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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

Who’ll Take Care of His Dogs?: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)


David Foster Wallace hanged himself at some point on Friday. He wasn’t “one of the best writers of his generation” or any of that eulogy stuff, he was the ONLY writer.

All the other dudes whose style closely resembled his, took influence from, or even influenced him, and shared some sort of loose, critic-created kinship with Infinite Jest, or his insanely smart and genuinely hilarious non-fiction, weren’t really doing the same thing. Wallace was funny and fun but not in a like, bon mot-making author way but in a like, everything is absurd and I can make poop jokes about it and reference stuff like Good Times or whatever and not be this writer being funny horse-shit guy and be intellectually rigorous and somehow not even like, be on some I’m reconciling opposites”/high-low/postmodern thing” but just being, inhabiting, both of those things because they were who “DFW” seemed to be.

Wallace seemed like a big guy. Soft-spoken and stammering in interviews, trying to find the “right” words to Charlie Rose’s silly questions but also sort of bursting out of his dress-shirt and in author photos–especially the recent-ish one with his beloved dogs (there’s a great interview in an old The Believer where Wallace gushes about his love of his dogs)–wearing these shit-kicker boots and looking like he could wreck you in a fight if push came to shove.

It was always hard to tell how much his public, bandanda-wearing, long-haired “look” was an image, a weird merging of like a DH Lawrence alpha-male character (DFW basically looked like a lumberjack) and the worst, most obsequious kind of grad student and how much of it was really just how he dressed, but it sort of illustrates his writing…both head-in-the-clouds intellectual insanity and hard-edged, morally serious confrontation with the sad, hard, and glorious realities of life.

Imagine that bigger-than-average lumberjack body hanging, a foot or so from the floor, the toes of his shit-kicker boots aimed back toward the ground. In my head, he’s wearing the exact outfit and looks exactly the same a he does in that aforementioned author photo.

Were his dogs in the house? Did he stick them outside or on the porch or something? As he undoubtedly dangled for awhile, were they barking? He would’ve realized the absurdity of that. I’m not saying it would or should’ve stopped him–the time I tried to kill myself, The Harder They Come OST was playing in my car and I realized this was sort of funny and absurd, but I was alone, so I could ignore the absurdity and not be embarrassed; beyond-palpable feelings of embarrassment are a big reason why people kill themselves–but no doubt, Wallace would’ve thought about these things. His non-fiction especially, showed that he wasn’t the kind of big-brain that could turn it off or adjust it. Why Kafka was funny, David Lynch, tennis, or the Adult Video News award all got approached the same way.

A mildly clever line about the author who never took the easy way out in his writing, taking his life by his own hand could be made, but that would sort of miss the point of Wallace’s work, which was always about the impossibility of figuring everything out and genuinely reconciling things and trying really hard anyway.

His work was about challenging and confusing readers but not in an author as smarmy trickster way, but in a “I hope by challenging you, you will accept the challenge and maybe become a little less desensitized from everything”. This is why he wrote a respectful profile of John McCain for the reactionary left silliness that is ‘Rolling Stone’ or why he spoke to a bunch of graduating students and told them how they needed to shy away from their core, condescension and try harder (and chuckled when they sort of missed the point), and wrote a rap book that hyper-intellectualized rap before it was cool to hyper-intellectualize rap.

“Anyway, but then I started to have dogs. If you live by yourself and have dogs, things get strange. I know I’m not the only person who projects skewed parental neuroses onto his pets or companion-animals or whatever. But I have it pretty bad; it’s a source of some amusement to friends. First, I began to get this strong feeling that it was traumatic for them to be left alone more than a couple hours. This is not quite as psycho as it may seem, because most of the dogs I’ve ended up with have had shall we say hard puppyhoods, including one past owner who went to jail… but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working. And all that put a crimp in outside-the-home writing, a change that in retrospect was not all that good for me because (a) I have agoraphobic tendencies anyway, and (b) home is obviously full of all kinds of distractions that library carrels aren’t.”

A lot of book critic eulogizers who like to think too hard have said stuff about how there’s no “suicide” in Wallace’s writing, while say, Hemingway’s short, hard-ass lines and phrasing are brutally accepting of reducing the world to um, short, hard-ass lines and turns of phrase and I guess, more “suicidal”. Wallace’s work is the same as Hemingway’s and all other writers reaching for empathy and understanding and a weary acceptance of what this world’s all about (or not about). Wallace’s “trick”, where his brilliance begins, is in his ability to take all that silly, fun, show-offy, post-modern, meta-fictional, inter-textual crap and use it for something more than “experimenting with the form” or revealing through post-modern fiction the very post-modernity of the world we live in; “the porousness of certain borders” to steal a phrase from Wallace himself. The only difference between Hemingway and Wallace was in approach…minimalism and maximalism used for the same end goals.

Wallace used all that postmodern stuff but found a good home for it–these tricks were like Wallace’s puppies, Burroughs and Barth and Barthelme and DeLillo had over time, given the techniques “bad puppyhoods”–and re-directed it towards empathy and understanding and human emotions. Yeah, you open Infinite Jest and the jokes are about how each year’s owned by a corporation are there and the footnotes purposeful inhibit conventional readability and the titular film is a comment on how media eats our souls, but all that stuff was the obvious part of Jest. A “trick” in Wallace’s work was the way he exposed the superficiality of a lot of readers and critics who read Infinite Jest, or “The Depressed Person”, or “Incarnations of Burned Children” superficially and then smugly decried the work as superficial.

Wallace’s work, starting with Infinite Jest and up to his death was about sadness. He stated his goal in writing Jest in a interview as this: “I wanted to do something sad. I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad”. Those footnotes are funny but they’re also joy-hindering interruptions. The kind of interruption you experience when you are watching your favorite TV show and there’s a commercial is the kind of interruption an addict experiences when the path of the straight and narrow gets de-railed is the kind of interruption that occurs when you wake up, determined not to mumble “fuck…” first-thing and expect the worst, only to you know, be confronted with the worst or something close to it…like the death of the only author who really seemed to get or care about what life was like for most people.

Written by Brandon

September 15th, 2008 at 7:14 pm