Sunday 31 July 2011

A Million Little Pieces - forgetting the debate

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003: John Murray (Publishers)) The author writes of his experiences when, aged 23, he entered one of the most expensive and exclusive rehab centres in the USA. James Frey had brought his life to within seconds of the end through years of drug abuse. He details his time in rehab, during which he gradually takes back control of his life, though not quite in the way he’s supposed to.
Book recommendations come at all sorts of times. Drunken taxi ride home with a team-mate after an end of season curry night out? Alright then, let’s talk books. That’s just the kind of high life I lead. As I was settling back in the car seat, all smug at successfully navigating a night of carefully controlled revelry without embarrassing myself, BAM! – out of no-where, here comes a book recommendation from my fellow Bec Old Boys player.
Cue Amazon one-click and my iPhone, and I bought this one there and then, before I even commenced my usual dance outside my front door as I fished around for my keys with the ticking clock of a need for the toilet counting down perilously.
I eventually got around to reading this whilst on holiday in the Lakes a couple of weeks ago.
So what did I think of it? If you know one thing about this book, it’s the controversy that surrounds it. Internationally lauded at the time, the author has faced massive criticism since details came out which made his version of events questionable at best. Presented as a memoir, most now agree that A Million Little Pieces is fairly loosely based on the facts, though it’s still pretty unclear as to what is real and what is not.
Knowing this before turning the first page does make you read it in a curious way. It takes a while to stop analysing the events of the book. It takes a while before you stop wondering “did that bit really happen” at every turn, and start just reading it for what it is. As much as I tried not to let it, the context this book does get in the way a little.
But eventually, it does melt away. This is a long book, so there’s plenty of time for you to hear it properly. And when that happened, I liked what I heard.
No doubt about it, Frey writes in a compelling way. The pain and the trauma draws you in. The ordeals Frey describes and the emotion that feeds on the back of them hit home in a big way. The whole book (well, most of it) is spent in the confines of a rehab centre – not a lot actually happens, but Frey finds enough action to explore to ensure the 500-odd pages go by without any real hanging around.
Frey’s style is also a massive plus. It’s not quite conversational, but it works to convey a thought process that you can instantly understand. Frey lets you into his head in an incredibly effective way, and he uses a distinctive writing style to do it.
All of which is to say this is a hugely enjoyable and emotional read.
But if you’ve skipped ahead already to check out the GBR rating (don’t act innocent, I know most of you do it), you’re probably asking yourself “well, if it’s good, why not a higher score?”
Well, a couple of reasons. The main one is the way in which Frey presents himself. True, he’s incredibly open about his battle with addiction, and he’s quick to describe himself as a loser who’s sunk about as low as someone can go. But between the lines, he’s kind of up himself. The dialogue he gives himself, the way he tackles confrontational situations, the philosophy he develops – it all just drips of self congratulation. Frey is presented as the smartest, wittiest, most bad-ass, loyal, mature, deepest person in the world. The black and white words on the page are pretty humbling, but it’s incredibly clear that Frey thinks a lot of himself. He ends up coming off as a lonely hero, a great man flawed by addiction. And I don’t buy it.
So where does that leave me? A book I really enjoyed. A book that has a lot of merit in it. A book that deserves to be read and understood. But one that asks you to jump a pretty significant fact-or-fiction hurdle. And a protagonist that is way too cool for school for my liking.
This is a great book. A sure fire 9 GBR if it was a novel. But it’s not. It’s a memoir. Whether it’s 100% fact or not doesn’t bother me a huge amount. What does is the way Frey writes about himself, especially  between the lines. Which may be a bit harsh, but I prefer my heroes a little more humble.
Deep breath. Next week, something completely different.

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Confession - predicatble, but who cares.

The Confession by John Grisham (2010: Century). An innocent man is days away from facing the death penalty. The man who committed the crime is, himself, facing death from a tumour.  Can his last minute confession stop the wheels of the well oiled Texas death penalty machine? And how will the public drama affect the small Texan town that has been divided by the crime for almost a decade?
Come on now. Tell me you didn’t just read that synopsis and say in your head “classic Grisham”. I know you did. Some of you even said it out loud. The guy has got to the stage where you can recognise his plot from a mile away. Does that make him predictable or a master of his genre? I guess it makes him a millionaire, so who cares.
Say what you want about Grisham, after you’ve chewed your way through a few non-fiction books (one of which being particularly difficult to digest philosophy), few things bring you back to life quicker than a good old fashioned Grisham legal drama.
This is not a classic. For me, Grisham reached his peak with A Time to Kill. Since then, he’s basically been writing the same paperback for a legion of summer holidayers every year. There’ve been flashes of originality where he’s left his comfort zone with success. There was one about an American football player in Italy, one which went through a real life case, one which was a collection of short stories. But the majority of his twenty-odd novels are well spun legal dramas based in the familiar environs of America’s southern states.
So where does this one rank? Well, it has all the right ingredients. Heartbreaking legal injustice, check. A central figure who can hold our hands as the plot unfolds, check. The backdrop of a divided and prejudiced community, check. An obsessive, crusading lawyer, check. About 100 opportunities to explain why Grisham doesn’t like the death penalty, check. Roll up roll up, it’s all here.
Knowing the Grisham formula doesn’t make it any less enjoyable though. Well, not much less enjoyable anyway. I was hooked again within a few dozen pages. The story is masterfully woven, incredibly tight. There wasn’t a single sentence out of place, not one instant where I felt I needed to do any work. I turned every one of the 450-odd pages eagerly. Yes, my eyes rolled every now and then, and I usually had a pretty good idea of how the next bits of the plot were going to unfold. I’d met a lot of the characters before, just with different names and in different Grisham novels. But the story skipped along, and I enjoyed the ride for the most part.
That isn’t to say The Confession didn’t tackle some big-ish issues. It did. The death penalty. Racism in the USA. The possibility of rehabilitating sex offenders. The stifling bureaucracy of the Church. They’re all there, just dealt with in a fairly one-sided, simplified, Grisham sort of a way.
After what the last few books demanded from me, this one demanded very little. It was like a post-season exhibition match after a long gruelling season. Still the same game you’ve been playing for years, but more relaxed, a bit more fun.
This was a nice, quick read. Compelling in places, but predictable for the most part. Not groundbreaking, but making up for it with spoonfulls of tight Grisham plotting.
Give me six months, I’ll have forgotten all about this book. But it was fun while it lasted.
Next week, one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. A Million Little Pieces. Now, how do I tag that one – fiction or non-fiction?

Sunday 17 July 2011

Blame Sheffield

The beginnings of a Peak District pub crawl
No review this week I'm afraid folks. Just got back from a fairly extensive weekend tour of the pubs of the Peak District which ended up with us jumping around like maniacs to Nirvana in a Sheffield club. We're nearly 30. We should know better.

In any case, not sure my brain is awake enough to do much justice to anything for the rest of the day.

I'll be back next week though, I promise. One or two books stacked up that I'm keen to tell you about.

In the meantime, do let me know if there's anything you think I should be reading, either through the comment function or at

Sunday 10 July 2011

Straw Dogs - uncomfy philosophy

Straw Dogs, Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (Granta Books: 2003) A philosophy book in which Gray explains his view of the human race, disagreeing with pretty much everyone else along the way. He questions everything, and comes to some incredibly uncomfortable conclusions.
I enjoy books that make me think. I do. Ones that present new ideas to me, ones that make my mind wander in directions that it wouldn’t naturally. I think everyone kind of likes that. It’s one of the reasons we read.
And so when my dad gave me a philosophy book, I thought “why not.” This is a book whose very purpose is to present new ideas. That could be kind of fun, huh?
I was wrong. Yes, thinking about stuff can be fun. But there are limits.
Where do I start? What was the thing I didn’t enjoy about this book the most? Well, an easy read this isn’t. Thankfully, it is split up into small digestible bits, but not exactly what you would call easily digestible bits. It’s like eating something you hate – just because you’re allowed to take small bites, doesn’t make you wretch any less.
And then there’s the ideas themselves. I’ve never been more unsettled by a book. If Coldplay is music to slit your wrists by, this may very well be the paperback equivalent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and doesn’t by itself make this an unenjoyable book. After all, there’s clearly some worthy philosophy in this. I’m happy enough to recognise the fact that there are some worthwhile and eye opening thoughts on the pages. But they weren’t half depressing. I often put this book down just plain upset, questioning everything, to the point that I wasn’t even sure if I was a real person, or if there is even such a thing as a person.
Again, I don’t want it to sound like I don’t enjoy thought provoking stuff. But this takes it a little far if you ask me. There was some stuff in here I did agree with, like Gray’s conviction that the human race is (at its core) not really any different to any other type of animal. I agreed with some of the points he made about religion. But the nods of my head were far outweighed by shakes. This guy makes so many radical presumptions to base his depressed view of the world and the human race on, that by the end of each page, you don’t even have the energy to disagree with him anymore.
So yes, this did open my mind a little. This did present new thoughts. It did give me an entirely new kind of book to read.
But the pages did not fly by. I spent most of my time either trying to figure out what he was saying, or disagreeing with him.
I did not enjoy reading it. And I don’t think you will either (unless you’re my dad, who apparently did enjoy this).
And both of those are a vague admittance that there is philosophical worth here - just a pretty depressing, disagreeable, tough to read kind of worth.
Next week, something fun and fictiony I think. I think we all need a break after that one.

Sunday 3 July 2011

And the Band Played On - real good stuff

And the Band Played On by Christopher Ward (Hodder & Stoughton: 2011) The story of what happened after the Titanic went down, focussed on the family feuds that one of the young members of the Titanic band left behind. Set largely in Dumfries, the family’s tale after the boat sank is a tragic one. The author is the grandson of the musician, and in writing this book, he’s forced to face some uncomfortable truths about his relatives.

The thing about real life stories is that they happened in real life. None of this “based on a true story” crap. None of this “some scenes have been staged for dramatic effect” nonsense. Reality TV can only take you so far. For me (and for many of you too I’d imagine) history is where it’s at. Honest to goodness, this-really-happened, history.

After we leave school, it’s pretty easy to forget. In truth, even when we’re at school, history misses the mark more often than it hits it. The same topics can be churned through too many times, and the pressure to actually remember what you’re being taught renders it ever so slightly boring.

And then books like this fall in your lap. And you start to catch the history bug again.

As history goes, this is fairly old ground. Everyone knows about the Titanic. You know the one - big ship, hit an ice-berg, sank in the Atlantic.  You might even know some of the smaller details - the fact that the whole “women and children first” idea came from the Titanic. And then there’s the detail that kicks off this book. The fact that the band played on the deck of the ship as it was going down, trying to bring a bit of calm to the situation as people fled for their lives. And then the families of the band were sent a bill for their lost uniforms after they drowned.

And it’s that kind of detail that makes books like this worth reading. The little ones. The ones that have real people’s faces behind them,

I don’t want to go on about it, but this stuff really happened. It’s as real as the people around you right now. These people lived this story, and then they died, and then we came along. The lines between us and them are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small. For me, that makes any story compelling. This one is no different.

Of course, there are down sides. The pace dipped every now and then, and I had to remind myself of the reality of this stuff to make sure I stayed interested. There are parts where there’s a little too much conjecture, a little too much “I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was probably…”

But for a history book, it avoided a lot of the usual traps. The people he talks about are huge characters, just huge. Their personalities are compelling, almost to the point of being caricatures in some places. And the book has the feel of a story - the kind that a lot of history books just don’t. It never feels like a text book. It has the structure of a fiction book.

So yeah, I enjoyed this. I felt better for having read it. It probably won’t make my top ten books of the year, but it won’t be too far behind.


Another sit-on-the-fence 7 I’m afraid, but this was never going to be anything other. 6 seems harsh. 8 seems a smidge too much.

Next week, some popular philosophy. I bet you're looking forward to that one.