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Book Reviews - The Irresistible Henry House, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, and The Ghost

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   The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (Random House, $25.00). What happens to an infant denied the opportunity to establish the crucial parent-child bond? For orphan Henry House, used as a “practice baby” in a home economics program at a fictional university in the 1940s, it means he will spend most of his youth and young adulthood seeking the woman who can replace the mother he never had. Based on true accounts of orphans placed in universities so that young women could learn parenting skills, author Grunwald imagines the devastating impact that this practice could have on one of these infants. Despite the fact that he is ultimately adopted by the director of the program and is doted upon by the students, young Henry continues to try to fill the emptiness in his life. This search will take him to the Walt Disney studios and mod London in the 1960s before he finally finds what he seeks.—By Susan E. Zinner

    Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Nan A. Talese Doubleday, $26.00).   Two years after Avi Steinberg graduated from Harvard in the early 2000s, he was at loose ends, his formerly ardent Jewish faith down the drain and his plans to be a novelist dead in the water. (Literally, he was just barely supporting himself writing obituaries for The Boston Globe, a job that was about to disappear.) On a whim he answered an employment ad on Craig’s List to become librarian at the Boston Prison. That he took the job is cause for rejoicing, because it gave him the material and the motivation to write this excellent memoir.
   Running the Books is superb reading for several reasons. First, it shows the day-to-day details of social life in a prison, a surprisingly engrossing topic about which most of us know nothing. Second, the narrative voice is wonderfully compelling: perceptive, comic, self-deprecating, reflective, and pungently ironic a la Catch-22.  After his first weeks on the job, Steinberg declares, “I looked like hell. I didn’t admit it to anyone, but prison was kicking my ass. I’d taken the
job largely to get health insurance but, the truth was, I hadn’t needed health insurance until I took the job.” A third pleasure of the book is the consistent beauty and precision with which Steinberg handles the English language. His descriptions are apt and original, such as when he writes of one of the women in his prison creative writing class, “I still held on to that first image of her: sitting very upright, legs crossed, hands folded neatly on her lap, squinting in the sun, a frowning, preoccupied Betsy Ross-at-work air about her (if Betsy Ross had been a washed up ex-stripper).”
   Finally, Steinberg takes this book way beyond his own anecdotal experiences as a librarian into the realm of serious commentary about major social problems in this country, especially our tendency to lock up so many young people. Boston Prison, described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, is the oldest continuously operating prison in the country and Steinberg is struck by the dominant role prison has always played in American culture. He cites the shocking statistic that while the U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s people, we house 25% of the world’s prison population. Ultimately, this memoir packs considerable muckraking power, slamming the ball into the reader’s court, demanding some sort of return. Running the Books is both very funny and heart-breaking, further evidence for Mark Twain’s edict that “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.”—Julie Johnson

    The Ghost Trap by K. Stephens (Leapfrog Press, $15.95), is a revealing examination of relationships and coexistence in a small town where the primary source of income is not only finite, but dangerous. Set in coastal Maine, the novel follows Jamie Eugley, a third generation lobsterman, who is struggling to deal with both the intensifying turf wars over the fishing grounds and the fact that his fiancé, Anja, has suffered from a debilitating head wound she received from falling out of his fishing boat. In addition, the Fogerty’s, a rival family that Jamie has been taught to hate since he was a child, are engaging in a violent battle with all of the other lobstermen for fishing grounds in a territory that was supposed to have been properly divided generations ago, and tourists, called “yachties,” are sailing to the region each summer in increasing numbers, disturbing the lobster pots and further mangling the grounds.
  Stephens maintains a third person point of view throughout the book, and sprinkles in strong dialect to give the reader a feel for the rural community, where friend and foe are bound by both a common history and tough economics. The author’s experiential knowledge of the setting, social norms and mores shows up on every page. The reader is taken through tourist traps where there are books titled “How to Tawk Like a Mainah,” and told of mistakes that the town would never let a person live down. Jamie’s situation, however, is what carries the novel. As his wisdom evolves he begins to understand that in American life the more things change, the more they stay the same.—Derek Johnson

Published: February 11, 2011
Issue: February 2011 Heart Health Issue