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True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

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In 1997 Mark Salzman, bestselling author Iron and Silk and Lying Awake, paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder. What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly. In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what led In 1997 Mark Salzman, bestselling author Iron and Silk and Lying Awake, paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder. What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly. In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what led them to crime and about the lives that stretch ahead of them behind bars. We see them coming to terms with their crime-ridden pasts and searching for a reason to believe in their future selves. Insightful, comic, honest and tragic, True Notebooks is an object lesson in the redemptive power of writing.


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In 1997 Mark Salzman, bestselling author Iron and Silk and Lying Awake, paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder. What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly. In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what led In 1997 Mark Salzman, bestselling author Iron and Silk and Lying Awake, paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder. What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly. In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what led them to crime and about the lives that stretch ahead of them behind bars. We see them coming to terms with their crime-ridden pasts and searching for a reason to believe in their future selves. Insightful, comic, honest and tragic, True Notebooks is an object lesson in the redemptive power of writing.

30 review for True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

  1. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    Oh for cripes sake. Salzman is genius. He keeps writing about things I imagine myself to have no interest in, and I keep falling under his spell and becoming fascinated by his subjects. Can you imagine lol'ing several times in an exposition about guiding teenage murderers to express their hearts in writing? Well, I did, and I bet if you read this you will too. But of course mostly you'll be moved and have your perceptions of the juvenile criminal system and its participants shaken upside-down. On Oh for cripes sake. Salzman is genius. He keeps writing about things I imagine myself to have no interest in, and I keep falling under his spell and becoming fascinated by his subjects. Can you imagine lol'ing several times in an exposition about guiding teenage murderers to express their hearts in writing? Well, I did, and I bet if you read this you will too. But of course mostly you'll be moved and have your perceptions of the juvenile criminal system and its participants shaken upside-down. Only one thing I want to say is that, if at first the writing seems to show too much talent, Salzman to have too much success, for this to be true, I advise you to: 1. keep reading and 2. remember that these are just a few of the kids, the ones who really wanted to be in this class... many of the other kids are probably similarly intelligent and sensitive, but don't want to be in a (sissy? academic? futile?) writing class. Oh, also, keep reading to the very end, the acknowledgements and everything. Seriously. Stop reading my review and go read this book. (And read his others, too.)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    I loved this book and now I'm going to miss it. You know the feeling. You get comfortable with an author's voice and with his characters, you feel like you're riding shotgun cross-country and you're new best friends, and then WHAM, you're suddenly left roadside in Iowa while your friends speed off to California alone (where all finished books go). Sad. Bittersweet. But let me emphasize the sweet. Maybe I loved it because it is about an author who serves as a writing teacher in an LA Juvenile Hall I loved this book and now I'm going to miss it. You know the feeling. You get comfortable with an author's voice and with his characters, you feel like you're riding shotgun cross-country and you're new best friends, and then WHAM, you're suddenly left roadside in Iowa while your friends speed off to California alone (where all finished books go). Sad. Bittersweet. But let me emphasize the sweet. Maybe I loved it because it is about an author who serves as a writing teacher in an LA Juvenile Hall where kids (mostly charged with murder) are awaiting trial. I teach writing, too, but boy howdy these guys make my kids in the public schools look like choirboys (and any teacher who is whining about his or her kids' behavior should give this book a look-see, apples and oranges be damned). Salzman brings these confused kids to life with the dialogue segments especially where they egg each other on to write, then read aloud what they wrote. Their writings are in italics and are insightful, to say the least. How do teenagers become murderers? Why do they so easily succumb to the siren call of gangs? It's all here, and while the entries are edifying, it's the badinage that I like best. Salzman provides all of the put-downs and back-and-forths typical of teenage boys and a lot of it is lovingly vicious and hilarious. I laughed aloud more than once. In the end, there's a bit of sadness, though. Not just because the book is coming to an end, but because you become involved in some of these kids' lives. Salzman is at least careful not to oversentimentalize things. He includes the perspectives of the victims and their families and often provides society's counterpoints to some of the boys' angry diatribes about their fates. Overall, a terrific read -- unexpectedly so. Isn't it always the way? A book you have absolutely zero expectations about takes you by storm.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Debbie Zapata

    Mark Salzman did not plan to teach a writing class in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall, it sort of just happened after he went to observe a writer friend teach his class. This is the story of two years in Salzman's own writing class, which he started the week after his visit. We get a glimpse of a world most of us have never thought much about: a world where appearing 'soft' is deadly, where gang mentality rules, where boys have grown older than their years and are certainly no longer naive. The life Mark Salzman did not plan to teach a writing class in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall, it sort of just happened after he went to observe a writer friend teach his class. This is the story of two years in Salzman's own writing class, which he started the week after his visit. We get a glimpse of a world most of us have never thought much about: a world where appearing 'soft' is deadly, where gang mentality rules, where boys have grown older than their years and are certainly no longer naive. The life experiences many of these boys have lived through would shock anyone. Part of you will wonder how society as a whole allows these things to happen; the other part of you will agree with one of the last students to appear in the class, a boy called Toa. He did not believe in a poem one of the other boys had written, one that said because of his friends, he joined a gang and shot someone. According to Toa, the poet was blaming his life on his friends when he had made his own choices, he had ignored his other options. He said "I got dealt shitty cards just like you, but it's how I played 'em got me in here. Whatever you into, you in it by choice." When I first read that statement, I agreed with it. But then I got to thinking about it. Peer pressure of course affected all of these boys, but who am I to say they just should have said no? I know very little about gang culture other than mostly the kids who join gangs seem to be desperate for a way to belong to something, anything, that will make them feel special. After joining their lives seem to spiral further and further out of control. And how many really did have other options? Salzman's writing class made the boys feel special, but some of the guards did not think that would help them in their future as inmates of adult prisons. Most of the boys in the class were charged with murder, one was eventually sentenced to over 50 years in prison, right after graduating from Juvenile Hall's high school program. I hope he somehow managed to hold onto what he learned in writing class. This was an eye-opener, a ray of hope, and yet a sad book all at the same time. To the question of whether or not this program makes any real difference to the boys, Salzman replies that "a little good has got to be better than no good at all." I have to agree with that. At least Salzman was doing something to try to help. Too many of us (myself included) don't get involved at all, leaving these youngsters to crash into their destinies all on their own.

  4. 5 out of 5

    lark benobi

    I like Mark Salzman. I love his daring way of writing about just about anything. He seems like a nice guy on paper and in the documentary his wife made that features him ("Protagonist"). But this book felt like a terrible mis-step to me. Here's why I think so. Salzman tries to paint himself in True Notebooks as the opposite of that neo-neo-colonial cliche'. The last thing he wants to be in this book is the civilized white guy coming in to save the natives, or to exploit the natives. Salzman the A I like Mark Salzman. I love his daring way of writing about just about anything. He seems like a nice guy on paper and in the documentary his wife made that features him ("Protagonist"). But this book felt like a terrible mis-step to me. Here's why I think so. Salzman tries to paint himself in True Notebooks as the opposite of that neo-neo-colonial cliche'. The last thing he wants to be in this book is the civilized white guy coming in to save the natives, or to exploit the natives. Salzman the Author succeeds beautifully in creating a character who represents "Mark Salzman" in the book, a character who is disarmingly bumbling and aware of his weaknesses. But think again for a moment about Salzman the Author, sitting at a laptop to write this book, as he types the words of other authors--these boys--into his memoir. In the most literal way possible Salzman has stolen the work of these authors. The boys' writing is the real story here. Not all of the boys' works republished in this memoir are great, but much of it is sad, insightful, and wrenching, and by definition these works are "publishable" since they are in the book. Why aren't their names listed as co-authors? Do they get royalties? As the original creators, they own the copyright to these words unless Salzman persuaded them to sign a release, in which case he exploited them terribly. The copyright page at the front of the book lists only the estate of Loren Eiseley as having given permission--Salzman quotes Eiseley's work in the book. By discounting the authorship of his students entirely, and giving no representation of them whatsoever on the copyright page, Salzman the Author demonstrates with every word he writes that the rights of these young men don't exist to him. If this blatant theft hadn't bothered me so much, I would have used my review space here to complain about the expository dialogue, an unbelievably clunky reconstruction of events. No one talks like this except in very bad movies. I take deep exception to Salzman's claim the "non fiction" can make up conversations and can be held to a different standard of truth than "journalism." It cheapens the whole reading experience to know that "True Notebooks" is not, in fact, true. The only claim to truth Salzman makes, ironically, is in his faithful reproduction of his students' work. The matter of truth bothers me a great deal, especially since "TRUE" is in the title. I begin to question everything--for example--how likely is it that these young men could read fluidly out loud? And even if Salzman remembers the bones of a given conversation, how likely is it that he would remember that during a given conversation a boy "laid his arms flat on the table and trucked his chin in the crook of one elbow??" The writing is full of "beats" like this where people frown or sigh or look thoughtful. It's too much. Once one thread of doubt enters into the reading experience the whole thing unravels and the only thing left is the boys' written words.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    This wonderful book has just solidified my chaste intellectual mancrush on Mark Salzman. How to convey just how much I liked this book? Let me just say that when I get home from D.C. it may be time to give my top 20 shelf a thorough review. Alternatively, I could say that Mark Salzman writes with the kind of charm, wit, sensitivity and humility that gives Anne Fadiman a run for her money. Which is pretty high praise indeed.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Hicks

    Early on in True Notebooks , author Mark Salzman acknowledges that this is just one more permutation of the old trope known as White Person Helps Impoverished Brown Children Realize That Art Matters. Indeed, this book's working title was Dangerous Freedom-Writing Minds Find Forrester . It helps that True Notebooks is a memoir, and heck, I've got a weakness for that old trope anyway. This book did stir up some emotion in me, and there's some good subtle humor in the dialogue. TN , to Early on in True Notebooks , author Mark Salzman acknowledges that this is just one more permutation of the old trope known as White Person Helps Impoverished Brown Children Realize That Art Matters. Indeed, this book's working title was Dangerous Freedom-Writing Minds Find Forrester . It helps that True Notebooks is a memoir, and heck, I've got a weakness for that old trope anyway. This book did stir up some emotion in me, and there's some good subtle humor in the dialogue. TN , to me, had the double whammy of "Be grateful this wasn't your adolescence," and, "Isn't that awesome? These kids are discovering the freedom and psychological power of writing." But, just as early on, Salzman also acknowledges the futility of the project. The kids he's volunteering to teach have all been arrested for serious violent crimes, mostly murder. They're being held in a juvenile facility right now, but almost all of them will be tried, sentenced and immediately moved to adult prisons, where they will live out the next few decades to life. These can get a few quick lessons on how to write, how to think, and how to feel, but their surroundings were bad from birth. Now their lives are overshadowed by regret, and they're only going to go from bad to worse to hopeless. Salzman realizes, though, and successfully conveys that it's not futility if - in this particular moment - he's enjoying what he's doing, and so are his students. Overall, of course, this book was good enough for me to see through to completion, but I would've liked it twice as much at half the length (and possibly four times as much at one-fourth the length). At its present 326 pages, TN has a lot of sameishness that waters down its impact. The book's basic structure is this, over and over - Salzman shows up at the facility and exchanges a few words with at least one authority figure; he recreates the everyday dialogue he overhears from the kids, and his interactions with them; Salzman has some sort of worry or misgiving that things will go awry, and everyone will lose respect for him, or they'll discontinue the writing class; he suggests a topic for the kids who are having trouble; some of them write, some disrupt the class; they read their essays aloud, which he usually reprints in full (Free material! #chaching!), and which vary wildly in quality; there are remarks about the essays, almost always encouraging ones. The most notable breaks from the formula are Salzman's initial debate whether or not to get involved in the program, the all-day writing workshop that includes girls(!), and one student's trial and sentencing hearing that Salzman attends. There are four or five kids who stand out in the story, while the rest are interchangeable - the class itself is a revolving door, with kids constantly coming and going. Two of the authority figures are my favorite characters in the book, by the way. There's Sister Janet, the turbo-volunteer and living saint, and there's Mr. Sills, the head disciplinarian on the E/F unit where the book is set. The whole book, though, has this overarching feel of the narrator being like, "Look at me, I'm recreating the way ghetto kids talk. Doesn't it seem authentic? I didn't even use a tape recorder or anything!" And then he's like, "Look at me, I'm white and nerdy. Holy cow, I'm just too white and nerdy. I'm so white and nerdy."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I read this book because it was recommended as a book to fill the Book Riot Read Harder challenge category of a book written in prison. It exceeded expectations. Mark Salzman, an award-winning writer, is invited to teach a writing class to boys incarcerated at the juvenile facility in Los Angeles County. Reluctant at first, and agreeing mainly due to the relentless advocacy of the amazing nun coordinating programs in the facility, Salzman finds himself transformed by the young men he works with. I read this book because it was recommended as a book to fill the Book Riot Read Harder challenge category of a book written in prison. It exceeded expectations. Mark Salzman, an award-winning writer, is invited to teach a writing class to boys incarcerated at the juvenile facility in Los Angeles County. Reluctant at first, and agreeing mainly due to the relentless advocacy of the amazing nun coordinating programs in the facility, Salzman finds himself transformed by the young men he works with. The writing produced by these young men is heartfelt and emotional, expressing their feelings about their lives before and in juvenile hall as they come to terms with their crimes and attempt to find hope and meaning in the lives they face in prison. The book humanizes young men many see as hardened criminals and makes one question why laws were changed to try teenagers as adults. An excellent read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Amar Pai

    In True Notebooks, Mark Salzman relates his experiences teaching a creative writing class to kids in Los Angeles's Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for LA's most violent teenage criminals. Most of the kids who join his class are in jail for "187" - the police code for murder. Many are gang members. Salzman is initially roped in to teaching the class by his friend Duane, who also teaches at the jail. Initially he's unsure of whether or not to do it, and he spends a lot of time jotting down pros and In True Notebooks, Mark Salzman relates his experiences teaching a creative writing class to kids in Los Angeles's Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for LA's most violent teenage criminals. Most of the kids who join his class are in jail for "187" - the police code for murder. Many are gang members. Salzman is initially roped in to teaching the class by his friend Duane, who also teaches at the jail. Initially he's unsure of whether or not to do it, and he spends a lot of time jotting down pros and cons in his notebook: REASONS NOT TO VISIT DUANE'S WRITING CLASS AT JUVENILE HALL: - students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s - still angry about getting mugged in 1978 - still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1978 - still angry about my wife's car being stolen in 1992 - wish we could tilt L.A. country and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean - feel uncomfortable around teenagers REASONS TO VISIT DUANE'S CLASS AT JUVENILE HALL: - have never seen the inside of a jail - pretended to be enthusiastic when Duane mentioned it The lists go on and on, but in the end the matter is settled by his wife, who tells him "you don't get out enough." Salzman is an engaging writer, and as the book goes on you quickly get wrapped up in the details of his students' lives. Their writing (excerpted throughout the book) is not necessarily good in a polished writerly sense, but compelling in terms of raw honesty & emotion. You get a sense of how fucked up their lives were before and how bleak their futures are now. (Many of the kids end up getting sentenced to 15 years or more, and some of them will be old men by the time they see the light of the day.) The realities of incarceration & the dehumanization of the prison system become apparent. Salzman's students are racially various, but inevitably poor. They range in personality from Benny-- a nerdy Asian kid who inevitably gets bullied by others, but who holds his ground & refuses to concede or change & ends up acquiring a certain measure of grudging respect from the others-- to Nathaniel, a charismatic black kid who fancies himself the next Iceberg Slim. Nathaniel is a naturally gifted writer and orator, but his self-destructive tendencies threaten to overwhelm his obvious talents. The book's dramatic arc is essentially the progress of Salzman's kids within his class. They start out distracted and apathetic but come to value their hour of creative focus. Writing for them is therapeutic in a variety of ways. It provides an opportunity to reflect on their childhood, their crimes, their current situation, and their future aspirations. It gives them pride in their abilities and escape from their fears. This isn't Hollywood though, and there are no miraculous transformations or swings of fate. At the end of the day most of Salzman's kids are still adrift. He admits when asked that he's not sure if his class is actually helping. His motivation for teaching is primarily that he enjoys it. I finished True Notebooks feeling sad for the kids who ended up stuck in jail for decades, but happy to see that a few escaped and that all of them had gotten a small chance to express themselves. There's a moment in the book where Salzman receives a card from Jimmy, one of his students who's just been sentenced to 15 years with no parole: "When I got outside I stopped under one of the security lights to open Jimmy's letter. The envelope held a Hallmark card. On the cover was a picture of Snoopy dancing under the word Thanks. The printed message inside confirmed Superintendent Burket's fears about the writing program. It read, You really made me feel special." In extreme circumstances, even the smallest gestures matter.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    True Notebooks is intoxicating, thought provoking, totally addicting, and heartbreaking all at once. The characters in this book, the real-life "juvenile delinquents" that Salzman worked with, are amazing people despite their criminal records. This book shows you just how NOT so black-and-white the American justice system is. These kids who are arrested are real people who make mistakes and yes, they should own up to them, but how we as a society should handle them and their mistakes is somethin True Notebooks is intoxicating, thought provoking, totally addicting, and heartbreaking all at once. The characters in this book, the real-life "juvenile delinquents" that Salzman worked with, are amazing people despite their criminal records. This book shows you just how NOT so black-and-white the American justice system is. These kids who are arrested are real people who make mistakes and yes, they should own up to them, but how we as a society should handle them and their mistakes is something I have been rethinking the whole time I've been reading this book. This book is wonderful for so many reasons that I'm not sure I can really get them all down in this review. It's inspirational (for teachers, writers, prisoners, and even their family members). It's entertaining because the dialogue and writing are hilarious in both a laugh-out-loud funny kind of way and a more self-deprecating sort of way, too. I loved Salzman's storytelling -- it was honest (especially at the beginning) and he wasn't afraid/uncomfortable with "not knowing," especially when it came to explaining to others about why he was doing this program. As a teacher, I could relate to his honesty, sincerity, and sometimes naive thinking. Many of the boys in the book reminded me of some of my students (which is both good and bad). Almost all of the writing featured in the book caused me to really stop, think, and reread before moving on. I kept wondering what I could do to make my teaching more inclusive and engaging for these kids who are just barely hanging on sometimes. Also, the depth and amount of reflection that shows in their writing is surprising. I have taught writing to teenage boys and I know it's not their favorite subject but Salzman made it relevant and meaningful. It really became a form of therapy for many of them and since our prison system doesn't really offer a lot of real opportunity for rehabilitation, I think this program did a lot for many of his students. I was glad to read that InsideOUT Writers still exists int he L.A. County system because I am sure it is reaching the kids at least on some level. The book left me wondering about some big picture issues of how we should actually rehabilitate criminals (especially young ones) as well as how we can, realistically, try to do more preventative stuff to avoid situations that the kids in the book are facing. There is no doubt in my mind that the "system" is unfair, especially in terms of how it treats minorities. But it also left me wondering about what we as a society need to do to catch these kids before its too late. I'm not sure the book left me with many answers, mostly a lot of questions, but I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to anyone who cares about young people.

  10. 4 out of 5

    katarzyna

    I loved this book. I've never read anything else by Salzman and to be honest, none of his other work (I've read just a brief synopsis of each of his other books) particularly jumps out to me as something I'd be really into. However, I love how he presented this experience to the reader, and that he shared it at all, since obviously teen prisoners, particularly low-income minorities, are not a group that gets much of an outlet or voice. The students in his class are depicted so vividly yet subtly I loved this book. I've never read anything else by Salzman and to be honest, none of his other work (I've read just a brief synopsis of each of his other books) particularly jumps out to me as something I'd be really into. However, I love how he presented this experience to the reader, and that he shared it at all, since obviously teen prisoners, particularly low-income minorities, are not a group that gets much of an outlet or voice. The students in his class are depicted so vividly yet subtly that you get a feel for them as real people -- they never come off as trite versions of real people sanitized for print. Salzman also does a great job of stepping back and allowing other "characters" in the story -- the students, the staff, etc. -- to take center stage. I feel like another writer might have sort of turned the whole thing into a story about him or herself and thus made it self-serving and obnoxious. The students' writing is generally excellent and very interesting to read. I really enjoyed the different perspectives and this quote by Toa: "Look on the bright side. Everybody on the outs say they want more time, never enough time, can't buy time. Fuck 'em. We got more time than anybody. We rich," is one of my new favorites.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Johnny

    Interestingly, I met Salzman as he was writing this book. He was giving a workshop at my college and when discussing his current projects, he spoke glowingly of a book he was writing about his experiences as a writing teacher in the prison system. Most of us in the room, perhaps motivated by once having proximity to a real, established author, rushed to read the book when it came out. However, the reaction was more tepid than anything else. Something about "True Notebooks" felt pre-tread and lac Interestingly, I met Salzman as he was writing this book. He was giving a workshop at my college and when discussing his current projects, he spoke glowingly of a book he was writing about his experiences as a writing teacher in the prison system. Most of us in the room, perhaps motivated by once having proximity to a real, established author, rushed to read the book when it came out. However, the reaction was more tepid than anything else. Something about "True Notebooks" felt pre-tread and lacking novelty. The premise--thirtysomething white artist works with young minority delinquents, discovering both their amazing talent and personal redemption, blah, blah, blah--so that readers, especially the cynical ones, might have trouble escaping their own reactions to the scenario. In all likelihood, Salzman is a good man who was trying to do good things with people who had some bad breaks and impossible environments in which to grow up, but one is left to wonder who ultimately gained the most from the interactions.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tracy Towley

    As far as content goes, A+ - I am exactly the target audience for this book. Unfortunately, I found the author's writing to be annoying and to get in the way of telling the story. The writing of the students was important and moving, but everything between made me roll my eyes. I think the subject matter is really important, but I've read better books about prison writing programs. "Couldn't Keep it To Ourselves", edited by Wally Lamb, is a great example. For those who'd rather watch, the PBS doc As far as content goes, A+ - I am exactly the target audience for this book. Unfortunately, I found the author's writing to be annoying and to get in the way of telling the story. The writing of the students was important and moving, but everything between made me roll my eyes. I think the subject matter is really important, but I've read better books about prison writing programs. "Couldn't Keep it To Ourselves", edited by Wally Lamb, is a great example. For those who'd rather watch, the PBS documentary "What I Want My Words to Do To You" is top notch. As for this book, I wish I'd skipped it. I can see from other reviews that a lot of people got a lot from it, and I'm glad for any vehicle people utilize to understand that people in prisons are just that - people. Real human beings worthy of some consideration, compassion, and programs that can turn their sentences into a productive experience rather than to just further dehumanize them. But I think there are books that get these points across much more effectively.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elliot Ratzman

    It is hard to believe that such effortlessly moving writing on different registers emerges from Mark Salzman. I read his martial arts memoir—Iron and Silk—decades ago and his novel about a Carmelite nun was praised to the heavens by all sorts of spiritual people. In True Notebooks, Salzman stumbles into leading a writing workshop twice a week for teenage murderers awaiting trial. The kids are equal parts charming and annoying, and most have gotten raw deals in life and some in the shoddy crimina It is hard to believe that such effortlessly moving writing on different registers emerges from Mark Salzman. I read his martial arts memoir—Iron and Silk—decades ago and his novel about a Carmelite nun was praised to the heavens by all sorts of spiritual people. In True Notebooks, Salzman stumbles into leading a writing workshop twice a week for teenage murderers awaiting trial. The kids are equal parts charming and annoying, and most have gotten raw deals in life and some in the shoddy criminal justice system. The writing class opens them up to their own feelings and their writing opens you up to their broken souls. Your heart breaks when some of them are sent to prison for decades. Some of the boys are unrepentant, seeing the world in terms of respect, recognition, and violence, all the time confident that God will judge them fairly, which is ridiculous egotism. For all the tragedy, Salzman had me laughing and reading passages out loud. Educators of all levels should read this ASAP.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

    This is an extraordinary book. The subject matter is tough -- teen gang members incarcerated in a rundown, undersupported, and understaffed Juvenile Hall. Yet it's so compelling that you're driven to read it as quickly as possible. It shows you the hearts and minds of teenage offenders, most of them murders, and makes you sympathize with them. Through the beauty of their words you see the little boys that they once were, the problems that their families and/or society made which allowed such a c This is an extraordinary book. The subject matter is tough -- teen gang members incarcerated in a rundown, undersupported, and understaffed Juvenile Hall. Yet it's so compelling that you're driven to read it as quickly as possible. It shows you the hearts and minds of teenage offenders, most of them murders, and makes you sympathize with them. Through the beauty of their words you see the little boys that they once were, the problems that their families and/or society made which allowed such a child to make the terrible decisions they did and which ultimately put them in Juvenile Hall; what is essentially a holding tank for the prison cells that nearly all of them will end up in. Recommended.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

    Illuminating! Having spent a semester working with incarcerated youth, this memoir rang particularly true. It manages to be both simultaneously uplifting and depressing at once, as we’re confronted with the (often) futility of the school-prison pipeline. There is an urge among those who work with such vulnerable populations to “save” but perhaps more importantly, providing a listening and compassionate ear has a far more lasting impact.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lally

    tbh american high schools should assign this book to students, it does a good job illustrating the criminal justice system. plus its suuuuper easy and fun.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    A story of a young English teacher visiting a class at L.A Central Juvenile Hall, young teens locked up for violence and other charges like murder. He was inspired and very interested and he wanted to teach regularly. He voices indelible emotional presences. The four main boys who took part in the beginning of the book were Mark, Antonio,Rashaad,Toa they all were in for different reasons. The boys were assigned to a notebook where they write about their life and they’re experiences and how the A story of a young English teacher visiting a class at L.A Central Juvenile Hall, young teens locked up for violence and other charges like murder. He was inspired and very interested and he wanted to teach regularly. He voices indelible emotional presences. The four main boys who took part in the beginning of the book were Mark, Antonio,Rashaad,Toa they all were in for different reasons. The boys were assigned to a notebook where they write about their life and they’re experiences and how they ended up here. They would write about the things they’ve done and how its harmed someone and they also have mentioned they way it made them feel after realizing how much now they are missing out on for the poor choices they made.The writing teacher sees them coming to terms with their crime-ridden about their pasts searching for a reason to believe in their futureselves. The insightfulness comic. The true notebook is a book of believing changing realization. The story begins with the teacher asking the boys to share one good story. The first boy raises his hand Rashaad say’s I”ll go first. He starts with how he was happy to get a call from his baby momma that she just have given birth to a baby girl. He was so happy since that day and he is looking forward of seeing her he’s been counting days. Everyone congratulates him. Than Toa asks to share his story he starts off with weddings are cool but family won't ever get along. After a few drinks everyone starts acting or someone doesn’t like someone and call them out. Or my brother showed up tripping on someone who was related to the guy he killed which they weren't tripping but he was. My cousin decides to throw a chair in the crowd of people fighting and hits the priest who is an old man everyone stares down and stop fighting on the way out the priest son trips and Toa and his homies and cousins beat him up and from then he was escorted right back here ahhhh. After Toa, Antonio is next he starts off with being locked up just staring at the white walls.He he reminisces when he once lived in the outside of these bars of wire.He was raised in a place where nothing would come in and nothing would come out. He was trapped in a gang life and that's all that mattered that's all he knew.None could tell him nothing he had so much pride to let anyone in his life and the choices he made harmed others but he didn’t care he neglected the ones who loved him. At times it was fun for him to see others suffer because of his choices. But was it worth it No. But he was blind to see it blind to realize it.He said there is a lot of homies and home girls I got love for them but with them what can I be just holding me back from reality. It's a blessing to be able to show your full potential. He now realizes how precious life really is he says it’s too bad I will never probably see it again. This boy lost the privilege to seeing the outs for the choices he made does he now regret them yes wished he was smarter before. This book talks about every moment these kids did something and from their experiences they learned a lot the did a good thing to write down every thought and feeling that went through their mind for another kid to read their story and think about their choices and what they can loose from the experience. It was an inspiring book that opened my mind and thinking that there's kids who still believe in himself for a change a second chance and there's some that know it's too late but if they can let one know before they lose their own.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dori Ostermiller

    Reading this book is a remarkable journey. We follow Salzman through his year of teaching writing at a Juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles (first reluctantly) as he soon becomes intrigued by a group of young offenders, many who are facing possible life sentences. I found the structure of this book remarkably rewarding: we are drawn in slowly, getting to know the setting, the characters, the system, getting bits and pieces of their actual writing, along with Salzman's own thoughts and expe Reading this book is a remarkable journey. We follow Salzman through his year of teaching writing at a Juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles (first reluctantly) as he soon becomes intrigued by a group of young offenders, many who are facing possible life sentences. I found the structure of this book remarkably rewarding: we are drawn in slowly, getting to know the setting, the characters, the system, getting bits and pieces of their actual writing, along with Salzman's own thoughts and experiences... and then before we know it, we're completely invested in Salzman's group of young writers, who make us laugh and cry, who spill their guts on the page about their mothers, their homies, their regrets, their longings, their fears... Sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes heart-breaking, these boys, many of whom are charged with gang-related murders, reveal themselves as human beings--full of hope and despair, longing for a reason to believe in themselves. Over the course of the last fifty pages or so, we see many of these young writers facing their trials and many receiving adult sentences for their crimes. Salzman doesn't sentimentalize them. He resists glorifying or justifying their crimes. Rather, he paints a heartbreakingly complex and human portrait of children caught in a broken society, and living out their days in a system that discounts their humanity. Perhaps they lost that right when they committed their crimes, Salzman wonders. Perhaps he could be doing more good working with kids who haven't yet been incarcerated. But it's clear that he's giving these boys a chance to be heard and understood, however briefly, before they face the brutal fates that await them. One line from this book really stayed with me: "there can be no justice without compassion, and no compassion without understanding." This book brings us a step closer, then, to true justice. Highly recommended.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Colleen Vincent

    I discovered Mark Salzman when I borrowed the Soloist from our local library. This is an amazing man. He plays cello for one-I'm a big admirer of classical musicians-and he writes novels, both autobiographical and fictional with both humor and depth. True Notebooks is about the creative writing classes he teaches voluntarily at juvenile hall (aka "juvey" as my dad called it-he was a teacher for 25 years there). This book provides the point of view of the juvenile inmate and doesn't dwell on the I discovered Mark Salzman when I borrowed the Soloist from our local library. This is an amazing man. He plays cello for one-I'm a big admirer of classical musicians-and he writes novels, both autobiographical and fictional with both humor and depth. True Notebooks is about the creative writing classes he teaches voluntarily at juvenile hall (aka "juvey" as my dad called it-he was a teacher for 25 years there). This book provides the point of view of the juvenile inmate and doesn't dwell on the crimes the have committed with a few exceptions at the end of the book. It begins with Mark's first, singular experience teaching a writing class to a few juvenile inmates, invited to do so because he is a published author. Under coercive persuasion by one of the nuns who volunteers at juvey, he commits to leading the writing class for an indefinite period of time. Salzman doesn't sugar coat anything here. Their conversations and writing include cusswords and he describes the subject matter they discuss, like "p***y"-a frequent topic of conversation among the inmates (consider yourself warned). He shows us a glimpse into the troubled, impressionable minds of these young men through their conversations in class and their writing. Most of whom grew up without fathers on the gang-infested streets of LA, and all ethnic groups are represented here-except for whites. Most of his students will be serving life sentences as they are all being tried as adults. As the writing class goes on Mark's function in these boys lives becomes that of a mentor and father-figure. Salzman doesn't sentimentalize these young inmates, the majority of whom have committed murder, but he does humanize them for us. By allowing us to hear them speak in their natural voices we come to know them, not as statistics, but as young men hardened by poverty who have experienced profound losses in their family lives and been exposed to gang life as the only means of survival on the streets.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ryandake

    i've liked Salzman's work since Iron and Silk--he knows just where to put the entrance ramp to this new society he's going to introduce you, he chooses just the right details, knows how to toss a few balls in the air and keep them all up there until the right moment to let them down. he's an excellent craftsman. in this book, he tells the story of a year of volunteer writing instruction at the local juvenile hall. the individual kids' stories are crushingly sad, of course--sort of an endless river i've liked Salzman's work since Iron and Silk--he knows just where to put the entrance ramp to this new society he's going to introduce you, he chooses just the right details, knows how to toss a few balls in the air and keep them all up there until the right moment to let them down. he's an excellent craftsman. in this book, he tells the story of a year of volunteer writing instruction at the local juvenile hall. the individual kids' stories are crushingly sad, of course--sort of an endless river of abuse, neglect, cruelty, and coercion--but Salzman doesn't really dwell on that. he shows us the boys (and they are boys, even if they're in there for murder) as they reveal themselves to him. he makes great use of their own writing to do so. there are endless excerpts and presumably whole pieces written by the boys reproduced here. the language is, in its way, breathtaking, and the honesty surprising. there's more real feeling in half a dozen rough paragraphs than can probably be found in a semester's crop from Iowa. i like Salzman's attitude toward his volunteer work, too. he's not trying to save anybody here. he's not got out a flaming torch of justice. he says he just wants to have fun. and you know, i think that attitude really works. it's hard to get disillusioned or embittered when all you set out to do is have some fun. Salzman stuck with this volunteering twice a week for a year (or at least that's what's apparent from the text), so it must have worked. it's an odd slice of life this book covers, and it won't be for everyone, but if you're curious about where art and crime and punishment intersect, this is as good a place to start as any.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Julie Suzanne

    I loved this book! I don't even know how I came about reading it or where the book came from--I just found it on my bookshelf. With this book, Salzman and his writers/juvenile criminals lifted me by the feet and shook up my beliefs and ideas that I thought were pretty firm in their place. What a mess they are now! Salzman isn't preachy and I'm not sure what his message is....I admire that he admits that he doesn't know either. He gives a sincere account of his experiences and lets the reader shar I loved this book! I don't even know how I came about reading it or where the book came from--I just found it on my bookshelf. With this book, Salzman and his writers/juvenile criminals lifted me by the feet and shook up my beliefs and ideas that I thought were pretty firm in their place. What a mess they are now! Salzman isn't preachy and I'm not sure what his message is....I admire that he admits that he doesn't know either. He gives a sincere account of his experiences and lets the reader share them for what its worth... This book caused me to explore my beliefs and my own approach to volunteer work. I'm inspired by his dedication--I've faced similar annoyances in my own work such as arriving to class on schedule to find that they're on lock-down and he made the trip for nothing--but handled them with much less grace and let these setbacks rationalize my decision to quit. He, however, never lost sight of the commitment he made to his kids. I respect his honesty in sharing embarrassing moments and making himself completely vulnerable to us and to his kids who try so hard to harden themselves---he is a true role model. Kevin's north star poem at the end had me sobbing at my kitchen table. My feeling now is a longing to find out what's become of the subjects of this book---I'm especially attached to kevin and Francisco Javier....I want them to really know how much their writing has affected me.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ensiform

    Against his initial misgivings, Salzman begins a writing class at a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. His students are black, Mexican and Asian kids from broken homes and gangs, sixteen and seventeen, who are facing possible life prison sentences for murder. many will be shipped off to the “big house.” Nevertheless, the kids take to the project with passion, and Salzman finds himself thinking of the juvenile killers as his friends. His students write with surprising clarity and precision (S Against his initial misgivings, Salzman begins a writing class at a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. His students are black, Mexican and Asian kids from broken homes and gangs, sixteen and seventeen, who are facing possible life prison sentences for murder. many will be shipped off to the “big house.” Nevertheless, the kids take to the project with passion, and Salzman finds himself thinking of the juvenile killers as his friends. His students write with surprising clarity and precision (Salzman includes a plethora of examples of their writing); what’s not surprising is their honesty, or how they attempt to reveal themselves in their writing as whole people, not just stereotypical “bad kids,” as they fear the world sees them. Salzman doesn’t try to sugarcoat reality here; he attends one student’s trial, and concludes that the boy he thought of as so bright, friendly and able is also (or at least was) ignorant, violent and callous as well. Nor does he come to any self-comforting “life lessons” about the detention center life: some kids get shipped off to prison, and some don’t, and a lot probably deserve it. What Salzman does conclude, however, is that he teaches writing to juvenile offenders because he likes it, and he hopes to do good. In short, this is a powerful and unflinching look at how troubled teens see themselves and their situation leavened with a bit of wit and hope.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    This is a lovely book. The author taught writing in a juvenile detention facility in California, and he straightforwardly recounts the events of several of his classes. The book consists mostly of the boys' conversations and examples of their writing, so it's a very quick read. The boys are all serious offenders, mostly accused of murder, so it's surprising to the author and the reader to find them so likable. They write better than you'd expect, and sensitively, about their lives and feelings. This is a lovely book. The author taught writing in a juvenile detention facility in California, and he straightforwardly recounts the events of several of his classes. The book consists mostly of the boys' conversations and examples of their writing, so it's a very quick read. The boys are all serious offenders, mostly accused of murder, so it's surprising to the author and the reader to find them so likable. They write better than you'd expect, and sensitively, about their lives and feelings. And they express a lot of gratitude and affection to Salzman for caring about and teaching them. Late in the book, the author has to confront an alternate reality when he finally attends the trial for murder of one of his students. He doesn't really offer a way to wrap up his (and our) feelings about these contradictions, but I don't think there is one. The book also deals with its subjects as a group and not very deeply. The author doesn't really get to know his students outside of class or become more involved in their lives beyond being their teacher. So this is not as comprehensive as, say Random Family but it is a valuable thing in its own right. (Plus, Random Family occupies its own stratosphere of comprehensiveness.)

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kori

    As I mentioned previously, this book is required reading for my college English class. I don't have to read it until a bit more into the semester, but thought "Might as well get it over and done with". To be quite honest, this book was weird, but there was something oddly compelling about it. Famous Writer (I'd never heard of him), goes to juvenile hall, connects with students, and has a "Helen Keller moment". Sounds trite. But it wasn't. The author reprints essays and poems that the boys in his As I mentioned previously, this book is required reading for my college English class. I don't have to read it until a bit more into the semester, but thought "Might as well get it over and done with". To be quite honest, this book was weird, but there was something oddly compelling about it. Famous Writer (I'd never heard of him), goes to juvenile hall, connects with students, and has a "Helen Keller moment". Sounds trite. But it wasn't. The author reprints essays and poems that the boys in his class had written, and it was really interesting to see what goes through the minds of these guys who all committed murder. Each had his own reason for doing so (which isn't really discussed). My only complaint was that the author captures the language of inner-city LA teens all too well, and as a result, the book reads like an episode of South Park. But it was sort of necessary, in a way, because you can't write about gangbangers and substitute words like "fetch" or "dang". I would say that the basic message/ Thing To Be Learned is the power of writing. As much as I am loth to type that phrase, it's true. By writing, one can get their emotions straight, make a bad situation good, and maybe learn a bit about himself.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

    This book was extremely good. It was the second time that I started reading it, and I finished it quickly. I must not have been in the mood before, because there was nothing about this book that I didn’t love. This was a book about a writer seeking inspiration for a juvenile delinquent character in his upcoming novel. In order to develop his character further, Salzman begins teaching a writing class to high risk offenders at his local juvenile hall. Although he hesitated at first, he soon fell in This book was extremely good. It was the second time that I started reading it, and I finished it quickly. I must not have been in the mood before, because there was nothing about this book that I didn’t love. This was a book about a writer seeking inspiration for a juvenile delinquent character in his upcoming novel. In order to develop his character further, Salzman begins teaching a writing class to high risk offenders at his local juvenile hall. Although he hesitated at first, he soon fell in love with the class and the rewards it brought. I absolutely loved how Salzman kept the inmates writing as it had been when they wrote it. He failed to clean it up for the book, which brought a rawness to it. It was incredibly interesting to follow the progress of his relationships with the boys. How he started out so uncertainly and eventually threw his heart and soul into his work. It was heart-breaking to hear him describe the trial and sentencing of one of his students. To know that he was never given a chance. To know that he made one mistake that has fundamentally ended his life. Salzman brought the inmates to life. He makes you feel compassion for them. Compassion that may or may not be earned, but is there nonetheless.

  26. 4 out of 5

    K M

    This very engaging book details Mark Salzman's experiences as a volunteer writing teacher at a detention center for violent teenage offenders. It is one of those books that causes reverberations within the soul, long after reading. It seems so obvious that the boys from the writing class show great promise of rehabilitation. Yet the system does not seem to be set up to accomodate that end. The book does let the reader know what becomes of the boys, but I want to know more- how are they getting o This very engaging book details Mark Salzman's experiences as a volunteer writing teacher at a detention center for violent teenage offenders. It is one of those books that causes reverberations within the soul, long after reading. It seems so obvious that the boys from the writing class show great promise of rehabilitation. Yet the system does not seem to be set up to accomodate that end. The book does let the reader know what becomes of the boys, but I want to know more- how are they getting on now? Did the things that they learned about themselves through their writing class prove to be a help or comfort to them in their present situations? Are they able to maintain hope? A very memorable line: During his first trip to the detention center, Salzman sees a teenager being brought in. A police cruiser enters the facility with the boy, and leaves without him. Salzman writes, "The boy was gone; he, I presumed, needed to be digested for a while before being shit into the adult prison system or puked back out onto the streets." (p. 15) Wow......

  27. 4 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    Mark Salzman is one of the authors I'd have never found on my own. He is unusual in that he writes both fiction and nonfiction equally well. True Notebooks opens with Salzman having trouble with a character in a novel he's writing. Almost before he realizes it, he somehow finds himself teaching a class to a group of teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. All the boys are under age seventeen and all are facing murder charges. Though Salzman is at first apprehensive, he is amazed at the qu Mark Salzman is one of the authors I'd have never found on my own. He is unusual in that he writes both fiction and nonfiction equally well. True Notebooks opens with Salzman having trouble with a character in a novel he's writing. Almost before he realizes it, he somehow finds himself teaching a class to a group of teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. All the boys are under age seventeen and all are facing murder charges. Though Salzman is at first apprehensive, he is amazed at the quality of the boys' writing. Last November, I carefully set So Many Books, So Little Time aside, to be saved for my first read of 2004. But I picked up True Notebooks late on New Year's Eve and couldn't put it down till I finished it on January 1st.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Terry

    3.5-4 stars. An interesting look inside not only Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles’s most violent teenage offenders - but the minds and hearts of these teenage boys too, through their writings. These kids are murderers - and yet 'just people too'. With so many boys coming in and out of the story and identified by either their first or last names, I confess I couldn't always keep them straight - and the story reader in me wished for some more information and closure for each inmate. 3.5-4 stars. An interesting look inside not only Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles’s most violent teenage offenders - but the minds and hearts of these teenage boys too, through their writings. These kids are murderers - and yet 'just people too'. With so many boys coming in and out of the story and identified by either their first or last names, I confess I couldn't always keep them straight - and the story reader in me wished for some more information and closure for each inmate. But the reality is that Mark no doubt also wanted that and would have reported it if it were available - I appreciate not being in control of most circumstances in prison, or who you see when, is also part of that life, and what he witnessed. Overall, I liked it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Marti Morris

    Wow! I cannot remember how I got this book or why at this time I decided to pick it out of the many books I have that I still need to read. However, I am so thankful for the opportunity to discover and read it. I think it should be a required reading for anyone. It really shows the unjustness of the life of urban youth and the few choices they have for success. It shows the lack of insight our justice system has in dealing with this population and the fact that juvenile detention does not create Wow! I cannot remember how I got this book or why at this time I decided to pick it out of the many books I have that I still need to read. However, I am so thankful for the opportunity to discover and read it. I think it should be a required reading for anyone. It really shows the unjustness of the life of urban youth and the few choices they have for success. It shows the lack of insight our justice system has in dealing with this population and the fact that juvenile detention does not create a place for rehabilitation. I could go on forever...I could cry for them forever....but just read the book....

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lianne

    I once taught basic English to two classes of tenth grade boys some of whom had been in Juvenile Hall so their stories resonate with me. I loved the author's first book, "Iron and Silk" that treated his year studying the martial arts in China, This book is at once poignant, disturbing, and heartbreaking as well as sometimes amusing.The raw honesty of the boys' writing is touching. It is also heroic, for in their situations gaining self awareness may be the only achievement they can claim. To be I once taught basic English to two classes of tenth grade boys some of whom had been in Juvenile Hall so their stories resonate with me. I loved the author's first book, "Iron and Silk" that treated his year studying the martial arts in China, This book is at once poignant, disturbing, and heartbreaking as well as sometimes amusing.The raw honesty of the boys' writing is touching. It is also heroic, for in their situations gaining self awareness may be the only achievement they can claim. To be themselves in spite of being incarcerated is a triumph that Salzman as coach helps some of them to achieve. Brave and worthwhile.

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