September 20, 2003

From this week’s Vroman’s Bookstore newsletter:

Many of you are familiar with Mark Salzman because of his numerous bestsellers, and particularly for his novel The Soloist, which was chosen as Pasadena’s One City One Story selection in the summer of 2002.  Mark has a new book out entitled True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall.  So many of Vroman’s staff have already read and fallen in love with this story, that we have chosen it as our favorite book of the fall.  The book tells how Mark ended up teaching a writing class at one of L.A.’s juvenile correctional facilities, and his relationships and role as a mentor to many of his students.  The young men Mark works with are, for the most part, only temporarily in Juvenile Hall–most of their crimes were violent felonies, and most are waiting to be transitioned into the adult prison population.  Yet as you read this book, and get to know these young men through their writing, you start to realize that these men are much more than a 30-second sound bite on the evening news.  Mark does not try to say that the crimes committed by his students are understandable or forgivable, he simply shows that there is much more to each of these young men than what we all have a tendency to assume at first.  This book had such an impact on me and my co-workers– just the other week Mark was in the store meeting one of his former students, a triumphant success story that you’ll have to read about in the book, and my co-worker and I raced down the stairs to talk to them both, gushing and giggling as if we were 13-year-olds meeting our favorite rock star.  Mark is not only a tremendous writer, he is a marvelously engaging speaker, and neither True Notebooks, nor Mark’s event here this Thursday, September 25, at 7p.m. are to be missed.

Writes Anne Edkins:
I knew Mark Salzman worked with kids at Juvenile Hall because he’d occasionally come into Vroman’s looking for suggestions for a collection of stories or essays to spark a writing assignment. But I never really considered who those kids were, or what exactly Salzman was doing, until I read True Notebooks, his absorbing account of how he got started teaching creative writing to criminals biding their time at a juvenile facility until they could be moved into the adult prison population — often for life. In an anecdotal style that is honest, insightful, and often funny, Salzman describes his initial lack of interest in volunteering (among his reasons: “students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s” and “crime victims don?t get free writing classes, why should the criminals?”) and his gradual acceptance of and even friendship with these violent offenders. Interspersed with Salzman’s tale are dozens of excerpts from his students’ writing, revealing young men with the same dreams and fears as anyone — suddenly, these boys that I feared (when I thought about them at all) seemed real, not just some stereotype from a music video or the evening news. Their writing is as fresh and creative as anything a student ever wrote — and most of it has nothing to do with AK-47s. True Notebooks is a wonderfully written account of a reality that all of us in Los Angeles live with every day but never really see.


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