Tell Me Less | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Tell Me Less 

Rebecca Walker and Anne Lamott don't get that some thoughts are best kept private

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BABY LOVE: CHOOSING MOTHERHOOD AFTER A LIFETIME OF AMBIVALENCE | REBECCA WALKER (RIVERHEAD)

GRACE (EVENTUALLY): THOUGHTS ON FAITH | ANNE LAMOTT (RIVERHEAD)

Rebecca Walker
WHEN Fri 3/30, 7:30 PM
WHERE Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark
INFO 773-769-9299

We're living in the too-much-information age. From confessional blogs and memoirs to celebutantes flashing their chochas, putting your business on the street has never been more acceptable or lucrative. It's a state of affairs that seems to have gotten the best of Rebecca Walker and Anne Lamott, writers who in the past have been able to tell the difference between candid and insipid. Their latest books both fall flat for the same reason: they tell us too much about the wrong stuff, mistakenly assuming we care.

Ever since she arrived in the mid-90s as one of the loudest voices of third-wave feminism, Walker has formed her every thesis on the basis of personal experience. When it comes to identity politics, her life as a biracial, bisexual woman has provided her with some strong arguments. But in her new memoir, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, her level of self-regard is staggering. An account of her first pregnancy, the book is posited as an attempt to successfully reconcile the traditional role of motherhood with lifelong feminist beliefs in freedom and independence. But apart from a few breezy passages of rhetoric in the first chapter, Walker barely touches the notion, instead subjecting us to a dull, puerile exhibition of her own baggage.

Baby Love reads less like a book than a compendium of mass e-mails Walker might've sent to let distant friends know how her second trimester was going. Her aimless and chatty rants should be instantly familiar to anyone who's killed an afternoon randomly cycling through Blogspot accounts. "Heartbeat! Oh my God. The most outrageous thing I have ever heard," she writes of her second prenatal exam. "Dr. Lowen was completely unimpressed, and she's allowed considering she hears a gajillion baby heartbeats a day." But her dumbstruck awe at the miracle of life doesn't temper her righteous indignation when a nurse offers her a complimentary diaper bag full of formula samples and coupons. "I could take the appreciative and noncynical tack, but I can't believe doctors allow themselves to be the middlemen and women for these companies. . . . It's like commercials at the movies times a hundred."

Oddly enough, Walker's pregnancy observations aren't nearly as embarassing as the way she unpacks her relationship with her own mother, writer Alice Walker. Without a hint of tact, she hangs their dirty laundry out for all to see. It's reprehensible for one very basic reason: her mother is still among the living. But if you ask me, it's just poor form to bad-mouth your mama in public, period. It doesn't matter if she sent you crazy e-mails and threw away everything you left in her vacation cottage or threatened to discredit passages of your writing on Salon--dishing the sordid details for no discernible reason other than embarrassing or punishing her just reflects poorly on you.

Anne Lamott tackled motherhood in 1993 with Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. Told from her perspective as a recovering alcoholic, it succeeded in all the ways Baby Love fails. It was canny, off-the-cuff, and very, very funny. Lamott's made a career of turning embarrassing anecdotes about her neuroses and foibles into larger ruminations on sobriety, life, death, and faith. Reading her is like reading a version of the AA Big Book written by Erma Bombeck's evil twin.

With Grace (Eventually), her third book on faith (the first, Traveling Mercies, is a contemporary classic of recovery literature), Lamott is as willing as ever to lay bare the unflattering particulars of her life. The problem is she's started taking our interest in them for granted. That's the thing about getting sober and finding God: the more you get a handle on sanity and peace, the less remarkable your drama becomes. Here, Lamott's not just angry with her friends or her son or her mother--there's also that kid who accidentally kicks her and the asshole who sells her that gross rug. The final chapter is a story about a terse e-mail she sent to people at her church over some confusion involving a credit-card receipt for a rented moonwalk. It's a minor dustup corrected with an apology, and so completely lacking in gravity or humor that you wonder how desperate Lamott must have been for material.

Lamott has always been adept at confronting habits and traits that would seem to be hardwired--a process you deal with whether you're in recovery or simply growing up--and then quickly reminding us that, even at our most wretched, we are all children of God. Amen. But the pressure she says she's felt trying to reclaim her faith from the Christian right during back-to-back Bush presidencies seems to have given her a shrill edge, one that undercuts her usual moral of repentance and redemption and leaves her audience with little incentive to turn the next page.

In the end, neither Lamott nor Walker manages to turn the nuts and bolts of the human grind into a structure that can keep us all afloat. They treat us like confidants rather than readers, unloading the kind of minutiae and tooth gnashing best reserved for the therapist's office or end-of-the-day bitch sessions with a best friend. But therapists get paid to listen. Friends are invested in one another. No one else wants to hear it.

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