In four sparkling, idiosyncratic books of nonfiction, novelist Anne Lamott has married a razor-sharp wit to a disarming spiritual sincerity. Operating Instructions, Lamott’s beautiful and brutally honest 1993 account of her first year as a single parent, should be required reading for high-strung new mothers, married or not. And her jewel-like 1994 Bird by Bird — a nearly perfect work — offers some of the tartest, wisest advice on the writing life ever published.
In 1999, Lamott first wrote explicitly about her religious faith in Traveling Mercies. Since her early 30s, Lamott, now in her 50s, has fervently embraced a progressive, universalist Northern California brand of Christianity, which is to say she frequently asks herself what Jesus would do — but also wears a red cotton bracelet blessed by the Dalai Lama, quotes the Sufi poet Rumi, and talks about karma. This is enough to make some readers reflexively roll their eyes, but that would be a mistake. Though she has some of the trappings of a New Age flake, Lamott is a ferociously smart, droll, and original writer who has been chronicling an uncommonly openhearted struggle to lead a sane and moral life, drawing judiciously from whatever traditions speak sense to her.
Rooted in Lamott’s daily life as a mother, daughter, churchgoer, and self-described ”raging insecure narcissist,” most of the 24 pieces in her rambling and generous new book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, first appeared in the online magazine Salon. They read like quirky, anecdotal sermons, some a little too pat, others transcendently lovely, all of them very, very funny.
Lamott has always been a reliably honest witness to the parental experience, readily copping to the big emotions — towering maternal rage, boredom, ardent love — rarely addressed in child-rearing manuals. Her evolving relationship with her son, Sam, now a teenager, anchors the book. In ”Adolescence,” her precise, minute-by-minute dissection of one of their battles, she captures the heady mix of fury, guilt, and self-righteousness that accompanies the fight. Even as she shouts and swears, you can watch Lamott trying to think and feel her way out of the mess, a fascinating glimpse of someone trying to make moral decisions under fire.
Other pieces strike a lighter note. The fizzy ”Cruise Ship” describes a trip to the Caribbean, and Lamott’s ongoing attempts to be less self-critical. Her approach to making peace with her body — decorating her thighs with temporary tattoos and thanking them for carrying her around all these years — is the sanest, not to mention the sweetest, I have recently encountered. (If you think that sounds silly, have you watched a spinning class lately?)
But Lamott has started to wear out some of her material: She’s learned enough lessons from brave people dying of cancer. Whether or not you agree with Lamott’s left-leaning political views, her attempts to stop ”scorning my president” fall flat. Trying to love George W. Bush as Jesus would have (”the single most subversive position I could take”) feels like an easy comic stunt from a writer capable of much more exacting, exquisite, and revealing emotional reporting.