Sunday, November 29, 2009

Second Review: Couldn't Keep It to Myself by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution

It may be a cliché to say that we too frequently take positive aspects of our lives for granted, but there is nothing like having a window into someone else’s life, someone whose life experiences have been different—and not for the better—to get much needed perspective and recognize how lucky you are. Such was my experience in reading Couldn’t Keep It to Myself by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution.

Lamb, is of course, the author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True (both Oprah Book Club books, but don’t hold that against them). His work with the women of York, came during an “epidemic of despair” at the prison brought on by two suicides and several suicide attempts. A staff member of the prison contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to come in and give a talk on using writing to cope. At the end of the session, one of the women asked him if he were coming back, put on the spot, he agreed to, but only women who actually wrote something would gain entrance into the workshop.

Lamb returned two weeks later. And at the time of the printing of the book, had been returning every two weeks ever since (I don’t know if he still is running his writing workshop, but I’d be surprised if he weren’t).

Lamb was clear that part of his purpose in getting these women’s stories out is to reach out to people who are under the misimpression that prison is some sort of easy-living experience. These stories remind us that each of these prisoners is a human being. We all have a life story that has gotten us to now and this is an opportunity for women who have been pretty voiceless up until this point, to share theirs. The themes of abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual that run through many of these stories are heartbreaking. Financial stresses, if not straight out poverty, are another common thread. At the same time, none of these women present these experiences as excuses for the crimes that landed them in prison. That being said, it definitely gives you a sense of perspective: You can see how things both within and outside of their control got them to where they are.

When it comes to the purpose of our prison system, I am firmly on the side of rehabilitation versus punishment (especially since the latter too often seems to stem from vengeance). And yes, I recognize that there are probably some people who can’t be rehabilitated, but I don’t think that keeping people in dehumanizing conditions can possibly help them or society. Call me crazy, but I think that part of the purpose of prison is to better prepare these individuals to function on the right side of the law when they get out.

Regardless of your take on the role of incarceration, I encourage you to read Couldn’t Keep It to Myself because these women's stories are compelling and that’s the best reason for choosing a book to read. If you do opt to read this book, I recommend rereading Lamb’s introductory essay after you have finished, because now you know the women, and his insight is especially interesting then.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Checking In

Can I just tell you how happy I am that I decided to do only a Half Cannonball? If not, at this point, I'd be a bundle of stress (and probably guilt) for being behind, but as it is, I'm right on track. And that is fabulous.

I went to the local used bookstore on Saturday and picked up two books for CBR-II. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane. I think having books in reserve will be key to staying on top of the Cannonball Read.

The first book, Mountains, has particular interest for me, because my sister works for Partners in Health, the health organization of Paul Farmer, the focus of the book. I've been meaning to read it for a couple of years now, so I'm really happy to have a copy to dive into at hand.

As for the Lehane novel, I have a vague recollection of reading a good review of, if not this particular book, his works in general. Ah yes, I see that he is the author of Gone, Baby, Gone. No wonder his name sounds familiar. I'm not a huge mystery reader, but I generally like the books I've read in this genre.

So, that's where I'm at at the moment. Making good progress on my second book, Couldn't Keep It to Myself by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution, and I have other books on hand to keep on trucking through CBR-II. Oh, and one other thing, I am so happy to be reading more! It's like being part of this is the reminder I need to make reading a bigger priority.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Review: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

My first introduction to Tracy Chevalier was The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I really liked and still remember key scenes years later. Burning Bright, the second of her works that I read, did not leave quite the same strong impression. It is a fine book, and I definitely had times where I was completely engrossed, so I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise.

Chevalier’s approach is to take someone from history and write a fictionalized account of a character who intersects with that person. In Pearl Earring, that character is the subject of the famous painting. In Burning Bright, Chevalier creates two characters, Jem and Maggie, whose lives intersect with William Blake during the years of 1792 -1793, when he lived in the Lambeth area of London. The French Revolution is going on at this time, so things are quite tense on the British side of the Channel. People are quick to be suspicious of anything that might be considered even vaguely seditious. Aside from recognizing his name, I don’t think I knew anything about Blake before reading this novel. I’m not even sure I could have identified him as British, let alone the time period during which he had lived, and I definitely could not have told you that he was a man whose ideas were fairly unpopular at the time.

Jem Kellaway and his family, mother, Ann; father, Thomas; and sister, Maisie; arrive in London from the countryside in March of 1792. The family has recently lost a beloved son and brother, Tommy, and the move to London is an effort to leave their grief behind. Shortly upon their arrival, they meet Maggie, who has grown up in London and is wise to its ways. Maggie has done a lot of growing up on the streets of London. Her mother is a laundress and her father is constantly trying to figure out how to make a pound—usually by getting materials (wood, metal, etc.) of poor quality and passing them off as higher quality items. Her brother, Charlie, is really good for nothing.

The Kellaway’s next-door neighbor is William Blake and it is through that proximity that Jem and Maggie make their connections with him. In addition to these interactions with Blake, the book also focuses on the Kellaway’s adjustment to the big city, Jem and Maggie’s blossoming interest in each other, and the political goings-on of the time.

If you are unfamiliar with Blake, this book provides a basic introduction to him and his work. Chevalier does an excellent job of dropping you into a different age, and her attention to detail is key to bringing this time period alive. It is fascinating to see some of the knee-jerk (pseudo)patriotism that is all too familiar to us in this day and age, being shown as an echo of similar reactions from years ago. The more things change… as they say.

I’ll leave my review there, so as to not reveal the whole plot and thereby defeat the purpose of you reading the book. Especially if you like historical novels, I think you will enjoy this one. If you need to be grabbed by a book and not let go, this may not be the book for you. If, on the other hand, if you like a book that takes its time and does an excellent job of transporting you to a different time period, then you will like this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

And we're off!

At some point, I'm going to need to put together a reading list. For now, though, I'll just let you know what I'm reading.

My first book for the Cannonball Read II is Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier. She also wrote The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed. I was loaned this book, so I happened to have it on hand when CBR-II started on Sunday, which is why it's book #1.

So far, I'm not finding it terribly gripping, and am considering putting it aside. But I'm not ready to give up on it quite yet.

I do think that a secret to succeeding at the CBR (even just a Half Cannonball) is to make sure your reading list is full of engrossing books, so I'll have to think about that as I select books for this project.