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Books To Send Incarcerated Loved Ones


A quick, Monday morning follow-up to last week’s “Holiday Tip: Sending Books to Incarcerated Friends & Family”

Anything by Donald Goines. It’s part snobbery and part less time to read any and everything that interests me, but I’m simply not up at all on recent so-called “street fiction” and although I’m sure there’s some interesting ones out there, so much of it seems pretty retarded. Goines has enough trashy violence and sex in his books but he’s a really smart and insightful writer and he gets into the fucked-up thinking of criminals in a way that’s harsh but always sympathetic.

The obvious choices seem to be Black Gangster and White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief, but I’d suggest the four books that if Library of America were smart, they’d have combined it into one nice hardback and called it “The Kenyatta Tetraology”: Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, Kenyatta’s Last Hit. It’s basically a typical Goines novel that spirals out from low-life criminals into a like utopian, cult-leader drug dealer legend named Kenyatta, and moves from Detroit, to Los Angeles, to Vegas by the final book.

Anything by Iceberg Slim. Pimp is the one everybody goes to and it’s an interesting read, but my suggestion would be Airtight Willie & Me, a bunch of kinda connected short stories that deal with “the life”. Even more than in Pimp, there’s the sense of Slim being right there telling you all this crazy, funny, horrible shit. I think the book has a lot of re-readability because it has the same “there’s no way I caught every detail” that you feel when someone’s telling you stories from their life.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien seems to have become required high-school reading and generally kids seem to like it. While that may sound condescending, comparing prisoners to teenagers, it’s in part a good comparison however frank it is, and a decent arbiter as to the book’s fairly wide appeal. Again, I think it’s silly to give prisoners books about prison but a book about being in the military has enough like vague connections to the lack of freedom and regimented life of a prisoner to comfort them on that level. There’s also the genre appeal–this is onstensibly a war novel–and that too is a good way to sneak in some more interesting or emotional stuff that isn’t too schmaltzy.

“The Barracks Thief” by Tobias Wolff is similar in a lot of ways to The Things They Carried but it’s explicitly about the desire for freedom and also the way males bond through self-destructive impulses and just plain, old destructive acts. Again, I think this is the kind of “therapy” and edification that prisoners need as it both speaks to them and shows enough of the ugly, silly side of their actions to make them think about some shit. Like O’Brien, Wolff’s prose is really smart and at times beautiful but also direct and simple, which is just something I prefer and again, makes it easily digestable for prisoners.

“Classic Crews” by Harry Crews. Bukowski is something that every once in awhile a pierced girl will send to her fuck-up brother or something, but I can’t properly recommend Bukowski’s work because I’ve never been able to get through any of it. From what I’ve gathered, Harry Crews is basically a smarter, more disciplined, but equally like hard-ass, blue collar intellectual writer guy. Classic Crews has Crews’ memoir of his childhood in it, The Gypsy’s Curse which I’ve never read, and The Car which is this crazy story about a dude who works in a junkyard and literally eats a car (a Ford Maverick to be exact). The novel’s surreal and weird but doesn’t lay on the profundity or symbolism too thick and Crews surrounds the weird tale with small, humane details of blue-collar life.

“Soul On Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver is the only true “prison book” on this list, but it’s way more out-there and complicated than most prison letters type books and it’s also in a way, it’s more immediate and simple too. Cleaver’s really honest and unabashedly so, and while plenty of people would think its bad for a prisoner to read a book where in the author half-justifies raping a woman or espouses hate speech…well, there’s not a lot of honesty in prisons from anybody and I think this book would shock anybody “on the inside”. Cleaver’s also, first and foremost, a radical individual, and his book is mainly outlining the path in which he finds everything to be bullshit for one reason or another. Whether he’s explaining how he learned about law in prison or why he rejected Elijah Muhammad for Malcolm X, there’s this core sense of discernment that anybody could learn a thing or two from, even if Cleaver’s beliefs don’t line-up with your own.

“Cash” by Johnny Cash is a book another book that could be a go-to for pretty much anybody. It’s sort of the ideal prison book too because it’s fairly long, is about redemption and full of Christian stuff, and is by Johnny Cash who everybody likes and has obviously, stuck up for the imprisoned for his whole career. Personally, I find this book to be a little disappointing and frankly dishonest, but Cash is also incredibly smart about balancing ugly details and confessional stuff without lapsing into victimhood. He also doesn’t tell you his story in straight order which helps with readability and I think, makes it easier to return to the book or just randomly open to a page and start re-reading.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy is this book everybody’s read by now, which makes it a good candidate for sending to someone in prison–odds are, they’ll like it–and like everything on this list, it’s first and foremost entertaining or engaging and sort of smuggles in some emotional or “guidance” type stuff. I basically think smart genre fiction is the ideal for prison reading because it’s not trashy or the kind of thing you can read in a few hours, but it has enough fun or plain-awesome stuff to keep one’s attention. End of the world, apocalypse type shit is always pretty cool and McCarthy wraps around it, a bunch of philosophical and what-if? stuff that can’t help but lead to introspection. Also, the father and son aspect is clearly very affecting, especially for males, either thinking of their own father or being a father, or both.

“True Grit” by Charles Portis is a weird Western but not like, psychedelic hippie Western weird and so, it follows the genre fully enough to engage most people, but isn’t another one of those Romance novels for men-type Western paperbacks. The biggest flip of Grit is the main character Mattie Ross is female, but there’s also legendary hard-ass Rooster Cogburn-played by John Wayne in the movie version–to even out her playful narration. True Grit’s a revenge story that delivers and so, it isn’t on some super-sensitive “revenge is bad” type shit, but it also isn’t about the Biblical glory of revenge nor is it the Peckinpah-like self-destruction that revenge brings; it’s morally complex and as much about fervent sticking to your guns (literally) as it is change and adaption.

“Behold a Pale Horse” by William C. Cooper is for whatever reason, this insanely popular book. Depending on the strict-ness of a prison, this might somehow be considered something they would ban and others might be weary of sending an incarcerated loved one a book that’ll encourage paranoid, conspiratorial thoughts, but I think it’s best to just go for it and not worry about protecting anybody.Behold’s a book that can again, entertain the reader for a really long time and because it’s full of documents and sorta in-depth coverage of secret societies and UFOs and shit and there’s really no way to grasp everything in the book in a single read.

Written by Brandon

November 24th, 2008 at 6:20 am

Posted in Lists, books

2 Responses to 'Books To Send Incarcerated Loved Ones'

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  1. Hello there, I discovered your blog through Google while searching and your put up seems to be very interesting for me.

    Elba Davis

    22 Jul 10 at 11:32 am

  2. [...] package successfully arriving to your incarcerated loved one. In the second blog, he makes some recommendations on what might be good reading material for someone that’s locked up. Both are informative reads that I highly [...]

    Mail Letters and Books to Lil Spank Booty |

    8 Jun 11 at 6:24 am

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