Liz and Gianna are two of a dying breed--traveling sales reps for book publishers--who sell books in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and the Deep South. Since we're constantly on the road hawking books, we must find ways to amuse ourselves. So here we've decided to share our anecdotes, adventures, favorite books, and efforts in making the world (or at least these few states) a more literate place to inhabit.
Time to sharpen that toothbrush into a shank, it's
Day 19: Favorite Prison Books
Somehow you knew this day would come, right? How could we resist?
I likes my prison books, that’s no lie. I also enjoy prison TV (I was no stranger to Cell Block H), so I am pretty excited about this question.
I have read two or three really great books about prison.
The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison by Pete Earley is the most recent prison book that I have read. Hot House was recommended to me by Tracey K. with the promise that I wouldn’t be able to put it down and she was absolutely right. This is the oldest of my choices, published in the early 1990’s; it is based mostly on interviews with inmates and guards, although you do get the history of Leavenworth. Although the writing is not of the same caliber as my next two choices, I definitely put this on the must read list for anyone who likes true crime.
You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish by Jimmy Lerner is a fantastic chronicle of his first year in prison on a manslaughter charge. Before his crime Lerner is a model citizen, middle class with a good white-collar job. He describes prison in great detail: the violence, the corruption, the living conditions, the racism and the boredom. [The soap-dropping?] Lerner’s longtime cellmate is Kansas, a white supremacist who takes a strong liking to him and serves as protector. The beginning of this book sets the tone when Lerner describes what happens to a teenager when he is put in with the general population. [Birthday party with balloon animals?]
My favorite prison book is Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award). The author’s original desire was to follow a new guard for several months and write this book from that vantage point. His request was denied. Not one to give up, Conover actually ends up applying for and eventually getting a position as a guard at Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison. Conover exposes rampant drug use, gang violence (outright gang wars really), rapes, and the very real dangers that face prison guards every hour of every day. Conover comes to the conclusion that while the idea of prison guards is to care for and control prisoners – what is really happening is that they are simply warehousing people without even a hint of real rehabilitation.
While Gianna went for nonfiction, I'll take on the prison fiction.
Sarah Waters is better known for her books Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, but it's the book she wrote in between, Affinity, that I prefer. Affinity is a dark story set in a 19th Century prison, the story of a Selina, a woman sent to the slammer because she's a medium and her last seance didn't go according to plan, and Margaret, one of those Victorian prim-and-proper types who comes to the prison to counsel the criminals. Selina may or may not be a con artist, but the women's relationship develops nonetheless. Waters offers a masterfully ambiguous narrative, and who can resist a 19th Century jailhouse and spiritualists?
Austin author Amanda Eyre Ward's first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, takes on the women's maximum security prison in Texas. One character is loosely based on Aileen Wuornos (remember the Charlize Theron character in Monster, and that super-gross hair?), a woman with a troubled past who ultimately becomes a killer. One character is the mentally fragile doctor at the prison. And one character is the widow of one of the victims. Every book group in the country should read this book, and then read all of Ward's other books for good measure.
Sticking to the women-in-jail theme, Susanna Moore's The Big Girls has everything I love in a prison book. First, it's set in a prison. Second, the main characters are a psychiatrist at the prison and her mentally ill patient, fulfilling my unending fascination with shrink books. Third, the prisoner is there for drowning her kids, echoing the Andrea Yates case. This book is dark, but beautifully written. It also may be evidence of the many psychological problems that warp my mind, that I liked it so much.
I'm trying to decide what roles Gianna and I would take if we were cellmates, and what crimes would land us in the joint. On the one hand, I am significantly larger than G and have 35 years of swallowed down rage looking for an outlet. On the other, Gianna is feisty and can be a bully. Regardless, though, I call dibs on the top bunk.