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Review: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

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Title: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Author: Anne Lamott
Genre: Memoir/Personal Essays
Year: 1999
Acquired: Rating: ★★★★½

One Sentence Summary: In this memoir, Lamott explores moments that test faith and explore her own quirky relationship with God.

One Sentence Review: If you can enjoy Lamott’s neurotic but open personality, Traveling Mercies is a joy to read.

Long Review: Anne Lamott’s reflections on faith and spirituality begin with a story called “Overture: Lily Pads.” In it, Lamott explores the moments in her life when her sense of faith drastically changed. She moves from her childhood and friends and the impact they had on her growing faith to eventually finding her place in a quiet church with her son, Sam. Each of these moments, a time when Lamott felt like she reached a realization, serve as a safe space — a lily pad — between times of uncertainty. The rest of the book explores Lamott’s continuing struggle to understand God and religion and how she fits into the world.

One of the first things to talk about with this book is whether it’s a religious book or not. In topic, probably, but in spirit I think it’s more broad than that. Certainly, Lamott’s religious conversions and experiences make up the bulk of the story, but the faith she has now doesn’t dogmatic or pushy or unwilling to accept other beliefs. The book isn’t about any particular religion, but rather one woman’s journey to find a faith that works for her. If that idea doesn’t work for you — perhaps because you think there is one correct religion or because you don’t believe in having faith — then the book might not be for you.

I’ve admired Lamott ever since I read her memoir on writing, Bird by Bird. Her honesty as a writer is refreshing and something I look forward to reading. But she’s also a writer that knows what she’s doing. For example, whenever she uses a metaphor or unique way to explain something, she follows up on that reference later in the text. For readers paying close attention, these reminders serve as a little joke with Lamott that help bring out her personality and make you feel like you’re just sitting down to chat with her about faith and life.

My favorite chapter of this memoir was “Grace” where Lamott talked about feminism and her admiration of author Grace Paley. Lamott writes,

In 1970 when I was sixteen, the women’s movement had just burst into the general public awareness. I am someone who can say with all sincerity that I owe my life to the movement, but as it first emerged from new York, much of its gospel was defined by grown-up daughters who did not want to risk having anything in common with what has been their mothers’ movement. As a result, some of the language of the early movement contained an ugly rejection of mothers, of motherhood, of softness, of want to be in deep relationships with men. But at the same time, coming out of New York from the tenements and the Village and the antiwar movement was a short-story writer whose work taught me that you could be all the traditional feminine things — a mother, a lover, a listener, a nurturer – and you could also be critically astute and radical and have a minority opinion that was profoundly moral. You could escape the fate of your mother, become who you were born to be, and succeed in the world without having to participate in traditionally male terms — without hardness, coldness, one-upmanship, without having to compete and come out the winner.

She was beautiful, zaftig, and powerful; she was a mother; she was in love; she was a combative pacifist. That was Grace Paley.

The chapter goes on to tell about a chance when Lamott had the chance to do two readings with Paley. In the first, Lamott performed terribly, but learned that with grace it’s possible to forgive yourself. The idea of grace is the idea of accepting when you’re ineffectual or don’t succeed, but forgiving yourself anyway. There was just something beautiful about the whole chapter. I came back to it about a week later after I had a really horrible and no good day and reading about Grace and grace and Anne made me smile and let some of that go.

In general, I think I enjoyed this book so much because reading it left me with a series of warm and fuzzy feelings. Lamott isn’t afraid to share her neuroses, to put herself out there on the page and let you connect with her through her writing. I felt like the book gave me more faith in my own rocky and hard-to-define sense of faith, which is such a beautiful thing. I can’t say for sure whether the book would be as excellent to someone who feels confident in their faith or has no desire to find it, but for anyone who wonders about it I think the book is one to pick up and savor.

Other Reviews: Word Lily | Bibliofreakblog |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Word Lily February 23, 2010, 4:34 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this one!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) February 23, 2010, 5:43 pm

    I don’t think I’ve read any of Lamott’s work, but this sounds like something I would really enjoy.

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:31 pm

      bermudaonion: if the topic sounds interesting, I think you should try it. It’s a nice short book, so the investment isn’t huge.

  • debnance at readerbuzz February 23, 2010, 9:14 pm

    I love, love, love Lamott, with her rollercoaster life and her wacky road to faith.

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:32 pm

      debnance: Her life is a huge up and down. It’s nice to read writing from someone who has had challenges but didn’t become cynical or lose a sense of humor.

  • Jenny February 23, 2010, 9:59 pm

    I have this book, and for some reason I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Lamott sounds great. I should stop putting it off!

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:32 pm

      Jenny: Definitely. I think this is a great book.

  • Sea February 24, 2010, 10:31 am

    Cool blog. Just found you through another book blog.



  • Jeanne February 24, 2010, 5:13 pm

    I usually shy away from books that have anything to do with faith, but I love reading Anne Lamott, especially her non-fiction, like this one. I like your analysis of Grace, because it tells me a little bit about why–I’ve always been slightly mystified by the fact that I love reading her books!

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:34 pm

      Jeanne: Books and faith can be hard to write without sounding preachy, at least from my experience. This one isn’t like that at all — I think it looks at faith very broadly in a way that I enjoyed.

  • Maphead February 25, 2010, 5:51 pm

    Glad you liked her book. I liked it too. If you ever want a laugh, listen to her piece on This American Life. It is her piece about flying on an airplane with all the strange passengers.

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:36 pm

      Maphead: I can only imagine how funny that is. David Sedaris wrote a very funny essay about being on a plane with an unpleasant seatmate. Planes provide some good stories 🙂

  • J.T. Oldfield March 2, 2010, 7:37 pm
    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:17 pm

      J.T. Oldfield: Thanks for the link, I’ll add it right away!