believable, honest description of him isn’t nearly as icky as an honest account of an infant fed on cows’ milk. I find only two gross-outs in Some Assembly Required.
Although warmly recommended, this one won’t be a Fair Trade Book for a few years. Buy it new; don’t you want to read the book in which Anne and Sam Lamott, who have taken so much charity and done so much with it, talk about what to do with their own surplus income?