“Amazon’s New Kindle is The Best E-Reader You Can Buy,” trumpets Business Insider, which calls it “the only e-reader you should consider buying.” “The Screen Makes it the Best E-Reader Yet,” says Time, adding in the article, “it’s a joy.” PC Tablet calls it “one of the most technologically advanced readers,” NBC News calls it “the new king of e-readers,” and TechCrunch says it’s “a reader’s dream.”
With its October release, we’re guessing Amazon is angling to get its Paperwhite e-reader on readers’ gift lists this holiday season.
Amazon began shipping the e-reader Monday. The Paperwhite comes in two versions, WiFi only and WiFi/3G. Base prices, in which readers will encounter ads, are $119 for the Wi-Fi and $179 for the Wi-Fi/3G.
We checked out more than a dozen reviews online, and, besides a few minor complaints, they were overwhelmingly positive. The most touted feature of the new Paperwhite is its improved paper-like backlit LED screen. Reviewers are praising the new screen, which uses built-in LED backlights to uniformly illuminate the screen for comfortable paper-like reading in all environments, from bright sunlight to pitch-black rooms – all with far less eye strain. Still based on E-Ink, the screen has better resolution and contrast than older models, with more sharp, crisp text.
The Paperwhite’s other features include:
• 8-week battery life
• 6 crisp, clear fonts readers can choose from, with better contrast
• 1100 books in its memory
• 1 million+ titles for less than $10
• 180,000 Kindle-only titles
• Built-in Wi-Fi which lets readers download books within 60 seconds
• Time to Read feature which tells readers how long until a chapter done
• Parental control options for kids reading
• Tools that allow users to add, edit, delete and export their own notes in the text, and highlight and clip key passages. They can also share highlighted parts of the text directly on Facebook and Twitter without having to leave the page they're on.
Unlike the Kindle Fire, which attempted to compete with Apple’s iPad and received mixed reviews, the Paperwhite is not marketed as a gadget that can do it all – it’s strictly an e-reader and by all accounts, it excels, making it a good bet for bibliophiles.
Of course, there have been some complaints. The touch-screen isn’t as responsive as what many folks with smartphones and tablets are used to, says Business Insider’s Steve Kovach. “There’s an annoying delay between the time you tap on the screen and the action happens. It doesn't feel natural,” he writes.
And like all recent Kindles, the Paperwhite comes with ads on the lockscreen, which some users find annoying. (You can pay an extra $20 to opt out.)
Some have complained about its lack of a speakers and headphone jack and have said it’s not entirely comfortable to hold.
But by and large, reviewers are unmistakably smitten.
“Forget Everything Else, This is the E-Reader You Want,” says Gizmodo.
Decide for yourself here.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Where did mother and former star architect Bernadette Fox disappear to, right before her family was due to leave on a trip to Antarctica? It's the question her daughter Bee is trying to answer in the new book "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple, author of "This One Is Mine" and former TV writer for shows like "Mad About You" and "Arrested Development."
In "Bernadette," Bee searches for her mother by combing through documents, secret letters, and e-mails. As Bee looks for the truth, Semple skewers the city of Seattle and the hyper-involved parenting style embraced by the adults at Bee's private school, with whom Bernadette butts heads repeatedly before her disappearance. This includes one mother who nags Bernadette about clearing out blackberry vines that have grown over onto her property.
In an interview with the Monitor, Semple, a Seattle resident, discusses the reaction her Seattle neighbors have had to her book, the exact moment she knew she was onto something good with her "Bernadette" manuscript, and why it makes sense that "Arrested Development" has found success on DVD. Here are excerpts of the conversation. (Spoilers for "Bernadette" follow.)
Q: What appealed to you about TV writing?
A: My father was a screenwriter and I kind of grew up in that world. I always had a mind for characters and dialogue, and my head was filled with that stuff, so it seemed like a good place to start.
Q: To discuss one of the TV shows you wrote for, what was your favorite part about writing for "Mad About You"?
"Mad About You" fit my sensibility the most of any show that I worked on, and as a result, it was really fun. It felt like a very natural fit.
What I liked about ["Mad About You"] was being able to use stuff from real life. There were other TV shows that had a lot of weird, stilted jokes, and with "Mad About You," it was much more observational. The humor was much more about being a couple, and I really liked that. I feel like that was the most fun, to be in a room with writers and just kind of tell stories about a fight that you had that morning with your spouse – and to all of their horrors, it would end up in an episode.
That, to me, comes more naturally to me than a much more stilted type of comedy.
Q: How do you feel about the fandom that's sprung up around "Arrested Development"?
I think it makes sense, because it was a show that was almost perversely not meant to be understood the first time you watched it. I think that has a lot to do with why it was canceled. It almost dared you to try to understand the show the first time around, and it was very intricate and there were a lot of jokes that would play out over several episodes and it worked much better as this whole.
There were so many winks to the real fans, and it was very self-referential, and that type of thing really works well with repeated viewings. It makes sense to me that that's how it's found a second life. It's more appropriate.
Q: Your first book, "This One Is Mine," was set in Los Angeles, while "Bernadette" is set in Seattle. Is there anything particular about the places you have lived that draws you to use them as settings?
I think because I try to keep things as real as I can, or I try to start from a place of reality, I almost don't have the imagination to write a book that's not set where I am. It's smarter for me to set the books where I am physically because I'll have a lot of interesting observations. There'll be a lot of details from life that'll pop up for me.
I never really intended either book, at all, to be so place-oriented. I didn't sit down and think, "Okay, I'm writing an LA novel" or "Oh, I'm writing a Seattle novel." It's really surprised me that this is a "Seattle novel." When I turned it in [if] someone had said to me, "Does Seattle play a big part in your book?" I'd have said, "Not really." I really didn't see it that way, but obviously, this is how it's being read and perceived, which is fine with me. I'm happy about it and I certainly understand, but I'm mainly trying to get the characters right and get the details right, give my characters and my story and my novel authority, write with a real sense of authority. I think that's the most important job of a novelist, to bring authority to their writing.
I don't know if it's a failure of imagination on my part, but I'm not going to be writing about Paris in the 1800s. I feel like it would come off as just ludicrously uninformed, even if I did a lot of research. Everything that I write, it's really close to home, mainly because I'm afraid of not having authority.
As I was starting to write it, when I knew I was onto something really cool with the book was when I started writing about the blackberry vines going under the fence and the neighbor. Everyone's had that, the "Hey, if you wouldn't mind, that tree might fall into my yard, so could you...." Really small little things from life. But as soon as I wrote that, I just had this really excited sense that it wasn't going to end well. This is going to be causing a lot of really good trouble for the characters.
Q: Have you heard anything from fellow Seattle residents about the comments your characters make in "Bernadette" about the city?
People love it here. Maybe I've heard from a couple of people, they were a little prickly, but just generally, people love it. Most importantly, for me, is all the mothers at my school just love it.... They're all reading it and have a real sense of ownership of the book, which makes me feel really happy. They're really proud that a mother in school wrote it and I think because I don't have that relationship with them, they're my friends.
Nobody at school feels threatened by the book. My sense is a real sense of celebration about the book in Seattle, and particularly the parents, and they think it's funny. I think if anyone is like those parents, I think they can laugh at that aspect of themselves.
Q: And of course you had the note to the mothers saying 'None of you are gnats' [Bernadette's sarcastic term for the mothers at Bee's school because of their persistence and other annoying characteristics] in the acknowledgements.
Exactly. Now, I probably wouldn't put that in the book, but at the time, I really was afraid. I still am very much like the character of Bernadette. I'm not really a big volunteer person, I don't like hanging around at the stairs to pick up the kids. I always drive through. They all laugh at me, all the parents do, because they know I have a good heart, they just know that I have a very low tolerance for that sort of school socializing. I put that in because I was worried. I thought, "Oh, they'll think this is what I really think about them." Really, it's been the opposite.
Q: The reader's impression of Bernadette changes several times over the book as they hear from Bernadette herself and see Bernadette from the point of view of other characters. What do you hope readers will think about Bernadette by the end of the novel?
What I hope that they'll get from the book is that it's about a woman who has decided to move forward and can move forward, and I think that's really what the book is. She's kind of stuck at the beginning of the book, kind of obsessed with the past, and paralyzed in the present. And that's really what her character flaw is, just unable to move forward.
It's funny because even though I openly say, "Oh, I'm like Bernadette," I was at a reading the other day and someone said, "If you are Bernadette, then you love Bernadette" and I said, "Oh, no, I think she's awful!" She's filled with self-pity, she feels like a victim. I don't feel like, "Oh, you've got to love her from the beginning." I hope I've written a challenging character.
I'm surprised that people don't dislike her more than they do. I think because her stuff is funny, I can kind of get away with [it]. She's a good mom, and I think that, being a good mother, people like her.
What I'm hoping is that you have your fingers crossed that she is going to move forward in the end. I think there's a lot to recommend her. She's smart and talented and she's a good mother, and at the end of the book, she's committed to try. And that's kind of all anyone can do.
One of the book's pivotal locations is Antarctica. Have you ever traveled there?
What inspired you to put it in the book?
We were going over Christmas and we booked [the trip] in February. I'd heard it was kind of the best trip in the world.
I started writing the book in October and because I knew I was going to be in Antarctica, I kind of vaguely was pointing the book in the direction of Antarctica. I kind of knew, okay, they're going to Antarctica, but I really didn't figure out much more than that. I didn't know that she would disappear. I didn't know any of that stuff.
But when I went down to Antarctica, something happened to me – just a very minor thing where I got off the boat one day, went around, saw all the icebergs and came back and went to scan my card. And the thing went "Bong" and "See someone" and someone said, "Oh, don't worry about it, you must have not scanned out. It still thinks you're on the boat."
And I went, "Oh." The plot-lover in me is always thinking of plot, there's my plot point. I kind of figured out, someone can get off the boat and you wouldn't know for two weeks. That seems like something I can use.
Q: Do you have any projects coming up?
I feel like I'm kind of purposely waiting years before I write my next novel. I feel like good novels come from personal pain and they come from a unique perspective and whatever unique perspective I had, I put in that book, and I haven't changed enough to have another unique perspective.
Unlike Bernadette, I am always moving forward. Because I'm always moving forward, I have faith that something's going to present itself to me that'll be interesting enough and resonant enough to write a novel about.
Kelly Burdick, the executive editor for independent publisher Melville House, penned a column Oct. 2 saying that despite Barnes & Noble’s well-known policy of not carrying titles published by Amazon, he had seen Amazon-released book “My Mother Was Nuts” by Penny Marshall at a New York Barnes & Noble location. When he did a “Find in store” search for Marshall’s book on the company’s website, he said the website indicated that the book could be found at Barnes & Noble locations in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., among others.
“In any case, it’s not much of a boycott,” Burdick wrote. “A real boycott would mean not stocking Amazon’s books. Guess that’s harder than it looks.”
In the wake of Burdick’s column, Barnes & Noble stated, “Our policy has not changed. We are not carrying Amazon titles.” The company reportedly e-mailed its stores instructions to take the Amazon books off the shelves, according to the Melville House column.
“Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham is reportedly planning a memoir/advice book that she is currently shopping around to publishers.
The tentative title of the book is “Not That Kind of Girl: Advice by Lena Dunham,” and some say Dunham’s literary agency is asking publishers for at least $1 million for the book.
The book would cover romance, eating well, work, and other topics, according to an e-mail obtained by Slate.
Dunham’s show “Girls,” of which she is the creator, producer, writer and star, was recently nominated for several Emmy awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (for Dunham), and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (also for Dunham, for the pilot episode of the show). Dunham was previously known for the 2010 film “Tiny Furniture,” in which she directed, wrote and starred.
Two writers and a journalist-cum-author are among the 23 academics, artists, and scientists awarded MacArthur “genius” grants this week: Dominican-American Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Junot Diaz, Ethiopian-born writer Dinaw Mengestu, and David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist specializing in military service and sacrifice.
Along with a pediatric neurosurgeon, mandolinist, geochemist, economist, photographer, mathematician and others, these writers were chosen “for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation. Each will receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over the next five years to allow them “unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore.”
The Foundation said Dominican-born Diaz offers “powerful insight into the realities of the Caribbean diaspora, American assimilation, and lives lived between cultures” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and two short story collections, “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her.” (Here's our review of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.")
Called “vibrant and soulful,” “screamingly funny,” and “always searching,” Diaz is known for introducing American readers to largely ignored and overlooked communities of immigrants, especially Dominicans, through his raw, vernacular-laden books. The author reveals the immigrant life, said the Foundation in its award announcement, by creating “nuanced and engaging characters struggling to succeed and often invisible in plain sight to the American mainstream.”
Diaz, himself once “invisible in plain sight,” once lived in an apartment with “almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades…I was going nuts from my lack of success,” he told the Barnes and Noble Review, as reported by Chapter & Verse.
“It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me,” Diaz told Fox News Latino. “I came from a community that was about as hard-working as you can get and yet no one saw or recognized in any way our contributions or our genius. I have to wonder, but for circumstances, how many other kids that I came up with are more worthy of this fellowship than me?”
He called the award “transformational" and said “It allows you to focus on your art with very little other concerns,” he said, as reported by the Guardian. “It’s kind of like a big blast of privilege.”
Thirty-four-year-old Mengestu is also known for writing about the immigrant experience and the African diaspora. Author of novels “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” and “How to Read Air,” Mengestu was awarded the grant for “enriching [the] understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America in tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are seared by escape from violence in their homelands,” said the Foundation.
“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” his debut novel about Ethiopian immigrants forging a new life in Washington, D.C., won the L.A. Times Book Prize for first fiction in 2007 and Mengestu was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 in 2010.
“Part of what the MacArthur fellowship does is remind me that the work I've done is relevant – not necessarily what I write about, but the people who populate my work,” Mengestu said of the award. “That those people have a significance and meaning that sometimes might be overshadowed or lost in the larger narrative of the world, and it's important to keep writing out of those experiences.”
Washington Post journalist David Finkel is author of “The Good Soldiers,” for which he spent eight months embedded with an American Army infantry battalion that went to Iraq as part of the American troop “surge” in 2007.
“His work is typically the product of months of grueling reporting from remote and harsh locales – Kosovo, Iraq, Yemen, Central and South America and parts of the United States,” writes the Washington Post.
Finkel pushes “beyond the constraints and conventions of traditional news writing” to produce stories “that heighten the reality of military service and sacrifice in the public consciousness,” said the Foundation. “As newspapers continue to contract and move away from immersion-based, long-form reporting, Finkel remains committed to crafting sustained narratives with an uncommon candor that brings poorly understood events and ordeals” to public attention.
“They’re not just endorsing my work in particular but a type of journalism,” Finkel told the Post. “I like to think this is an endorsement of long-form journalism, in which you stay long enough to tell the story.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
The new children’s book by Rick Riordan, “The Mark of Athena,” recently took the place of “The Casual Vacancy” as number one on the Amazon bestseller list, and the book has already spent 148 days on the Amazon top 100 list before even being published. “The Mark of Athena” comes out today.
The new book is the third book in the "Heroes of Olympus" series, which is itself a sequel to the "Percy Jackson & The Olympians" series. The "Percy" series was adapted into a film, titled “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” in 2010.
“I grew up reading Rowling,” a Publishers Weekly user named Keira Jaimee Clark wrote online. “And while I plan to pick up Casual Vacancy at some point before the new year, MoA is much further up my priority list - I'm picking up a copy tomorrow!”
Everything about “Total Recall,” by Arnold Schwarzenegger, written with Peter Petre, is larger than life. The book offers a length of 646 pages, an enlarged glamour shot on of Schwarzenegger on the cover, and an outsized claim in its subtitle: “My Unbelievably True Life Story.”
But according to early reports, that title is nothing more than empty grandiosity and its outsize claim is never delivered in any of those 646 pages. Most disappointing, perhaps, is Schwarzenegger's insipid explanation of his affair during his marriage to Maria Shriver (more on that soon).
“Schwarzenegger’s tale falls far short of total recall and fails to achieve either the depth or the emotional impact that would make us care more deeply about this fascinating public figure,” writes the Washington Post in a piece titled “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memoir is something less than ‘Total Recall.'”
Echoes the LA Times, “For the record, “Total Recall” is about as far from a 'tell-all' memoir as it gets. Although an exhaustive and at times exhausting documentation of Schwarzenegger's unique and amazing career, it is a book almost completely devoid of self-examination.”
What it lacks in introspection, however, “Total Recall” makes up for in recounting successes. And by the Arnold’s count, there were many. The author divides the book roughly into the three career arcs of his life – bodybuilding, acting, and politics.
He devotes almost 200 pages to his bodybuilding career, a line of work that brought him from Austria to the US and launched him into a bigger life. Here, Schwarzenegger writes about his seven Mr. Olympia titles, his use of steroids (they were legal at the time), and his sweet but strange Austrian upbringing that laid the foundation for his bodybuilding. Among descriptions of his Austrian childhood is Schwarzenegger's recollection that he and his brother were forced to do sit-ups to earn their breakfast each morning. (And, incidentally, a young Schwarzenegger had taped bodybuilders to his ceiling instead of pinups, causing his concerned mother to consult with a doctor about her assuredly red-blooded, heterosexual boy.)
Bodybuilding, of course, launched Schwarzenegger into Hollywood, where he leaped from “Pumping Iron” to “Stay Hungry” to “Conan the Barbarian,” a progression that cemented his reputation as an action star. And then, apparently, things got hazy for the newly minted celebrity. According to The New York Times, Schwarzenegger and his co-writer Petre “had to brush up on the details of his acting career by reading biographies and movie journals; his memory for slights, triumphs and salaries seems more reliable than his memory for work.”
Politics garners the least space and, perhaps surprisingly, the most modesty. Schwarzenegger seems to tread carefully through his retelling of his governorship of California, according to media reviews. He ran – and won – California’s 2003 recall election even after Karl Rove attempted to dissuade him, telling him that Condoleezza Rice was being groomed for that position. Schwarzenegger portrays himself as a centrist politician who favored a social safety net, solar energy, and stem cell research. But, by most accounts, he acknowledges, California’s budget woes and kept the swaggering minimal. “I do not deny that being governor was more complex and challenging than I had imagined,” he writes.
Disappointingly, nowhere is he less forthright than in his explanation of his affairs (plural). Of course, he recalls his life with Shriver in detail – meeting her at a tennis match in 1977, admiring her career as a journalist as a “true declaration of independence,” and gaining her support for his gubernatorial run only after Eunice Kennedy Shriver stepped in and told Shriver to “snap out of it.” But while Schwarzenegger professes his love for her repeatedly – “I could go on for hours about what draws me to Maria but still never fully explain the magic,” and “I was luckier than I deserved to have such a wife” – he fails to back it up with an honest explanation of his affair with his housekeeper Mildred Baena, with whom he fathered a child.
He spills perhaps the least ink on this, rather weak, explanation:
“It was one of those stupid things that I promised myself never to do. My whole life I never had anything going with anyone who worked for me. This happened in 1996 when Maria and the kids were away on holiday and I was in town finishing ‘Batman and Robin.’ Mildred had been working in our household for five years, and all of [a] sudden we were alone in the guest house. When Mildred gave birth the following August, she named the baby Joseph and listed her husband as the father. That is what I wanted to believe and what I did believe for years.”
We’re not sure we believe that – many reports, including one from the Daily Beast entitled “Is Arnold Schwarzenegger Still Lying,” have surfaced questioning the timing of Arnold’s version of events.
But more to the point, that measly paragraph is a colossal cop-out for a book that’s marketed itself as a “tell-all” memoir. It’s a “PG-account that suffers from a startling lack of self-reflection,” writes the LA Times, adding, “for all the salacious behavior that has been attributed to and admitted by Schwarzenegger over the years, he portrays himself as a reasonable, earnest kind of guy who has merely made a few high-spirited mistakes, none of which he cares to discuss here.”
Oddly enough, one might argue the reviews painted a clearer picture of the Austrian bodybuilder-turned Hollywood star-turned politician than the 646-page memoir itself.
Concludes the LA Times in its review of “Total Recall,” “Either way, it evolves into a portrait of a man who defines himself almost entirely by the goals he has reached, no matter the cost to those around him.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
A problem with the formatting of the e-book version of J.K. Rowling’s new novel “The Casual Vacancy” meant that some readers were unable to dive into the “Harry Potter” author’s newest work when they received their electronic version.
The book, which is published by Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Book Group, had problems with font size when first released. For some e-book users, the type was too big to read comfortably, while for others, it was too tiny.
The publisher has released a fixed version after being alerted to the problem by consumers.
Some customers were not happy with the glitch, with one anonymous user on the Barnes & Noble website writing, “Tiny font size, won't enlarge, Don't buy on nook, impossible to read!”
The problems with the e-book version came after some had complained about the price of the e-book, which was $17.99.
“I refuse to pay hardcover prices for an ebook,” a user named Chris Rowley wrote on the Amazon website. “So I will either wait till it drops to about $7.99, or I will just borrow it from the library. Anything over ten dollars for an ebook is ridiculous.”
Other e-books have also suffered technical problems, including Neal Stephenson’s 2011 book “Reamde,” which had typos and other errors in its e-book format when it was first released.
Banned Books Week, an event usually celebrated in the last week of September in which libraries, bookstores, teachers, and others celebrate the freedom to read and present the books that they choose, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
One part of the celebration this year is the “50 State Salute,” a movement organized by the American Library Association in which organizations from each state record a video representing the importance of having the liberty to choose books freely. Organizations such as schools, colleges, libraries, and bookstores can participate with videos of up to five minutes long.
Sponsors of Banned Books Week are also holding the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out campaign for the second year in a row, in which users can upload to YouTube a video in which they read a banned or challenged book out loud. Participants can also videotape a person who saw a book being banned or challenged recounting their experience or make a video that in some other way promotes Banned Books Week. Users can upload their videos to the Read-Out YouTube channel.
Various communities are also holding events to celebrate books the right to read, along with specific books that have been banned or challenged. Some common activities include reading banned or challenged books out loud or prominently displaying in libraries or bookstores books that were banned or challenged.
The American Library Association often releases its list of the 10 most challenged books of the year in April. This past spring, the “ttyl” series by Lauren Myracle was cited as most frequently challenged for its plotlines on teen sexuality and offensive language, while the graphic novels “The Color of Earth” by Kim Dong Hwa came in second place for their depiction of nudity and sex education in the series. (Check out more of the list here.)
The classrooms did not have Wi-Fi installations. Outlets were few and far between (and not all had been charged with current). No matter; none of the students would be perched behind computer screens.
In fact, there was no Internet connection on the “campus” – nowhere, anywhere, on “campus.” No matter; few of the students (many of whom could barely squeeze their muscled bulks into the opening encompassed by a laminated tablet-arm desktop that is connected to an injection-molded plastic seat by tubular metal struts) have any facility with the most rudimentary computer, let alone a smartphone, let alone an iPhone5. The students are housed in quarters that are entirely removed – cyberly and otherwise – from the world of WLANs, WNICs, spread-spectrums, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing....
The students are cordless, router-less and cyber-less for the length of their “enrollments.” Their personal access points, interconnectivity and interface are limited by cellblocks and Department of Correction regimens. They are inmates – prison inmates.
My job: Devise a curriculum that would:
- engage and “hold” inmate-students who had qualified for and then earned (through behavior and resolve) the opportunity to try their hand (and handwriting) at a college course or two
- prompt reader-response essays that would accumulate to warrant community college course credit
- be acceptable (somehow) to Department of Correction officials in Connecticut and New York, respectively (assuming that these officials would actually know of and seriously contemplate the selections itemized in my proposed list of readings)
Mark Twain is credited with declaring, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” Well, vanity and literary pretensions were my starting points and prompted me to assemble (initially) a list of pretty highfalutin' works. Here's a list of books I considered – including a handful that actually made the cut.
"Papillon": Henri Charrière’s mostly autobiographical account of injustice, indignity, and escape could not be passed off as fiction. While the setting and circumstances (the French penal colonies of Guiana – most notably Devil’s Island), along with the looming guillotine, would make US incarcerations seem posh, the book’s extensive descriptions of escape plans and the many escape attempts were not the “escapism” I could advocate to any DOC. Furthermore, I would have trouble confidently pronouncing the author’s name.
"In Cold Blood": The two cold-blooded murderers got what they deserved, didn’t they? But, masterfully, Truman Capote managed (with art and artifice) to perform what one astute critic has called “alchemy” in mixing “untruth” with truth. For some, Capote was a storyteller who masqueraded as a reporter. I didn’t want to have to look into and evaluate claims of inaccuracy, misportrayal, and misquotation.
"The Executioner’s Song": Norman Mailer wrote so powerfully that some find the murderer Gary Gilmore “heroic” for insisting that his execution be carried out without a protracting series of appeals and lawyering delays. Okay, but what bothered me was Mailer’s role in hyping "In the Belly of the Beast" and obtaining parole for the book’s author, convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott – who, six weeks after his release, committed another murder. No go.
"Invitation to a Beheading": I don’t get Vladimir Nabokov. Yeah, okay, he learned English really well. But somebody at the DOC or, more likely, some inmate would find out about "Lolita"... I found that book irredeemably “icky." As for "Invitation," flap copy speaks of “a dream country” and “a vision of a bizarre and irrational world.” The copy also speaks of the imaginary crime of "gnostical turpitude,” “chimerical jailers,” and the condemned prisoner’s ability to make his executioners disappear, “along with the whole world they inhabit.” Naaah.
"The Stranger": Too strange. I wouldn’t be able to explain Albert Camus’ thinking, the defendant’s indifference, or whatever it is, the defendant’s responses and his failure to respond and react as one might expect of someone accused and then convicted of murder. Too strange.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman": The title would raise eyebrows – in a men’s prison, in any prison. Besides not being able to confidently pronounce Manuel Puig’s surname, and not wanting to get into the politics that are elemental to this time-and-place story, there are the intra-cellular taboos and surrenders that... Enough said.
"Darkness at Noon": “Who is this Rubashov?” “What’s he in for?” “What did he do?” “Where is this?” I’d have to do a lot of research to do justice to the questions Arthur Koestler's masterwork would be likely to inspire in inmate-students. In classrooms without maps and reference books (or maybe just a few random volumes from an ancient encyclopedia), I would be tasked with explaining the ideological and social tensions, along with the political context and military history. Didn’t want to have to explain Stalinism.
"The Fixer": Inmate-students would pick up on many of the novel’s depictions of injustice, indignity, and degradation, and would surely have something to say about wrongful accusations, unrelieved interrogations, intrigues, and betrayals. However, absent a lot of background and context, I wondered if even the most intellectually curious inmate-students would fully grasp what Bernard Malamud was trying to say about the pogroms and prosecutions of Tsarist Russia and the scapegoating of Yakov Bok.
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": The inmate-students were impressed by biographical materials that corroborated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal ordeals in gulag labor camps and his live-to-tell-about-it survivorship. They got this straightforward linear recounting of deprivations and resourcefulness. They were keen on offering their takes on meager food and pilfered parcels and tedious regimens. They claimed to know from hoarding food and sick-outs, from checking emotions and summoning restraint; from endurance and mental toughness; and some do indeed take pride in even the menial tasks they ascend to in the prison work ladder.
"Falconer": Close to “home” – geographically, drug-wise, and crime-wise. However, John Cheever’s novel didn’t deliver the pace and – strangely – the intricacy and immediacy of "One Day in the Life".... Maybe if Cheever had written about only one day in the life.
"Great Expectations": Talk about going on. But in Abel Magwitch, the great Charles Dickens allows us to consider how a betrayed and bitter man (wrongfully-convicted) can still acknowledge an act of kindness and make good on a debt of gratitude – or something along those lines. However, Pip’s infatuation, longings, and social-climbing – and the whole notion of a gentleman’s great expectations – put me off. He did pay a debt to “society.” If only I could somehow extract just key Magwitch moments (gently out of context) and convey them so as to give inmate-students “portable property.”
"Little Dorrit": And talk about going on, and on. Yet, there are descriptions of the Marshalsea prison, the family life therein, and the consequences of indebtedness and imprisonment that would surely prompt good questions about the authenticity of those descriptions and depictions. If, somehow, I could just mine the right veins in the novel, those excerpts would probably prompt discussions (and written reflections) that would evolve into compare-contrast works. And, inmate-students would probably be intrigued by biographical accounts of how his father’s misfortunes and imprisonments weighed on Dickens.
"A Christmas Carol": Yes!! Chains, shackles, bad dreams – allegorical and real. To some extent, aren’t we all, in some respects, “imprisoned” by regrets, remorse, or, at least occasionally, captive to memories? If visited by reminders and visions of what might be, wouldn’t we seize the opportunity to right things, avoid slights, do better? The inmate-students took this allegory as a gift.
"The 25th Hour": Would the inmate-students be able to identify with, relate to, the characters’ socio-economic situations in David Benioff's story of a drug dealer partying with his friends the night before he begins a seven-year jail sentence? Would they themselves have had an opportunity to put things in order between sentencing and incarceration?
"A Lesson before Dying": This Ernest J. Gaines’ novel might be too pessimistic, fatalistic. The lessons I was proposing would manage to provide some hope; not build on and accentuate resentment and despair.
"The Green Mile": Most of the inmate-students had heard of Stephen King and many had seen a movie based on one of his books. Although I recoil at horror stories and contrived scares, this Depression-era saga, in its way, presents the scary realities of a rush-to-judgment and death row. The similes and metaphors – along with the descriptions of “old sparky,” the exit room, and the tunnel used to take out the cadavers – gave us plenty to linger over and relish linguistically. Unlike "Rita Hayworth" and "Shawshank Redemption," whose bad guy is the abusive, despotic, and corrupt warden, the Green Mile guards (the death-row “screws”) are sensitive to the sensibilities of their charges and the sensitivities of their special tasks. Remorse and atonement become factors in the guards’ lives.
"Cry, the Beloved Country": Thank you, Alan Paton, who drew on his years of work in South African correctional institutions to deliver a story of family tragedies that are so very relatable. The descriptions of the young people straying in Johannesburg did indeed compute. The father-son conversations really got to the inmate-students. One of the most memorable of their essays began, “Despite my father’s good example, I killed a man. To this day, I do not see myself as a murderer, but I do not see myself as innocent, either.” The essay closed with this recollection of a conversation separated by three inches of Plexiglas: “If it wasn’t for the partition that separated us, I would have thrown myself at my father’s feet. I would have begged for forgiveness. I would have begged to have my childhood back.”
The only materials that were read with more interest than "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "The Green Mile" were photocopied synopses of US Supreme Court decisions pertaining to search-and-seizure, admissibility of evidence, Miranda warnings, interrogations and confessions, assertions of ineffectual assistance of counsel, and claims of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Every year, by statute – Section 2 of Title 28 of the United States Code – the US Supreme Court opens its new term on the first Monday in October. Inmates around this country are attuned to the docket whose arguments may offer possibilities for a rehearing or other reconsideration of their respective cases.
Meanwhile, if prison officials allow, there are some pretty good books that could be worked into inmates’ sentences.
Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. He teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.