Memoir Reviews

Running the Books

[openbook booknumber=”9780385529099″][rating:4/5]

Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to Harvard, he has only a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny to show for his effort. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it. Seeking direction—and dental insurance—Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.

The prison library counter, his new post, attracts con men, minor prophets, ghosts, and an assortment of quirky regulars searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. There’s an anxious pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing a memoir. A passionate gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle. A disgruntled officer who instigates a major feud over a Post-it note. A doomed ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son, himself an inmate. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves — a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor. But when the struggles of the prison library — between life and death, love and loyalty — become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.

Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.

In these trying times college graduates have it particularly hard, many find themselves having to move back in with parents, taking jobs at lower pay grades or outside of their fields, and more often than not they are left feeling like they are not where they should be. I urge those people to pick up this book, because it could be a lot worse. In Running the Books Avi Steinberg shares his memories of graduating from college (with a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny) to eventually become a prison librarian for two years. His greenness and nonchalant attitude toward life before entering the prison to work with inmates among the stacks had me wincing but ultimately his experiences there, and the fascinating people he met, gave me a lot of food for thought. If you are looking for an in-depth analysis on American prison culture this is not that, but what it is turns out to be more than what you’d expect considering Avi’s less than auspicious start: fooling a drug test to get hired at a prison.

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Man of the Family

[openbook booknumber=”0803281951″]


The second book in Ralph Moody’s series about his childhood, starting with Little Britches, picks up where the first left off with Ralph now being eleven years old and becoming the “man of the family” in the wake of his father’s death.

While having a lot of the same strong messages and themes that Little Britches had, namely morality, hard work, honesty, and the meaning behind being a respectable man, this book took a much lighter tone even if it had a dark beginning. With the family’s main form of income gone his mother starts up a cookery route, and with the help of all the children they do odd jobs around town to help earn money to get by. Meanwhile Ralph’s mother refuses to let Ralph drop out of school no matter how tight that made things at home, he wanted to be the man of the family and earn money full time at a man’s wage, but instead he had to learn patience and to think of long term consequences to his actions. Good lessons for life.

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Little Britches

[openbook booknumber=”0803281781″]


Ralph Moody, similar to the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote a series of books about his life dating back to 1906. His first book, Little Britches, starts when he is eight years old and his family moves from New Hampshire to Colorado to start life on a ranch out west. His father’s health isn’t so great, so fresh air and wide open spaces was what the doctor ordered. They arrive to find things not quite as they were lead to believe. But, through hard work and ingenuity they find a way to make things work, for a little while. Ralph never really knew his father before then, but with Ralph the closest thing to another man to rely on his father started working with him and teaching things he would need to know to grow up and “build a house of character”. Between these lessons, and some others he learns the hard way, Ralph grows and talks about his experiences out west at the turn of the century.

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When You Are Engulfed in Flames

[openbook booknumber=”9780316143479″]


Another hilarious collection of essays by David Sedaris. This was another book that I read aloud to my husband. Again, a lot of this book had to be read in private though, and not around relatives. It’s definitely adult reading and adult language!

The portraits he paints of every day people doing things that are absolutely crazy in a way that makes them seem mundane is his calling card and he does this to excellent effect in this new novel. Whether it’s the woman that lives alone in an apartment building that acts like she runs the place (and really does), the crazy people he hitchhikes with in the early 70’s, his parent’s take on art, or the people he meets in his attempt to quit smoking in japan, it’s all written with a humorous edge and a sarcastic wit that makes even the most outcast and odd palatable.

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Love and Marriage

[openbook booknumber=”0553284673″]


I had never read a book written by a comedian before, though I have read comedic writing (in the form of David Sedaris). That said I found this book to be very entertaining and laugh out loud funny. Love and Marriage is a humorous accounting of Bill Cosby’s success and failures in love in the first half of the book, and in marriage in the second half.

A lot of people were disappointed in Love and Marriage because, unlike his book Fatherhood there was humor but no wit, no advice on what to do to survive the uncertain waters of love or marriage. Because Bill Cosby, like the rest of us, is just as clueless about what makes love and marriage work. He has a general idea, as do we all, but a lot of it remains a mystery as he himself admits. I didn’t read Fatherhood but I also didn’t feel like I could hold him not being in a position to dole out advice against him.

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