Sunday, December 19, 2010

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian


While I was surfing books in a book website, I came across, “Running the books- The adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”. I loved the cover of this book- It has the face of Avi Steinberg [My assumption] on a collage of book stamps of lending date and submission date. Somehow it reminded me of my college and MBA days where I have never read any book within the return date and always paid some penalty or the other. The cover itself is so creative- full marks to whoever thought of it as it blew my mind! Mindblowing- I don’t know how a kindle can replicate this joy of seeing this cover! I also liked the manner in which the pages were attached- It was as if a journal is made in to a book! Too cool.

Now coming to the book itself, Avi Steinberg writing is humorous, intense, and impressive and he takes a conscious attempt to keep the boundaries! It’s a thin red line and there is always a temptation to talk about the author’s life in addition to his role as a prison librarian and his protagonists in the prison. I think that line has been clearly drawn and it is visible only when you look at it deeply- Otherwise it flows seamlessly. That way, Avi has done a fantastic job.

The crux of the book is simple- Avi takes up the job of a prison librarian in a tough Boston prison from being an obituary writer and the people he encounters in the prison- pimps, psycho-killers, ex-stripper who has estranged her son, drug pedellars, gangsters etc; their desires, their idiosyncracies, their perspective on things more importantly on books especially reading and writing! The stark contrast is the fact that a prison librarian like himself genuinely tries to impart reading, writing skills to the society outcasts- Is’nt contradictory or counter-intuitive. Well, you got to read this to understand where it is leading. The protagonists are fairly intense- A pimp who is looking at writing his biography and taking tips from Avi, An ex-stripper who has estranged her son who himself is an inmate and tries to take Avi’s help in meeting her son in the prison, A thug who aspires to be a world popular chef- In fact he wants to name his show as, “Thug Sizzle” and ofcourse the whole tension between inmates, prison officers and the staff [people like Avi]. The staff; people like Avi have to maintain a balance between inmates and prison officers. He cannot be completely compassionate or empathetic to the inmates as it spoils the prison equilibrium but at the same time, he has to comply to his human values of compassion! Avi also gets to know these societal outcasts so intimately that he unconsciously helps them or takes sides which by itself is crossing the line from a prison rule book!! That dilemma is very well captured especially in the areas where Avi helps out Chudney [character who aspires for Thug Sizzle] or the C.C.Too Sweet [Pimp who wants to write his biography] or Jessica [ex-stripper leaving her son estranged]. The character of C.C.Too Sweet is very colourful and his theories are reasonably hilarious- Too Sweet feels that pimps are the kings when it comes to rhetoric and the fact that Malcolm X was able to move people, large crowds, use knowledge from books comes from the aspect that he can be possibly be a pimp!! :-)) This is again C.C. Too Sweet theory- Form him, everything originated from pimping which is nothing but street swagger!!

This is a great book for book lovers as the writing is kept at a level where it does not bore with multiple characters in the prison and the layers are peeled off one by one like an onion! I would recommend this book to aspiring writers to get a feel of multiple tracks.

Essentially there are 3 tracks in the book:

  • There is this track on the prison characters, their aspirations and how Avi enables or facilitates them in a small manner. His dilemma on taking sides!

  • There is this track on Avi’s observation how the prison is run and how the library is run- The whole aspect of inmates communicating through “kites” [short letters kept in the books for others] and inmates writing poignant poems and summary in the writing classes. The aspect of Protective Custody unit which is the outcasts of the outcasts and how inmates view them as prisoners within the same prison! The whole concept of time inside a prison- I have always read this, “I am doing time”. Time means doing with your hands [a repetitive task, organizing books, cleaning things et al]- There is a difference between doing time and being in prison. Also, you can wish “Happy “anything”” for the inmates as there is no concept of festivities! There is also a small track on his orthodox Jewish background; I wanted to explore some of those topics and I have made a note of it. Very Interesting.

  • Finally the track where it converges to the ending of the book which in my mind was fabulous!!

I was constantly wondering how Avi is going to end the book as the onion peels were coming again and again- Its tough to create an abrupt end but Avi’s accidental meeting of a prison inmate in a common place like Boston public library where that inmate narrates Avi’s joke back to him: It goes this way:

A merchant bought a sack of prunes from his competitor. Opening the sack, he saw the prunes had begun to rot. He went back to the seller and demanded his money back. The seller refused and the two men went to see the rabbi to settle their dispute. The rabbi sat down at a table between the two men and emptied the sack in front of them. Then he put on his glasses, and without saying a word, he went to work, slowly and carefully tasting one prune after another and each time shaking his head, After some time had passed, the plaintiff finally spoke up, “So rabbi, what do you think? The rabbi, who was about to consume the last of the prunes, looked up and replied sharply: “Why are you fellows wasting my time? What do you think I am- a prune expert?

The inmate emphasized this joke in the context of the fact that in this life, you don’t have all the answers!

This was a poetic ending to this book whereby Avi clearly dissects each of the prison inmate life history, their aspirations and why things were happening in a certain manner. I LOVED this ending and there was no other better way to end this book. I have become a complete fan of Avi Steinberg because of his ending!

PS: This reminded me of the movie, “Secret Window” where Johnny Depp [writer] emphasizes on ending of the book!

12 comments:

Varun said...

Very well put down review again. This one definitely seems interesting and I should possibly inaugurate a possible flipkart.com experience with this one.

At the risk of drawing a very unfair parallel since I haven't read the book as yet, I couldn't help but recollect 'The Shawshank Redemption' which also touched upon Andy Dufresne's experience with the prison inmates as the dude helping them out with finances, learning, etc. Of course, the ultimate goal was the protagonist's freedom in that one, whereas 'Running the Books' seems to be more of a first-hand description of experiences.

Thanks a lot!

Veena said...

Prakash

Great review . Really good review Prakash, You make the whole thing so alive

Veena

ram said...

Very good review, Prakash. Very well written.

Six Sigma for all said...

Really Excellent views Prakash. It would be interesting reading this book

preeti said...

Thats interesting writing Prakash...great insights!!

Gayathri Viswanathan said...

Nice review Prakash. The review captured the feel of the book very well while not revealing the plot.

Twinkle Jalan said...

Thanks for sharing this Prakash. This seems to be an interesting read for sure....

Prakash Gurumoorthy said...

@Varun- I agree on the Shawshank Redemption part. There are definitely shades of that and Pradeep R was also mentioning about that...

Prakash Gurumoorthy said...

Thanks Veena, Ram, Naveen, Preeti, Gayathri and Twinkle for your encouragement which makes me to blog more about books that I have read recently.

Keep flowing...

Anupam Kansal said...

I enjoyed the review; it painted a vivid enticing picture of the book. Reminded me of the joy one gets on completing a well written book.

Harish said...

I agree with Anupam. The review makes me want to read the book. :)

Harish said...

I think you have a way with writing reviews.
It makes you want to look out for the book the next time you go book hunting.