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A Prison Book Club: Your New Favorite Readers’ Advisor

By Bill Ott

Before it was announced that a new George Pelecanos novel was forthcoming, I had begun to worry that one of my favorite authors might have decided to devote himself full time to movies and television. You could hardly blame him, after the groundbreaking success of The Wire and Treme. But with the arrival of The Man Who Came Uptown, the five-year wait for a new novel (following The Double) is over, and what a remarkable book it is, both unique among Pelecanos’ oeuvre yet at the same time very much of a piece with his previous work.

I’ll be reviewing the novel in the July issue of Booklist, but, frankly, I couldn’t wait to get a head start talking about it—or, at least, about a special part of the book. One of the lead characters in the story, Anna Kaplan, is the mobile librarian at the Washington, D.C., jail, where she is both readers’ advisor and book-club leader to inmates in the jail’s 15 units, ranging in category from “Juvenile” to “General Population” to “Fifty and Older.” Anna prepares hand-selected book carts for once-weekly visits to each unit and manages book clubs for multiple audiences. Not so different from what many RA librarians do every day, of course, except that Anna’s inmates just may be even more voracious readers than typical library patrons. They certainly have more time to read. It is commonplace for promoters of reading to extol the ability of books to take us away from our ordinary lives, but this truism is never felt more keenly than in prison. As Pelecanos says of Michael Hudson, Anna’s protégé, “When he read a book, the door to his prison cell was open. He could step right through it. He could walk those hills under that big blue sky. Breathe the fresh air around him. See the shadows moving over the trees. When he read a book, he was not locked up. He was free.”

Pelecanos’ novel isn’t just about the reading habits of D.C. prisoners; there is a thriller here, too, and typical of the author, it’s a powerful one, as jolting as it is carefully nuanced. After Michael is released from prison and enjoying the pleasures of reading on the outside—getting his own library card, buying his first bookshelf—he finds himself blackmailed by the bent investigator who engineered his release. As compelling as that story is, I found myself wanting to get back to the books, to see what Anna’s patrons would have to say next about a range of authors from Steinbeck to John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Willy Vlautin, Edward P. Jones, Donald Goines, Lisa Lutz, and many more. And to be surprised: Anna’s clients love Harry Potter, and they can’t get enough of the late potboiler-author Harold Robbins!

I couldn’t help wondering how Pelecanos had learned so much about what prisoners read. Knowing that he immerses himself in the worlds of his stories, I assumed he had talked to numerous prison librarians and read such books as prison-librarian Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books. In fact, there’s more to it than that. At the recent BookExpo convention in New York, Pelecanos spoke about his new novel and described his experiences volunteering at D.C. jails, doing just what his character does: talking books to prisoners and hearing firsthand about the unbridled enthusiasm they bring to reading.

Anna’s inmates are discerning, outspoken readers who love to talk about what works for them and what doesn’t. Here’s film-buff Randolph, from the “Fifty and Older” unit, on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee: “McGee is like John Wayne or some shit. You know that movie The Searchers? Ethan Edwards. That’s McGee right there. He’s a protector but he don’t fit into society nohow.” Serial parole-violator Sam agrees about McGee: “That’s a bad white boy right there.”

As Anna’s favorite, Michael, who had never read a book until he went to prison, continues to develop his reading tastes, he starts to think not just about what he likes but why he likes it. Here he’s pondering the opening to Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming: “Michael liked how the author set everything up real fast, from jump. Like, without telling you too many details, you knew right away what was happening. . . . There is a man in a shack, and he’s outnumbered and outgunned, and there are many men on the high ground, shooting down on the man who is alone, and there is a man in charge named Tanner who is giving the orders. Straight on, because most folks side with the underdog, you are hoping that someone helps the man in the shack and stops this man Tanner.”

Most of us who work in the library and publishing worlds still feel that delicious quickening of the pulse that comes when a new book by a favorite author lands in our hands, but, sadly, there is a downside to having read lots of books over lots of decades. We’ll never feel quite what we felt when we read our first Willy Vlautin or first James Baldwin or first Donna Leon or first of countless others. Pelecanos’ novel reminds us of what that was like and reaffirms the similar pleasure we all get from introducing readers to authors new to them. Thank you, Anna Kaplan, my new favorite readers’ advisor, for reminding me of all that, and thanks, too, for adding to my own TBR list (Donald H. Carpenter, here I come).

Bill Ott, Editor & Publisher, has been at Booklist for 30 years. In addition to his various management duties, he continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers, particularly those who set their stories in Europe and Asia (where noir is more than mere window dressing). To get away from books, he attempts to play golf. Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Bill.

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