Anne Lamott's "Almost Everything: Notes on Hope" is another distillation of the author’s life philosophy.
As a gift to her grandson and niece, novelist and nonfiction writer Lamott sets out to record “everything I know about almost everything.” The result is an obsessively inward-focusing hodgepodge of life stories, advice and ramblings. Though hope is the author’s tagline and even the title of her concluding chapter, readers find her struggling through virtually every life event, buried in anxieties. Lamott explains early on that she was struck to hear a child say the words, “I has (sic) value.” She realized that it “would have completely changed my life had I heard and internalized (that idea) as a child.” The incident serves to clarify the author’s central struggle: a lifelong search for self-value. Her writing cries out for an internal peace she cannot find. In a chapter on family, she focuses mainly on conflict with her uncle, whom she once called “a scumbutt” in a moment of anger, which affected her for decades. In a chapter on God, which the author defines in a number of nebulous ways, she focuses on an atheist friend who committed suicide. Another chapter is centered entirely around dieting and body image, revealing another self-esteem pitfall, and Lamott devotes an entire chapter to her unabashed hatred of Donald Trump — though she refuses to use his name, as if she were discussing Voldemort. The author’s view of life is often depressing; she refers to it as “this sometimes grotesque amusement park,” and she answers the question “how did we all get so screwed up?” with “life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up.”
Those who enjoy Lamott’s consistently self-deprecating humor, vulnerability and occasional nuggets of positivity will enjoy her latest; others will be adrift.
(Lamott will speak and sign her book at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at First Baptist Church. Event is sold out. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Universal tales of immigration
Historian and novelist Richard Slotkin writes more personally in "Greenhorns," a collection of linked semifictional stories based on his ancestors’ immigration from Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.
Slotkin makes clear that these stories are based on a range of experiences within his own family. “The Gambler” is about a poker-playing butcher in pre–World War II Brooklyn who's still questioning his decision to emigrate in 1902 without his wife and sons and then not send for them until he felt financially ready four years later, and it sets up the challenges explored throughout the book: the impossible choices faced by immigrants like the butcher, who feels that “in winning he lost”; why some immigrants adapt while others can’t; the emotional cost of leaving one’s homeland, however inhospitable it’s become. Slotkin’s only female protagonist, sophisticated Upper West Sider Cousin Bella, is also unique in the wealth and education she enjoyed as a girl on what the immigrants here call “The Other Side.” Whether thanks to her early advantages or the steady resilience she inherited from her father, she successfully remakes herself in America after her father’s brutal murder by czarist forces during the Russian Revolution. In "Honor," by contrast, a formerly successful grain merchant fails to adapt in America, clinging to values like trust and honor that betray him once he loses the trappings of success. As if Slotkin is arguing Talmudically with himself, that same value system works to several immigrants’ advantage in the next story, "The Milkman," in which the title character defines what it is to be a mensch, a good man, whose trust and honor bring unexpected rewards to himself and others. Then comes a counterpunch to optimism, the all-too-relevant tragedy “Uncle Max and Cousin Yossi,” examining the permanent emotional damage caused when a 4-year-old boy is violently wrenched from his family and thought dead only to reappear months later. The humor of Slotkin’s end piece, “Greenhorn Nation: A History in Jokes,” is pointed to say the least.
Painful, riveting, personal and powerfully universal.