Salon recommends

A literary page turner about lobster fishermen, a sojourn as a guard in New York's toughest prison and more.

Published February 5, 2001 11:13PM (EST)

What we're reading, what we're liking

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert
As fresh as a blast of the Maine sea air her characters breathe every day, this story of life among the crusty, antisocial, hard-drinking lobstermen of two remote islands is funny, romantic and cleverly constructed -- and never less than a delight to read. Ruth Thomas, whose father is one of the most unregenerate lobster-seeking cusses in town and whose mother is a stepped-on retainer of the only truly wealthy clan in the area, sort of wants to follow in her father's footsteps and definitely doesn't want to comply with plans to make her a genteel member of her mother's side of the family. Then she meets studly, tongue-tied Owney Wishnell, another would-be fisherman, and a bumpy courtship ensues. This is the kind of effervescent literary page turner that will eat up a long plane ride or a rainy night at home without insulting your intelligence; definitely recommended for John Irving fans.

-- Laura Miller

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
Last week, the National Book Critics Circle nominated "Newjack" for its 2000 award for general nonfiction, and it's good to see this important book getting recognition. Ted Conover is a journalist who wanted to do an investigative report about prison guards but was given the runaround by government and prison guards' union officials. He decided to go undercover -- to become a prison guard himself in order to write about it. What he witnesses in his year at Sing Sing, known as the toughest prison in New York state, makes you understand the tragic dimensions of America's incarceration crisis. As Conover paints humanizing portraits of the prisoners, most of them black or Latino, and his fellow guards, most of them working-class whites, his intelligent writing crackles with a kind of dogged fair-mindedness. "It has always killed me how fast the criminal goes from being a bad guy at his trial to being some sort of victim once he's in prison, according to public perception," one official tells Conover. It's one of the many sad ironies of the situation that the conditions of the job drive the guards themselves -- including Conover, to his own surprise -- to behave in ways that contribute to that notion.

-- Maria Russo

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