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Achieving Self-Awareness, the Hard Way

Sunday, September 20, 2009

THE ADDERALL DIARIES A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder By Stephen Elliott Graywolf. 208 pp. $23

"The Adderall Diaries" should be a lurid work. Among its unsettling elements are the trial of a computer programmer suspected of murdering his Russian wife and a confession by the programmer's best friend that he killed several people. The author's father claimed to have shot a man -- something Elliott couldn't corroborate or disprove. The memoir also covers memories of a wretched childhood, drug use and Elliott's addiction to masochistic sex. Yet this is no potboiler, but a serious literary work designed to make you see the world as you've never quite seen it before.

The intensity of Elliott's often beautiful prose evokes the effects of Adderall, the attention deficit medication. Yet the book shows a concern for order: Each chapter begins with a summary of what's to follow, reminiscent of the headings in Victorian novels, and there are even several footnotes. Nonetheless, beneath these devices throbs an all-pervasive sense of the elusiveness of truth. Memories deceive, and almost everyone in this book -- including the author -- is a fantasist.

BEG, BORROW, STEAL A Writer's Life By Michael Greenberg Other. 217 pp. $19.95

The short pieces in "Beg, Borrow, Steal" are in the tradition of the literary-journalistic essays that Europeans call feuilletons. Although flexible, this form requires skill and concision, and Michael Greenberg uses it brilliantly. Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight.

The son of a determinedly non-bookish Jewish immigrant who owned a scrap metal yard, Greenberg rejected his father's business and devoted himself to the life of a writer. He scraped by on a number of small jobs, sorting mail, interpreting for Spanish-speaking defendants in criminal court, and selling cosmetics on a street corner. He finally achieved recognition with "Hurry Down Sunshine," a memoir about his daughter's descent into madness. Here, he ponders the ethics of using other people's lives for his work.

He describes a visit to Argentina during its state-sponsored Dirty War against trade-unionists, students and activists. While he was there, he met Jorge Luis Borges; his girlfriend stumbled on a demonstration and was imprisoned; and on her release they conceived his son.

Greenberg also recounts his experiences at his Hebrew school, where he and his classmates cruelly and ignorantly imitated the stutter of their Torah teacher, an Auschwitz survivor; describes killing a chicken; tells the story of Hart Island, where prisoners bury the indigent dead. More than anything else, Greenberg is a poet of New York, evoking in these fleeting pieces the city in all its scuffed and squalid grandeur.

-- Juliet Wittman, the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals."

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