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Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son

Anne Lamott Tackles Grandparenting in Her Own Inimical Style

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Anne Lamotts Some Assembly Required is an unusual take on becoming a grandmother.

The son who was the subject of Lamott's book Operating Instructions makes Lamott a grandmother and inspires a new book.

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Anne Lamott is a card. My grandmother might have called her a case. My granddaughter would probably characterize her as a hot mess, although I'm still not sure exactly what that means. What I do know is that Lamott is a colorful character and a gifted writer with quite a few followers. That Lamott has (a) become a grandmother and (b) written a book about it is big news in some circles. Put me in one of those circles.

The Back Story

If you're not an Anne Lamott fan, you may not know her story. The daughter of a writer, Lamott took to the writing life but also became an alcoholic and drug user. She stumbled--probably literally--upon a church, St. Andrew, in one of the poorest areas of San Francisco. If Lamott were a conventional character telling a conventional story, she would have immediately sobered up, but no. In an interview with Barnes and Noble.com in 1999, she said, "I had this wonderful year or so of believing in God, in really having a personal connection with God, and at the same time being stoned a lot."

In 1986 Lamott did get clean and sober. In 1989 she gave birth to a baby boy, Sam. Operating Instructions, sometimes referred to as her breakout book, chronicles Sam's first year. It was followed by a series of books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly dealing with questions of faith.

Fast forward to 2008, when Lamott learns that Sam and his girlfriend, Amy Tobias, are expecting, news that fills her with conflicting emotions. Sam would be a father at 19. Lamott "knew what Sam was in for. It was like having a terminal illness, but in a good way." Some Assembly Required is the matching bookend, the account of the first year of Lamott's grandson's life, written with help from her son Sam.

On With the Story

Some Assembly Required starts with the momentous news and quickly gets to the birthing. After 18 hours of labor, Amy requires a C-section, an event which Lamott captures in prose that blends the sacred and the mundane. She and the other grandmother-to-be "writhed around and read the sacred texts of crisis--People and the National Enquirer--and ate the temple foods--Cheetos and M & Ms." When Lamott finally sees her grandson, Jax, he is "gorgeous as God or a crescent moon."

That incandescent moment soon gives way to reality. In the aftermath of the birth Sam and Amy and the baby, with Amy's mother Trudy, all stay at Lamott's San Francisco home. Amy is in pain from the C-section and pampering her "now gigantic 36G breasts." The new parents are "vaporous and otherworldly from fatique," but using what energy they have to quarrel. As Lamott and Jax stroll around the house one day, they come upon the couple locked in argument. "Just then I wished I had a gun so Jax and I could shoot our way out of this messy situation, and then I remembered: Oh, wait--they're the parents. Rats."

The Grandparent Dilemma

It's the essential grandparent conflict: How can I love this little person so much and yet have so little control over what happens to him? Lamott's strong personality and the youth of the parents cause her to lean toward taking charge. But the parents of Jax are up to the challenge, as they let her know time and time again that Jax is their son. The conflict that informs the book concerns where Jax will end up living. Amy's parents live in North Carolina, but she also has family and roots in Chicago. Lamott is terrified through most of the book that she will become a long-distance grandparent. Every time that the two get on a plane and fly away for a visit, she is paralyzed with fear.

Whenever Lamott can't cope, she calls upon one of her many spiritual advisers. I loved meeting this eclectic stable of mentors and hearing their quirky counsel. From Doug: "Lower the bar of expectations." Then there's Lamott's explanation of her mentor Bonnie's Theater A--"where we see goodness in everything"--and Theater B. "Theater B is where I watch a movie about how this exquisite baby could ruin Sam's academic career, if the baby even lives, and Sam could end up at the rescue mission and so on." Every grandparent is conversant with Theaters A and B, and most of us spend a lot of time in Theater B.

The Bottom Line

Anne Lamott books are sort of like black coffee or stinky cheese: an acquired taste. Those who like them just have to have their fix ever so often. Those who don't like them don't understand the appeal. I've definitely acquired the taste. Like another 2012 release, Wondrous Child, Some Assembly Required has a definite West Coast feel, but the experiences of grandparents are universal enough that most of us can relate.

Lamott is loads of fun on the printed page, as well as being intermittently thought-provoking and occasionally profound. Her son Sam is listed on the cover--"with Sam Lamott"--but the addition of Sam as an author mainly adds a nice symmetry. Lamott as a grandmother is the real attraction.

The bottom line on Some Assembly Required is this: If you're wedded to the idea that a grandmother, or a Christian, behaves in a certain way, you should take a pass on Anne Lamott. The rest of us are going to go right on enjoying her. I'm sure that Lamott can be a royal pain as a mother-in-law or a friend. But as a on-the-bookshelf buddy, she's top shelf.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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