Our Cowansville Book Club kindly provided us with this written report of an author visit that took place last December. Many thanks to the book club’s former Ambassador, I.M. Grenada, for sharing his article.
“To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion to them is wearisome to the flesh.” - Solomon, 1000 B.C.
If my 26 years prison experience were reduced to a word - one word “for all the marbles” - that word would have to be counting. Counting days, counting years, counting funeral programmes, parole officers, laps on the track, days until the Christmas canteen comes… counting marbles. Last year I even started counting grandchildren.
Asking a life sentenced prisoner how man books he has read is like asking how many times you’ve eaten potatoes. “What’s your favourite book?” some ask. “You mean today? Poutine.”
After five years of on-again, off-again book clubbing, the prison I currently dwell in has had a nice run of 16 books that our gang of twelve has read, reviewed, groaned, belly-laughed at and sighed over. Still, it’s amazing how many of them I’ve already forgotten. Some stopped time for me (they were so good). Others made me want to stop reading. But one stood out, not just for its light, funny and wonderfully weird read, but also because it gave us something to count: it was a story with a creator, and that creator was coming here to the prison to visit with us for our very first author visit.
“What’s his name?”
“Josip… Novakovich,” I replied.
“No. Cambodian. His real name is Mervin. He changed it; something about the International Court in The Hague. Keep that to yourself, though. These guys have eyes everywhere - especially in Quebec.”
Being an ambassador for a prison book club is great fun. Just the word - ambassador. It really should come with a monocle, striped top hat, and a herald. “Gentlemen, I give you the less honourable Ambassador for lower Murder & Mayhem, Sir Loquacious Talksalot.” That would be nice. Another thing to count (hats). Except that tonight, I will be the one doing the heralding. And the man I am annoucing evidently wants anything but to be taken seriously.
“A native of Daruvar, Croatia, Novakovich studied psychology, philosophy, and religion at Vassar, before going on to earn a master of divinity at Yale” - or so says the author bio in the back of his 2006 novel, “April Fool’s Day.” As a gaggle of readers, we had selected this title carefully, with two of our most heavily medicated members battling it out in a best-of-four round robin of rock-paper-scissors. It turned out to be the perfect novel for us.
“Did you finish it, yet?” one members asks me a week before the big visit.
“Close.” As ambassador, I had been fully occupied ensuring that the peanut butter-lemon-cream cheese & chocolate nougat bars were ready to go for our special visit, and that the vanilla hazelnut coffee would be ready just as our guest(s) walked into the chapel at 6:45. Sometimes prison can really be hell.
“Did you make it to the part where…”
“The man-eating pigs?”
“No, after that, the…”
“That was crazy, but how about…”
“The cannibal meter maid?”
“The f**king cannibal meter maid! Was that nuts, or what?”
I reminded my fellow clubber that the author was a theologian, and that if he hadn’t been to church in the past twenty years, it would all make perfect sense when he met the guy. Then he could ask all the motivation questions he wanted.
“Riiiiggghhhtt. You want me to bring milk?”
35% cream, the Ambassador replied. After all, the man is a war criminal, and it’s our first author visit. Plus, with Christmas traffic in Montreal it’ll probably take him an hour just to get over the bridge - and that’s only if there’s no jumpers. Not that we’re counting.