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Book Review: A Million Little Pieces

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When I read about author James Frey in Poets and Writers July/August magazine, I marked in red the part where Frey said: Alcohol is not a disease. It is a choice.

I have always believed that. I was surprised to hear someone say it. I was more surprised because Frey was an alcoholic.

To say “I’m an addict and I’ll always be an addict” seems self-fulfilling. What else could you be? I say this without being ever having experienced drug or alcohol addiction. But Frey proved the philosophy works. He proved it by staying sober.

Then when I read Frey was a fan of Charles Bukowski, I knew I had to read his book, A Million Little Pieces. Bukowski writes like no other, sparingly and raw and raunchy. He curses. He writes a lot about alcohol and sex.

In Frey’s memoir, recently picked for Oprah’s book club, Frey winds up in Hazelden, a well-known drug and alcohol rehab clinic in Minnesota. He gets there after a long and viscious spree that should’ve left him dead. He gets there at age 23 in the worst physical shape, from his decaying teeth to his rotting insides. He spends much of the beginning of the book violently vomiting, describing the toilet as a familiar friend, and describing the contents of his stomach.

Frey uses literary devices such as repetition of a word or a phrase. He writes sparingly, never uses quotation marks and disposes of proper punctuation. He gives the Fury in himself life by capitalizing the Fury. He curses plenty.

Hazelden uses Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program, and Frey fights it all the way. Instead he leans on a book his brother gave him, Tao Teh Ching, which offers simple wisdom such as: “There is simply what is and that is it,” “Detach and become,” and “Let go of all and you will be full.” Eventually he passes the book along to Miles, one of his friends at the clinic, an addicted clarinet player and judge. Miles, like all the men at the clinic, is looking for hope.

Frey also rejects the notion of God or a Higher Power, one of the tenets of the 12-step program. But when you finish the book, you could conclude that Higher Powers were on the job&#8212and I wonder if he now believes in a Higher Power.

Frey gives and receives more love in the clinic than some see in a lifetime. He meets friend for life, Leonard, the subject of his second book, My Friend Leonard. Leonard is wise and caring, and teaches Frey one of the main themes of the book: Hold on. No matter, just hold on.

Frey gives love and hope to Lilly, the vulnerable girl with the smile. Their love breaks the clinic’s rules: Women and men aren’t supposed to talk to each other.

Frey gives and receives love from society’s hardcore abusers. He shows the reader their humanity and ironically, their innocence. He shows the reader that the gangster and the boxer and the judge are the same. Frey never judges. He never blames.

Some of his friends there are criminals and worse. Frey makes sure the reader knows that he was a criminal, too. He reminds us throughout the book. He pulls together his crimes and evil deeds near the end of the book. Then he drops a final bombshell.

But it was his relationship with Lilly, perhaps the most desperate person at the clinic, that we hope for. At the same time, we hope they get caught. Lilly had been through enough heartbreak. Her life was brutal. How she lived through it is beyond comprehension. What Frey did for Lilly was remarkable.

The book conveyed that when it all goes down, we’re all the same. We’re frail, we have our vices, we’ve done evil deeds and have had them done to us and we need each other.

It also conveyed that addiction is brutal and your chances of surviving after once becoming an addict are slim.

James Frey’s Web site

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About OC hairball

  • I have read this book, just finished as a matter of fact! It blew me away! I have recommended this book to all of my friends and my husband. Very graphic, but awe-inspiring at the same time.

  • oc hairball

    i haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. My Friend Leonard is up next.

  • I just finished his follow up book, My Friend Leonard. GREAT READ! I finished it in one and a half days! I cried, I laughed,and I found myself wanting to know more. I hope he continues to write!

  • ochairball

    i read it too. laughed, cried. i loved both books. james will be on the Oprah show this wednesday!

  • I just saw that note on Oprah’s site….might have to go home from work early that day just to catch it! Hee hee hee!

  • elizabeth

    Am I the only person in the world who can’t stand this book? I must be.
    This book oversimplifies too many complex issues and reminded me of an alcoholics fairy tale with everything from a fairy godfather, to a knight in shining armour saving an emotionally weak, co-dependent waif with no personality of her own. I found Frey naive, arrogant, egotistical and found he glossed over too many details of his life to make himself the hero of this stupid book. My advice is to skip the book…but then again if Oprah says it’s good, it must be, right?

  • elizabeth

    Am I the only person in the world who can’t stand this book? I must be.
    This book oversimplifies too many complex issues and reminded me of an alcoholics fairy tale with everything from a fairy godfather, to a knight in shining armour saving an emotionally weak, co-dependent waif with no personality of her own. I found Frey naive, arrogant, egotistical and found he glossed over too many details of his life to make himself the hero of this stupid book. My advice is to skip the book…but then again if Oprah says it’s good, it must be, right?

  • ochairball

    no, you’re not the only one. go to his web site and he lists his bad press.
    he did get right to the heart of the matter — addiction.

    he didn’t do a whole lot of explaining of how he got there.
    but i don’t think he fairytailed anything. he didn’t even save lilly. it was rather brutal and disgusting, a good deterrent.

    i don’t view him as a hero either. more of a lost soul making connections.

  • Brenda

    James Frey will be appearing here in Toronto on Thursday,January 26th!!!
    Stay tuned for more details!

  • Ray

    This is a powerful book, and anyone with a loved one experiencing addiction should read it. I don’t think I have ever come closer to getting inside the mind of an addict as they try to confront their addiction and their life as an addict. It makes it much easier to understand why treating addicts is so complex and difficult. While I might disagree with his theories on recovery, it is of little consequence since he has done a masterful job of putting feelings into words. I question the dentist experience. Novocaine is not a mood altering drug and I doubt any dentist would do a root canal without numbing the patient. Why couldn’t he have put him to sleep? If he had needed an appendectomy would they have done it without any anesthesia? In his defense, I doubt he could have described the pain so perfectly had he not experienced it. So, maybe Hazelton is as hard core as it seems.

  • qween_bee

    I too am hating every word every word of this book. HATING every word of it.

  • Qween, don’t read it if you hate it. it’s a waste of time. pass it on.

  • qween_bee

    I can’t, I keep hoping that I see the light that everyone else claims to see. When did it get so moving to everyone else? Page 217? Cuz I am not there yet.

  • maybe you’re expectations are too high. there are plenty of people who didn’t like it. read some of the bad reviews. you might be able to relate 🙂
    i was taken the whole way through.

  • Lucie

    Thank God, oh sorry Mr.Frey doesn’t believe. I mean Thank GOD there are others that hate this book. As a recovering alcoholic/drug addict for more than 11 years; I am not weak, hollow, empty or substituting anything. I guess I was a self centered, egomaniac, opinionated 23 year old drunk myself. Then…at 31 years of age, had had enough. Found help in AA that didn’t cost my “parents” a dime nor myself if I don’t want to kick in. I guess Mr. Frey has still not looked closely in the mirror and seen himself yet.

  • Britt

    I am a younger teen and i red this book and I loved it. I would defnelity read this book again. It has alot of language and i leard more than i am suppost to know about drugs and alachol. It is an excellent novel and i hope to meet James one day!

  • Jenna

    I dont understand why people come on here to diss the book, honestly, if you dont like it then get over it dont seek things out like this to try and make the book sound bad. It was an amazing book, and James went through so much and changed and he did change Lilly, He loved her like no one else had. If you have anything bad to say about this book you are crazy. It was amazing and inspirational.

  • Its CRAP. What concerns me is that he cheats and lies to those who are not in recovery of knowing the truth. A human being CANNOT maintain it alone,( I know.. as do millions of other alcoholics & addicts) Long term recovery and the path to a happy and useful life come from fellowship. It takes guts to grow and change ourselves thru willingness as well as trial and trubulation. To glamorize a mobster and say a tiny book focusing on self will and “holding on” is THEE solution is bunk. It is simply not true. The fact is long term recovery takes willingness and work on a set of principles that millions have accepted and been saved by since 1935. It is not the only positive solution, but the facts prove Frey is wrong and while a person may stay clean or sober for a while, in the long run they need a program and commitment on an ongoing , regular basis…. or else they fade

  • ochairball

    it doesn’t seem like you read the book and now you’re just jumping on the beat-up-james-frey bandwagon. how original.

  • I hope you don’t take this as a personal attach
    but I feel the media may have killed any good
    this book could have done.

  • Jodie

    Did everyone forget that he is an addict? Addicts DO lie, embellish, and have recollections far different from non-users. I loved the book…fiction or non fiction. I believe that it hits addiction right on the head, and is based on more truth than fiction. Grow up people. Unless your account of your life has NEVER been embellished, you have no room to judge.

  • ochairball

    right on Jodie

  • dearest_constilation

    i too am a young reader. and i must say this is one of my favorite books of all time. my relatives werent fans of it, but i couldnt put it down after reading the first page! great job james! im so addicted to the book i’ve actually read it several times now. my friend leneord is next on my list of things to read.

  • Tanya

    I absolutely loved the book. So well written, when you can place yourself in the scenes and picture what everything looks like then you know it is a well written book. At a few parts I did not know if I could finish… too detailed and made me sick to my stomach.BUT I did and I am glad I did!! Now I am telling my family and friends about it !!!!!!!!! I would love to meet James and tell him how courageous he is!!!!!

  • bama girl 07

    Even though everything that has happened with this book, I still feel that is is a powerful and amazing journey. Most people in James’ place don’t make it out of that black hole. I’ve never been able to put myself in a drug addicts shoes. I’ve never been able to understand how someone can do something like to themselves, but this book helped explain a lot to me..Frey is a great writer, non-fiction or not. I think he needs to keep writing! 🙂

  • dylan

    I think some of you missed the point. A few of you complained that James says he has THE way to recovery when a central message of the book is that he found HIS way and never forced it on someone else. That is the point of exposing and reiterating the farce and addiction that religion itself becomes for many people.

  • I really loved this book until I found out he lied about the whole thing. Oprah even made him come back and apologize.
    I still think it’s good and it’s really captivating but it just takes something away knowing he lied.

  • Dre

    I love this book

  • Kari

    I was reading this book at school and fainted on the floor and hit my head and had to go to the er.

    Very detailed and gross.

  • hater

    Grow some balls kari

  • Kari

    I have a weak stomach and pass out easily to descriptions of stuff like that.

  • Kari

    So shut up hater.

  • Angie