Book Review: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman (4/5)

30 Dec

I saw this book on my 2014 trip to Powell’s in Portland. I wanted to buy it but I’d reached the spending limit my husband put on me so it went on the TBR. At least I finally got to it! And I had a great audio experience for this one.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman

Summary from Goodreads:

On sabbatical from teaching literature to undergraduates, and wanting to educate a different kind of student, Mikita Brottman starts a book club with a group of convicts from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. She assigns them ten dark, challenging classics—including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s “The Black Cat,” and Nabokov’s Lolita—books that don’t flinch from evoking the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the cost of transgression. Although Brottman is already familiar with these works, the convicts open them up in completely new ways. Their discussions may “only” be about literature, but for the prisoners, everything is at stake.

Gradually, the inmates open up about their lives and families, their disastrous choices, their guilt and loss. Brottman also discovers that life in prison, while monotonous, is never without incident. The book club members struggle with their assigned reading through solitary confinement; on lockdown; in between factory shifts; in the hospital; and in the middle of the chaos of blasting televisions, incessant chatter, and the constant banging of metal doors.

I’m realizing that prison seems to be a common theme in my book selections lately. You’ll see more in the next few to see where that comment comes from. This one, however, is the strongest example of the theme. There is very little of this book that doesn’t take place in the prisoner’s classroom. Brottman focuses her telling on the time she spends in the prison and talks a lot about how the men are treated in prison and the experience they have. The book evokes a lot of sympathy for the prisoners. The conditions that the men live under do seem unjust and if you can forget the reason those men are behind bars, it seems heinous. But when you do remember, you have to really think about it. These are men who have committed horrific crimes. But does any person deserve to be treated the way these men are treated? The literature they read often speaks about people in extreme circumstances that the men can relate to. They often find sympathies with the characters. In books that are supposed to seem extreme, these men see nothing they haven’t seen before.

Brottman does a wonderful job of describing the men. You really start to feel you know them and that you can almost trust them because of the consistent characters she draws. For me, the most telling part of the book was the afterward when she talked about the men who were released and what it was like to see them on the outside. Without the institution surrounding them, they were a lot rougher around the edges and despite what Brottman thought of their connection in the book club, they were not potential friends on the outside.

Stephen was my favorite character. When you heard his story, it made you think that he was going to be the one person who wasn’t as rough and violent as the others. His crime was an accident and he really was a good kid. He seemed this way in the club, too. He’d been trusted to train a service dog and he always seemed to do the reading and understand it. There were a few things that didn’t check out, mostly about him having a girlfriend on the outside who was married. When he was released and Brottman interacted with him outside the prison, he wasn’t the same sweet kid. He was gullible and immature. I think he was so well described that it wasn’t a surprise to the reader and you could see how Brottman thought he would be different outside.

Brottman was easy to relate to. As a fellow reader, it’s hard not to sympathize with a book club leader. I sometimes forget not everyone cares about a story as much as I might. Brottman forgot this a lot. As a book lover, I get very passionate about books. I would get frustrated in high school when others didn’t care about the discussion or assignments. She was my inner book nerd in a very unusual setting.

Mikita Brottman
Image via the Baltimore Sun

I liked how Brottman concentrated on the lives of the prisoners and how they were treated more than the books. Often, there were parallels between their lives and the books. Brottman made good selections to help facilitate discussions connecting the two. I thought it was interesting to hear how the prisoners reacted to lock-downs, new roommates, and rules violations. It was a view of prison I hadn’t had before.

The section where Brottman talked about the newspaper article about her group. I think it portrayed her in a bad light and showed a lot of self-doubts. She seemed pretty confident until that point but second-guessed everything that happened and was mad about how the article turned out. It shifted my view of her a lot.

The audiobook was narrated by Beverly Crick. I think she was a good choice. Her British accent helped me remember that Brottman is British and her accent would have made her stick out even more in the prison. She did good accepts for the men as well and I didn’t find them distracting. The book was very internally focused so there wasn’t much dialogue anyway.

The book invoked a lot of sympathy for the men. You forgot often that most of them had been convicted of murder or rape. Brottman seeks to see the humanity in these men, much in the same way books look to humanize their characters. I think it’s in her nature as a reader and teacher of literature to look for the good in people.

Writer’s Takeaway: I left this book was some pessimistic takeaways. While someone might read a book, it doesn’t mean they enjoy it or get anything from it or think about it later. It might not change their life in any meaningful way. Sometimes, they look at every page and process every word and that’s that. I have to remember that as a writer, my book might not change lives. It might not affect them at all. And that’s okay. Because someone will feel something eventually. It just has to find the right reader.

Overall enjoyable and informative. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
The Maximum Security Book Club | Snowflakes in a Blizzard
The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman | Rachel Reads Books
Prison Book Clubs! | Librarian Behind Bars

One Response to “Book Review: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman (4/5)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Challenge Update, December 2019 | Taking on a World of Words - January 2, 2020

    […] The Maximum Security Book Club // Mikita Brottman (4/5) The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue // Mackenzi Lee (5/5) Sing, Unburied, Sing // Jesmyn Ward (3/5) Between Shades of Grey // Ruta Sepetys (3/5) […]

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