Mailing Books to Prison

I have a friend who, through some combination of depression, online curiosity, and bad choices, has found himself in a low security federal prison on a 7-10 year bid.  He’s past the halfway point now, on the downslope to reentry, and just as I have since he got there, twice a month I send him a short stack of paperback books.  Which is pretty much the only thing anyone is allowed to mail a federal prisoner.  I keep a list of these books, so I won’t send the same one twice, a total of over 400 so far.  He says the library at his prison is pretty good, but appreciates the packages, because the books I send haven’t been dog-eared or dropped on the disgusting toilet floor yet, and sometimes he can barter them for instant coffee or a favor, or just hand them over to the library when he’s done.

By all accounts, he’s a model prisoner.  Stays out of trouble, helps out other guys with letters home.  Served as commissioner of the prison baseball league.  Even organized a Spanish-English course that he and a Hispanic prisoner taught together.  But the prison administrators don’t understand his benevolence, fear that he may gain some influence, and they punish him for his efforts.  Ordered him to give up the language course, busting him to janitorial duty.  They even called him on the carpet over the books I send.  Several times the packages disappeared, or they came back to me.  Under the current arrangement, I can only send two or three at a time and they must be wrapped in white butcher paper.  He says when a package arrives, a guard tears open the wrapper, thumbs through the books and then tosses them out on the floor as if they’re garbage, so my friend has to pick them up.  I’ve asked him if he wants me to stop, but he says no.  He says they offer him the one escape he has, the respite provided — even in a noisy, smelly, zero privacy environment — by a story on a page.

Where do I get these books?  Well, I buy some new, send some from my own over-stocked collection (having decided that I’ll only hang on to my few first editions and any rare books not likely to be in the VCU library), but most of them I get from a nearby Goodwill warehouse at 25-cents each.  Visiting this warehouse has become a guilty pleasure, since I can’t seem to leave the place without a dozen or more books, until this winnowing I’ve been attempting has begun to run in reverse.  The attic of our house is at risk of sagging from the boxes of books stored there.  My wife says if my friend were doing a 25-to-life bid, I’d still never run out of books to send him.

I can’t help it, though.  One of my favorite things, across my whole life, really, is discovering a new book.  I still remember coming across Richard Price’s dazzling first novel The Wanderers atop a garbage can on 6th Street in the East Village.  Had never heard of the guy.  But wow. 

Sometimes at Goodwill it’s pretty clear that a whole collection has been dumped at once.  One day I came home with a half dozen zen classics, another time it was travel books ranging from Muir to McPhee, another time a whole bookshelf on Native Americans.  I find review copies of novels that will compete for the Pulitzer before they hit the shelves.  A lot of them are in good shape.  Walking out with $3 worth of books (that’s a dozen!), I feel like a rich man.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has discovered this treasure trove.  One day I found a man filling up three shopping carts with books (slim pickings for me that day).  He said he boxes them up and sends them to a school in Africa.  There’s this one guy who cut a deal with Goodwill to buy whole pallets of books sight unseen, and a crew that descends like locusts, combing through the bins with ruthless speed for whatever they can sell online.  So, sometimes, I find nothing of interest.  But when I do, woo-hoo!  I haul them up to the attic, read them as fast as I can, send 2-3 at a time off to my buddy, drop the children’s books at an inner city elementary school, and recirculate the rest to the local library, where likely as not they end up eventually back at Goodwill.

It’s an inexpensive vice, is how I figure it.  And like my friend says, when he’s finally released from his no-Internet/sports tv-only imprisonment, he’ll be better read than most professors.  Will that in any way assist his transition back to the real world?  Who knows?  If it helps him and his cellies stay sane for now, that’s enough, right?  But I’ve got to do something about that attic.

(By the way, I keep a blog for my friend, too. He hasn’t posted in a while, since breaking his writing hand playing basketball, but here’s the link:

PS – I try to send books that I love, classics and those that deserve to be. If you’d like to see the list, put your email in a comment and I’ll send it to you.

The Funniest Joke Ever

My best friend John Wahl and I were on a Southern culture road trip, driving my girlfriend’s boaty 1970s-era Oldsmobile along the perfectly straight and empty highway up from New Orleans to the Mississippi towns of Jackson and Oxford, stopping at the homes of Eudora Welty and the late great William Faulkner, arriving at the peak of our trip on the front porch of Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and returning on Dylan’s Highway 61 through Robert Johnson’s Clarksdale, and the storied Greenville of Doe’s Eat Place, arriving back home in New Orleans wearing pants stained by the grease from Doe’s scrumptious tamales and unstoppable grins advertising the fun we’d had.  All this tale to be told another time.

            For this one, it’s night time in Memphis, after a bucket of ribs, in our hotel room.  We’ve each taken one of the double beds, and we’re lying there staring up at the ceiling laughing our asses off.  We can’t stop.  To this day I remember that episode as the most irrepressible bout of hysterical laughter ever.  One of those where you’re almost done, but then your friend cracks up again and you’re back at it, and then he’s almost done but you snort, etc.  One of those where snot comes out your nose and your joints ache afterwards.  What was so funny?  John had told what he introduced as the perfect joke, one that even in his telling left him helplessly doubled over.  For a very long time, for years, all either of us would ever have to say was, “That joke,” and we’d at least chortle, and sometimes tell the whole thing over again for a good, head-clearing guffaw.

            John’s gone now, yet another tale for another time, but I carry his joke with me, and I’ve shared it with my wife and sons, to a mixed reception.  My older son Nick didn’t get it at first.  The punning phrase on which the joke pivots confused him, but then when he got it, he really got it.  His brother Stephen, ever the rationalist, concurred that the joke was funny, chuckled a bit, but demurred on my insistence that it is somehow the best.  My wife Chris, who, it must be said, finds South Park unwatchably disgusting, shook her head and judged, “That’s not even funny.” 

            I have just described for you our family dynamic in a nutshell.  We get along.

            At some point I ran across a humorist’s essay, which used this funniest joke ever of mine as an example of how jokes work.  The essayist agreed that the joke John had told all those years ago in a shabby hotel down the street from Graceland was in fact perfect.  Of course, I shared the essay with my family, each of whom responded exactly as they had when I first shared the joke at dinner.  Yet my conviction grew that John had nailed it.  The Ur-joke.  I knew, of course, that he had not invented it.  Part of the fun on our road trip into the funk of Deep Southern-ness was uncovering the magic in old stuff. 

            Fast forward to last night.  From that rib-stuffed, rib-tickling evening in Memphis we have to jump, this is hard to say, forty years.  I’m at our local gym on an exercise bike watching a movie on my iPad, well, actually an episode of the old Monty Python tv show, when – I almost slip off the bike – this Python troupe, that has in some ways defined for us what we think of as funny, tell the joke!  They not only tell it, they build one of their extended, multi-narrative skits around this joke that in their version makes anyone who reads it die laughing.  If you know Python, then you may recall it, and now you’re nodding your head, going, “Oh yeah, that one.”  I don’t recall ever having seen this episode, however, wonder if John had, if the comedian who wrote the essay had stolen the idea from Python without attribution, or if perhaps this was and always will be the funniest joke ever, so that these disparate humorists independently arrived at the same conclusion.

            Does it matter? The thing, as my family so clearly demonstrates, is that, like pornography, you know funny when you see it.  And if it makes you (ahem) respond, with laughter in the case of a joke, then it works.  If, like my wife, you combine an eye roll with a slow headshake, it doesn’t.  Though in the case of this particular joke, barnacled as it now is for me with a long ago sweet memory of that Southern road trip with my best friend when neither of us had a care in the world, with the shaggy dog dinner table conversations it has sparked, with sober analysis by comedians, and now, I find, with the imprimatur of comedy’s ultimate arbiters Monty Python, the joke has far surpassed John’s original claim.  It is no longer just the funniest joke ever, it has become a monument to laughter, and thus, in a way, irrefutable.  Though one might add, somewhat dulled by a nostalgic patina that — rather than a belly laugh — leaves me wistfully grinning.  The most wistful joke ever, what a concept! 

The joke?   I’m sure you’ve heard it, and that you’ve made your own determinations as to its comedic value.  It’s the one about the dog with no nose.  Like the punch line, my wife says it’s awful.  What do you think?

ps – Please recite the following in a John Cleese as news anchor voice: I just read this essay out loud to my wife, who would like you to know that she does in fact have a sense of humor, that the joke is sort of funny, but she just took exception to my claiming that it is in any way special.

What to Read this Veterans Day

One of the few gratifying things to emerge from America’s nearly two decade-long 9-11 driven engagement in the Middle East is a community of powerful, tell-it-like-it-is writers.  On this Veterans Day, wanted to list ten works by these authors that anyone who claims to care about veterans should consider reading.  I’m not ranking them.  They’re listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.  Most are still in print, and I hope they stay that way.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden.

Ackerman served 5 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has Silver and Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.  This isn’t the only book he’s written about the wars, but in its brief, searing and lyrical 173 pages, he screams the aftermath of war, as a grievously wounded man, on full life support, lies dying in the company of his young wife and the ghost of a buddy who didn’t survive their battle (and who narrates the story). Bleak, yes, but I couldn’t put it down.

Brian Castner, The Long Walk:  A Story of War and the Life that Follows.

During three tours in the Middle East, Castner led an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit.  His no holds barred memoir intersperses nerve-wracking anecdotes from the front with his equally compelling experiences post-discharge, trying to raise a family while dealing with PTSD (which he labels “going Crazy”).

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War.

Filkins is not a soldier, he’s a war correspondent, who has covered the tortured conflict in Afghanistan since way before 9-11 (when we were arming the same combatants we now fight).  This history of our longest war goes straight to the streets, showing the human cost on both sides of a conflict no one seems to understand or know how to end.

David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service.

Finkel is a war correspondent, too, the author of one of the best books about the Iraq War, Good Soldiers.  This one’s just as thought-provoking, focusing on what happens when combat veterans come home, as they struggle to make their way, coping with PTSD, the lure of suicide, and the needs of loved ones in a nation that doesn’t understand.

Sebastian Junger, War.

The author of the riveting tale The Perfect Storm and other books about men and women in extremis, Junger imbedded himself with a platoon on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan for over a year.  In this book, you get to know these guys and the gritty, nervy fraternity they make for themselves out on the wild frontier.  As close as we couch potatoes are likely to come to being there.

Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor.

Co-written with a writer named Patrick Robinson, this is probably the most famous tale to emerge from the war in Afghanistan, thanks to the movie of the same title and several other books that tell pieces of what happened the day Seal Team 10 set out to capture an al Qaeda leader and everything went sideways.  Knowing that Luttrell was later shot and killed back home by an Iraq war veteran with PTSD, who he was trying to help, well, I don’t even know what to say about that.

Phil Klay, Redeployment.

A Marine in the Iraq War, Klay’s story collection reads like a kaleidoscope of the battlefield experience and its aftermath, each tale a bleeding shard of the whole spinning wheel.  These stories have been compared to Hemingway and Conrad, and for good reason. 

Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.

Percy, a young MFA-writer, took it upon herself to follow one man as he bravely and desperately seeks relief from the horrors of his post-conflict experience back home, where he is haunted by the ghosts of friends he’s lost and a hulking imaginary monster he calls The Black Thing.

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds.

Powers is a native of Richmond, Virginia, and attended the same high school as my sons.  He joined the Army at 17 and served as a machine gunner in Iraq.  This novel follows two friends amidst the battle of Al Tafar, as one unravels and the other tries to hold him together.  This book has been made into a movie, too.

Gary Trudeau, The War Within & Signature Wound.

Trudeau, yes the Doonesbury cartoonist, early on committed to the lives of the men and women in the desert conflicts and their families back home.  He’s published collections of wartime letters and set up a blog sharing eye witness accounts, for instance.  But his comic strips, tracking the post-conflict struggles of former jock, now amputee war veteran, B.D., and the young brain injury survivor Toggle, are some of the most moving, somehow funny, and on point accounts to emerge from these wars.

Rosemary Rawlins discusses her debut novel All My Silent Years

My friend Rosemary Rawlins, the author of the well-known memoir Learning by Accident (, an account of her husband’s brain injury and recovery, has just this month released her debut novel All My Silent Years (, the story of a young girl caught up in the terror of the Cambodian Civil War. I wanted to share this interview, along with thanks to Rosemary for the discussion:

Rosemary Rawlins

As an author based in Nags Head, NC, what first interested you in writing about the Cambodian Civil War, events from years ago on the other side of the world?

All My Silent Years grew out of a friendship that started in Richmond, Virginia, and the story of that friendship is unique. The inspiration for the character of Sokha was my hairstylist, who grew up in Cambodia. She wishes to remain anonymous, so I will refer to her as Sokha in this interview. We would often chat while she cut my hair, and one day I asked her about her life before she came to America. She stopped what she was doing as a look of intense sadness crossed her face. “You don’t want to know,” she said. “My children don’t even know. If I tell you, would you write it down for me?”

Over several months, we talked. Sokha’s children learned about her story, but I wanted to know more about the conditions that led up to her family being forced from their home. I began reading about Cambodia’s history and read several first-hand accounts of Khmer Rouge survivors because I found their stories so compelling. I’ve always been interested in resilience—the qualities, beliefs, and strategies that help people survive and cope with trauma—and I found a common thread in many stories. That thread is family connection and a driving urge to survive for loved ones.

For people who are forcibly displaced, the memory of home may grow in significance, too. Home, in this sense, is a place, but it’s more than a physical house with belongings. It encompasses moments and milestones, sounds, and aromas. To many people, home represents security, routine, and comfort. Home is where we feel a sense of belonging and unconditional love.

Your novel is quite richly imagined, with exquisite, sometimes excruciating details about everyday life on a Cambodian farm and in a work camp during the Cambodian civil war.  How did you go about researching all of this?

My research came about organically as I became obsessed with learning more about the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s culture, Buddhism, and America’s role in this geopolitical quagmire. I read many non-fiction books on these topics. One bit of knowledge would lead to another batch of questions, so I also watched videos, looked up images, and scoured the Internet seeking information wherever I could find it. I have probably forgotten more than I’ve learned, there’s so much information and data out there.

Cambodia is an ancient country with a mystical quality and captivating culture. I could read about the Neak Ta and the meaning of the spirit houses, or see photos of rice fields, but my imagination could take me only so far. My breakthrough for writing this book came when Sokha invited me to join her on a trip to Cambodia. We visited the killing fields, the site of her childhood family farm, Battambang City, and her old temple school, The White Elephant Pagoda. I walked a path that she walked as a laborer under the Khmer Rouge. I was finally able to see, hear, and smell a country I had only been able to imagine before the trip. I gave offerings to monks and received blessings in return; drank coconut milk from hand-picked fruit hacked open by a farmer with a machete, shopped in the street markets, and felt the morning chill burn off by an unrelenting sun. Spending time in Cambodia allowed me to discover a place and culture utterly unfamiliar to me. I could not have made the setting of All My Silent Years as vivid and real if I had not been there.

The novel’s protagonist is a young girl who grows through her teen years amidst the horrors of the Killing Fields.  Do you intend this novel for young readers, or do you see its readership more in the mainstream?  When you were writing the book, who did you imagine reading it?

The novel is intended for older teens and adults. In my opinion, it’s too violent for elementary or middle school students. I included historical wrap-up notes for readers who wanted to know more about some of the historical figures in the book, like Prince Norodom Sihanouk, General Lon Nol, and Pol Pot. I hope this book will be read by students and people who like learning about history and other cultures. I also feel it will interest reading groups (there is a discussion guide in the back of the book).

Your first book — a memoir of your own experience as the spouse of a man with a traumatic brain injury — has attained a wide readership in the disability community.  What correspondences do you see between the two stories?

Both stories have to do with people managing circumstances beyond their control. Fear is a factor in both stories. Although the two books are quite different, they both deal with a quest for independence and belonging. Both stories underscore the incredible capacity for human resilience.

Your novel deals with events from fifty years ago.  What do you think this story says to our current day?

Although this story took place fifty years ago, I see parallels playing out today. One point I want to make clear is that I did not write this book to be political, judgmental, or to take sides. I did not include any quotes from American generals, presidents, or Henry Kissinger, but I did that intentionally. Their stories have already been written and shared. This was a chance to explore the living experience of citizens caught up in wars they have no control over, the unintended consequences of geopolitical turmoil.

I don’t wish to argue about who won, or who was right or wrong. Rather, I see how much everyone lost. Lives were lost or forever transformed by injuries, both mental and physical. Honor was lost. Freedom was lost. Ancient temples were destroyed, sacred texts were burned, and Buddhism in Cambodia was nearly wiped out. The collateral damage of war is never-ending, and the horror of what happened in Cambodia still lives on in the minds and hearts of the people who fell victim to these atrocities. Sadly, it goes on today in places like Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. There’s an actual website that tracks genocide:  This site exists to “predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide and other forms of mass murder.” I find it tragic that there are so many countries on this list.

One of the great gifts of your novel is the way it offers a deeply immersive, almost tactile, experience of your heroine’s day-to-day life amidst horrific challenges in a Cambodian work camp.  What do you hope your readers will take away, when they turn the final page?

When readers turn the final page, I hope they see all people as they see themselves—not as refugees, or immigrants, as displaced, or illegal—but as people with families who want to live in peace to raise those families in a place they call home. We are all products of an “accident of birth.” We could be born rich, poor, in a peaceful nation or a nation at war, or to parents who nurture us or abuse us. None of us is given a choice of where or to whom we are born. We are, however, ultimately defined by the choices we make, no matter what the circumstances of our birth.

What have you learned in writing this book?

One of the most striking things I learned from my travel to Cambodia was that here in the United States, we talk a lot about sustainability, but many farmers are living a sustainable existence in the countryside of Cambodia. Homes are made of wood, clay, and dried leaves. Fruit trees fill yards; gardens and ponds supply vegetables and protein. There are families who live in much the same way as farmers who lived hundreds of years ago. They manage with little or no indoor plumbing by capturing water in cisterns. They raise their own animals and food, and bargain for essential tools or spices at outdoor markets. People have very little in the way of conveniences, yet they are joyful and generous.

I learned that cross-cultural friendships enrich our lives in ways we never anticipate. I had never imagined that when I asked Sokha about her family in the hair salon, I would later travel with her to Cambodia for the eco-tour of a lifetime. I also learned how difficult it is to settle in a foreign country after enduring unspeakable hardship. For most of us, surviving a war would be unbearable enough, but then to move across the world to an unknown culture when you don’t speak the language and immediately have to find a job and support yourself…it’s a monumental achievement to assimilate and move forward. I have great respect for immigrants who build a new life from the ashes of their lost one.

Walking the Endless Wall

Just a couple miles away from the New River Gorge Visitors Center in West Virginia, the aptly named Endless Wall hiking trail offers vista after vista of the gorge, the famous arched bridge, and the rapid-churned New River far below.  It’s a well-marked, mostly flat four-mile out-and-back that your grandmother could do in sneakers, but its rewards belie its accessibility.  The trail begins amidst a surprisingly robust stand of hemlocks, some of the few left from the hemlock borer blight that has devastated so much of the Blue Ridge forests.  These graceful conifers stand tall and limbless up to a high canopy where their piney needled tops sway in a breeze.  At ground level, rhododendrons run riot across the stony ground, with nothing to block the view between them and the hemlock heads.  Chris and I walked in an almost cathedral quiet, sunlight shafting in between the narrow columned trunks, just a tinkling stream and the caw of crows to mark the stillness. 

Half a mile in, as we approached the “endless wall,” the hemlocks give way to the usual mixed deciduous forest of white oak, maple, and sycamore, their mustard, pumpkin, and occasional cranberry-colored leaves littering the path made a tunnel by over-branching rhododendrons (must be so fragrant here in springtime when they blossom!).  I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural trick, of narrow passageways opening onto high-ceilinged rooms as we emerged from this tunnel onto our first vista, a rock outcropping directly at the edge of the ridge, with a magnificent view of the fgracefully arching rusty bridge that spans the gorge.  Just far enough away not to hear the cars rushing along its arrow straight roadway, but not too high to miss the distant hushing churn of the river below.  We stood as if on the edge of the world up there, and the steeply sloping hills, dappled in autumn colors, seemed like some rumpled shag rug, hawks and buzzards swirling below and then swooping past us to circle even higher in the sky. 

New River Gorge Bridge seen from Endless Wall Trail

Every hundred yards or so for as long as we wanted to walk, another spur trail offered another outcropping and yet another magnificent gorge view.  One path goes to a climber’s ladder that disappears down a rock crack to a narrow ledge far below.  We didn’t see any climbers on our walk, but what a series of challenges that miles-long wall of rock must offer!  No kayakers on the river rapids either, as temps dipped down to freezing overnight, but it was easy to imagine our son Nick and his Passages Adventures crew blasting through the narrow white water channel there on that storied trip he took I think 3 years ago.  The brisk air and the bracing vistas made me feel almost brave enough to consider taking up white water kayaking and rock climbing myself!  Eventually we turned around, not even halfway through the hike, stopping on a broad flat rock and letting our legs hang over the edge, for lunch.  Here’s my favorite picture from the hike: