Mar 9, 2011

Operating Instructions

A Journal of My Son's First Year
by Anne Lamott

Rather like Great with Child, this book is gathered from journal entries the author wrote, from the time of her son's birth until he was a year old. But that's where the similarity ends. Where Great with Child was full of introspection and nearly-philosophical musings, Operating Instructions is much more light-hearted, candid and often funny. It's the voice of a single mom struggling to get by, weathering the bumps of new motherhood without the support of the baby's father. At first she feels very alone, often frustrated and fearful; but soon comes to realize that there are plenty of people around her willing to shower her son with love. Friends, family and church members are all there when she needs them. Her journal entries jump around a bit, often with big gaps of time- there's almost nothing about the first few weeks, for instance- but then, who has time to write a lot with a new baby, colicky and up crying all night? It also seems like her insecurities, worries and surges of anger take over the pages- but when you think about it, that's when writing is more cathartic, when you're feeling blue, so I'm not surprised that a journal would be heavier on the negatives than the good days. And there are shining moments when she expresses her deep love for her son and her gratitude for her friends. This was one of my favorite passages, I read it several times:
He's so beautiful, so funny, so incredibly dear, and he smells like God. When Mon or Dudu have to hand him back over to me when they are about to leave, they lean into his airspace and sniff one last time, trying to memorize him, maybe storing a little hit for later.
We all lean into him, soaking him up. It's like he's giving off a huge amount of energy because he hasn't had to start putting up a lot of barriers around it to protect himself. He hasn't had to start channeling it into managing the world and everybody's emotions around him, so he's a pure burning furnace of the stuff. This is my theory, anyway, that he radiates it; it's probably affecting us all like a spray of negative ions, like being in a long hot shower or t the seashore.
For instance,  I notice that the kitty, who like all cats, is a heat freak, stands right next to him all the time. She basks in him...
Some readers might be dismayed at her frequent mention of a difficult past- before having the baby she used drugs, smoked and was an alcoholic. She bemoans missing the relief that drugs and smoking used to give her; it's admirable to me that she managed to kick all those habits and do what was best for herself and her baby. As you might have gathered by now, the book is actually more about the author's own ups and downs than the day-to-day miracles of watching her baby hit his milestones, per se- but I liked reading it all the same. It felt very honest.

I borrowed this book from the library. I feel like I tried to read it several times before, many many years ago; but none of the content was familiar so I must have given up really early way back then. Lamott also writes fiction but I've never read any. Can anyone tell me about them? I liked her voice in this book, so I'm thinking I might enjoy her novels, too.

Rating: 3/5 ......... 251 pages, 1993

more opinions at:
First the Egg
green parenting
Black and white and loved all over
Caroline Bookbinder

4 comments:

Teresa said...

I've read a couple of Lamott's novels and I think all of her nonfiction, and I think she's much better with nonfiction. Her essay collections are her best work, in my opinion. She's really funny and irreverent and honest in those, just as she is in this book. Her novels aren't bad--I liked Crooked Little Hearts quite a bit--but I don't enjoy them nearly as much as I do her nonfiction.

Bybee said...

I prefer Lamott's nonfiction. Her fiction is all right, but I feel as if I've come to know her in her nonfiction so well and although she incorparates parts of her life into her fiction, it feels as if there's a block between reader and author. Also, with fiction, she's dealing with making the trains run on time, so to speak. I remember that one of my favorite lines from Operating Instructions was something about how the baby wouldn't settle down and she was tired and his head kept rising like a cobra or snake or something. I wanted to give a copy of this book to my friend to read while she was pregnant, but I let 9 months zip by. Not too late, though.

Jeane said...

Sounds like I really should read some more of her nonfiction. I didn't know she had a lot more. Thanks for telling me about it!

Gentle Reader said...

I've never read her novels but I love her nonfiction. One of my favorite books about writing is "Bird By Bird", which I think is interesting even if you're not a writer.