Monday, October 26, 2009

Surfacing (Margaret Atwood)

Why, oh why, did it take me this long to discover Atwood? Her books are amazing, if sometimes very hard to read. This one reminds me of The Bell Jar, and there is an obvious parallel of a woman struggling with a mental breakdown.

But, as with all of her novels, it’s more than that. She covers many themes of patriarchy and oppression, weaving hints of them through the story in subtle (and very obvious) ways. I love the way the story spirals to a conclusion such that only as the main character breaks with reality do we see what’s really happened. Clarity through insanity? Or is she implying that the reality we live in the modern world is really insane?

The big themes are here - abortion, rape, adultery, man’s inhumanity to animals, why Americans suck. Atwood leaves me wondering though – what happened to her parents? Did they die on the island? Were they trying to escape modernity? Did they go insane the same way she did? And what of her brother? Why was the man child the one caged in (literally)? Did he drown? She seems to say no, but we hear nothing of what happened to him.

Anyway, loved this book. Didn’t last long enough. Much like the other Atwood novels I’ve read.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Million Little Pieces (James Frey)

I resisted reading this book for a *very* long time, due to the controversy about its miscategorization as a memoir. I also refused to buy the book on the primary market, but waited several years and bought it on sale at Half Price Books. I wish I hadn’t.

This book was *so* interesting, both stylistically and in terms of content. Although it took me a while to understand Frey’s flow, in the end I appreciated his attempt to let us inside the mind of an addict who was struggling with recovery. In fact, I think this book is one of the best pure voices I’ve ever read. I feel like I know Frey (or at last know the Frey he was portraying in the book) in a way that I don’t normally know a character – because I do feel that I truly got a glimpse into his innermost thoughts.

The repetitive phrases and the pure raw rage and other emotions portrayed in the book are very powerful. Oftentimes I felt frustrated, which I would guess that Frey probably felt with himself too. To some extent, the book made ME feel like an addict – my thoughts were jumbled, I couldn’t make the story coherent and it, frankly, pissed me off at times.

I also appreciate Frey’s critique of the “12 steps is the only way” mentality of many drug and alcohol abuse counselors. I don’t know if it’s completely true that that is pretty much the only system they push, but if it is, I think it’s kind of gross. I mean, clearly relapse is nearly inevitable. And sure the 12 Steps might be the only way that is effective, anecdotally, but I’d love to read more research on other techniques used in rehab. It certainly seems to pose a problem if the only “system” available requires a belief in a higher power. Magical thinking, anyone?

I am super curious as to how much of the details of the story are actually true. We’ve all heard about the now-infamous dental scene. I have to admit that I skipped most of the details as I don’t need to add any more ammunition to my dental phobia. But I also have to say that reading the book, I felt that the incidences portrayed were being filtered through the lens of addiction – in this sense, it seems, the dental scenes (and other scenes in book) are necessarily meant to be taken as literal interpretations, but more as a sense of how things were.

I also wonder how much Frey had to do with the misclassification of the book. I would assume that editors and publishers make most of those decisions – it seems like a largely technical distinction… I doubt that he took many more liberties than the average Lifetime move that is “based on a true story”.

Admittedly this analysis is occurring without a real effort to research the case – based only what I recall of Oprah-gate and the ensuing publicity. In any case, this book is worth a read, particularly for anyone struggling to understand addiction in a loved one. It gave me a new perspective, for sure.