Thursday, October 13, 2016

Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books: A Book Review

Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is advertised as a David Sedaris style read, one that is supposed to amuse, enlighten, and dissect everyday life. While Steinberg is a capable writer, one with an MFA and journalism background to boot, the text fails to live up to the expectations that I had after hearing the author on Radiolab on NPR.

While an enjoyable read, the narrative walks the reader through the author’s life as a prison librarian in Boston. Part of the narrative is fascinating, especially as Steinberg digs into working in a prison and relays touching stories of inmates. He details their hopes and dreams, touches on their crimes, and works to justify their existence first to himself and then to the reader. That said, Steinberg tends to fail in selling himself. While the reader finds a multitude of ways to entertain with the quirks of the prison and his interactions with guards and inmates, Steinberg himself fails to pop as a character. We read about his love life in passing, his friends in the same vein. His reasoning for leaving the prison is inferred, but not explained, while his entrance into the facility is drawn out. Yes, the book is enjoyable but at times the narrative fails to hold together as a whole, and in doing so, it just ends. I was fine with it ending, but wanted more from said finish.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines: A Book Review

Innovative, daring, and gripping—all three descriptors fail to give Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines full justice. Taking place in the modern United States of America, this novel follows in the mantra of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, rewriting history after the assignation of one of history’s leaders of cataclysmic change. In Winter’s version of history, Abraham Lincoln never sees the White House steps. The president elect was murdered on his train trip east and with his death, the Civil War died as well. In the wake of Lincoln’s murder, the country banded together and opted to stay together as a slave state. Slavery exists on, free from the clutches of the federal government and left up to states themselves.

The USA of 2016 exists as an economic pariah and at war with one of their own 49 states as Texas had attempted to leave the union before being lopped into a permanent state of disunion. No one complains about GMO’s, they complain about products made with clean hands. Foreign cars do not come in the form of known luxury, but rather Pakistani obscurity. Forget iPods, this society has yet to economically upgraded from the tape deck due to economic sanctions that rival what North Korea endures today.

As in real history, slaves escape and people must band together not only to facilitate these escapes, but also to hide the slaves from authorities on their trip north from the hard four. It is here that the plot arrives. Victor, an escaped slave, has papers that show his legality. In truth, he has many identities. He works as a government agent, one who operates in the dark with a GPS tracker embedded in his neck. While he is free from slave masters, his freedom is contingent on his work as a government agent recovering escaped slaves for the authorities. As mentioned within the text, he is a hidden monster of the system. The boogeyman to runaways. Over the course of the fast paced novel, we follow his detective work into the escape of Jackdaw. Yet Victor encounters a series of oddities in the case, and these irregularities threaten to blow both his life and the system wide open as a whole as the pages turn and surprises are abound.

Favorite Lines:

  • “it was my practice at the beginning of a new job to think of myself as having no name at all. As being not really a person at all. A man was missing, that’s all—missing and hiding, and I was not a person but a manifestation of will. I was a mechanism—a device. That’s all I was.”

  • “And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”
  • “The real world was a trap, thought, and I couldn’t escape it.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Steve Scott’s The Miler: A Book Review

Steve Scott’s The Miler takes a trip through his life, but mainly through the never ending cascade of running and racing that a world class track athlete endures. Scott starts out from unlikely circumstances: a baseball player by preference who is cajoled into running cross country and eventually then finds his way onto a track. His future home, the place where he will make his name, earn most of his money, and find glory, came reluctantly. Like many who enter the sport of running stateside, Scott describes a series of random events that led him from reluctant high school runner, to division two athlete, and to multiple Olympics (and one missed shot due to the USA boycott). This ascent came when track was not quite a pro sport and long before the first real running boom.

That said, this is a biographical account on running. Scott never was a champion on the international stage. He always came up a hair short or was just off his game at the most crucial moments. A predicted Olympic gold never happened and he always found a way to be on the outside of the podium. One can take a lot from reading about these exploits, likewise, one can also understand the pressures of racing, the number crunching game a great, but not elite, athlete must endure in order to support himself. Scott lived up to this task, basking in the unending race, stacking the events, and seeking glory, even if fleeting at times.

While not life changing, the memoir is a pleasurable read, especially for a runner. And while the move to inspire is not fully there, the move to remind one of the pain of training and the pursuit of glory rings true.