Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: Running the Books

As an unemployed Harvard graduate, Steinberg found himself taking a job as a librarian in a maximum-security prison. His memoir details his adjustment to prison life and the relationships he forms with the inmates. Steinberg quickly discovers that the library is a lifeline for inmates, and that intricate hierarchies dominate prison life. He finds himself involved in elaborate turn wars with some of the guards, and emotionally invested with the inmates.

Steinberg's tale is certainly humorous; that was clear from the opening line: "Pimps make the best librarians." The absurdities of Steinberg's clientele are on full display, but Steinberg is certainly sympathetic to his patrons. He goes to bat for the inmates on more than one occasion. Steinberg attempts to reunite a mother with her long-lost son, and helps another inmate plan for a future career as a chef.

For all the humor and humanity, this book does not shy away from the violent and dehumanizing elements of prison. Aside from the miseries and loneliness of prison, Steinberg discovers that the outside world has its own problems, as he reads about the deaths of released inmates in the newspaper. He is particularly saddened by the deaths of two inmates to whom he developed connections in the library and his writing classes. Ultimately the humor and the sadness are wrapped together; they are inseparable.

This is a well-done memoir written by an observant and sensitive man. I highly recommend it.

Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Nan A. Talese, 2010) ISBN: 0385529090

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: The Illumination

This book has an intriguing concept: it looks at life in a world in which pain emits light. The execution of this idea, however, leaves something to be desired.

The book follows six people, tied together by a book full of love notes, which passes into each of their hands. They come from all walks of life: a homeless man, a young author, an abused child, a widower. The book is actually much more about the notebook full of love notes than about the illumination of pain. This is one of my most significant criticisms of the book. If everyone's pain began emitting light, the consequences would be significant. No one would be able to hide their physical ailments. Yet, Brockmeier doesn't explore the effects of the illumination, it is merely background for the stories about the love notes.

I was never as taken with the the love notes as were the people in the book. The concept of the book of love notes seemed trite: one note written every day in the form of "I love when you..." That sounds like the sort of thing that newlyweds might do, and which would make everyone else gag. The idea of peering into the most intimate details of a person's life is interesting, but the book of "I love yous" just did not do that for me.

This book is also heavily laden with human misery. The misery never seemed to be abated; reading it was sometimes like constantly picking a scab off a wound. Ultimately I see this book as an opportunity missed.

Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination (Pantheon, 2011) ISBN: 0375425314

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: Tales of the City

Reading this book is a bit like a history lesson. Set in San Francisco in the late-1970s, this book was remarkable for presenting homosexuality as part of mainstream popular culture. In 2011 this is hardly shocking, but thirty-five years ago it was. This is important to recognize before going into the book.

With the stage set, I felt like this book read like a sitcom. The characters engage in crazy antics. They get involved in humorous love triangles. The series began in the newspaper, and I can see how that shapes the book. The book is comprised of short chapters and small vignettes. It is humorous and easy reading, a bit of mind candy.

By the end I was left with some unanswered questions. What was the issue with the landlady? As this is the first book in a series, I'm going to assume that Maupin is setting up for the next book. I'll be reading it to find out.

Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City (Harper Perennial, 2007) ISBN: 0061358304

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Having heard so much about this book I felt obligated to read it and see for myself why it has generated so much buzz. As someone who didn't know a tremendous amount about the story going in, I found the book to be much more violent and horrifying than I expected.

The book consists of two storylines involving disgraced financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist, and socially-inept hacker Lisbeth Salander. Together the two are trying to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of corporate heiress Harriet Vanger, and expose the financial misdeeds of a prominent tycoon. I was much more taken with the Vanger mystery than with the story about corporate corruption. That was rather dry.

One of Larsson's larger objectives in this book is clearly to highlight the disturbing pervasiveness of violence against women. All of the significant violence in the book is gendered, and is perpetrated against female victims. One of its victims is co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander. She is certainly an interesting character, one who is uncomfortable with what many of us might consider basic sociability. She is also a woman who has endured much abuse, and that makes her essential to Larsson's larger point. One of Salander's most significant problems is that legally she is considered a ward of the state. She had been in this position as a child without competent parents, but her status as a legal dependent was allowed to continue into her adulthood. The fact that an adult who earns her own money, holds a job, and is capable of managing the basic elements of day-to-day life can be legally alienated from her money and her basic legal rights is, quite simply, frightening. Clearly Larsson is making an argument against the institution of guardianship. I was unclear if the portion of the text which explain guardianship were part of Larsson's original text, or if they were added by the translator for the non-Swedish audience.

This is not the most amazing book I've ever read, but it's a book I'll certainly think about for some time. I suspect I'll read the next two books in the trilogy, as long as I can stomach the violence. Larsson does not glorify the horrific violence about which he writes, but it is, undeniably, difficult to read.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage Crime, 2009) ISBN: 9780307454546