EW review: 'Plan' full of funny sermons
By Jennifer Reese
(Entertainment Weekly) -- 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 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.
EW Grade: B+
'The Fabulous Sylvester,' Joshua Gamson
Reviewed by Nicholas Fonseca
Disco diva Sylvester -- an imposing androgyne who scored Top 40 hits like ''You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)'' in the late '70s -- was an almost indescribable figure: the outre outfits, the high-pitched falsetto, the sequined everything.
In "The Fabulous Sylvester," Joshua Gamson writes about the singer's offbeat life in San Francisco with the excitement of an archaeologist screaming ''Eureka!'' at every turn; his prose is playful and furious.
Putting the singer's story into sociological context, Gamson recounts the rousing Sundays of his churchgoing youth in L.A., which influenced his wild stage shows.
He rightly conflates the emergence of disco -- and the backlash that followed -- with the civil/gay/women's rights movements. And he captures the astonishing scope of AIDS with grace and indignation, portraying Sylvester's death in 1988 as if amazed that such a force of nature could ever be defeated.
EW Grade: B+
'Fat Girl,' Judith Moore
Reviewed by Jennifer Reese
Judith Moore's unflinching and profoundly disturbing memoir "Fat Girl" sets a new standard for literature about women and their bodies.
''Narrators of first-person clap-trap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses,'' she writes. ''I won't. I will not endear myself. ... I am not that pleasant.''
Indeed she is not. Moore -- who describes herself variously as a ''short, squat toad of a woman'' and ''a grotesque and grunting hog'' -- writes with terrifying, icy candor about a lifetime of venomous self-hatred inextricably tied to her weight.
Abandoned by her father, abused by her selfish (and slender) mother, she was raised as the ''leftovers from a marriage gone bad.'' Equating food with love, she used to sneak into neighbors' houses and devour the contents of their pantries.
This fiercely unsentimental autobiography brings to life the clammy isolation of irremediable self-loathing. Reading it is a searing and saddening experience, one you will not easily forget -- and will not want to repeat.
EW Grade: A
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