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review 2017-05-23 18:56
Shakespeare Saved My Life / Laura Bates
Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard - Laura Bates

Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.

Many people told Laura that maximum-security prisoners are “beyond rehabilitation." But Laura wanted to find out for herself. She started with the prison's most notorious inmate: Larry Newton. When he was 17 years old, Larry was indicted for murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. When he met Laura, he had been in isolation for 10 years.

Larry had never heard of Shakespeare. But in the characters he read, he recognized himself.

In this profound illustration of the enduring lessons of Shakespeare through the ten-year relationship of Bates and Newton, an amazing testament to the power of literature emerges. But it's not just the prisoners who are transformed. It is a starkly engaging tale, one that will be embraced by anyone who has ever been changed by a book.

 

My inspiration to read this book was Margaret Atwood’s fiction Hag-Seed (and secondarily The Heart Goes Last), as well as a memoir by former prisoner, Stephen Reid (A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden). Additionally, I had just finished If We Were Villains, in which Shakespearean plays may have played a role in sending the main character to prison, the very opposite of this memoir.

Now, I am predisposed to enjoy a memoir of the redemptive value of literature, particularly Shakespeare, for whom I have an abiding love. Add to that the fact that I have considered doing literacy work with prisoners (although I have not yet taken the plunge) and I appreciated Laura Bates’ description of the perils and the pluses of doing such work.

This is real-life, not fiction, so I didn’t get exactly the story that I hoped for. There is no ending, really, because Larry Newton will never get out of prison. All projects must come to an end eventually, and the author is no longer teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. Still, it was very readable and inspirational. If nothing else, I am encouraged to study the works of the Bard more closely myself.

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review 2017-05-22 03:37
The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott
The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

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review 2017-05-17 17:06
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi,Mattias Ripa,Blake Ferris

A graphic-novel-style memoir about the author's childhood during the Iranian Revolution, this book seems written largely to educate Westerners about Iran. It is an episodic story focusing on how current events affected the author and her progressive family. This focus seems to have worked well for most of its readers, especially those who knew next to nothing about Iran beforehand. For some reason, though, I found it less gripping than others did, although all the right elements seem to be there: the stakes are high but the author keeps it personal, the characters are as well-defined as can be expected in a childhood memoir, the art is emotive. The plotting is a little off, with both individual chapter arcs and the novel as a whole either tapering off or ending abruptly. You should probably read it anyway though.

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review 2017-05-09 07:16
I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks
I Work at a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks - Gina Sheridan

Ok, I thought this collection of anecdotes from librarians was hilarious.  Hilarious enough that I laughed out loud several times and tortured MT with more than a few of them.

 

I know a few readers thought some were having fun at someone else's expense, but honestly I didn't really pick up on that.  The one chapter devoted to a single, named, person was included with that person's full knowledge and blessing, so I was ok with it (if she was, why not me?).  That might say more about me than the book though, so ymmv.

 

It's a small little book, but it packs a lot of chuckles. 

 

"I laughed so hard I fell asleep."

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review 2017-04-21 10:17
The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels
The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels - Ree Drummond

Ages ago, I picked up The Pioneer Woman Cooks while I was looking around for a new cookbook.  I can't say I've ever tried any of the recipes, but her stories about life on the ranch stuck with me, so when I saw this one at a book sale for $1 I figured 'why not?'  

 

I was in the mood for something memoir-ish to go alongside my monopoly read this morning, so I started this first, thinking to get a chapter or two in before picking up my other book, but not only did I get hopelessly sucked into Ree Drumond's story, it turned out that this was a much more fitting book for the monopoly square I'm on (WaterWorks).

 

This is Ree's story about how she met her husband, the man she adoringly refers to as The Marlboro Man - her very own real life cowboy.  I gotta tell you, I wan't even half-way through this book before I was half in love with the man myself.  He might be a certified saint in a Stetson.  On the flip side, Ree is probably harder on herself in the name of honesty and, likely, entertainment than could be strictly considered fair, but it works; oftentimes hilariously. She creates an incredibly compelling re-telling of her courtship, wedding, honeymoon (omg, what a nightmare honeymoon!) pregnancy, and first year of marriage.

 

I'm not going to claim the writing is outstanding; this definitely has that blog-turned-into-book feel, which it is, but for me, the story transcended any shortcomings in the writing (which, btw, was better edited than most of my reads nowadays).  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

As Ree spends an alarming amount of time turning on the WaterWorks in the second half of the book, in the form of crying, bawling, sobbing and blubbering (and wow, is it justified), I could not have picked a more tailor-made book for my monopoly square if I tried.

 

 

Page count: 319
Dollars banked: $3.00

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