Tuesday, April 15, 2008

you must be this happy to enter

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This book is strange and hilarious. It is as funny and weird as its cover which features an almost obscenely friendly, googly-eyed statuette posed in front of the kind of red curtain that features prominently in Agent Cooper dreams (of TV's "Twin Peaks" fame).

It's an appropriate cover considering that many of the stories in this book actually feel a bit like dreams. Like dreams, they vary widely in terms of mood, tone and subject matter, but there are certain veins that seem to run through them all. The pieces in this collection are absurd, mildly or massively amusing, subtly or not so subtly disquieting, and maybe most important, they are completely unpredictable. Adding still further to the dream-like nature is the fact that celebrities and various objects from popular culture play both major and minor roles throughout these vignettes.

The opening story, "My Life is Awesome! And Great" is a manically positive nine-page rant from a woman who is obsessed with appearing on a reality TV show. She uses an exclamation mark at the end of every single sentence. Warning: The narrator is so bizarre and animated that I nearly choked on my chips from laughter while reading this one on my lunch break.

The story that perhaps wins the best title award is "The Glistening Head of Ricky Ricardo Begs Further Experimentation." In this story, the narrator buys a new TV set and brings it home only to discover that the lid is loose. When she removes the top, she looks down and sees living 9-inch versions of characters from the shows moving around. She then discovers she can actually lift them out of the TV set, change their outfits, throw objects from her world into the TV, and just generally wreak havoc upon and make improvements to TV land. The ways she uses these powers are amusing and quite scandalous.

The closing story, "Promise," is a pledge to the narrator's child, a tender manifesto detailing what the author vows both to do and not to do as a parent. It's sweet - but not syrupy - and somehow manages to express an intense and sincere love in poignant and impressively un-cheesy ways.

Co-published by independent publishers Akashic Books (New York) and Punk Planet Books (Chicago), this a quick and refreshing read. It's laugh-out-loud funny, playfully scandalous and sometimes a bit sad. It's not just the interesting plotlines, but also the way Crane puts sentences together that make her stories such great reads. Crane teaches creative writing at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies, the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

goodness had nothing to do with it

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As witty and as foxy as you would expect the autobiography of Mae West to be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System

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Investigative journalist, Silja J.A. Talvi, after years of intensive research, has written a disturbing portrait of the current state of incarcerated women in the United States. One of her main goals in writing this book, to give a voice to incarcerated women, is perhaps the very thing that sets this title apart from other works exploring the same theme. The fact that the expert testimonies you will read come not just from administrators, policy makers, and academics, but also from the incarcerated women themselves is an important one. As the author puts it, "... I did not want to produce yet another book that relies primarily on the writings and studies of inhabitants of the “free world,” as prisoners put it. Where appropriate, I do weave in expert findings and insights, but it is absolutely my contention that there are no individuals more insightful and informed about the realities of female incarceration than prisoners themselves." These are the voices that we’re unlikely to hear in crime reporting, or anywhere else for that matter.

This book is written in a style that is accessible to the layperson, free of academic and professional jargon, but it’s an incredibly difficult book to read: The stories told by inmates and their loved ones are heart-breaking, stomach-turning, enraging, but sometimes marked by hope.

Talvi is as thorough as one would hope an investigative journalist would be. She wrote this volume after conducting interviews with prisoners, their families, prisoner advocates, and correctional facility workers and administrators; touring correctional facilities in the U.S., Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom; and gathering available and relevant statistics. The picture that emerges is one of an increasing number of nonviolent, first-time offenders being incarcerated for lengths of time that will come to most as a shock. Many of these sentences are especially disquieting when laid out next to examples of relatively light sentences given to prison employees, for example, found guilty of sexually abusing female inmates under their "care.”

Even readers who believe that the main goal of incarceration is to punish and not to rehabilitate prisoners for successful reentry into society, will likely be horrified by the treatment that many women have faced behind bars in this country. Stories of women with untreated tumors, broken bones and debilitating illnesses and diseases, bleeding and crying in their cells for days before receiving what cursory medical treatment they are allowed seem almost too horrendous to be true.

Talvi does not stop, however, at providing a place where these habitually ignored women can be heard or at simply pulling back the curtain and giving the public a glimpse into the reality of this country’s prison system. She goes on to provide examples of some of the other practices that are available and to reveal the work of people who are working from both within and outside of the system to create more just and successful ways of dealing with issues of crime and punishment in the 21st century.

Monday, March 17, 2008

the slaves of solitude

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The Slaves of Solitude
by Patrick Hamilton
has been republished on its 60th anniversary.
1947, 2007

This is how it begins...

"London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhabled violently through the same channels."

Taking place mostly in the suburbs of London during WWII this is a lonely, and at times, hilarious novel. The heroine is ridiculous in many ways but so, so loveable. It's a dreary setting, it's a dreary time, it's a dreary life, but as I finished the novel I felt anything but.