A riveting account of the two years literary scholar Mikita Brottman spent reading literature with criminals in a maximum-security men's prison outside Baltimore, and what she learned from them-- Orange Is the New Black meets Reading Lolita in Tehran.Read more...
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A riveting account of the two years literary scholar Mikita Brottman spent reading literature with criminals in a maximum-security men's prison outside Baltimore, and what she learned from them--Orange Is the New Black meets Reading Lolita in Tehran.
On sabbatical from teaching literature to undergraduates, and wanting to educate a different kind of student, Mikita Brottman starts a book club with a group of convicts from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. She assigns them ten dark, challenging classics--including Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe's story "The Black Cat," and Nabokov's Lolita--books that don't flinch from evoking the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the cost of transgression. Although Brottman is already familiar with these works, the convicts open them up in completely new ways. Their discussions may "only" be about literature, but for the prisoners, everything is at stake.
Gradually, the inmates open up about their lives and families, their disastrous choices, their guilt and loss. Brottman also discovers that life in prison, while monotonous, is never without incident. The book club members struggle with their assigned reading through solitary confinement; on lockdown; in between factory shifts; in the hospital; and in the middle of the chaos of blasting televisions, incessant chatter, and the constant banging of metal doors.
Though The Maximum Security Book Club never loses sight of the moral issues raised in the selected reading, it refuses to back away from the unexpected insights offered by the company of these complex, difficult men. It is a compelling, thoughtful analysis of literature--and prison life--like nothing you've ever read before.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-03-07
- Reviewer: Staff
For the past three years, Brottman (The Great Grisby), a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has maintained a book club in which the nine other participants are inmates at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution. In this introspective piece, she recounts a two-year period during which her group (which necessarily has fluctuating membership) covered 10 books, including Heart of Darkness, Lolita, and Macbeth. A self-described “quiet, private, law-abiding type with no criminal record,” she assures readers that “I can’t help but feel a powerful allegiance to those whose lives haven’t worked out so well.” Unfortunately, her position comes across as one of naïveté and privilege; she challenges the men with books she finds dark and fascinating, and is surprised when they are bored or confused. She makes assumptions about prison inmates, only to have her expectations upended time and again. By the end, she confronts reality: “I was not turning them into readers. They were just men who attended the prison book club.” While Brottman has delivered an interesting look at the intersection of prison life and literature, her inability to perceive the flaws in her own perspective weakens the result. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (June)
Convicts connect with classic literature
Nine male convicted felons, serving long sentences for violent crimes, meet regularly with a sensitive, witty female professor inside a maximum security prison to read and discuss works by literary giants like Conrad, Kafka, Nabokov, Poe and Shakespeare. What could go wrong? The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison is Mikita Brottman’s refreshingly straightforward account about all that did go right, as together they explored Heart of Darkness, The Black Cat, Lolita and other rather unlikely candidates for prison reading.
Brottman is an Oxford-educated scholar volunteering within the grim walls of Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institute, bringing her deep love of literature to men who, she hopes, will find something meaningful for themselves in the books she cherishes. Her own troubled childhood led her to seek escape in such works; complex characters like Conrad’s Marlow and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she reasons, may help these convicts reach a deeper understanding of themselves and each other. They seem willing to try. But the crushing weight of prison life—unrelenting boredom, punitive corrections officers, random lockdowns, solitary confinements, illnesses and violent gang fights—takes its toll.
They all make mistakes here: Brottman misspeaks to a reporter and worries the club will be cancelled altogether. The men nod off when high or ill. She wonders why she ever thought reading about the pedophile and nymphet in Lolita was a good idea. Then again, they make her see Gregor’s transformation into a bug in Metamorphosis in an entirely new way.
Later, when two of the men are released and Brottman meets them “outside,” she discovers they have no more interest in reading literature. “On the inside,” she concludes, “I’d loved those men. But on the outside, I’d lost them. Because literature was all I had.” Not quite all: She tells her own good story here, too.