Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott Riverhead Books $195 There's no one quite like Anne Lamott. The literary territory she occupies is both central and invisible: faith, hope, charity. Intimidated by the yuppie triumphalism that now passes for the World Spirit, Salon.com's philosopher-columnist and best-selling author of Bird by Bird, Operating Instructions and Travelling Mercies addresses those who own powerlessness over outcome. Like her homeboy, Jesus, she is all alms; unlike Jesus, she can be maudlin enough to slap. Her motto? Love thy neighbour (on the condition he doesn't support the war in Iraq). Her opening words? 'On my 49th birthday, I decided that all of my life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.' Humour is the flashlight Lamott shines to find her path in the long, dark night of the soul. At the Sunday School class she teaches, an eight-year-old disses her dreadlocks. 'Rather than hit him over the head ... I sat beside him and said, 'It's only been in the last 10 years that I learned how beautiful my hair and I are, so please don't say critical things about me. It hurts my feelings.' He gaped at me, and said, 'You're freaking me out, Octopus Head.'' Her jokes well from a troubling reserve of terror: Lamott fears immodesty as death. Only the anomalous and broken are celebrated; all achievements are rejected, minimised or sabotaged. A certain literary stature? 'The culture says these things will save you ... But the culture lies.' Her decision to have a baby? 'I was 34 and could not face more abortions, and my eggs were getting old, like eggs you'd get at the 7-Eleven.' Even the ham she wins she gives away. There are no gold stars in her script. 'When I finished my sermon last Sunday, everyone clapped like mad, and I felt like Miss Spiritual America, with a red cord and an invisible tiara ... Then I went home and had a huge fight with Sam.' Like all recovering addicts and alcoholics, Lamott has a real need to remain small. The controversial 12-step premise of disease is, by definition, an acknowledgment of intrinsic flaw - an idea as spectacularly dangerous as the concept of original sin, if involving less cinematographic malice. In her universe, redemption is awarded to the meek ('I suffer from what a psychiatrist friend calls clinical sensitivity; she recommends that I avoid too much stimulation'). This is, of course, the purest manipulation. Playing nicey-nicey doesn't count if it's just a means to inherit the earth. This Chicken Little inverse narcissism can grow wearing. When will Lamott realise the sky won't fall if she accepts her own talent? It's her literary gift and not that cranked-up humility that's her truest prie-dieu. 'Father Tom loves the desert. A number of my friends do. They love the skies that pull you into infinity, like the ocean. They love the silence, and how, if you listen long enough, the pulse of the desert begins to sound like the noise your finger makes when you run it around the rim of a crystal glass. They love the scary beauty - snakes, lizards, scorpions.' Paradoxically, she's at her most vital over her late mother. (Of all her successes after her adored father's death, she writes: 'I feel like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium.') She rechristens her mother 'Noraht' - a 'nom de mort' - after a spelling mistake on the box of ashes. She prays for her heart to soften, but realises she enjoys a dead mother more than a bad one. 'While she was alive,' she writes, 'I spent my life like a bitter bellhop, helping my mother carry around her psychic trunks.' For once, Lamott is huge. 'I left her in the closet for two years to stew in her own ashes, and I refused to be nice to her, and didn't forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance. I suppose that sounds harsh. I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive her, but I also know he loves honesty and transparency.' There's no need for Lamott to showboat, but she must - if, as she claims, she believes in honesty and transparency - adjust the lens of her perception: acknowledgment of talent is not a sin. Like the poet Lisel Mueller, who wrote that it had taken her all her life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, Lamott is precious. And boy, can she shine. 'I let them go outside for the Sacrament of the Lawn, to blow bubbles and play catch. Some of them have lost years and siblings to foster care and institutionalisation. Some have lost parents to violence and addiction. Many have fallen through the cracks their whole lives - but not here, not on Sundays.' Magic.