Before there was knitting, there was reading. I can't remember a time when I could go to sleep comfortably at night without first reading at least a page. If I'm alone, I can't eat without reading. I think it's safe to say that there are about ten times more books in my house than skeins of yarn...and that's a lot of books. I was a literature major in college and now I teach reading and writing to eleven and twelve year-olds. Unfortunately, of my three great pasttime passions, knitting, writing, and reading, I believe reading has taken the biggest hit as I entered motherhood. Knitting is something I can do with my hands while I enjoy a day at the playground with my son. Blogging keeps me on my toes writing-wise and I know there's a community out there waiting to hear from me, which adds that little bit of needed pressure to get the job done. But I'm often so exhausted at the end of the day that I really only do get that one page read before I close my eyes. So I've decided to add a new category, Book Reports, hoping that it'll push me on to read- and read critcally- more often. I plan to do reports on whatever book strikes my fancy, regardless of genre, age, or popularity. I will not read other reviews until I've written my own, because that's just a recipe for second-guessing oneself. Let's get started!
I don't watch Oprah. In fact, I don't watch anything I can't get on Netflix. I haven't had television reception for about ten years. Therefore, I only experienced the big controversy surrounding James Frey's memoir/fiction melange peripherally, through scattered and fleeting news coverage. I picked it up at the library last weekend because, well, I liked the cover. And I thought- misguided as I am- that such controversy brewing over one man's "memoirs" must mean that they were worth the read to begin with. And that's where I was so, so wrong.
My younger cousin, on track to become a journalist, once gave me a short story she'd written in 7th grade, asking my opinion. In the story, a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis complete with a husband's infidelity and her sagging bits and pieces stands atop an apartment building trying to gather the courage to jump. Clearly my cousin thought that writing about something shocking and sad would somehow naturally propel her work into a new category of maturity and "realness," but the effect was just the opposite. The woman was a caricature. I didn't say anything to discourage my cousin, because that's what beginning writers must do. They try to write far beyond themselves, trying to use heavy situations and tricksy language to add gravitas and authenticity because they haven't found their writer's heart yet. Do you hear me, James Frey?
Here's an excerpt from A Million Little Pieces: I let out a deep breath. A deep, deep breath like that after ecstasy, like that after your life has flashed before your eyes. I look at my foot. It is covered in blood, as is my hand. I stand and I walk to the Bathroom. As I step with my damaged foot, I place only the heel on the floor. Every time it hits, there is a throbbing bolt of electric red and white lightning. Every time it hits, the bolt is eaten.
There's a lot I don't like about this writing. I don't like "like that after," which I find vague and stilted. I don't like the random capitalization of "Bathroom" (other words inexplicably capitalized in this book include, but are in no way limited to: Room, Wife, Person, Child, Guest, Stream, Halls, Girl, Woods, and Statuatory Rape of a Sheriff's Daughter). And then there's "the bolt is eaten." Can I get a HUH? The book is chock-full of this type of self-conscious language. At the end of one chapter in particular, we get this:
After a few moments the Van is flooded with heat and the heat slows the shaking and kills the freezing and I'm tired beyond exhaustion and I close my eyes. It is dark. I close my eyes. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. I close my eyes. It is dark. I close my eyes. There's no light. I close my eyes. Dark.
I close my eyes.
I close my eyes.
I close my eyes.
I'm sorry. I didn't get that the first time. You did what with your eyes, James? Was it dark? I'm all for the power of repetition in writing, but these words don't bear repeating. These are a poor writer's parlor tricks. The emperor's got no clothes!
Speaking of which, there's the way he talks about women. All of the women in this book are portrayed in some way as weak, cringing, in need of saving, or downright wrongheaded. Perhaps that's Frey's perception, and he's entitled to that. It is, after all, memoir. However, I must poiint out that the women in Frey's life are each reduced to a few physical characteristics about which he obsesses over and over. Such as: I remember her. I remember her tall and thin and long and blonde like the thickest silk her eyes blue eyes Arctic eyes I remember her.
In the end, I find it much more disappointing that Frey's deceptions were the focal point of all of the press and not the fact that this book is quite poorly written. The con was double- not only did Frey fabricate, but Oprah told everyone that this book was moving, powerful, and worth the weight of her recommendation. I had to skim parts of it in order to save myself from a cringing-induced headache. Perhaps I was less willing to buy into the power of an addict's recovery because I already knew parts of it were a fairy tale, but I was hoping that the writing would allow me not to care about that fact. No such luck. No such luck. No such luck.
(Scale: Woot! Quite pleasant. Meh. Boo. Boo-Hiss!)
If you like a good memoir and haven't yet checked it out, one of my very favorites is Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.
PS- I realize that there might be a good number of you who enjoyed this book. Some near and dear friends of mine did. If so, don't mind me. I've expressed unpopular opinions before. While I didn't read other reviews of this book while writing my review, afterward I did find that most of them, pre-controversy, were actually very positive. Lots of comparisons to Dave Eggers, etc. However, I did find one guy who's singing my tune...in an alternative newspaper based in Moscow. Hm. (If you have the time and inclination, the review there is really worth it. Funny and smart.)