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True Notebooks Hardcover – September 16, 2003

4.6 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Salzman (Lying Awake; Iron & Silk) volunteered to teach creative writing at Central Juvenile Hall, a Los Angeles County detention facility for "high-risk" juvenile offenders. Most of these under-18 youths had been charged with murder or other serious crimes, and after trial and sentencing many would end up in a penitentiary, some for life. Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, convinced Salzman that in spite of his reservations-about teaching writing, about being a white liberal offering "art" to darker-skinned ghetto boys-these children needed to be encouraged to express themselves in writing instead of acting out, needed to feel they mattered to someone. So Salzman started coming twice a week to meet with three boys, although their number quickly grew. He tried to structure each session with a half hour for writing followed by each boy reading his work aloud, although after a lockdown or a class member's trial, he had to loosen the routine. While their writing themes are somewhat predictable-their anger and violent impulses, their relationships with parents and gangs, plus a tedious dose of "pussy, bullets, and beer"-the discussions these essays provoked were personal and often explosive. As productive as these classes were, everyone was always aware of the painful truth that students would soon be shipped out to more brutal facilities. Salzman doesn't dwell on that, concluding that "a little good has got to be better than no good at all." Indeed, his account's power comes from keeping its focus squarely on these boys, their writing and their coming-to-terms with the mess their lives had become.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Wanting to add life to a cardboard juvenile delinquent character in the novel he was trying to finish, Salzman (Iron & Silk; Lying Awake) visited a juvie lockup for high-risk offenders where his friend taught a writing class. Despite entering the facility wishing "we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean," Salzman ended up teaching a class himself. The remarkable results are detailed in this wonderful book. Salzman found students who took writing more seriously than the college kids he'd taught. He also found clowns, of course, who just wanted to goof off or antagonize him, but even the manipulative kids Salzman introduces us to are stunningly human. Both selections from the boys' writing and Salzman's taut storytelling give us multidimensional images of teenagers thrown into a justice system concerned only with punishment. Early in the book, a friend of Salzman's complains that there are no good books about juvenile delinquents. Well, there's one now--one that examines a broken system with grace, wit, and gripping storytelling. John Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Lexile Measure: 840L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 16, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375413081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375413087
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,106,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have always loved Mark Salzman's writing; he brings a deep respect and appreciation of the humanity of his characters to the page. Maybe that sounds easy to do when you're writing about, say, the spiritual life of a cloistered nun, as he did in his recent novel "Lying Awake."
In "True Notebooks," you might think he has taken on too big a task: he wants you to understand and appreciate the imprisoned Los Angeles teenagers he supervises in the "Inside Out Writers" program in LA Central jail. He does this by describing a year or more of biweekly readings of his jailhouse writers group. Inmates come, write, live out the details of their cases, and then, sadly, eventually disappear into the adult justice system.
He doesn't sugarcoat or sentimentalize these kids' stories--he understands and acknowledges the pain their crimes have caused, and he writes about their victims too. But by doing such a marvelous job showing how his subjects grow and change through their experiences, he forces you to see them as real and human. You will be astonished and saddened by the quality of their writing, and hold your own children closer as a result.
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Format: Hardcover
Since Mark Salzman is one of my favorite writers, I couldn't wait to read his new work of non-fiction. Lost In Place made me laugh so hard in some parts that I cried, but in True Notebooks, I cried for different reasons.
This book chronicles Salzman's experiences as a volunteer writing instructor in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall. This could have easily been one of those memoirs where readers are taken down a "feel good-I'm such a noble guy" journey. We have all seen Hollywood renditions of such situations, but Salzman doesn't portray himself as a hero. Instead, he reveals his doubts, fears, and insecurities right along with those of the juvenile offenders he works with.
Without intending to, this book makes a powerful political statement as to why juveniles should not be tried as adults and how the justice system fails too many poor and minority youth. I was moved by the writing that these young men produced, and you will be, too. As an English teacher, I only dream of getting such work turned in to me.
As expected in a book such as this, there is no happy ending. But, Salzman has truly given these young men a voice by helping each find his own through the written word.
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By A Customer on September 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Salzman's latest is my favorite of his so far. It is not some glossy "To Sir, With Love" or "Dangerous Minds" but a real, insightful glimpse into the world of juvenile delinquents, showing them at their most vulnerable. Their stories (in their own words) are depressing, funny, heart wrenching and violent - but all are brutally honest. Their writings are framed by Salzman's thoughtful and spare prose; without judging these troubled kids he helps us appreciate how they became who they are. It is not a hopeful book, but it does build compassion and understanding, which is much more useful than hope. It is a fantastic book.
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Format: Hardcover
I'll admit my expectations were not high when I began this book, but my interest in teaching writing to young people in all situations propelled me forward. I was expecting this to turn into some goopy do-gooder account of letting violent crime youth offenders get in touch with their warm and fuzzy feelings.

I was wrong.

Not wrong because these kids didn't use writing to explore their feelings but wrong because I had preconceptions about how these types of participative journalism/nonfiction accounts often play out. Salzman does something very artful and human with this work -- he gets out of the way and lets the story unfold through the words of the kids he teaches and the people who are charged with their care. It is not until the end that the author begins to explore his part in what is happening.

Salzman's handling of the final third of this book should be required study for any aspiring nonfiction author (or novelist for that matter). You may read it to admire his literary skill or you may simply read it to feel your heart pound a little harder as you appreciate the privilege it is to get to know some of the people in this book through the eyes of an artist.
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Format: Hardcover
TRUE NOTEBOOKS is author Mark Salzman's account of his teaching writing to juvenile offenders in a California youth detention facility. Salzman almost stumbles upon this volunteer opportunity due to a case of writer's block. In the late 1990's, Salzman was at work on a novel that included a juvenile offender and he wanted to make the character more life-like. Salzman hoped that watching a friend teach writing to young prisoners would help, so he went to observe a class. Before he knew it, he was recruited to start a class of his own.
A strength of the book is that Salzman does not jump into the role of a social worker but rather remains a writer throughout the book. At times I was reminded of the writing of Jonathan Kozol. Like Kozol, Salzman brings the people in the book to life and the reader feels an instant connection with them. This includes not only the young offenders, but also the staff of the center, and two staff members he especially admired: Sr. Janet Harris and Mr. Sills. Yet the book is more than a piece of journalism or a stereotypical "year in the life of a juvenile detention facility." Salzman uses his gifts as a writer, gifts demonstrated in his fictional works, which enable the book to flow. Though the book could easily become too sentimental, Salzman steers clear of this temptation. He never has any illusions that he is changing the world, but he does realize that what he does touches young lives. He has sympathy for the young people he works with, but he also realizes that these are young men who have committed very serious crimes, and some of them would do the same thing again. In the end the reader has a better understanding of the way in which writing and sharing our writing can help us connect with our truer selves.
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