Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion – Janet Reitman (2011)

Scientology - ReitmanA fascinating, well documented and balanced (to me) approach about the puzzling world of Scientology. This is not a damning book (although it seems that there is plenty of fodder for that), but more of a neutral outside journalist peering in, collecting information and knowledge for five years, and then collating it together. From my non-Scientology perspective, it was riveting in so many ways. I have difficulty understanding how smart and otherwise rational people will sign a billion-year contract (to include past, current and future lives)  to “serve” this group (aka “the Cause”) and to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars and incredibly personal information that could be used against them when it looks like a big con job to me.

However, this is just me thinking that. Obviously, lots of other people disagree and if they want to spend thousands of dollars learning how to be “clear” (the highest level of spiritual growth as deemed by this church), then who am I to judge? It just seems to be that once one is in this religious group, it’s very hard to get out, and if you do, there are widespread consequences.

Plus having Tom Cruise as a lead spokesman does not really help with credibility that much.

hubbardOriginated by L. Ron Hubbard, a revisionist historian extraordinaire* and early science fiction writer, the history needs to be read to be believed.  It’s an amazing story. Hubbard has been quoted as saying “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start a new religion…”

Hubbard (or “LRH” as he is commonly referred to by Scientologists) claimed to be many things over the years and all embellished: he claimed that he had been an explorer, a naval hero, awarded himself a Ph.D. from a degree mill, claimed to be a nuclear physicist and modeled the group on military lines (allowing himself, naturellement, to be Commodore of the planet).  It’s very cheeky in some ways and somewhat disrespectful of others:  at one point, Hubbard calls himself Meytta, the “reincarnation of Buddha” (p. 102). His successor was not much of an improvement, if you ask me, although is reported to have more dictatorial tendencies.

Reading this was rather like reading a fiction story (and indeed quite a bit of it was developed out of Hubbard’s imagination) so it’s extremely difficult for me to understand people who would buy into this. (And it ain’t cheap.) But I think if you’re a “lost soul”, or perhaps someone who is looking for “answers” or perhaps a second or third generation Scientologist, then it might be easy to get sucked in to the bubble. It’s a very insular world and to question anything means that you run the risk of being “disconnected” by your church, your friends and your family or facing other disciplinary measures.  However, a lot of people say that Scientology has helped them and if it has, good for them. It’s hard to know what the truth is as there is so much inconsistency.

You know, it reminded me of Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven”,a non-fiction book about a splinter Mormon group. In both cases, there was this one human guy who invented a story which he made into a religion, wrote it down and it happened to star him as the lead role, but this belief system (?) seems way more sinister in a way. (This model also seems to be the model for many other (although more benign) belief systems.)

This was a fascinating read and although I am still puzzled by the whole thing, at least I know a bit more than I did. It did spur me to get a book called “Feet of Clay” by Anthony Storr, which according to the publisher blurb is “an eye-opening investigation of charismatic “gurus” from Jesus to Freud to David Koresh…and uncovers the personality traits that link [them].” I am quite sure that I would not make a good cult leader, but it will be interesting to see what traits they may have.  (And no, I am not getting into a debate about what is and is not a cult.)

And here is a link of a Q&A session with author Janet Reitman from the readers of the Washington Post when the book was released. Very informative!

Anyway, this was a good read – fascinating and strange, but very interesting.

  • Just google Hubbard. His story is bizarre as it’s been rewritten so many times by both himself and others. Reitman writes what she has found out about his life story, but it’s so odd that it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. He definitely had an active imagination.

Forever England – Beryl Bainbridge (1987)

Forever England book coverBeryl Bainbridge grew up in 1940’s Liverpool and then moved to London when she was sixteen. All her family (related through birth) are still up in Liverpool, and she has described her life as having to straddle two different worlds: the North and the South (of UK).

I hadn’t really thought about England being divided into two worlds, but BB’s book emphasizes the differences as she sees them through a combination of interviews with six different families from both ends of the country that is interspersed with her memories of her own growing up in the North with her family.

Each family who is interviewed gets its own chapter wherein multiple viewpoints are demonstrated. There is not a set formula to each, but more of a rambling reported conversation that you might have with these guys over a cuppa tea. BB seems to have written down the exact conversations (in paragraph form) as I found I could “hear” the dialects as I read through the pages.

Driving "Up North" in UK...I didn’t have a lot of experience “Up North” (as they say); most of it was through the frequent car trips to weekend swimming galas (meets) in various towns and cities such as Leeds and Blackpool, so my strongest memories of the North are of old swimming pools and swimming friends who were also competitors. However, I do remember the long drive cramped in the back seat of a Mini sitting next to a pile of swimming gear in large bags. The cities seemed to be very grey and industrial, but apart from that, the details are fuzzy. (Again, loads of time spent on the side of the pool…)

BB alternates between families of similar income group but who are really pretty different otherwise (e.g. coal  miner family compared with an accountant family), and I’d be interested to see an updated version of this book to see if the differences are still so pronounced now that the world is smaller in so many ways.

Note Aside: Where are all the editors/proof-readers of the last four books I have been reading? Typos in every book I’ve read since Christmas. Bah. Turn your spell check ON, peeps. (N.B. This blog is an exception to that rule and rant. Ha.)

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Stories of Murder, Madness, and Obsession – David Grann

 “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent…”

– Sherlock Holmes.

A non-fiction book and collection of very different essays from a huge variety of subjects across the globe, David Grann has compiled a really enjoyable read here. There are about 12 lengthy essays covering topics as far apart as the hunt for giant squids to a grown man who pretends to be a homeless lost teen (and then takes it as far as claiming to be a long-lost son and returning to that guy’s original family)…

Some of these stories are truly amazing, and this was just the sort of thing that I wanted to read about now and jump around from topic to topic.

Grann is a staff writer for the New Yorker (and has written for numerous other lit bigwigs), and I would bet that these essays first saw the light of day in that publication – they are lengthy, well written and good examples of creative non-fiction (or narrative journalism, if you’d rather).

I think this book must have taken quite a while to compile enough material for the whole manuscript as each essay involved a lot of time and travel to interview the involved parties and all their backgrounds and write all the info into one coherent whole. It’s also interesting to me that Grann doesn’t always have an answer – some of these mysteries remain just that at the end, so this definitely kept me wondering once I had finished each essay.

As mentioned, there are about 12 essays in this book, and topics are all over the place, from the possibility of the number one Sherlock Holmes fan/scholar being murdered for knowing too much to the history of the Aryan Brotherhood in US prisons. This must have been fascinating to write from Grann’s perspective (as it was from my reading perspective) and I would have loved to be in some of those interviews with him. “Fly on the wall” type of thing.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a sort of “intelligent magazine read” which covers detailed subjects in even more detail, you’ll like this book. (He also wrote “The Lost City of Z” about tracing a lost city in the Amazon, but I haven’t read that. It can’t be that bad if it’s on the same level as this book.)

Good one.

For another good read from David Grann, try “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” (2016).

The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg (2012)

The Power of Habit sounds as though it should be placed in the Self-Help section of your local independent bookstore, but it’s really more along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk in that it’s a more science-y based book (although there are some self-help tips in it towards the end in terms of changing habits etc.)

Written by the NYT’s Charles Duhigg, the book takes more of a meta-analytic approach to habits, reviewing scientists and their published research in terms of human and organizational habits. It’s really quite fascinating for me to read, especially since I spent a lot of my professional career trying to change people’s habits from a public health perspective. So many talks and so much time chatting to people about developing more healthy behaviors…

Towards the turn of the millennium, I was involved in a large community-wide health initiative and tried to read as much as I could about changing behavior for the long-term: how did people change their long-time habits? And how do you keep them sustainable? At the time, I was a big believer in Prochaska et al and their Stages of Change, and I still believe that there are stages of development that most people have to travel through to make big changes in their lives.

This book took a slightly different angle to Prochaska and viewed habits as a behavioral loop that would be similar for almost everyone, whether they were smoking or sitting on the couch all day. (And actually, Duhigg addresses other non-health-related behaviors as well – a habit is a habit is a habit after all.) If you are more of a theory-driven learner and like me, need to know and understand the “why” before there’s any chance of moving further, “The Power of Habit” is set up to warm the cockles of your heart. Pages and pages of readable discussion about the various scientific studies that have been published about behavior, from the success of AA to not buying a cookie at three o’clock every workday. I wouldn’t say that this info was mind-shatteringly new for me, but it was thoroughly researched and supported by reputable studies so that its conclusions are more convincing than others have been.

What was interesting about this book was how it demonstrated some of the research findings into real-life scenarios. For example, studies have proven that most people who enter a large supermarket will automatically turn to the right when they go through the front door. (Do you?) This routine habit means that most supermarkets will put the more expensive impulse buys there. (For example, one local supermarket here has its florist, chocolate box selection and magazines to the right of its main door at one location.)  Thinking about it, it also has its grocery trolleys there as well, so that makes me wonder: did the placement of the trolleys come before the behavior or did the behavior come before the trolleys were put there?

It also helped to explain just why the produce section in most places is located towards the beginning of the shopping trip for a lot of people. According to Duhigg, it’s because if the consumer has already put “healthy” food into the trolley, then it’s easier (and more justifiable) to put a packet of Pringles on top as “the healthy food evens it” out sort of thing. I had noticed the arrangement, but could not work out why. Now I know one possible reason.

Additionally, it explains radio stations. Most listeners crave songs that are familiar to them, either because they know them through repetition or because the songs remind them of another song. We can only listen to a few things at one time, and if we’re having to concentrate on new (and therefore different/challenging) songs, then we have less attention to pay to more important actions (like driving a car). Few people will admit that they like Celine Dion songs, but research shows that if a Dion song comes on the radio station, hardly anyone will change the channel. They might protest in a survey or to their friends, but they won’t actually move to change the channel. (Interesting – will have to see if I can see this in action.)

Familiar songs are called “sticky” by those in the music biz (apparently), and makes sense to me as most top 40 adult contemp songs sound quite similar to me when I first hear them. (Not that I am a big fan of live radio as I get frustrated by the ads and the DJ drivel. But supposing I did…) When a radio station wants to introduce a new song that is not “familiar” in how it sounds for its audience, the station will sometimes “sandwich” the new song between two older and much more familiar songs so that the listener is not faced with having to deal with “too much different” at one time.

All fascinating stuff for me to learn. The book even portrays the Civil Rights movement and AA as beginning with habits, both on the personal and the cultural level. A quick and very interesting read that I enjoyed.

Duhigg is a very good writer and has been working for the NYT since 2006 doing investigative journalism. He backs up what he says and tends to keep his personal opinions to himself (which I appreciated). The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that it didn’t have a formal bibliography for further study. Apart from that, this made me think and that’s always a good thing.

Counting Down – Author Visit

The university here just announced its Presidential Lecture Series schedule, a well-funded group of public events that they bring to campus and all are invited. The schedule looks super-good, but one in particular is having me chomping at the bit: Tim Egan.

(Expected response for the average person: Who?)

He is the guy who wrote that fantastic NF called “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” a really good telling of the lives of people who lived during that Grapes of Wrath time in US history. I happen to live on the edge of where this occurred geographically, and I can see its seasonal patterns every Spring, so I particularly adored this book as it brought to life the many histories of the folks who lived around here.

A dust storm (haboob) which came through last Spring. (Source: Lubbock NWS.)

Here is the link to the NYT review. Note: Egan has been a reporter for NYT for ages. Oh, and he won the 2006 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction.

If he can present as well as he can write, it will be great.

Columbine – Dave Cullen (2009)

This was an accidentally timely choice of book title to read as I had ordered it through ILL, and it arrived the day before the Aurora and Wisconsin shootings the other week. After having immersed myself in this investigative journalistic work, I hope that the Aurora authorities and Wisconsin authorities handle their mass shooting incidents more successfully than they did at Columbine.

So much tragedy, so much heart break, so many mistakes (and I must say lies) from different groups and people.

Cullen is a well respected journalist having written for NYT, WaPo, The Times (UK) and other huge print outlets so he knows of what he writes and he has the credibility and experience to do a good job. Additionally, he has covered the Columbine incident from the very day that it happened so is well regarded and is considered to be one of the leading experts on school shootings. (Shame that there has be an expert in that subject, but I suppose that is life.)

The two high school shooters (whose names I won’t say as I don’t want to promote them in any way) left so many red flags as to their plans that in looking back, it looks negligent that so few picked up on them. From what I can tell from reading this, it seems that the two boys were involved in the juvenile justice system for the year or two before, but there was no communication (or little) between the different agencies so no one had the whole picture. The end conclusion of Cullen’s work is that the school shooting in Columbine was preventable which seems to be heart-rending and frustrating.

But again, hindsight can be perfect vision and so it seems like it was a “perfect storm” of egotism and poor investigative work that hampered the handling of this. Cullen seems to be a neutral party (in that he is media and is not paid by any governmental agency) and so I can only assume that what he has written is fair and balanced. And if it is, then the Sheriff’s department of Jefferson County (and its leadership) should be groveling in shame at how they (mis-)handled all the reports. According to Cullen, there were years of cover-up and lying from the department to prevent affected families and media from knowing all the facts, and the department certainly doesn’t look good throughout this book.

Thirteen people (both students and faculty) were killed and numerous others were wounded both physically and mentally. In the wake of such an incident, the media (nationwide – not one outlet more than another generally) created myths and legends about the shooting, and this book is Cullen’s effort to try and correct those myths that have been repeated so often that they seem to be true.

This is a tough book to read. There were times that I was reading (and Cullen was describing the blow-by-blow shooting) that I had to put the book down and take a breather. Although Cullen is arriving at this via investigative journalism, there is a narrative angle when he imagines what the killers were saying and doing at the time of the shooting. Yes, Cullen had access to the journals, diaries, websites and reports related to all this, but still, I think there is a leap to go from what they say to reporting that “this was how they felt and what they said” when (a) he wasn’t there and (b) no one can refute him whether they survived the shooting or not as trauma affects memory so badly.

So – keeping this in mind, most of the book is a look at how the two boys behaved in their childhood and how they planned for this shooting. (Cullen argues that it was originally intended to be a bombing more than a shooting, but the bombs were miscalculated and did not explode as planned. If they had, there would have been hundreds more victims.) There is a well researched ongoing discussion about psychopaths and whether the two shooters fit that diagnosis. There is discussion about the role of religion in how the actual community reacted to this event, and there is a focus on the role of the school system and its administrators.

However, again, it’s all hindsight and hard to prove definitively. This is not a criticism of Cullen in any way. It’s just a reminder that the book presents the info as set in stone and absolute when in fact, it’s only conjecture. However, who is to say that what he says is not true? Not I, and if I were Cullen, I expect I would have drawn the exact same conclusions with the information that he had. The exact truth is unknown and always will be, but I do think that Cullen has done a good job here. He has written a gripping book without resorting to extremism on either end of the spectrum. He has an opinion, obviously, but it’s supported and explained from his investigation. It’s something that we will never know what exactly happened and why.

Despite this limitation, the work that went into this book was extensive. Cullen must have combed through thousands of pages of paperwork and talked hours in one-on-one interviews with victims and other affected people. One point that was made crystal clear was that it’s quite amazing how much power an agency (such as the Sheriff’s department) can hold in terms of what information they release and what they don’t. Yes, there is the Open Records Act, but there are exceptions to this, and the Sheriff’s department took full advantage of that, covering up some of their own people’s mistakes in the process. It would have looked less bad if they had actually admitted their errors. As it was, they end up looking up foolish and incompetent. The Sheriff at the time has now retired and so there are different personnel there now, which is good. The guy who was there before, if the facts are true, seems to be a complete and utter ass.

A very interesting book (especially when linked with the recent Aurora shooting news and the Wisconsin shooting news) which questions a lot of assumptions that are made about the characteristics of a school shooter. These guys did not match a “profile” of any kind. They didn’t “snap” because they were bullied. They didn’t try and get revenge on the athletes. They were two pretty ordinary boys, one a narcissistic leader/psychopath, and the other a guy who really wanted to be like him. I don’t think their parents were to blame (and in fact, I feel for them in many ways as I feel for the families of the victims.) As mentioned, there were several red flags in their behavioral choices, but are they only obvious because we have the whole picture now?

A provocative book about a provocative subject, and one that is sure to cause discussion regardless of where you stand on the political (or religious) spectrum.

Fascinating mull by Cullen on-line at The Daily Beast (07/20/2012) about recent research on how a mass shooter may think…

And a NYT story on the Aurora shooting (again from Cullen).

The Dead Beat – Marilyn Johnson (2006)

“Obit reading is an act of contemplation.” Marilyn Johnson.

This book is a very enthusiastic ode to obituaries and “tributes” to recently dead people, both hugely famous (or infamous) and then also to the ordinary people who tend to make up one’s neighborhood.

I am a big believer in the philosophy that “everyone has a story,” so it was fascinating to see that others think the same thing. Perhaps I need to start writing obits, because I am always chit-chatting to someone with whom I cross paths – there’s always a story there somewhere, no matter who it is. And sometimes, I think that people are just happy to have someone listening to their story – I don’t think enough people take the time to listen properly in this world today.

Johnson covers all aspects of obit writing, from the history of obits in UK and US, and by using plenty of examples, shows the reader with exquisite care, the joy of a well-crafted paragraph about someone dead. She writes that she thinks the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper is the World Champion for obits, writing them with both irreverent humor and with care without making it crass.

Others mentioned included the magazine, The Economist, which favors the one-page obit (or tribute) to someone who was usually really interested in something obscure. (For example, one tribute was for someone who loved flower poetry. The tribute mentioned the person and her interest, but then took the article to the next level and dug much deeper into the actual topic of flower poetry.) Fascinating stuff, to me at least, and just the type of writing that I like to read.

There is an annual conference for obituary writers (and the fandom of obits) run by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, and Johnson interviews numerous journalist obit superstars who have been influential in changing how obits have been structured since the 1980’s. (They used to be very dry – at least now there is a bit of flavor to them in a lot of cases. I must admit that our local paper runs very ordinary obits, which is a shame as I bet the people who died were much interesting than what is reported…)

The Daily Telegraph, for example, on their main obits page has one sentence summaries of the various people who have died recently and have been selected for inclusion. Such descriptions include gems like these:

  • Dara Singh – “a champion wrestler who became a muscle-bound Bollywood star playing the Hindu monkey Hanuman…”
  • George Lyle – “a member of the Met Drug Squad who raided Chinese opium dens and reported the rise in marijuana…’
  • Roger Caron – “incompetent bank robber and serial escapee known as “Mad Dog” who wrote a best-selling prison memoir…”

Fantastic and hilarious…! And true which makes it even better. Johnson calls them “memorable mischief” which I just love.

This was quite a serious book, but it was written to be relatively light and funny. I really like it because it opened the door to the intriguing world of obit-writing for UK and US, a world which I had only vaguely known before.

It was also reassuring to know that I am not the only person who avidly reads the obits. When we drive by graveyards and cemeteries, I always look for “fresh ones” (i.e. newly dug graves), but that might be a whole other issue altogether. 🙂

Another blog that is super-interesting to read about little-known people (this time women in history) is called “Saints, Sinners and Sluts”. It’s really well done and has a fascinating archive to delve through.

And this one is interesting as well: Scandalous Women.

And this one:  Writing Women’s History.

And you knew something to do with the Victorians was going to be slipped into this list:  Victorian Geek.

Super Freak (economically speaking)

Been trying to catch up with some of the books that people have kindly loaned me so that I can return them to their proper homes. One of these happens to be “SuperFreakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2009).  Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Dubner is an NYT journalist and this is a sequel to “Freakonomics” (which I haven’t actually read – I just skipped to the most recent book as I am a bit picky about how timely non-fiction news-based info is.)

I don’t have much background in economics, although I did take (and barely scraped through) an A-level in Economics. I had very little interest in this topic, but when push came to shove and I needed to choose a couple of subjects for A-levels, I took Economics because my brother had. I had no idea what it was about or anything, but once I had chosen it, that was it and I was stuck (and a bit bored) by the topic for two years.

Moving on, I really like this approach to economics. I don’t know if it’s seen as “Economics For Dummies” or something, but I could actually understand what these guys were saying and didn’t glaze over and daydream my way through as I did for A-level study. I think what was so interesting about “SuperFreakonomics” is that the academic one’s bright ideas and theories are being funneled through a journalist mindset and translated into English. (I don’t mean to say that this book is E-Z reading or to discount either author, but it does cover interesting subjects in a similar vein to Malcolm Gladwell who I find fascinating to read.) I certainly don’t remember Mrs. Davis being this fascinating during my A-level years, but perhaps it was the student not the teacher.

Among the many intriguing points, the authors talk about climate change (called “global warming” in this edition, although I know that there is some discussion about terminology here). The studies that Levitt and Dubner use to make their point suggest that (in regard to global warming/greenhouse gases), it’s actually much better to actually change  one day’s meals in the week from mostly meat to dairy, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet. Since animals (cows in particular) produce so many greenhouse gases themselves (through farting etc. 🙂 ), reducing the amount of meat that is demanded would apparently reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than just focusing on locally-produced food. Hmm.

This point also links back to a lecture I saw a few years ago from a British scientist who had focused on how to reduce the worldwide water shortage and still get people fed. His thesis was a bit more emphatic about turning to a 100% vegetable diet as cows (and other animals for market) require so much more water than some crops do.

And then, add that to the recent book release by Paul McCartney of recipes for a “Meatless Monday” and it is all quite convincing to cut back on meat in our household. I don’t usually have any meat for breakfast, not every time for lunch, but usually supper includes someone who had parents at some point. (!) I would be quite happy to try meatless Mondays in our house, and will have to run it through committee to get agreement on this. 🙂 I bet D will agree for at least for a while.

Along these lines, I also learned that kangaroos are a better meat choice (in terms of negatively affecting climate change) as their farts don’t contain methane. “Hi there! Would you like to try our McJoey today?”…!

And there you have it. Another valuable piece of trivia for you to throw in your everyday conversation this week.

Super Freakonomics is not something that I would have necessarily picked up on my own volition, but you know – it was actually really fascinating overall. Yeah for reading outside one’s comfort zone.

Another case of reading outside the comfort zone was my picking up Jennifer Weiner’s chick-lit “In her Shoes”… I was looking for something easy to read and also to get off my TBR pile so this title rose to the surface. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

First, I hadn’t realized this but I was actually embarrassed to read this in public and was forced to fold the cover back so others wouldn’t see my appalling book selection when I went to eat out. And second, Weiner needs to get a better editor, because there were several glaring inconsistencies that someone paid the big bucks should have caught (and I didn’t even finish the book as I felt my brain cells were rotting with every page I turned). Sigh. I don’t mean to be a book snob, but when you read a lot of consistently high quality books, it does ruin you for your average mass market title. However, keep in mind also that I am not the one with a NYT bestselling book or a movie with Cameron Diaz. 🙂

Oh, and here is chit-chat about a call for Ray Bradbury’s F451 to be honored with an internet error message. (From The Guardian.)

Let Not the Waves – Simon Stephenson (2011)

“The world changes when you lose somebody you love. Whether or not your loss begins with an earthquake, the planet tilts on its axis and remains there. At first, this is dizzying. Life is suddenly so strange that all you can do is desperately cling to this earth’s spinning surface and hope not to fall off yourself. Over the months and years, you can learn to live in this unfamiliar orbit, to walk upright again… In this way, time passes.”

This book is the true story of a brother killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, one of 230,000 people who were also killed on that Boxing Day. Written as a mix of childhood reminiscences and meditations on family, this covers a wide range of topics from Greek myths to the legends of First Peoples in Oregon, linked by the ravages of the unruly sea bed.

This is also a very sad book, written by the younger brother of Dominic Stephenson, the 27 year old Scotsman who was killed with his girlfriend Eileen and thousands of other people. It’s a book of how one family tried to deal with the awful news, of how hard it was waiting for official confirmation of the deaths, of waiting to get Dominic’s body repatriated and then choosing where to bury him, he whose life was cut so short so unexpectedly far away.

Stephenson is a strong writer and although this is his first published novel, he has written screenplays professionally, and his skill for a steadily moving plot shows here. Additionally, he also qualified as a physician in the UK, a knowledge which would come in handy later on when trying to understand his brother’s injuries. The death of his close elder brother causes months of disruption in a previous settled life, and he uproots himself from his career in London and flies to Thailand to try to understand more fully his brother’s unexpected demise and the deaths of all the other people.

Whilst there, he joins other mourning family members and friends, strangers all at first, and works to build a memorial garden for the victims. In doing so, he meets local people who also lost loved ones, and together, as the months pass, they become close friends and try to move on.

However, the grief journey for Stephenson is not without significant difficulties for him and for his family. There are significant health problems which plague Simon and his mother, there are career issues to be addressed, and an ongoing challenge to try to bring sense to an otherwise senseless natural tragedy.

Although I would not say that I enjoyed this book, it was an interesting and thoughtful read about one man’s journey to accept the unacceptable. A provocative read.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian – Avi Steinberg (2010)

Another fun non-fiction read (seem to be on an NF kick right now)… This one recounts the “adventures of an accidental prison librarian” (cue: subtitle) and is the true story of how a mid-twenties recent college grad ended up in South Bay Prison in Boston as a librarian and as a creative writing teacher.  Steinberg is a former Orthodox Jew and had studied the Torah very seriously during his teens. It was only recently that he had dropped out yeshiva (sort of Rabbi University, I think), and saw this opportunity. He had been writing obituaries for a Boston newspaper and was ready for something different. Despite his complete lack of experience, his willingness and openness helped to get him the job.

Steinberg is a good writer and this book is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on several rather serious issues: the role of prisons in the US, the role of libraries in prisons, the ongoing tension between the correction officers and the staff (he was staff), and then the ongoing tensions between the inmates and the professional staff. It was a lot more than just about a library, and so this was an added bonus.

Initially, I was not that looking forward to the book as I thought it was going to be all Philip Roth-y, but Steinberg is funny and self-deprecating plus he worked an interesting job which gave him lots to say and think about. For example, during his tenure as prison librarian, he works quite closely with some of the prisoners and struggles to maintain the boundaries with them despite counting some of them as friends. However, as he mentions, it’s very difficult to be kind in prison, and he has to learn the hard way about some of his inmate workers despite how charming they could be. (Some were con men, after all.)

So – through the course of the book, you meet up with CC Too Sweet, a pimp who is working hard to write his autobiography and needs Steinberg’s editing help and support; Jessica, a mother who is in the same prison as her abandoned son and who she has not met for years but can watch in the exercise yard. And Chudbury, the “former” gangster who wants to have his own Urban Cooking show…

Trust is in short supply and Steinberg wants to believe the best about these guys, that they can change and that they are sincere about it, but it’s difficult to know for certain. It’s not only the inmates that he has to look out for – there are territorial scuffles with the corrections officers and always the overarching worry of an inmate having a beef with him over something minor and accusing him of breaking a rule (such as giving him contraband or much worse). It’s a wild animal world to deal with, and Steinberg has arrived from an Ivy League background little prepared for this very Dog-Eat-Dog behavior.

Even such a simple thing as using names was fraught with difficulties. Staff were not to use the street names of the inmates (even though that was what everyone called them) – only their “gov names” – and to do so would blur the boundaries too much. Prison is a free market for nearly anything, and the prison library is the only place where there is a free exchange of goods (books). However, even then the inmates could turn it into a commodity by checking out a popular book and then auctioning reading time off to the other inmates who were also wanting to read the book. It was never ending.

The job was also hard for Steinberg – he would meet released inmates out in the streets when he was not at work – how to handle that? He got mugged by a former inmate, and was asked for a cup of coffee by a non-reformed pimp and his girl.,. There is no way to stay neutral on some of these issues and so Steinberg found the work to be hard and never-ending.

However, he also taught some creative writing classes which, although not a smashing success were not too bad, and enabled him to get to know some of the inmates in a different manner. But again, the boundaries were blurry and difficult sometimes.

This was a much much better book than I had anticipated – and I was impressed with the depth of thought that this young author presented in his writing. There was a little too much self-analyzing in it at times, and rather a stretch to link his struggles of understanding his difficult grandma with the behavior of one of the inmates, but overall this was a provocative and very interesting about crime, prison and the role of society.

Good one.