Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Imperfect Birds, by Anne Lamott

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, I like better than to sink my teeth into Anne Lamott's non-fiction stories. Lamott has a genius for finding just the right words to shine a light on the shadowiest, wormiest parts of us - the parts we all strive to hide. In the warmth of this light she creates a sense - within the messiness of our shared flaws - of our shared humanity. There is the glow of a higher power at play in her writing, one that flickers from the acknowledgment of the vast distance that lies between the kind of person we strive to be, and the person we actually end up being - how we fall short, day after day, on life's journey.

Lamott and I have a few things in common, so I have always felt a kindred spirit with her. We both grew up around the San Francisco Bay Area, and each sport somewhat troubling histories of risk-taking in our younger years as we learned to navigate the transition to adulthood. Yes, there were drugs, and also, in her case, a long-lasting love affair with alcohol. So it has always deeply troubled me that I haven't found the same wonderment in Lamott's works of fiction that I have in her non-fiction books. Still, I know my fiction gene is underdeveloped, so I have blamed myself for not finding joy in her fiction, and kept this disappointment as my own dark, dirty secret. I awaited my copy of "Imperfect Birds," a little nervous, yet eager to break through and find the delight she's so famous for in her non-fiction.

So, I'm still struggling here. There is so much that I "got" in this story. I saw (and related to) the protagonist, Rosie, a crazy, manipulative, drug abusing teen, and her pain. I saw, and unfortunately related to, Elizabeth, Rosie's over-identifying mother, as she time and time again buys into the lies that Rosie tells her. But there is something missing for me in Lamott's storytelling, and I just don't know what it is. There is lots of "telling" in this novel, lots of interior dialogue, and maybe that just wasn't enough action to keep the story moving along enough to hold me. None of the characters were particularly likable, and perhaps this was only an issue because neither Rosie's mother or step-father felt completely fleshed out, and realistic.

A few days ago author Mona Simpson came to speak at Butler. The one remark that I held with me spoke to how authors should strive to be the best at whatever it is they do. She gave the example of the uber-popular David Sedaris, who writes twisty and twisted essays on his take on life. Perhaps what Lamott does best is non-fiction, her own essays on the frustrations of life and all there is to learn from the struggle and pain that life brings us.

Below is a link to a recent interview with Lamott posted on, where she was a columnist for some time. It pains me to say this, but to be honest, I enjoyed the interview more than her new novel.

Anne Lamott's parental guidance

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