Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith
By Anne Lamott
Riverhead, 253 pp., $24.95
Anne Lamott presents herself in all her messy humanity. She binges on food, drugs, alcohol, books. She creates ugly scenes with lovers, friends, her mother, her son. In irrepressibly jaunty prose, she frets and whines about her failings, but eventually she forgives herself. "Saint Paul, who can be such a grumpy book-thumper, said that where sin abounds, grace abounds," she reminds herself.
In these essays, Lamott tells stories, presents her ideas, spins her theories. I like her best when she grouses about her mother, who "was imperious, with no self-esteem, which is a terrible combination," and grows helplessly furious at her 17-year-old son. His horrible behavior leads her to this hilarious irreverence: "You've got to wonder what Jesus was like at seventeen. They don't even talk about it in the Bible, he was apparently so awful." Lamott often finds it easier to love dogs than people. Lamott needs a lie-down in the shade after a long hike, but her dog Lily "leapt about as if we were in kilts, on the green hillsides of Scotland." She proposes a revolution where the goals would be "greenness, kindness, and libraries." She recommends you get out in the world where "you can't be your ghastly, spoiled self." She extols taking a walk and having a snack: "Bananas are great, as they are the only known cure for existential dread."
By Sándor Márai
Translated, from the Hungarian, by George Szirtes
Knopf, 288 pp., $24.95
Four boys, just released from the servitude and humiliation of school and not yet acquainted with the world of men, form a gang. They style themselves rebels, dressing up, telling lies, stealing, securing a secret hideaway. The chief object of their rebellion is "the one overriding yet incomprehensible power, that of adults." The adults here are their fathers, soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, off fighting in the First World War. Originally published in Hungarian in 1930, Sándor Márai's novel covers a brief period during which the members of the gang discover the moment when a boy becomes a man. Lurking behind this discovery is the likelihood that all will soon discover the moment when a man becomes a soldier, and then what kind of soldier -- a hero, fatality, survivor, victim.
The boys, who come from different social classes, live in Lemberg, a small town in Hungary. The most privileged boy, also the most beautiful and graceful, inspires love and loyalty. It is a shocking surprise to learn he also excites envy and loathing. When the boys' games result in unforeseen consequences, they recognize that they have not all been fighting the same demons, that they are unknown to one another and perhaps to themselves. The emotional power of the story is that of a simple, straightforward narrative -- a few months of preparation, followed by two intense days of careless action, clobbering reaction, and stunning revelation.
Tales From the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics
By Alexander Frater
Knopf, 384 pp., $25.95
English travel writer Alexander Frater was born in the South Seas republic of Vanuatu, son of the local doctor, grandson of the Scots-born Presbyterian missionary. Although long settled in England, he remains married to the tropics -- Cancer and Capricorn, the huge swath s of land and sea that make up the world's warm wet belt. Ranging broadly over this vast area, he tells tall tales, gives lessons in history, politics, and economics, and recounts his personal adventures. This world is literally teeming with natural wonders , local characters, and wild stories.
Among the many entertaining essays, my favorites are: "Vive Les Tropiques!," about Frater's hair-raising flight over Africa on the Catalina flying boat, an ancient machine, impervious to weather and reliably low-tech; "Big River Blues," the tale of sailing up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Rangoon, which includes a fascinating history of Burma; "The Voyage of the Portuguese Grocer," which tells the tragi comic tale of Captain Quiros, the 16th-century Portuguese explorer who just missed discovering Australia; and "Can You Grow Prozac?," which demonstrates the soothing properties of the kava plant. The book is framed by two moving essays about English bells. The second one, "The Hum Note," charts the halting progress of a bell from London to a church founded by Frater's grandfather on the Vanuata island of Paama .
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.