Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for August, 2015

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2015

by Etty Hillesum, edited by J. G. Gaarlandt (Washington Square Press 1983; original Dutch copyright 1981; ISBN 0-671-74555-7)

Anyone who has read The Diary of Anne Frank (and who hasn’t?) would find many parallels in this lesser known first-person account of the Holocaust. Etty Hillesum was much older than Anne Frank–27 when she began the diary in March of 1941 and 29 when she died in Auschwitz in November of 1943. But she was Dutch (Actually, Anne Frank was not Dutch but German, but she was living in the Netherlands when she went into hiding with her family and wrote her famous diary.), and in these pages she wrote down the most intimate thoughts and details about her life.

Etty was a free thinker, and many would call her promiscuous. She was also profoundly spiritual. She sometimes reminded me of a Catholic saint. Her main goal in life was to help others, and her greatest passion was for life itself, which she unfailingly found to be beautiful no matter what the circumstances.

Much of the diary concerns her relationship with Julius Spier, a German Jewish psychochirologist who was her mentor, employer (perhaps unpaid?), friend, and lover. To me, Spier seems to have been an extraordinarily charismatic quack who took advantage of the many women, including Etty, who found him irresistible. But who knows? He may really have been the genius she thought he was.

Like Anne Frank, Etty never lost her sense of optimism and hope. She was unafraid of dying, and although she knew well that the Nazis’ goal was the extermination of the Jews, she did not believe that they would succeed (and she was right).

What I admired most about Etty was her deep sense of justice. She was keenly aware of the advantages she enjoyed and did not wish or try to escape the fate of her fellow Jews. In similar circumstances, I would hope to have her courage and faith.

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Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2015

by Margaret Atwood (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine 1972; ISBN 0-449-21375-7)

I am never completely sure what is going on in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and Surfacing was no exception. A young woman (the narrator, never named) spends a week in her family’s abandoned cabin in the woods of Quebec with her lover, Joe, and David and Anna, a married couple who are their friends. The narrator is ostensibly searching for her missing father; her mother died of an illness, and after that, he disappeared, but she believes him to be alive.

The relationships between the four shift as the days pass; the narrator struggles both with the memory of her ex-husband (or ex-lover; I wasn’t sure about this) and the baby he forced her to abort, and with her relationship with the extremely taciturn Joe. She gradually descends into madness, but is apparently able to “surface” in the end.

There is a lot of hostility expressed by the Canadian characters toward Americans (“Yanks”) in general and some American characters in particular.

It was a pretty weird book with a lot of comma splices; but at least it held my attention until the last page.


Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

On the Move: A Life

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2015

by Oliver Sacks (Knopf 2015, ISBN 978-0-385-35255. I read the electronic version)

Starting in the 1970s, I think I have read pretty much everything Oliver Sacks ever wrote, from Awakenings to Hallucinations (exception: I didn’t finish Migraine, which seemed to be written more for medical professionals than for lay readers, and I got bogged down in technical jargon; also, I may have missed the Mind’s Eye–must get it!). There was no way I would not read this, ostensibly Sacks’ final book.

All those years spent reading all those books, and I never knew very much about the man himself–in spite of reading the personal narratives A Leg to Stand On and Uncle Tungsten, so this book filled in a lot of gaps for me. I was totally surprised to learn that Sacks was a body-builder and a motorcyclist and that he took a lot of illegal drugs in the sixties. I didn’t know that he is gay, either; in fact, I never thought about his sexuality at all. In On the Move, he is totally open about all these aspects of his life and more.

He also describes the writing of all those books that I loved, and I found those accounts fascinating, although someone who has not read them would undoubtedly find them less so.

Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A Million Little Pieces

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2015

by James Frey (Anchor Books 2004; © 2003; ISBN 1-4000-3108-7)

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course in contemporary American literature, and one of the books on the course list was William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a horrifying account of the depravity of drug addiction. I was appalled by it. A Million Little Pieces is the 21st century version of Naked Lunch. It’s equally appalling but also hard to put down. I wanted to find out how things would turn out for Frey and his strange group of co-inmates at the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art treatment center in Minnesota where his parents sent him at the age of 23, in his thirteenth year as an addict, close to death. There were the prostitute and the mobster and the federal judge, the former boxing champ and the petty criminal–people from all walks of life, all of them there to try and beat the terrible odds (85% relapse into addiction after completing the program; this is considered to be a high rate of success.).

The book gave me a better understanding of addiction and the self-destructive behaviors of addicts, the compulsion to do whatever is necessary if only they can get the drug or the drink or whatever it is they crave.

The book reads like a diary, and I suspect it is based on one that Frey kept while in treatment–or else he has a pretty amazing memory for details and conversations. Some of it is a stream of consciousness, full of run-on sentences. There are no quotation marks to help the reader sort out who is saying what. Also, there are many superfluous capital letters, as in I left my Room and I left the Unit and I went outside and I walked around the Buildings and the Units a couple of times; and I open the door of the Phone Booth and I step out. The men have gathered on the Lower Level, the chairs are in a semi-circle, and Lincoln is preparing to start the afternoon Session. There seems to be no reason for this, except that the capitalized words are always nouns–but he doesn’t capitalize all nouns, as in German. I can understand that he may have written it that way, but couldn’t an editor have fixed it? I found it distracting.

It’s worth noting that Frey never gave up his resistance to the Twelve Step road to sobriety, with its reliance on a “higher power”, even though everyone at the clinic insisted that no other way works. I think I read recently that the Twelve Step approach is actually less effective than it is said to be (this might explain the 85% recidivism rate). Frey, however, as of the publication of the book, did not relapse.

The book is very much worth reading, if you can stand the constant use of the word fuck(-ing/-ed).

(Some of what Frey writes may not be factual: Cf.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | 3 Comments »