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Book Reviews: Nonfiction

Posted on Nov 6, 2016 |

This is Where I Am by Zeke Caligiuri


Nonfiction > Memoir

thisiswhereiamI found this book frustrating. The author has talent as a writer—some of his sentences are poetic and eloquent—but as a whole, this is a meandering mess of random thoughts without structure.

One of the reasons we read books is to understand worlds we never get to live—in this case, we all hope we don’t get thirty-year prison sentences. But this book didn’t give me much of an idea what prison life is like day to day.

We know from the start he is surviving a long prison sentence, but the entire first half of the book is him jumping around with memories of his youth—presumably to explain how a white kid with decent parents (no abuse) ended up getting a thirty-year sentence, of which, he’ll likely serve twenty-three years. He never specifically says what he did to get such a long sentence, which is also frustrating. He never describes his trial—he says he feels bad about screwing up in his youth, but that is vague. Besides hurting his parents and grandmother, did he hurt others with that gun he got caught with when he was selling crack at eighteen? That time he got out on probation and turned his life around for a time managing to hold down a job as a stock boy at a shoe store. Does he feel any guilt about whatever crime he committed to actual get him a thirty-year sentence? He waxes philosophical about all the wasted lives in prison and how much of his life has been squandered, but because we don’t know anything about what he did to get his sentence, we have no idea if his sentence completely disproportionally long to what he actually did to get it.

We do know that he battled clinical depression that came like clockwork in the fall when winter was descending on Minneapolis (some t-shirts were made calling it Murderapolis). In the mid-90s, the part of town he lived in was overwhelmed by a crack epidemic, which naturally led to other crimes, particularly when the criminals had easy access to guns.

As a teenager, Caligiuri self-medicated his anxiety disorder with smoking weed daily. That may have contributed to what he describes as his incredible laziness in high school (he ultimately got his GED, disappointing his mother terribly—she had no idea how much more disappointment she was in store for). He sold crack to support his weed habit, but he was a terrible businessman, admitting that he never made much money in his criminal pursuits.

When he first spent a night or two in lockup at the age of 18 before getting bailed out, he weighed 120 pounds and was six feet tall. Once he gets his thirty-year sentence, he puts on fifty pounds and none of it is muscle. Did he somehow magically get through all the time before he put this book out (if I understand it right, he’s served seventeen years and thus has seven to go) without being involved in any violence whatsoever? If so, how did he manage that?

He talks a little about how the food is rotten and about how cuts in education opportunities behind bars limit any possibility these cons have of becoming productive citizens when they get out, but mostly, he whines about how the depression he suffered as a youth (all through his life) meant he was always vaguely suicidal—if you don’t care about your life, it’s easy to make stupid decisions. Somehow, even after he essentially got a get-out-of-jail-free card the first time he got busted carrying a gun and selling a rock, it didn’t occur to him that he might not die but get a long prison sentence.

He thanks his editor in the acknowledgements, but the whole time I read this book—and it was not easy to get through since it wasn’t a story it was disconnected ramblings—I thought, Where is the editor? Why didn’t he read several books on how to write a memoir?

I think the prison system in America needs a serious overhaul, particularly when it comes to nonviolent drug crimes. If you seek enlightenment on how as a country we can reform our prison system, this is not the book to shed any light on that.

Marley and Me by John Grogan


Nonfiction > Memoir > Humor

marleyandmeThis is just the kind of hilarious, fun book I like to read, but because I saw the movie, I almost never read books AFTER I’ve seen the movie. For me it’s the other way around: I read the book and see the movie, usually to see how much better the book was.

It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I gave the book a chance, and I’m glad I did—the humor and endless comedy was a blast. Marley destroyed countless pieces of furniture and screen doors. He routinely ate things like parts of their stereo equipment and once, a gold necklace that was a gift from author John Grogen to his wife, Jenny. Grogen then reports in hilarious detail being on poop patrol in his attempt to rescue the expensive necklace from Marley’s prodigious defecation offerings to their backyard.

Everything about the book is funny or touching. Even the birth of their first child was told in hysterical detail.

Marley got kicked out of obedience school the first time for being too incorrigible. When they went back many months later, he did manage to pass—and he quickly snatched his diploma from John’s hands and ate it.

If you’ve ever shared your life with a dog (even cats like to destroy plants, especially if they’re hanging and they can pounce on them from any surface and yank them out of the wall so you come home to dirt and plant shreddings spattered across your carpeting. They also like to topple books from shelves and sit on your keyboard while you’re on deadline for work), you’ll identify with the funny stories of how much work animal companions can be, and how much we miss them when they’re gone. If you live in a place that doesn’t allow animals, you’ll also feel a little better about how simple and unencumbered your life is, but you’ll feel a wistful sense of loss, too.

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