Sunday, July 17, 2011

Avi Steinberg's "Running the Books": Book Review

This flows as I anticipated, a sometimes meandering often observant account ca. 2006 of Steinberg's stint. As the blurbs sum up, this yeshiva student turned Harvard grad's hired as the "accidental librarian" at South Bay prison in Boston. The characters, mostly inmates but also colleagues and guards and bosses, share stories, square off, tangle, tease, and endure.

There are not many melodramatic moments, as the author's own insight prevents him from facile moralizing, but interesting as this tale naturally is for a fresh look behind bars, it does not follow a strongly constructed, tightly woven narrative. The chapters will seem to roam around his personal story, local history, and literary interests (notably Sylvia Plath as much as Talmud), and while the arrangement subtly coheres near the close, the story does accumulate considerable detail that may make some readers impatient. Yet, as a creative writing teacher too, he keeps the offbeat pace quirky enough that others may be charmed and moved by his array of anecdotes arranged to reveal lower-key development of symbols (cupcake, skywriting, kites, hawk, ribbon) and deft disclosures of loss and fear.

I reviewed Michael J. Santos' "Inside" about a Federal penitentiary inmate's first-person account, and Ted Conover's celebrated memoir of his year as a guard at Sing Sing, "Newjack." This, by contrast, offers a third narrative by a different prison reporter, the civilian worker. Therefore, as a dealer in one of the only freely given commodities inside jail, that of books, Steinberg reminds us in a realm given over to escape by the word created by writing and reading, how precious a possession literacy becomes when few other resources are present for liberation.

(Posted to 9-26-10. As to date of original posting there the sixteenth review, I gave less detail as my predecessors had already done so. Also posted to 9-27-10.)

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