What We're Reading: The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith

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What Our Book Club Members Are Saying:

When asked, “how do you find meaning in your life?”

The first member to share his response reflected on his father, who worked a low-paying job, and did so with a positive attitude and tirelessly.  He never understood what motivated his father, and why he didn’t strive for a better job, more money.  He came to realize that he found meaning in providing for his family, and this member mentioned that he wonders if he will have a family someday that will give him meaning as well.

This same inmate also took the opportunity to share with us that he felt the book club provides meaning to each of them; it makes them feel human and worthwhile that people “from the outside” care enough to spend time with them, and show up each month.  Other members agreed with him and thanked the volunteers for being there.

A member who was very enthusiastic about this book, and offered much input, said he appreciated it because he is aiming to become a counsellor to help other people, as his life has been graced by someone who helped him.  This book gave him several insights and inspiration in that regard.  He also reflected that his past has defined who he is, and the purpose he feels driven towards (helping others) is due to the sum of his experiences, including his time in prison.

A long-time member was succinct yet profound in his reaction to the book and how he found meaning.  He stated that for most of his life he didn’t feel like he had a life, but he has come to realize that he can do the things he wants to do.  He is always helpful to our group, and is well-known for his support and generosity to others as well.

One of the more reserved members who rarely offers input shared a very touching reflection, saying that he’s found meaning by realizing what is important to him since he has been incarcerated.  Mainly his family, and friends.  He felt he took these things for granted when they were available to him, but once he was not able to maintain these relationships, it became apparent just how important they were.  He said something as simple as working on the car in the garage with his neighbour was a thing that he never really thought about until he was in prison, and could no longer have that experience.  Interestingly, his reflections came from a place of acceptance and regret rather than feeling angry like his situation was unfair.

There were other general insights to the book and what it evoked, mainly the notion that we are each in control of our own attitudes and actions, and how we interact with and treat others is of utmost importance.

Inmate Blog Post: Surfing Holy Rom-Com in the House of Broken Adverbs

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“So generally…what did you guys think of the book?” Louise, a Book Club For Inmates volunteer, walked her eyes around the table. Who will be first out of the trenches this month? A prisoner named J leans in and empties his clip.

“It killed me. This is without exception the worst book I have ever read. It sucked. Exceptionally. Totally. Did I mention that I hated it?”

Prison is nothing if not a shrine to the predictable. After walking Big Yard circles for 24 consecutive years now, I can tell you that prisoners always walk counter-clockwise. Somewhere in lost antiquity, walking “against time” became part of our common book of prayer. So why should book club be any different? Like a gang of good Catholics (host to the left, whine to the right) each of us took mass on this month’s offering – Sophia Khan is Not Obliged, by first time British author Ayisha Malik.

“I never would have chosen this book.”

“Crap.”

“Horrible writing.”

“Completely unrealistic.”

“I lived in London,” said one new volunteer. “And this is definitely not my cup of tea,” she added – without a hint of irony.

Cowansville Institution, a wee shrub of English in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, has played home to the Prison Brake Book Club for about 5 years now. And while we began a dialogue with Carol Finlay (the visionary behind Book Club for Inmates) several years ago, it took some time to graft Prison Brake to BCFI. Summer 2018 has finally brought out the fruits.

“I disagree,” said one particularly verbose villain. “I think this may be one of the more important books written in the 21st century. Especially in Europe.” Unanimous groans filled our star-chamber (the prison library), supplanting even the scent of jailhouse coffee and dust jackets. For me though, a hostile audience is only something different to look at, in a place where every day is the same old vista.

“Seriously. Think about it,” I railed on without invite. Sophia Khan is a young, cosmopolitan Muslim woman living in one of the most culturally complicated cities in Europe. She digs guys. She digs God. She wears a religious head covering because for her, the hijab is just as cool as the cross and rosary are to any Christian rapper. And it’s obvious that her creator, like most beginning writers, punches out fiction in a voice that could only be her own. I think Ayisha Malek wants the whole terrified world to know that Muslim believers are no different than them in any way – with perhaps the exception of cooler stretching mats. After 9/11, I can’t imagine a message more potent than that. Even if she was forced to deliver it in a romantic comedy.

If my rant sounded reflective, it was hardly spontaneous. As part of BCFI’s structure, our group had recently nominated me book club ambassador. Like any real world diplomat, the job is to keep folks talking (and reading). But if that sounds simple, don’t forget that here, the cultured socialites are in fact suspicious sociopaths and the fizzy-filled crystal has been swapped out for tepid prison tea. So the plan was to serve up controversy, like dark dollops of caviar. Now if I could only get a Twitter account…

“That’s bullshit. This chick basically ripped off Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Muslim-ized it,” thundered A. “There’s no way this is how Muslim women think and talk – especially in London. Too left wing. Totally unrealistic.” I note that Quebec-born A, a non-Muslim Caucasian who has never been to London, also does not possess a vagina. Tellingly, this fact in no way slows the concurring brays of my fellow WASP walruses. 

Sixty-something London-born Helen raises her voice in revision. “Oh, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I still hated the book. But I thought the parts about polygamy were interesting. I would have liked her to write more about that. Just think, you get a house, children if you want, and everything is paid for. And you don’t have to put out all the time. If he’s horny, you just tell him to go jump on a different wife that day. I think that would be great!” The only other female participant nods in vigorous assent.

“You know when you think about it, this chick has something in common with us,” added a fellow prisoner named C. “She is sick and tired of people judging her, condescending her, and blaming all their problems on her community. She just hates all the haters, and want people to see her for herself, instead of just another ‘rag-head’ Muslim.”

And with that homily delivered, the prison library took on an uncommon quiet. Even those ultra-sensitive to all things Islamic seemed to really chew on C’s words. Maybe that’s because joining a book club is about opening yourself to an experience you may never have otherwise chosen on your own; a book you never would have chosen, an author you would never have chosen, a discussion you would never have chosen. In that way I suppose a book club shares common ground with Islam, often described as a path of submission to something you may not exactly understand, but somehow makes you feel better about the universe. I think Sophia Khan might just agree.

- Written by an inmate at Cowansville Institution 

What We're Reading: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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What Our Book Club Members Are Saying

"Nutshell is remarkably humorous. A rich, descriptive story line like no other, with just a touch of suspense and the determination of a courageous unforeseen hero." - S.

"'Translate,' in ecumenical circles, is the conveyance to heaven without the experience of death. By this measure, Nutshell translates Hamlet like Victoria's Secret translates grandma's girdle. 'To be or not to be' just makes so much more sense when you're 'upside down in a woman.' Hell, any convict knows that." - I.

"Funny, sad and at times offensively vulgar, Nutshell was a joy to read. Perspectively quirky, the nameless main character is quite the connoisseur of wines even though modern medicine would probably diagnose him with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His journey was a reminder of the lack of control we as inmates may have over a situation happening to our loved ones while we are here. Unable to help and stuck with the outcome no matter our efforts." -J.

"I thought this book could have made an episode of family guy. The dysfunctional family, murderous plots and an unborn baby that has the poetic and philosophical characteristic traits of the baby Stewie Griffin. This book shed light on the possibilities of life inside the womb, perhaps contradicting the chances and outcome of the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. To sum it up, 'in a nutshell,' I found it a fun, light read rich in wording. Be prepared to have a dictionary handy."